The Christmas Tree, Icon of Wisdom

An icon of the Tree of Life. (Source)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.

One of the better meditations on the meaning of the Christmas tree. (Source)

Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.

First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.

The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.

Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.

What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?

For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:

The Ven. Seraphina (Source)

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

-Ven. Seraphina di Dio

Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:

St. John of Karpathos (Source)

Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and ex­treme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

-St. John of Karpathos

One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,

St. Paul of the Cross, arguably the greatest Catholic mystic of the 18th century. (Source)

“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”

-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153

When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.

So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?

The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.

We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*

In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.

I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.

These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.

An icon of Holy Wisdom (Source)

It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.

*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.

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Anglo-Catholics and the Occult: My Church Times Debut

The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich.


The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here

5 Ideas for Advent Spiritual Reading

 The Adoration of the Shepherds, Charles le Brun, 1689. (Source)

I confess, I had meant to get this post out earlier. The end of term was hectic and the start of vacation distracting. So here I am, offering my thoughts on Advent reading when the season is already here and nearly halfway done. Still, we can begin to read true and edifying things on any day, especially in the a holy time set apart by the Church for reflection and contemplation of Our Lord in one of His cardinal mysteries. So I offer here a few reading ideas for those looking for a spiritual boost this winter.

1. In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer

The cover of In Sinu Jesu (Source)

This meditative book is the sort of thing you’ll want to take to Adoration. Written by an anonymous Benedictine monk, it is jam-packed with consoling thoughts and inspiring messages. The author relates the various locutions from Our Lord and, occasionally, the Virgin and Saints, received in the inward ear of the heart in the course of profound prayer. Over the course of several years’ worth of journal entries, we read of the author’s deep vocation to reparation and adoration for the sanctification of priests. I would recommend this volume to any men considering a vocation of any kind. Its rhythmic, prayerful passages breathe and bristle with a sense of holiness rare among contemporary spiritual authors. The voice of Our Lord sings through it all, not as a trumpet or thunderclap, but as “a whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12 DRA). Speaking only as a layman, I can say that this book completely revolutionized my spiritual life. I wonder where I should be now if it had not come into my hands a little over two years ago.

2. Bethlehem or 3. All For Jesus

The cover of Bethlehem, by Fr. Frederick William Faber. (Source)

This list wouldn’t really be an Amish Catholic post about spiritual authors without some reference to Fr. Faber. The Apostle of London wrote many books about special devotions, graces, and mysteries of Our Lord’s life. His last volume, Bethlehem, is devoted to the birth and infancy of Jesus, making it especially suited for perusal at this season.

Like many of his other texts, Bethlehem is more devotional that practical. It is intended to inspire love for Our Lord under the particular mystery of his Incarnation. While this may be just what you need this Advent (and Christmas), you may desire something a bit more practical. How to grow in the practice of the love of Jesus? How to keep on in the unflagging task of Christian charity at a time so full of worldly distractions and weariness? How do we live out the Incarnation in our own lives?

Cover of All For Jesus, by Fr. Faber (Source)

If this is the sort of thing you’d prefer in your Advent reading, then perhaps turn to Fr. Faber’s first great devotional work, All For Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Divine Love.

In this great volume, it is Fr. Faber’s task to kindle the zeal of his readers by demonstrating the sheer ease of love. He points to concrete, simple practices by which to further what he calls “the Interests of Jesus,” to save other souls, and to sanctify our own.

All For Jesus is my main spiritual reading this Advent, and I have already found it working marvels. If you would love God with warmer enthusiasm and brighter joy, then read Fr. Faber!

4. “A Short Tale About the Antichrist.”

You can find Boris Jakim’s translation of “A Short Tale About the Antichrist” in the collection Sophia, God, & A Short Tale About the Antichrist. (Source). 

This short story by Vladimir Solovyov, the “Russian Newman,” may seem like an odd choice for Advent. Yet Advent is the apocalyptic season par excellence. The liturgy turns our ears to the voices of the prophets and our  eyes towards the visions of the Last Day. And so it can be helpful to think creatively about what the end will be like.

I don’t believe Solovyov envisioned his (in some ways, rather prescient) tale of the future to be a literal prediction of what would happen. The man was not a fundamentalist, and this is not Left Behind. But he did see it as his spiritual last will and testament. The story is a powerful meditation on the nature of real evil, real Christian love, and what Christians will have to stand for in their last and terrible hour.

An edifying read, for sure.

5. The Book of Revelation

An illustration of Rev. 4-5. (Source)

If you like your apocalypse unalloyed, then open your Bible, sit down, and read the entire Book of Revelation in one or two sittings. That may seem like a lot, but it brings lots of rewards. We often lose sight of the unity of the Bible’s individual books when we just pick at passages here and there. Reading the text fully through can help restore our vision of each book as what it is – an integral whole. With a book as symbol-laden as Revelation, that reclamation becomes even more important.

It is a holy and pious thing to meditate on the Second Coming of Our Lord in Advent. Reading the Apocalypse nourishes the soul’s sense of expectation and, indeed, her desire for the final judgment. The pious soul who seeks to be immersed in the text’s sapiential logic will gain many fruits. Those who go into it with only a narrow literalism will find nothing but an arid maze. This truth applies to all of Scripture, but most especially to its apocalyptic passages.

So, those are just five options for Advent reading. There are probably hundreds of other texts I could have chosen; thus we come one example of the great diversity that characterizes the true mind of the Church.

The Charism of Eccentricity

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The 18th century was a Golden Age of clerical satire – and clerical eccentricity – in England. (Source)

What a day of loons it has been. After discovering the narrative of that wandering bishop which I brought to my readers’ attention earlier this afternoon, I have since come across two wonderful articles about the venerable tradition of eccentricity in the Church of England. The first is over at the Church Times. The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a curate in Liverpool, has written a book entitled A Field Guide to the English Clergy (One World Press, 2018). In his article at the CT, Butler-Gallie provides a taste of what is assuredly a very fun book indeed. Take just one of the bizarre figures he profiles:

William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

Or consider this parson:

The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

If the rest of the book is as fascinating at these anecdotes suggest, it will be a classic in no time – right up there with Loose Canon and The Mitred Earl. Apparently it’s been getting rave reviews. (I’ll add that if any of you are looking for a Christmas gift for your favorite Catholic blogger, it’s going for under £10 at Amazon).

Today I also came across an article about one of Butler-Gallie’s subjects, the Rev. R.S. Hawker, also known as the “Mermaid of Morwenstow.” Alas, as I am not a subscriber to The Spectator, I cannot read it. Those who can are encouraged to do so.

One of my favorite clerical eccentrics whom I doubt that Butler-Gallie covers is the Rev. William Alexander Ayton, vicar of Chacombe in Oxfordshire.  A Victorian Freemason of extraordinarily deep occult learning, he maintained a clandestine alchemical lab in his rectory basement and claimed to have made the Elixir of Life. However, this adventure ended in sadness. He only tried one quaff and, finding that it made his hair fall out, the sensible vicar sealed it away on a shelf. In his old age, he discovered that it had congealed and was quite unusable. He also translated the Latin life of Dr. John Dee. With an inveterate fear of Jesuits, his own bishop, and “the gnomes,” it’s no surprise that Yeats – his comrade in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – once called him “the most panic-stricken person” he had ever met.

Though of course there are few stories of clerical eccentricity as amusing as the infamous dinner related by Brian Fothergill in his life of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry. Fothergill tells us that

On one occasion when a particularly rich living had fallen vacant he invited the fattest of his clergy and entertained them with a splendid dinner. As they rose heavily from the table he proposed that they should run a race and that the winner should have the living as his prize. Greed contending with consternation the fat clerics were sent panting and purple-faced on their way, but the Bishop had so planned it that the course took them across a stretch of boggy ground where they were all left floundering and gasping in the mud, quite incapable of continuing. None reached the winning-point. The living was bestowed elsewhere and the Bishop, though hardly his exhausted and humiliated guests, found the evening highly diverting. (The Mitred Earl, 27).

Ballyscullion

Hervey also built what must have been one of the greatest gems of British Palladian architecture, Ballyscullion House. Alas, it is no longer extant, but has been reduced to a respectable if far less elaborate mansion. (Source) For a 3D model, see here.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that Anglicanism as lived in history is not a dry religion.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of crude cultural observation. It occurs to me that the national church of the English would inevitably partake of that quintessential English quality – eccentricity. Americans don’t produce real eccentrics. We breed individualists and, less commonly, outright weirdos. But the great British loon is mostly unknown to us. Eccentricity requires a certain localism, even an urban one, that has been mostly lost in the sprawling homelands of the American empire. Suburbs don’t produce eccentrics.

And more to the point, why should strangeness be so unwelcome in the Church? Why should the Church be bland and conformist and comfortable? Why must we labor on through the nauseatingly boring bureaucratic lingo and platitudinous sound-bites that so often seem to make up the bulk of our ecclesisatical discourse? Where is the sizzling fire cast to earth? Where is the light and heat of the Holy Ghost? In reviewing the proceedings of the recent Youth Synod, I was dismayed to find so little that genuinely spoke of the sacred. It so often seems that our Bishops are more interested in crafting a Church of the self-righteous liberal bourgeoisie than they are in the Church that Jesus left to His Apostles.

Eccentricity may not be a strategy, but it’s at least has the potential to become a reminder that the supernatural reality is completely other. As that Doctor of the Church, David Lynch, once said, “I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.” Well, God does far stranger things far more often than we do. Eccentrics – especially the Fools for Christ – can speak to that.

Butler-Gallie gets at this well in his article when he writes,

Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

…Perhaps less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

I can only applaud this point. Ross Douthat said much the same in my own communion when, in response to the Met Gala last Spring, he suggested we “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” Or what Fr. Ignatius Harrison CO was getting at when he gave that wonderful sermon on St. Philip Neri’s downright oddity. And though Flannery O’Connor may never have actually said it, I can’t help but agree that “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you odd.” Indeed, my readers will know that I have hammered on about this point ad nauseum. Butler-Gallie’s writing encourages me to keep at it until we in the Christian West more widely recognize the charism of eccentricity.

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Prelates dancing to the Devil’s music. (Source)

Elsewhere: Benedictine Mementos from England

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A procession on Caldey Island. (Source)

I’m not sure how I missed this astounding collection of photos of old Caldey, Prinknash, Pershore, Nashdom, and Farnborough when it came out last year, but I’m very glad to have discovered the trove yesterday. Some highlights include:

1. The barge fitted with heraldic devices that Peter Anson describes in Abbot Extraordinary, which was used specifically for the translation of St. Samson’s relics.

2. The silver sanctuary lamp in the shape of a galleon at full sail – once in Aelred Carlyle’s abbatial house (read: palace), now in the main oratory at Prinknash.

3. The various stones of dissolved abbeys brought to Caldey and placed into a single altar. If I’m not mistaken, Fr. Hope Patten must have gotten the idea for the Shrine at Walsingham from Caldey, as he knew Aelred Carlyle quite well.

4. Some lovely images of St. Samson and the Holy Face of Jesus used on printed material from the monasteries.

5. One or two excellent frontals, especially the one embroidered with seraphim at Prinknash.

6. An abbess of Kylemore Abbey in Ireland.

7. Peter Anson’s several drawings of Prinknash.

8. A procession for the 1964 Nashdom jubilee.

9. F.C. Eden’s terrifically English reredos at Caldey.

10. Scenes of the community’s collective reception into Rome in 1914 – including a shot of the Bl. Columba Marmion, who was an enthusiastic supporter of old Caldey.

Those who like Anglo-Catholic or monastic history will no doubt be as excited about this collection as I am.

UPDATE: A reader has kindly reminded me that, of course, Caldey Island is off the coast of Wales. So my title is perhaps a little misleading.

The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

Anglicans, Sex Abuse, and the Seal of the Confessional: The Controversy and Why it Matters for Catholics

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An exemplary confessional from Toulouse, France. As with most things in life, the more Solomonic columns, the merrier. (Source)

Controversy is hardly a rarity in the Church of England. Yet not every controversy among Anglicans has possible implications for Roman Catholics. The most recent kerfuffle does.

On Tuesday, May 29th, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward SSC, Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, posted the following status on Facebook.

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Source: Facebook.

Anglo-Catholics have an amusing tendency to apply the Roman Code of Canon Law to their own ecclesial life, if only to frustrate the machinations of Evangelical bishops. It’s one of the oldest AC tricks in the book. A venerable tradition of principled disobedience, if you will.

But that is not what Fr. Ward is doing here. He is referring to the Anglican Code of Canon Law, which does indeed affirm the seal of the confessional as a sacramental norm (See Canon 113). Since Fr. Ward’s post, there has been an enormous to-do in the press. It seems that, although these guidelines came out in 2015, no one has noticed until last week. Forward in Faith, the pressure group advocating for traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England, released a concise yet substantive denunciation of the Canterbury guidelines. Indeed, this is not the first time they have addressed the issue. The predictably tedious Church Times report on the matter has come out. Religious sites like Christian Today have written about the controversy. This attention was, perhaps, to be expected. But even secular newspapers are starting to notice. Both The Times and The Telegraph have picked up the story.

Some context may be useful for those who don’t hold their ear to the ground of internal Anglican politics. The Bishop of Dover, who actually governs the See of Canterbury in place of the Archbishop, issued these guidelines. He is not generally known for accepting Catholic doctrine on this or any sacramental point.

No doubt some of my Catholic readers will interject at this point, “Of course he wouldn’t. He’s a Protestant!” Fair enough. But Anglo-Catholics in the United Kingdom do tend to accept lots of Roman doctrine. There are even pockets where Anglo-Papalism – that heady brew of Baroque ceremonial, English sacral vernacular, devotional maximalism, attachment to a male-only priesthood, and slavish Ultramontane sympathies – still exists. And most of those Anglo-Catholics accept the Roman teaching that the wilful withholding of sins by a penitent in confession is itself a mortal sin, thus invalidating any absolution. I will leave aside the dubious question of sacramental validity for now. The point is that Anglo-Catholics really do believe all this, and they treat confession in much the same way that devout Roman Catholics do. Anglo-Catholics with the cure of souls live by that rule. It is only logical that the head of an Anglo-Catholic seminary would thus take serious umbrage with a move in the Primate’s own diocese that was manifestly a) uncanonical, and b) mortally sinful.

But here is another reason for concern, even for us Romans. The diocese responded to Fr. Ward with the risible if disturbing claim that “[The mandated disclaimer] is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest.” This is an extremely telling phrase; it constitutes the tacit admission that a diocese in the Church of England is surrendering the legal viability of the seal of the confessional, period. Mandatory reporting is the order of the day, and the sacrament must be deformed to fit it. I hope Catholics prick up their ears.

This guideline was promulgated against the backdrop of the Clerical Sex Abuse scandal. The C of E has been grappling with the same deep evils that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent history. While the bishops have taken some good and appropriate steps in safeguarding, nevertheless, mistakes have also been made. Take the case of Bishop George Bell, accused of abuse posthumously and subsequently subjected to a multi-year botched inquiry and, arguably, public character assassination. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has dug in his heels on the guilt of George Bell in spite of the evidence that the Church’s investigatory body was irresponsible and hasty in its conclusions.

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Bishop George Bell…abuser or victim? Hard to say after the C of E’s deeply flawed investigation. (Source)

Do I know whether the confession guidelines for the Archbishop’s own diocese have been crafted with an eye to that particular scandal? No. It’s impossible to say. But we can safely say that the Bishop of Dover’s dissolution of the seal of the confessional is a similar misstep in the Church’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with the legacy of child abuse.

Of course, the same problem has existed, in a much more flagrant and public way, in the Roman Catholic Church. And it is this connection that should make the Bishop of Dover’s move so troubling to Catholics. His guidelines didn’t materialize out of the air. Similar suggestions have been made to National Inquiries about clerical sex abuse in Britain. Even more serious developments in Australia have seen wider discussions about legally abolishing the seal of confession.

But to return to the United Kingdom – let’s not forget that the Church of England is a motley crew of clerics who think their coreligionists are, at best, mistaken, and at worst, heretics. Evangelicals, Liberals, and Anglo-Catholics of every stripe take deeply divergent views of the sacraments. If the Bishop of Dover’s guidelines are allowed to stand under the current Code of Canon Law, what’s to stop other bishops from adopting them in their own sees? Evangelicals generally don’t have the same hang-ups about confession as Catholics, and liberals may see the change as a progressive step. If enough bishops do adopt the guidelines, they can start to change the culture of the church. Once ordinary Anglicans become used to this exception in the confessional seal (among those who practice confession at all, which is probably a fairly low number anyway), what kind of pressure will the clergy start to exert on the Roman Catholics of England? What if Parliament takes up the cause, following the precedent of the Australians? What if mandatory reporting is extended by law to all clergy without exception? What then?

A slippery slope, you say? Maybe. But there are liberal Anglicans who have already attacked traditionalist Anglo-Catholics – the most Roman people in the Church – on precisely these terms. The Rev. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, argued (in Holy Week!) that sex abuse is tied to traditionalism among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Without a hint of irony, he writes,

There are common denominators between these two ecclesial cultures. They deny women equality. They are squeamish about sexuality. They sacralise ambiguity. They put their leaders on unimpeachable pedestals. The worst abuses flourish in the cultures that are self-righteous.
(emphasis mine – RY)

Other liberal Anglicans have suggested that “angry, conservative religion…in the Church of Rome” will have to undergo various changes to accommodate modernity. One could reach for examples. I will merely say that there is no shortage of criticism directed towards the Church of Rome by Anglicans who don’t identify as either traditionalist or Anglo-Catholic. And let us not forget the long and terrible history of English anti-Catholicism, a staple of British culture from the Reformation on. It has cropped up even in our own times.

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“The tongue of St. John Nepomuk surrounded by five episodes of his life.” Behold, the saintly tongue that would not break the seal. (Source)

What happens in the Church of England matters in no small part because it is the Established Church. It is thus something of a thermostat (or at least a thermometer) of public religious opinion in Great Britain. The prospect of the Anglicans ceding the seal of confession to the investigatory apparatus of the state, and thus normalizing the violation of the seal, is a dangerous prelude for the Catholics of this country.

And of course, there’s the very practical point that mandatory reporting even for confessions will not produce more results. Abusers will simply stop confessing those sins, even as the abused will no longer be able to confide in their priests. Who does it hurt? The most vulnerable. Who does it help? No one.

Catholics believe that the seal of the confessional is absolute. It is the guarantee that when a penitent sincerely asks forgiveness for his sins, he can be sure that he is receiving absolution from someone who will never reveal his past. It is Christ who hears and forgives, not the priest in himself. And Christ is the “Lamb of God, who takes away all sins.” The seal of the confessional expresses this mystical reality. The saints have always known that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, neither what is present nor what is to come, no force whatever, neither the height above us nor the depth beneath us, nor any other created thing” could justify, force, or provoke the violation of the seal of the confessional (Rom 8:38-39). Some were martyred for keeping holy silence.

I hope and pray that we will never see martyrs of the confessional in our time. But if worst comes to worst, will our priests be willing to shed their blood for the trust they have been given?

St. John Nepomucene

St. John Nepomuk, martyred for refusing to break the seal of the confessional. May he intercede for us wherever the seal is challenged. (Source)

Perhaps this controversy, like so many, will turn out to be nothing more than a tempest in the teapot. I would happily look back on this piece in many years’ time and say that my fears were all ill-founded and misbegotten. Let me be accused of hysteria! I would rather be worried over nothing than prove a Cassandra. But as things develop, it may not be a bad idea to pray for the intercession of St. John Nepomuk.

 

 

Springtime Sophiology from St. Nicodemus

GateAddisons

Gate on Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford. Photo by author.

Now there are of course those who do not use the senses and the subsequent meditation on creation and Holy Scripture to rise through them to the knowledge and love of God, who both spoke the Scriptures and created the world. On the contrary, such people use this sense perception simply for human aggrandizement, for the marvel and mere pleasure of the corruptible beauty in creatures, and for other bodily purposes. Or, at least, they simply remain on the level of the limited purposes of the creatures and of the Scriptures. They thus neglect to proceed further, to rise to the catholic and comprehensive view of things, to God’s wisdom through which all things are known and in which all the reasons for each creature are to be found, according to St. Maximos. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth…When he established the heavens, I was there” (Prv. 3:19, 27). St. Basil the Great too had something to say on this point: “There are indeed certain reasons why the primordial wisdom of God was laid as a foundation to nature at the time of creation.” Now, those who do not rise – through the reason endowed in nature and in the Holy Scriptures – to the hypostatic Logos of God, those who do not love Him “through whom all things were made” (Jn 1:3), as most of the worldly philosophers do not, all of these people act contrary to the Creator’s purpose in nature and in Holy Scripture. And according to the wise and most insightful Kallistos, the thought of such people has lost its natural tendency and has become unnatural. This has occurred because they use the means as ends in themselves, and the causes as results, and they love the gifts more than the Giver and the creatures more than the Creator, as St. Augustine has said. Since creation was not created for itself, but for the vision and glory of its Creator, it is not proper that it should be seen and admired for its own sake, but rather for the sake of its Creator. It is the same with the mirror which one does not look at for its own sake, but for the sake of the one reflected in it.

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St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Source)

We may add, finally, that the secondary goal and purpose for the creation of the senses is so that the material body may be able to enjoy through them material nourishment, growth, and life. Truly, I do not know what to marvel at most: the “palace” that is so intricately constructed or the “king” who dwells therein. But of these two, I must certainly marvel most at the master artist and the Creator who with infinite wisdom not only created both of them, but also united the mind and body in such perfect harmony.

Quoted from Chapter One of A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, Trans. Peter A. Chamberas, Paulist Press, 1989, pages 73 and 74. 

“A Vacuum He May Not Abhor”

RS Thomas Obituary

R.S. Thomas in a typical pose. One does wonder if he ever smiled. (Source)

R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Welsh nationalist, Anglican minister, and consummate poet belief and doubt has recently become a favorite. Here is a poem of his that, I think, is worth pondering in Lent.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

Elsewhere: A New Blog on Christianity and Cricket

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A scene of English life in the 19th century; top hats in the foreground, a Gothic Cathedral in the background, and between them, cricket. (Source)

Living at an Anglo-Catholic seminary has been an education in many respects, but I still haven’t got a handle on the sport of cricket. Luckily for me (and for many of my readers, I’m sure), a new blog hopes to correct that oversight. My friend and fellow Staggers resident, Mr. William Hamilton-Box, has just begun writing on Cricket, Christianity, and various fun facts. Do give it a look-see.