“Reversed Thunder, Christ-Side-Piercing Spear”

The holy side-wound of Christ, from a Book of Hours (Source)

Today is the Anglican commemoration of George Herbert, the great English cleric and metaphysical poet of the 17th century. He died on March 1st, 1633. In honor of this bard of the spirit, I offer to my readers one of my favorite Herbert poems. Every time I return to it, I find new edification.

“Prayer (1)”

George Herbert

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Elsewhere: Michael Martin on Heresy

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Haublin’s portrait of Jacob Boehme. (Source)

I have just finished a rather interesting piece by Michael Martin, perhaps the leading Catholic sophiologist, on the subject of heresy. Martin argues that we even ostensible heretics have something to offer orthodox Christians. It helps that he grounds his points more in lived experience than any kind of normative Christian discourse. I quote at length:

But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).

For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without encountering the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.

I differ with Martin on some important points. I am much more sanguine towards the Dubia and the Correctio than he is (I see them as necessary for the preservation of orthopraxis as well as a helpful move away from ultramontane ecclesiology; both movements vindicate Cardinal Newman). Likewise, when Martin writes later that…

It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable.

…he may be putting just a bit too fine a point on it. Dogma matters. One could cite any number of perfectly respectable theologians who write of how desperately we need dogma (once again, I think of Newman in the Apologia), but I’d rather not belabor the matter. The problem lies not with dogma, but with dogmatism, a tendency to regard far more as settled than actually is. Moreover, Martin makes much of the fact that he has “learned much about Jesus from heretics.”

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Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), the Magus of the North. A Lutheran whose idiosyncrasies could certainly earn him the label of heretic. (Source)

Here, I am in a somewhat qualified agreement with Martin. First, because I, too, have been deeply influenced by figures whom some would consider heretical, from George Herbert to Johann Georg Hamann to Jacob Boehme to Ernst Fuchs to William Blake. I came to the faith in part because my imagination was prepared by that deeply heretical musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my closest mentors in college was an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist —technically, a miaphysite. I have something approaching a devotion to Charles I, King and Martyr, even though he was not reconciled to Rome at the time of his death. Thomists at least would frown upon my fondness for St. Gregory Palamas and his mystical theology. A number of Jewish authors have helped me find my theological bearings—particularly Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and the authors of the Zohar. Various authors of the Frankfurt School made a tremendous impact on me in college. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” still resonate deeply with me, and force me to reckon with the complications of my own tradition. If you want to be really strict about what constitutes heresy, even someone as ostensibly Marian and Ecclesial as T.S. Eliot, a poet who has shaped my thought in more ways than I know, would nevertheless be heretical for his high Anglicanism as well as his unsound views on birth control. And need I mention that far more egregious heretic, Herman Melville? Moby Dick was like a revelation for me when I first read it last year.

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Origen of Alexandria. Church Father and something of a heretic. (Source)

There are more thinkers I could cite who are problematic in the face of formal orthodoxy. The Catechism tells us,

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089

I would wager that most if not all of the authors I mentioned could be charged with at least one of these sins. So what? I don’t regret the wisdom they have shared with me. To the contrary, I am a better person for my contact with their lives and works.

The fact is, most of us are probably indebted to heretics of some kind in some way or other. We arrive at this state, not through any deliberate, insidious intent, but merely by a thorough education. And what is education if not learning how to find diamonds amidst coal? A well-read man will inevitably encounter writers whose view of the world is imperfect (as his own is). But that encounter can be very beneficial if wedded to discretion and wisdom. Surely this maxim is just as true for the theologian as for any other scholar. The perfection of his discipline consists not in the purity of his intellectual lineage, but in attaining the vision of God. At a certain point, systemic rigor breaks down in the face of the absolute and ineffable mystery.

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The Philosophers, Mikhail Nesterov, 1917. Here we see both Fr. Pavel Florensky and (soon to be) Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, two of the great Russian Sophiologists. While technically condemned as heretics by the Soviet Patriarch, their profound insights into the mysteries of Divine Wisdom remain seminal in contemporary Orthodox and Catholic theology. And that’s a good thing. (Source)

Let me add a brief theological note. Like Martin, I think sophiology is a terribly important idea. The sophiology of Bulgakov et al. was (sort of) condemned by a (compromised) Moscow Patriarchate in 1935. The Orthodox remain deeply divided over its actual status as a heresy. Nevertheless, its intellectual legacy lingers in both East and West, and it is still proving to be a fertile source of theological discussion. I pray that it will continue to develop in the 21st century.

Thirdly, as an historian, I have to admit that Martin’s conclusion isn’t all that unusual. Scholars have increasingly recognized since the 1930’s that, as a matter of historical fact, the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy have been notably porous over the centuries. The case of Origen alone would suffice to illustrate the issue, though more could be cited. What may seem perfectly orthodox in one era could turn out to be declared heretical as doctrine develops and clarifies over the course of the ages. Or quite the opposite; we lay faithful can now receive the Blessed Sacrament in both kinds. Previously, Utraquism was condemned along with all the rest of Jan Hus’s errors (though personally, I dislike this liturgical practice and rarely receive in both kinds myself).

There are practical concerns at play, too. Theologians must retain a certain level of intellectual freedom if any kind of development is to happen at all. How are we to approach that freedom? How to canalize the vast and manifold energies of the spirit, so often diffused in an erratic array of chattering and solipsistic spurts of “dialogue” online? The free “Republic of Letters” spoken of by the Humanists and their early modern descendants is, I think, a much better model for our own theological era than the mechanistic logic and endless citation of authorities seen among the classical Scholastics. I’ll add that the increasingly important field of visual theology poses other important questions. The encryption and interpretation of meaning through art, emblems, ritual, and other aesthetic media opens itself to all manner of views. Some are orthodox, others heterodox. This very heterogeneity requires a certain degree of freedom for discussion and discernment. There is an irony in Martin’s rejection of the Dubia and the Correctio. Both documents rely upon and exemplify the very academic freedom that his piece latently extols.

Don’t get me wrong. Heresy is and always has been a sin, and a mortal one at that. We should oppose it; the proper authorities should correct it through the proper channels, and in the case of open and public heresy, the laity can and should do so as well. But Martin is right to note that the individual ideas of heretics can be fruitful for deepening properly orthodox meditations. More importantly, God can make whatever use of them He wishes. I doubt that Martin is or will be the only one who has “learned much about Jesus” from those deemed heretics.

Some Saints on the Holy Name of Mary

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The Holy Name of Mary in a church mural. (Source)

The feast we celebrate today has moved around a bit. It only came to the kalendar in 1683, when Pope Innocent XI wished to commemorate the liberation of Vienna from the Ottoman siege. He originally placed it on the 17th, the Octave Day of Our Lady’s Nativity. The feast was later transferred to the 15th, and then done away with altogether by Archbishop Bugnini in one of his more obnoxious acts of liturgical vandalism. Pope St. John Paul II restored it in 2002, and now we celebrate it as an optional memorial on September 12th.

Accordingly, it behooves us to ponder the writings of the saints. For as it is a maxim in theology that we are led by lower things to higher, so we may pursue the heights of Our Lady’s throne only by the steps which our closer contemporaries have tread before us. Besides, while the feast may be relatively new in the life of the Church, the devotion it honors is much older. There is consequently much to choose from.

Consider the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

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Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard, Detail. Filippino Lippi, 1480. (Source)

“And the Virgin’s name was Mary.” Let us speak a little about this name, which is said to mean “star of the sea,” and which so well befits the Virgin Mother. Rightly is she likened to a star. As a star emits a ray without being dimmed, so the Virgin brought forth her Son without receiving any injury. The ray takes naught from the brightness of the star, nor the Son from His Mother’s virginal integrity. This is the noble star risen out of Jacob, whose ray illumines the whole world, whose splendor shines in the heavens, penetrates the abyss, and, traversing the whole earth, gives warmth rather to souls than to bodies, cherishing virtues, withering vices. Mary is that bright and incomparable star, whom we need to see raised above this vast sea, shining by her merits, and giving us light by her example.

All of you, who see yourselves amid the tides of the world, tossed by storms and tempests rather than walking on the land, do not turn your eyes away from this shining star, unless you want to be overwhelmed by the hurricane. If temptation storms, or you fall upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star: Call upon Mary! If you are tossed by the waves of pride or ambition, detraction or envy, look to the star, call upon Mary. If anger or avarice or the desires of the flesh dash against the ship o f your soul, turn your eyes to Mary. If troubled by the enormity of your crimes, ashamed of your guilty conscience, terrified by dread of the judgment, you begin to sink into the gulf of sadness or the abyss of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in anguish, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let her name be even on your lips, ever in your heart; and the better to obtain the help of her prayers, imitate the example of her life:  “Following her, thou strayest not; invoking her, thou despairest not; thinking of her, thou wanderest not; upheld by her, thou fallest not; shielded by her, thou fearest not; guided by her, thou growest not weary; favored by her, thou reachest the goal. And thus dost thou experience in thyself how good is that saying: ‘And the Virgin’s name was Mary.'”

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St. Alphonsus Liguori, author of The Glories of Mary. (Source)

St. Alphonsus Liguori, that Mariologist who so scrupulously records the thoughts of prior saints, affirms the antiquity and holiness of this devotion.

To begin with life, the holy anchorite, Honorius, says, that the name of Mary is [full] of all divine sweetness. And the glorious St. Anthony of Padua attributes to the name of Mary the same sweetness as St. Bernard attributed to the name of Jesus. The name of Jesus, said the latter, the name of Mary, said the former, is joy to the heart, honey to the mouth, melody to the ear of their devoted servants. It is related in the life of the venerable Father John Ancina, Bishop of Saluzzo, that when he pronounced the name of Mary, he experienced so great a sensible sweetness that he even tasted it on his lips. We also read that a certain woman in Cologne told the Bishop Marsillius, that whenever she pronounced the name of Mary she perceived in her mouth a taste sweeter than honey. Marsillius made the trial, and he also experienced the same sweetness. We read in the holy Canticles, that at the Assumption of the Virgin, the angels three times asked her name: “Who is she that goeth up by the desert as a pillar of smoke?” “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising?” And in another: “Who is this that cometh up from the desert, flowing with delights?” Richard of St. Laurence inquires why the angels so often asked the name of this queen, and answers: The sound of the name of Mary was so sweet to the angels, and they repeated the question that they might hear it repeated also.

But I do not hear speak of this sensible sweetness, since it is not commonly granted to all, but I speak of the salutary sweetness of consolation, love, joy, confidence, and strength, which the name of Mary universally gives to those who, with devotion, pronounce it. Speaking on this subject, Francone the Abbot says, that next to the holy name of Jesus, the name of Mary is so rich in blessings, that no other name is uttered on earth or in heaven from which devout souls receive so much grace, hope, and sweetness. For the name of Mary, he goes on to say, contains in itself something admirable, sweet, and divine, which, when it meets a friendly heart, breathes into it an odor of holy sweetness. And the wonder of this great name is, he concludes, that if heard a thousand times by the lovers of Mary, it is always heard as new, the sweetness they experience in hearing it spoken being always the same.

The blessed Henry Suso, also speaking of this sweetness, says, that in pronouncing the name of Mary, he felt his confidence so much increased, and his love so joyfully enkindled, that amidst the joy and tears with which he pronounced the beloved name, he thought his heart would have leaped from his mouth ; and he affirmed that this most sweet name, as honeycomb, melted into the depths of his soul. Whereat he exclaims: Oh most sweet name! oh Mary, what must thou thyself be, if thy name alone is so lovely and sweet?

Nor is this devotion entirely absent outside the Church of Rome. One of George Herbert’s better epigrams runs as follows:

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“Anagram,” from The Temple. (Source)

Incidentally, the aforementioned Bishop of Saluzzo, Bl. John Juvenal Ancina, was a founder of the Naples Oratory and a personal disciple of St. Philip Neri. Can there be any doubt that the bishop learned his devotion at the side of his spiritual father?

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Bl. Juvenal Ancina of the Oratory. (Source)

And we should learn it in turn from the saints who have gone before us, those holy men and women who now stand rejoicing in an eternal contemplation of Our Lady’s beatific name.

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St. Philip Neri Exhorting the Youth to Pray to the Virgin, Pala Pietro. A good metaphor for how the saints instruct us in Marian devotion. (Source)