June 15 Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill was one of the leaders of the movement rekindling interest in mysticism in the English-speaking world, and especially among Anglicans. Her 1911 book, Mysticism, is a spiritual classic. Much more than an academic study of the topic, it invites the reader into the experience of it.

Though mysticism be indeed the living heart of all religion, this does not mean tht religion does, or can, consist of nothing but heart. The Church is a Body with head, hands, feet, flesh, and hard bones: none of them any use, it is true, if the heart does not function, but all needed for the full expression of the Christian spiritual life. This acceptance of our whole life of thought, feeling, and action, as material to be transformed and used in our life towards God, is what Baron von Huegel meant by ‘inclusive mysticism.’ It alone is truly Christian; because its philosophic basis is the doctrine of the Incarnation, with its continuance in the Church and Sacraments. Its opposite, exclusive mysticism, the attempt to ascend to the vision of God by turning away from His creatures by an unmitigated other-worldliness, is not Christian at all. It ends, says that same great theologian, in something which cannot be distinguished from mere Pantheism: or, on more popular levels, in sloppy claims to be in tune with the infinite. —quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams, p. 571

 

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St. Columba, 597

 

Columba’s Affirmation

Alone with none but Thee, my God,

I journey on my way;

What need I fear, when Thou art near,

O king of night and day?

More safe I am within Thy hand,

than if a host did round me stand.

My destined time is fixed by Thee,

and death doth know his hour.

Did warriors strong around me throng,

they could not stay his power;

no walls of stone can man defend

when Thou Thy messenger dost send

My life I yield to Thy decree,

and bow to Thy control

in peaceful calm, for from Thine arm

no power can wrest my soul.

Could earthly omens e’er appal

A man that heeds the heavenly call!

The child of God can fear no ill,

His chosen dread no foe;

we leave our fate with Thee and wait

Thy bidding when we go.

Tis not from chance our comfort springs,

Thou art our trust, O king of kings.

                  St Columba

                  (trans. unknown)

 A Celtic Primer, by Brendan O’Malley

Here’s the commemoration in Holy Women, Holy Men.

May 4: Monnica

Today is the commemoration of Monnica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. I can’t let the day pass without some comment.

I used her commemoration at today’s Eucharist. It was difficult for me to say the collect without snickering, having internalized the Confessions through teaching it yearly for some 15 years, “love and prayers and tears” hardly describes Augustine’s depiction of her. She was a woman of deep faith: among those who sang with Ambrose in the Milan basilica while surrounded by imperial troops demanding it be given over to the Arians; her deep piety to the martyrs that Augustine (and Ambrose were uncomfortable with) and as mentioned in an earlier comment, her status in the Cassaciacum Dialogues as the model of theological wisdom gained through faith that could instruct young intellectuals. She did pray for Augustine’s conversion, but she also acted to make it more likely, by pleading with him and by encouraging him to listen to Ambrose’s sermons, and to talk with the great Bishop.
The beautiful scene that Augustine describes in Ostia when together, in conversation, they ascended from earthly love and conversation, to the beatific vision, is one of the great moments in Christian spiritual writing, and presumably in Christian spiritual experience. It continues to give me chills every time I read it (30? 40? times) as it did during today’s Eucharist, in spite of the suppressed snicker during the collect.

A print of this painting hangs on the wall of my office–it is intended as a depiction of that experience in Ostia:

I doubt whether either of them looked anything like that. She certainly wasn’t clad in a nun’s habit and it’s all a little bit precious, but still…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr 1945

Today marks the 66th anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There’s a brief bio on the Holy Women, Holy Men blog. Bonhoeffer was both a powerful witness and martyr to the faith, and a challenging theologian.

A recent book by Martin Marty explores the history of his Letters and Papers from Prison, which his close friend, confidant, and biographer Eberhard Bethge edited and published. Here’s an excerpt. Here’s more on the series “The Lives of Great Religious Books” to which Marty’s book belongs.

Included in the Letters and Papers is the poem “Who am I.” Here’s an English translation that first appeared in the March 4, 1946 issue of Christianity and Crisis:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

From Religion Online.

Antony the Great

Today is the commemoration of Antony the Great in our liturgical calendar. Here’s a homily I prepared on him a couple of years ago:

Antony is one of those saints who has been a fixture in the liturgical calendar for centuries. And rightly so.  Antony is one of the most important figures in the birth of monasticism. Antony lived in the third and fourth centuries. We’re not exactly sure of his dates, but the best guess is that he lived from 250 to 350 or thereabouts. He lived in Egypt, was the child of wealthy Christian parents, and after their death, while he was still a young man, he heard the gospel for today read and decided that was what he wanted to do. He put his sister in a convent, gave away his money, and went off into the desert to seek intimacy with God. Over the years, he moved further and further away from civilization, but wherever he went, he was pursued by curiosity seekers and by would-be disciples. Occasionally he would return to the city. We know that when he was a very old man, he went to Alexandria, which was the Egyptian metropolis, and the leading center of Christianity in the region, at least twice, and conferred there with bishops.

The flight from the city into the wilderness was not unique to Christianity in Antony’s day. Wealthy people had begun to abandon the city for the countryside, where they could live in leisurely quiet. Poor people fled the city to seek food, shelter, and protection. What set monasticism apart was the certainty that the city was an evil place, that the wilderness was more suited to the pursuit of God.

This tension between city and wilderness is deeply ingrained in our own culture and in the cultures that gave rise to the biblical writings. It’s been a very long time since we in America saw urban life as the ideal.. We may not prefer the wilderness to the city, but we certainly tend to distrust the city, and all that it represents. Longer ago, the distrust of the city and even the town ran much deeper. When I was a boy, my mother read the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder to my sisters and me. If you remember them, you remember that Pa was always on the move further west, further into the wilderness; as soon as he could see the smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, he was ready to find somewhere new to live.

Antony did much the same, and indeed throughout the Middle Ages, monks settled in the wilderness, in places as remote as possible. There’s something of an irony here, however, for wherever monks went, laypeople quickly followed them. Antony’s biographer, Athanasius, said of Antony that “he made the desert a city.” By that he meant two things; first: Antony and the monastic ideal were so popular that perhaps thousands followed him into the desert; second, that in their communities, the monks created a new kind of city, focused on the worship of God.

The wilderness also plays a role in the story of Jesus. Jesus was baptized by John, who lived in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair, and ate locusts and wild honey. People came out into the wilderness to see him. He seems to have been something of a curiosity, but the encounter with John changed people’s lives. In the weeks to come, we will hear of Jesus’ own journey into the wilderness, where he will be tempted by Satan.That encounter with Satan in the wilderness seems to be a turning point. It comes immediately after his baptism, and after the baptism, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry.

Usually when we think of the image of wilderness, we think of wasteland, of danger and violence. In the language of spirituality or religious life, the wilderness is often used as a metaphor for a period of intense struggle, or perhaps a feeling of alienation from God. For Antony and the other Egyptian monks, the wilderness or desert was not a place of alienation from God. Rather, it was a place that enabled intimacy with God. Stripped bare of everything but the essentials, the monk could focus only on what really mattered—his or her relationship with God.

Compared to Antony, of course, our lives are much more complex. The idea of throwing it all away for the opportunity to focus on one’s relationship with God may seem appealing occasionally, but few of us would ever act on that impulse. We all have those times in our lives when it seems as if we are in a desert, when the old way of doing things, our lives and lifestyles, seem difficult or meaningless. Sometimes, in those deserts, we seem to be all alone, abandoned even by God. That feeling of abandonment was not foreign even to those monks and nuns of the early centuries of Christianity. They left behind stories of their struggles with temptations and their struggles to deepen their relationships with God. Antony’s example reminds us that even there, in the wilderness, God is present.

Antony’s life and lifestyle may seem completely alien, perhaps even bizarre to us. Few of us would ever contemplate, at least for more than a moment, throwing everything away in our pursuit of God. That’s exactly what he did, and we might wonder about the impact of that decision on those around him—on his sister who he put in a convent. But his example is also a lesson that we respond to the call of God in very different ways. Today’s gospel led Antony into the wilderness. The very same words of Jesus, nearly 1000 years later, spurred St. Francis to begin a very different form of the religious life, focused on poverty, on preaching, and reaching out to those in need. The question for us is how do we respond, authentically and passionately, to the call of Jesus today?

Reading a little Aelred of Rievaulx

Tomorrow is his commemoration. Here’s what I wrote last year. Aelred (1132-167) was an English Cistercian Abbot during the golden age of the Cistercian order. He is noted for his writings on friendship and love, but today  I reread part of his pastoral prayer. He prays to Jesus Christ on behalf of the monks under his care:

My understanding and speaking, my leisure, my activity my doing and thinking, my good and ill fortune, life and death, health and sickness–let absolutely all that I am, experience, feel and understand be employed and expended for them, for whom you yourself did not scorn to expend your very life. And so I pray you teach your servant, Lord, teach me by your Holy Spirit how I may spend my substance for them. Grant, Lord, by your grace, that I may bear patiently with their frailty, sympathize kindly and support with tact. Let your Spirit teach me to console the sad, strengthen the faint-hearted, raise the fallen; to be weak with the weak, indignant with the scandalized and to become all things to all men, that I may win them all.

His prayer is a powerful reminder to all of us with the cure of souls, of the importance of praying on behalf of those in our care. He prays for their material needs, but also for their spiritual needs:

pour your Holy Spirit into their hearts that he may keep them in unity of spirit and the bond of peace, chaste in body and humble of mind. May he himself be with them when they pray and inspire the prayers it pleases you to grant. May the same Spirit abide in those who meditate, so that, enlightened by him, they come to know you and fix in their memory the God whom they invoke in their distress and look to in time of doubt. May that kind comforter be swift to succour those who struggle with temptation and sustain them in the trials and tribulations of this life.

These quotations are from The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century (Penguin Classics), translated and edited by Pauline Matarasso.

Karl Barth, December 10

I was surprised by the appearance in Holy Women, Holy Men of a commemoration of Karl Barth. Not that he isn’t important, mind you. No, what took me aback was his presence in a volume produced by politically-correct Episcopalians in the twenty-first century. I would be curious to know about his presence in the syllabi of theology courses offered at Episcopal seminaries.

Barth was an important stage on my own theological journey. I read the Commentary on Romans as an undergraduate, then worked through the German original of the second edition. His insistence on the utter transcendence of God and the centrality of Christ were revelations to me and helped me move away from the theology of my upbringing. His resolute opposition to Hitler and his sharp criticism of his teachers and 19th century liberal theology were helpful as well.

Thinking about Barth today reminded me of how far I have come theologically in the last thirty years. I don’t know that I’ve read anything of his since the very early 80s. Certainly at Harvard in that era Barth was mostly a foil for critique, almost a straw man. We were certain we had moved beyond him.

The write-up on Barth for Holy Women, Holy Men provides a standard biography and some sense of Barth’s place in twentieth-century theology. It makes no mention of his impact on Anglican theology and I suspect for most Anglicans with advanced training, their indebtedness to Barth is relatively slight. He was a Calvinist after all, and although he had a deep Incarnational theology, he was also convinced that there was a chasm between God and God’s creation. This meant that he was suspicious of reason. To put it in more positive terms; for Barth, the Word of God was the only certain knowledge.