St Joseph's Womb  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of the Nativity I turn to a recent striking sermon by Fr Michael Marsh of Interrupting the Silence. It deals with Joseph, one of the more overlooked figures in the New Testament (and my patron saint).


Joseph's daytime resolution to quietly dismiss Mary has given way to a night of dreaming, pondering, and wrestling. Joseph's view of Mary, her pregnancy, even himself has been enlarged and opened. He ha begun to see this situation, this scandalous pregnancy, through the eyes of faith rather than the stares of the villagers. Mary's story and the angel's words now speak louder than the villagers' voices...

So Joseph awoke in the morning and did what he had to do. He began emptying himself. He let go of fear. He let go of the villagers' voices and stares. He let go of his doubts and questions. He let go of his own reputation and standing in the community. He let go of his ideas and hopes for what his marriage to Mary could have been. He let go of the law and punishment. With each letting go Joseph emptied himself so that, by God's graces and mercy, he might become the womb that would protect, nourish, and provide security to Mary and her child.

He would be the womb that sheltered Mary and Jesus from Herod's rage and the slaughter of the innocents. He would be the womb that safely took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He would be the womb that sustained their lives in that land. He would be the womb that brought them back to Nazareth when the time was right.

Great O Antiphons  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Starting today and continuing through December 23, many Western churches use special seasonal antiphons for the Magnificat at celebrations of Vespers/Evening Prayer/Evensong. Known as the Great O Antiphons, they are drawn from passages in the Hebrew Scriptures traditionally interpreted by the Church as referring to the coming of the Messiah. They occur in liturgical texts as early as the ninth century and became solidly entrenched in monastic and parish worship during the middle ages.

A good reference to the Antiphons may be found here on the excellent Chantblog site, which includes links to recordings. (To avoid confusion, in England and some other places the Great O's begin on December 16, with the extra O Virgo Virginum used on December 23. I follow the practice of the American Episcopal Church).

The English text below comes from the sadly out-of-print The Prayer Book Office (Seabury Press 1988), an augmented version of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer which I have long used for my personal recitation of the Office. The antiphons are found on pp 131-132.


December 17. O Sapientia

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

December 18. O Adonai

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

December 19. O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

December 20. O Clavis David

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open: Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 21. O Oriens

O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 22. O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one: Come and save the creature whom you fashioned from clay.

December 23. O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

John of the Cross  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

This great mystic, whose feast falls today, overcame not only family poverty, but also the indifference and even brutality of his own beloved church. Born as Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in 1542, his ancestors included both Moors and Jews. The relationship between his parents was a love match, but his father was disinherited for having married beneath his station. John's father died when he was only nine, and the family's economic situation became dire. Somehow he managed to get a good classical education at a Jesuit school and was accepted into the Carmelite order at age twenty. He earned a theology degree from the famed University of Salamanca and was ordained to the priesthood. But the Carmelites of that time had grown lax, and John, strongly drawn to a life of austerity and contemplative prayer, considered transferring to the Carthusians. At this juncture he met Teresa of Avila, who had recently begun the reform movement known as the Discalced Carmelites. He immediately came under her sway and became leader of the male reformed Carmelites. However, the reform met stiff resistance from both the "business as usual" Carmelites and the larger Roman Catholic church in Spain. It took many years of conflict for the Discalced order to gain official ecclesiastical recognition. At one point, John was imprisoned for ten months in an unreformed Carmelite monastery. He was kept in a windowless closet measuring six by ten feet, and ritually flogged in the refectory in the presence of the other monks three times a week. He did have access to pen and paper and wrote down the lyrical poems for which he is famous; he had originally composed them in his head as a way of enduring his torture. The drawing of Jesus crucified (shown above), which would eventually inspire Dali's famous painting, is somewhat later but was clearly inspired by this very literal "dark night" in John's life.

I wish to share one of his poems, "Dark Night". It is found on pp 711-712 of what is possibly still the definitive English edition of his writings, The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979).


The Dark Night

One dark night,
Fired with love's urgent longings
--Ah, the sheer grace!--
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;

In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
--Ah, the sheer grace!--
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now all stilled;

On that glad night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
Nor did I look at anything,
With no other light or guide,
Than the one that burned in my heart;

This guided me
More surely than the light of noon
To where he waited for me
--Him I knew so well--
In a place where no one else appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret
Parting His hair,
He wounded my neck
With his gentle hand,
Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.

Merton and Sophia  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

On today's commemoration of Thomas Merton we look at a passage from Hagia Sophia, a long prose poem he completed in the spring of 1961. References to "Sophia" occur in the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Scriptures and also crop up frequently in the patristic literature and other writings of the Christian East. Intellectually, it is a very slippery concept but has often been used to label God's "feminine aspect".

At this stage in Merton's life he was trying to acknowledge more fully his own feminine side. Several years earlier he had a vivid dream in which he encountered a young Jewish girl whose name was Proverb. It is clear from journal entries that he regarded this young woman as a personification of Wisdom or Sophia. About a year later he was visiting his friend, the artist Victor Hammer, when he noticed an unfinished drawing (reproduced above). Hammer had begun the project as a Madonna and Child, but became stuck when he no longer knew who the female figure placing the crown on the young male was. Without hesitation, Merton said, "She is Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ."

The excerpt from the poem is found on pp 258-259 of Merton and Hesychasm (Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, eds, Fons Vitae 2003). Pp 234-254 contain a very informative explanatory essay by Susan McCaslin.


Sophia, the feminine child, is playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator. Her delights are to be with the children of men. She is their sister. The core of life that exists in all things is tenderness, mercy, virginity, the Light, the Life considered as passive, as received, as given, as taken, as inexhaustibly renewed by the Gift of God. Sophia is Gift, is Spirit, Donum Dei. She is God-given and God Himself as Gift. God as all, and God reduced to Nothing: inexhaustible nothingness. Exinanivit semetipsum. Humility as the source of unfailing light.

Hagia Sophia in all things is the Divine Life reflected in them, considered as a spontaneous participation, as their invitation to the Wedding Feast.

Sophia is God's sharing of Himself with creatures. His outpouring, and the Love by which He is given, and known, held and loved.

She is in all things like the air receiving the sunlight. In her they prosper. In her they glorify God. In her they rejoice to reflect Him. In her they are united with Him. She is the union between them. She is the Love that unites them. She is life as communion, life as thanksgiving, life as praise, life as festival, life as glory.

Because she receives perfectly there is in her no stain. She is love without blemish, and gratitude without self-complacency. All things praise her by being themselves and by sharing in the Wedding Feast. She is the Bride and the Feast and the Wedding. The feminine principle in the world is the inexhaustible source of creative realization of the Father's glory. She is His manifestation in radiant splendor! But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all.

Rublev's Sacred Geometry  

Posted by Joe Rawls in , ,

Andrei Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity--also known as the Hospitality of Abraham--was painted in Russia in the early 15th century and is possibly the most popular icon in today's world; it speaks alike to Orthodox Christians, Western Christians, non-Christians, and folks with no religious affiliation whatever. I myself use it in prayer but I also sometimes get entranced with just looking at it and absorbing its visual beauty.

An element of the latter is the icon's underlying geometrical construction: the three angels representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are arranged vis-a-vis each other, the table, and the elements in the background in such a way that several geometrical figures including a circle, a triangle, and a cross are easily defined. It is marvelous how well this is done, as can be seen in the above illustration, without making the whole composition seem contrived. (The illustration is part of a University of Toronto course taught by Jaroslav Skira.)

Some thoughts on the theological implications of these geometrical figures are found in an on-line essay by Soo-Young Kwon, excerpts of which are printed below.


[The cross is defined by a vertical line connecting the tree, the halo of the central figure, the cup, and the small rectangle on the front of the table. It is defined horizontally by a line passing above the halos of the two outer figures and through the halo of the central figure.] God's love is Holy and Tri-hypostatic. And this love is suffering love...Christians usually think the suffering of the Cross was only an event of the man, Jesus Christ. If this is true, the suffering is just a man's martyrdom, not a universal event of salvation...the suffering of the Cross is an event of God as Trinity, not only an event of Jesus Christ. The Father suffers with the Son on the Cross.

This rectangular space [on the front of the table] speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God. It is the road of suffering. This rectangle is a starting point for the mystical union with the Trinity.

The oneness and mutual love of the three persons...are strongly symbolized around an unseen circle...The visual theology of the icon...seems embedded in the "social" doctrine of the Trinity...The geometrical element of the composition, the circle in the icon, is speaking to us visually: God is sharing, self-giving, and solidarity.

Healing Words  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Greeks had a word for it, of course. Many words, actually. Orthodox writer Scott Cairns discusses several of these in an interesting on-line essay dealing mainly with nous and kardia and how they have been translated somewhat simplistically into English as "mind" and "heart". Cairns sees the primary mission of the church as healing the spiritual sickness of its members. And the way to do this is to inculcate a way of prayer that draws the "mind" into the "heart".

I preface the Cairns excerpt with a brief definition of nous by Greek theologian John Romanides.



...nous [is] this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person...It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.


Virtually every time we come across the word mind (or, in some cases, intellect or reason) in an English translation of the New Testament, nous is the word being rendered. One might say that it is the word being surrendered.

The greatest danger is that what should be an actively performed faith, a lived faith, becomes little more than an idea. When it is most healthy, ours is not simply a propositional faith, but a faith embodied and performed. Having lost this understanding, much of Western Christendom and much of an unduly influenced Eastern Church, has squandered the single most essential aspect of the Christian life: that we are ill, that what we need most is to be healed--our nous purified, illuminated, and restored to the actual communion with the God who is.

...Another New testament word that could benefit from a rigorous appraisal is kardia, offered to us simply as heart. Early Christians understood kardia as the very center of the complex human person, and as the scene of our potential repair...

The more we read in the fathers and mothers across the early centuries of the Church, the more profoundly we come to recognize this formula, this admonition that we might find our prayer lives made fruitful by our descending with our "minds" into our "hearts". This figure, then--of the lucid nous descended into the ready kardia, of the mind pressed into the heart--articulates both the mode and locus of our potential re-collection, our much desired healing. At the very least, it identifies the scene where this reconstitution of our wholeness might begin: the center of the human body, which is nonetheless the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Liber Precum Publicarum  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Vernacular liturgy was one of the cornerstones of the Reformation almost from its very beginning. When the Church of England exchanged papal rule for royal control, its contribution to worship in the language of the people came in the form of the Book of Common Prayer, the first edition of which came out in 1549. It was largely the work of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was a master stylist of early modern English.

The ascent of Elizabeth I to the throne saw a revised version of the BCP in 1559. The next year witnessed the publication of a Latin version of the same text. The rationale for this seeming liturgical regression was to provide a suitable text for public worship in collegiate chapels. In 16th-century England, as well as most of the rest of Europe, secondary and higher education consisted largely of the study of the Greek and Latin classics. A familiarity with at least Latin was one of the marks of proper English gentlemen, even gentlemen who spent their Oxbridge years engaged in riotous living instead of taking degrees. So a Latin liturgy would be quite understandable in an academic setting.

The Latin version was also authorized for use in Ireland, of all places. Apparently there were some Irish Anglican congregations of ex-Roman Catholics who did not understand English but would be receptive to something resembling the old Latin Mass.

The Latin BCP does not seem to have been widely used but was an interesting, if quirky, episode in Anglican liturgical history. An online version can be found here. Below is a brief excerpt. A free cigar to the first one who identifies it.


Omnipotens Deus, cui omne cor patet et cui omnes affectus animorum cogniti sunt, et quem nihil latet, purifica cogitationes cordium nostrorum, ut per inspirationem Sancti Spiritus te ex animo amenus, et debita veneratione celebramus Nomen tuum sanctum, Per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum.

Monstrance as Mandala  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Benediction is a form of eucharistic devotion found in the Roman Catholic church, as well as in some very high-church Anglican communities. A large round consecrated communion wafer is placed in a sacred vessel usually called a monstrance, or more rarely an ostensorium. This allows the consecrated bread to be seen by the congregants. Traditional hymns are sung, the monstrance is incensed several times as a sign of respect, and the rite culminates with the priest taking the vessel and using it to bless the assembled community. Benediction is often done in conjunction with solemn evensong or vespers, and can also be utilized as a type of meditation practice; the monstrance is exposed for a length of time during which people can simply sit quietly in its presence or say private prayers.

A mandala is a circular spiritual symbol frequently found in Hinduism and Buddhism.

William Johnson is an Irish-born Jesuit theologian who has taught for many years at Sophia University, a Jesuit institution in Tokyo. His specialty is Christian mystical theology. Not surprisingly, he is also well-versed in the traditions of the (non-Christian) East. In his book The Wounded Stag (Harper and Row 1984) he interprets the body of Christ in the monstrance as a type of Christian mandala. The excerpts below are found on page 108 ff.


The mandala is a source of great psychic energy...

First, the circle is a symbol of integration, of wholeness, of perfection, and finally of enlightenment. ..By being present to the mandala, by interiorizing it, by becoming it, we attain to psychic wholeness and to enlightenment...

Second, the mandala is a cosmic symbol. By interiorizing the symbol I break out of my narrow individuality, becoming one with the circle and one with the universe. In India the mandala is sometimes a symbol of God...

...I believe that the Eucharist, particularly when circular bread was used and placed in the monstrance before the people, became the great Christian mandala...

In the fourteenth century the monstrance...first appeared in France and Germany; and again this eucharistic devotion was greeted with enthusiasm and spread throughout Europe like wildfire...

And the Eucharist enthroned in the monstrance has all the properties of the mandala. One is present to it, totally present. One interiorizes it by eating or (if this is not possible) by a spiritual communion in which by ardent desire one receives the body of the Lord into the depths of one's being. As one assimilates the Eucharist one is filled with the most tremendous energy--for the bread is food not only for the body but also for the spirit...And this bread of life is medicinal, healing, leading to integration of the personality, pointing beyond the state of integrity to the resurrection, which is the state of glory.

Again, the Eucharist is a cosmic symbol. Through reception of this sacrament we are united not only with the individual Jesus but with the whole Christ. We are united with those who have gone before us, with those in the state of purification, with the poor and the sick and the oppressed; for all are his members. Indeed we are united with the whole human family each of whom is related to the risen Lord in a way that surpasses human understanding.

Esoteric and Exoteric  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, combines first-tier academic research with a passionate commitment to creedal orthodoxy. In his Commonweal essay "Dry Bones: why religion can't live without mysticism" (February 26, 2010) he addresses the perennial religious conflict between mystics and institutionalists in the three Abrahamic faiths, a conflict exemplified as early as the gospel spat between Mary and Martha. Johnson clearly comes down in favor of mysticism but stresses that it cannot fruitfully exist outside of a structure provided by the faith community.


The great religious battle of our the clash occurring within religious traditions. The battle within each of the great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each...

...The exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion...the esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart, less in the public liturgy than in the individual's search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. It seeks an experience of the divine more intense, more personal, and more immediate than any made available by law or formal ritual. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for more knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all best known as exoteric traditions, each with the full array of formal worship, religious law, sacred books, and codes of morality. Yet each has also contained, from the beginning, a strong element of mysticism. The Judaism that formed in the second century on the basis of a strict interpretation of Torah, also expressed itself mystically through the heavenly ascents accomplished by the adepts of Merkabah mysticism, riders of the heavenly throne-chariot. The earliest Christian books contain a powerful visionary composition (Revelation), while Christian mystical impulses found early expression both in Gnostic literature and among the desert fathers and mothers; and in Islam, the Sufi movement, dedicated to the quest for God through renunciation and prayer, grew together with the exoteric framework of the shari'ah, the system of Muslim law and observance...

...asceticism was not an exception to, but rather an intensification of, the strict rules of behavior followed by the exoteric community. Mystics were able to swim freely, and dive deeply, in an ocean bounded by public profession and practice.

In return, mysticism enriched the outer tradition, providing a medium for impulses of passionate devotion, producing generations saints who represent the best within each religion...Asserting the ultimate reality and power of this invisible presence, and willingly sacrificing pleasure in this life for the sake of a future life with God, mysticism reminds the exoteric that it too is called to a service larger than itself.

Colliander on the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Tito Colliander (1904-1989) was an ethnic Swede who was born in czarist St Petersburg and spent most of his life in Finland. He and his wife converted to the Finnish Orthodox Church as adults. He was primarily a novelist who wrote in Swedish but also left behind a body of spiritual writings. Probably the most significant of these is Way of the Ascetics (St Vladimir Seminary Press 2003). Chapter 25 (the book is available here online) deals with the Jesus Prayer.

I can resonate with what Colliander says about the Jesus Prayer because my own use of it, while regular (most of the time), is hardly effortless. The "monkey mind" is still an uninvited guest during prayer time, and the whole practice is not in the least glamorous. Colliander gives us a much-needed reminder that prayer is not an end in itself, but a means of preparing the ground of our souls for the raining down of God's grace.


...Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Repeat it aloud, or only in thought, slowly, lingeringly, but with attention, and from a heart freed as much as possible from all that is inappropriate to it. Not only worldly thoughts are inappropriate, but also such things as every kind of expectation or thought of answer, or inner visions, testings, all kinds of romantic dreams, curious questionings and imaginings. Simplicity is as inescapable a condition as humility, abstemiousness of body and soul, and in general everything that pertains to the invisible warfare.

Especially should the beginner beware of everything that has the slightest tendency to mysticism. The Jesus Prayer is an activity, a practical work and a means by which you enable yourself to receive and use the power called God's grace--constantly present, however hidden within the baptized person--in order that it may bear fruit. Prayer fructifies this power in our soul, it has no other purpose. It is a hammer that crushes a shell: a hammer is hard and its strike hurts. Abandon every thought of pleasantness, rapture, heavenly voices: there is only one way to the kingdom of God, and that is the way of the cross...

If you hammer a nutshell too hard, you may crush the kernel as well. Lay on with caution. Do not pass over suddenly to the Jesus Prayer. Hold back to begin with, and even afterward, use your other prayer practices as well. Do not be overanxious. And do not suppose that you can pray proper attention to a single Lord, have mercy. Your prayer is bound to be divided and scattered; you are, indeed, human...Do not shriek to high heaven in amazement if at the beginning you completely forget your prayer practice for many hours at a time, perhaps for a whole day or longer. Take it naturally and simply: you are an inexperienced sailor who has been so anxiously occupied with other things that he forgot to keep watch on the breezes. Thus, expect nothing of yourself. But do not demand anything of others, either.

Being About My Father's Busy-ness  

Posted by Joe Rawls

It's probably a safe bet that the first-century church had its share of workaholic clergy and lay leaders. Things haven't improved since then, of course, although clergy burn-out, often underlain by compulsive overwork, is now recognized as a serious problem. A problem that, despite lots of talk, will be with us for the foreseeable future. Anglican priest Kenneth Leech offers contemplative prayer as a possible antidote. But it won't be easy, of course. In his very fine book Experiencing God: theology as spirituality (Harper and Row 1985) he recounts an anecdote told by Carl Jung (whose father and several uncles were Reformed ministers). A big hat-tip to Fr Mike Marsh of Interrupting the Silence.


Jung recounts a story of a clergyman who had been working fourteen hours a day and was suffering from emotional exhaustion. Jung's advice was that he should work eight hours a day, then go home and spend the evening alone in his study. The clergyman agreed to follow Jung's advice precisely. He worked eight hours, then went home and to his study, where he played some Chopin and read a novel by Hesse. The following day he read Thomas Mann and played Mozart. On the third day he went to see Jung and complained that he was no better. "But you don't understand," Jung replied, on hearing his account. "I didn't want you with Hermann Hesse or Thomas Mann or even Mozart or Chopin. I wanted you to be all alone with yourself." "Oh, but I can't think of any worse company," answered the clergyman. Jung replied, "And yet this is the self you inflict on other people fourteen hours a day."

Blessed John Henry Newman  

Posted by Joe Rawls

During my 30 years as a Roman Catholic--coinciding with the first 30 years of my life--John Henry Newman (almost invariably referred to as Cardinal Newman) was presented to us lay folk simply as a scholarly man who had sacrificed a brilliant career in the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic. Depending upon whom you listened to, he either abandoned heresy for the one true church or he simply followed the dictates of his conscience at great personal expense. Beyond that, we didn't learn much about his life and thought, even if, like me, we attended Newman Centers (chaplaincies for Roman Catholic students) at three different universities. It was only after I became an Anglican in the early '80's that I learned more about both the Anglican and Catholic Newmans.

Pope Benedict's recent beatification of Newman--the first step towards eventual canonization--refocuses attention on both sides of the Tiber/Thames divide upon this complex, controversial, and sometimes contradictory churchman. Weighing in with a few trenchant observations is Eamon Duffy, himself a Roman Catholic and a Cambridge University church historian. Click here for the complete essay.


...Newman was a sublime prose stylist and a scholar soaked in the Greek and Latin Fathers. Between 1833 and 1845 he transformed the Church of England, persuading its clergy that it was no mere department of state for moral uplift, but the English branch of the ancient Catholic church, through its sacraments and apostolic teaching a means of encounter with God. Everything about modern Anglicanism, from the look of its buildings to its theology and forms of worship, bears the marks of his teaching...

Newman's thought came into its own in the 20th century, influencing, among others, the young Joseph Ratzinger, ironically enough, since Pope Benedict's understanding of papacy is not a million miles from that which Newman deplored. Yet the beatification ratifies Newman's distinctively English (and Anglican) formation. To that extent, it is an ecumenical act. It also affirms Newman's lifelong struggle to combine intellectual integrity with the surrender of a heart and mind to a God he experienced both as love and truth. For a church whose claims to integrity, love and truth are currently taking a beating, that's a candle in the dark.

Athonite Benedictines  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

An obscure facet of monastic history--but one very close to the spirit of this blog--is the Benedictine monastery of St Mary which existed on Mt Athos ca 980-1287. Known in Greek as the Amalfion, it was founded by monks from the Italian city-state of Amalfi, which in its heyday rivaled Genoa and even Venice in terms of maritime trade. Amalfitan monasteries were also found in Constantinople and in Jerusalem (the chapel of the latter is now a Lutheran church).

According to a contemporary Greek text the Mt Athos foundation was established by Beneventus, brother of the duke of Benevento. He became friends with the monks of the Orthodox monastery of Iveron, close by the site of the Amalfion. The Greek monks "treated him with the greatest kindness and invited him to make his home among them, saying 'both you and we are alike pilgrims'...And so he built a pleasant monastery in which he gathered many brothers. With the help of our fathers the whole work was completed...and to this day there exists on the Holy Mountain this monastery of the Romans, who live a regular and edifying life according to the Rule of Holy Benedict..."

Relationships between the Roman Catholic Benedictines and their Orthodox neighbors remained amiable even after the rupture between the two churches in 1054. As the centuries passed, the fortunes of the Amalfion gradually declined along with those of its parent city. In 1287 the monastery was peacefully dissolved and its assets transferred to one of the Orthodox communities. This long-term peaceful co-existence remains a model worth emulating for Eastern and Western Christians of the present day.

Click here and here for additional information on the Amalfion.

Theosis and the Name of Jesus  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Eastern Orthodox theologian Vincent Rossi is the author of "Presence, Participation, Performance: The Remembrance of God in the Early Hesychast Fathers", which is chapter 5 in Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East, James S Cutsinger, ed (World Wisdom 2002). Rossi's article deals with contemplative stillness (hesychia, as it is termed in the Christian East), being mindful of the divine presence, and how these can be fomented by the regular recitation of the Jesus Prayer.

The book in which Rossi's essay appears contains the proceedings of a symposium between Orthodox and Sufi scholars which took place in 2001 only a few weeks after the tragic events of 9-11. That such dialogs can happen under any circumstances is a cause for continuing hope that some of the free-floating hatred so prevalent in the modern world can be mitigated.


The reciprocity (perichoresis in Greek) of Divine incarnation and human deification is central to the path to the heart of the Hesychasts. Perichoresis is the theological ground of the Jesus Prayer. St Maximos [the Confessor] states this saving truth in a beautiful, lapidary expression of the very principle that grounds the invocation of the Divine Name of Jesus:

We are told that God and man are exemplars of each other. Man's ability to deify himself through love for God's sake is correlative with God's becoming man through compassion for man's sake. And man's manifestation through the virtues of the God who is by nature invisible is correlative with the degree to which his intellect is seized by God and imbued with gnosis. (Philokalia v 2, p 278)

This passage links the incarnation of God in Christ with the deification of humanity in Christ in the closest possible way. It is a restatement of the basic principle of deification as originally found in St Ireneos and St Athanasios: "God became man so that man might become a god", which is itself grounded in the two basic Scriptural warrants for deification: " I said you are gods and all of you sons of the Most High" (Ps 82:6); and "precious and very great promises have been granted to us, that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). The principle of perichoresis--the reciprocity of incarnation/deification--is the basis of the Hesychasts' conviction that the surest means of receiving the deifying energy of the Holy Spirit is ceaseless mindfulness of God through the invocation of the Name of Jesus. The "new theandric energy" brought to us by Jesus who is God incarnate has established for all time the mutual interpenetration without confusion of the Divine and the human...This "new theandric energy" is the gift of divinizing participation in the Divine Presence in Jesus, and it is activated by invoking the hidden power of the Name of Jesus. To invoke the Divine Name of Jesus in the Jesus Prayer is to pray for the influx of this deifying energy. In the tradition of the Hesychasts, the practice of the remembrance of God through the Prayer of Jesus is at one and the same time preparation, participation, and performance of the Divine-human synergy of deification.

Clairvaux Quotes  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Bernard of Clairvaux (ca 1090-Aug 20, 1153) was the leading light of the Cistercian Benedictine reform of the 12th century. Like many, perhaps most saints, he was a very complex, even contradictory person. A member of a semi-eremitical monastic community, he traveled widely, preaching against church corruption and advising popes. Author of a significant commentary on the Song of Songs, he also was an enthusiastic supporter of the Second Crusade and provided the nucleus for the rule of life of the Knights Templar. By the end of his century, there were over 300 Cistercian monasteries, many of which he founded. There have been big retrenchments in the intervening centuries, but his spiritual descendants--Thomas Merton being perhaps the best-known--are still going strong.

The literature by and about Bernard is huge, so perhaps the best way of getting some idea what he was like is through a few quotes, which I took the liberty of lifting from this site.


  • Hell is full of good wishes.
  • I know by myself how incomprehensible God is, seeing I cannot comprehend the parts of my own being.
  • Nothing can work me damage except myself. The harm that I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault.
  • Religion brought forth riches, and the daughter devoured the mother.
  • The tears of penitents are the wine of angels.
  • We find rest in those we love, and we provide a resting place for those who love us.
  • You will find something far greater in the woods than you will find in books. Stones and trees will teach you that which you will never learn from masters.
  • Who loves me will love my dog also.

Transfiguration and Suffering  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

For today's Feast of the Transfiguration we turn to Norman Russell's Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (St Vladimir's Seminary Press 2009). What happened to Jesus on the mountain during the Transfiguration was a manifestation of the theosis of his human nature. However, theosis is not limited to Jesus; it is the destiny of us all. But it is not accomplished without suffering. The excerpt is found on pp 109-111.


The a revelation of the true stature of our human nature, a stature which our first parents in the Garden of Eden failed to attain. They listened to the voice of temptation, which suggested to them that they had been forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge because God jealously wanted to keep them in a state of immaturity...But knowledge in itself does not make us like God. Our twentieth-century history has taught us that only too painfully. "Adam", as St John Damascene says, "longed for deification before the proper time". Knowledge needs to be accompanied by humility, thanksgiving, purity of heart. The glory indicated by the Transfiguration is only to be attained through the self-emptying of the Passion. "It is only through this free kenosis [self-emptying]" says Metropolitan John Zizioulas, "that the ascetic is led to the light of the Resurrection. The light of Mount Tabor, the light of the Transfiguration, which the Hesychasts claimed to see, was given as a result of participation in the sufferings, the kenosis of Christ. " We arrive at our true human stature through sharing in the glory of Christ, having first shared in his Passion.

The Church Father who brings out this aspect of the Transfiguration most clearly is St Cyril of Alexandria. In his homily on the Transfiguration...he sets the narrative as Luke tells it within the broader pattern of the divine economy. The immediately proceeding discussion is of the greatest significance: "If anyone wishes to come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Lk 9:23). "This teaching" St Cyril comments, "is our salvation". It prepares us for heavenly glory through the acceptance of suffering for Christ's sake. The converse is also true: the vision of heavenly glory granted to Peter, James and John prepares them to accept the suffering that is shortly to come upon them...To see the Transfiguration is to see the kingdom of God. The radiant humanity of the Lord shows the apostles the destiny that awaits them. The Lord can now go to his suffering and death and the apostles can follow him, confident in the glory that can only be attained through sharing in the Cross.

Communion After Baptism  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Many parishes in the Episcopal Church, my own included, allow unbaptized people to receive communion during celebrations of the Eucharist. This practice, commonly known as " Communion without Baptism" (or CWOB for short), is controversial, one reason being that it is forbidden by Episcopal canon law--a law which, however, allows any baptized person regardless of denominational affiliation to receive communion at Episcopal services. This practice is quite lenient compared to the eucharistic discipline of some other bodies. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches restrict communion to their own members only, while the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod notoriously refuses communion even to non-LCMS Lutherans.

Be that as it may, the Episcopal Church canon is too restrictive for many of its members, who see "radical hospitality" as a higher value. Weighing in on the notion that Baptism before communion is not only appropriate but perhaps even crucial is Episcopal priest Matt Gunter. His essay in The living Church should be read in its entirety, because it touches on other important topics besides those excerpted below.


Do we believe that the divine-human drama centers primarily on the individual, or rather on a community? Are we essentially individuals who associate with other individuals, for one reason or another, or are we persons shaped in community, in which case belonging is essential.

...In an American, post-Enlightenment context, shaped by the ideology of individualism, the difference between real community and an association of individuals can be hard to appreciate. Inviting someone to the Eucharist irrespective of "where they are on their spiritual journey" puts the emphasis on the individual rather than on our being members of one another with responsibility for, and accountability to, the whole. The Church cannot counter the ideology of individualism by reinforcing that ideology in its central communal practice.

...In the sacraments the body of Christ "happens". In Baptism a new member of the body is "made" by incorporation. In the Eucharist the body "happens" in several ways. It is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the feast in which the bread and the wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is the feast by which the body of Christ, the Church, is re-membered and its members fed. "In these holy mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another"(American BCP, p 316). Thus, in the well-known Augustinian exhortation: "Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God"...And Augustine adds that when we consume the body of Christ in the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies as we are transformed by it into his body.

Participation in the Eucharist is therefore not simply about experiencing God's consolation. It is that, but it is much more. It is part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Christian tradition calls theosis: our being made capable of being "partakers of the divine nature"(2 Peter 2:4), capable of bearing the absolute love, goodness, beauty, and joy of God. We expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized into glory.

Monks on Silence  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

A very useful reference is The Monastic Way, edited by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild (Eerdmans, 2006). This is a compendium of brief quotes from monastic writings ranging through the whole of Christian history, arranged as one excerpt for each day of the year. July happens to have some pertinent sayings on the subject of silence. They are found on pp 107-120 of the book.


Aelred Niespolo, OSB

If the word obsculta [listen: first word of the Rule of Benedict] defines the overall action within monastic life, it is also a part of the message offered to a world that does everything it can in order not to listen. Listening takes place within silence, which is not simply a lack of words, but is a 'counter' to the noise of the world. True silence prevents empty words. One can only listen if one can hear. In the otium [leisure] grounded in silence, and in the 'sacred space' of the monastery itself, God not only speaks to the person, but as importantly, the person speaks with God.

Basil the Great

We must try to keep the mind in quietness. For if the eye is constantly shifting its gaze, one moment this way or that, then veering between upwards and down, it cannot see clearly what lies directly in front of it. It has to bring its gaze to bear on this object so as to see it clearly in focus. In the same way a mind distracted by thousands of worldly concerns cannot possibly bring a steady gaze to bear on the truth...Another image: you cannot write on wax tablets unless everything previously written on them has been erased--and the soul cannot receive godly teaching without first clearing out of the way its own preconceived ideas. With this in view a time of withdrawal is of the greatest benefit, as it calms our compulsive passions and gives reason a clear space to cut them down to size.

Joan Chittister, OSB

Those who cringe from silence see it like the plague, fearful of its weight, cautious of its emptiness and the shock that comes with its revelations. The heaviness and emptiness we feared give way very quickly to turmoil and internal pressure for change. Silence enables us to hear the cacaphony inside ourselves. Being alone with ourselves makes for a demanding presence. We find very quickly that either we must change or we shall surely crumble under the weight of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves, under the awareness of what we could be but are not, under the impulse of what we want to be but have failed to become. Under the din is the raw material of the soul.

Peter-Damian Belisle, OSB Cam

Silence is the language spoken by solitude. Perhaps at first reckoning, we might consider silence merely the absence of sound. But silence is not something that begins only when sound ends. There is something awesome and breathtaking about real silence; it is numinous, pulling us out of our self-containment and calling us towards the invisible. Religious seekers 'home in' on silence as homing pigeons return to their roost, because therein lies the language for personal communication with the sacred.

A Carthusian

There is exterior silence and interior silence. The monastery is, or should be, a place of at least relative silence in the sense of the absence of unnecessary noise and agitated movement. We are less assaulted by harsh sounds; rather we are are soothed by the mostly harmonious sounds of nature, and bells and our Gregorian chant. This pacifies our sensibility and refines it. A heightened awareness is a common experience in solitude and affects all the senses, for they are all linked together. In silence we are more vividly aware of colour, and perfume and touch, because we are more present to ourselves. And little by little, we become attuned to the breathing spaces of silence between the sounds, as it were, like an underlying melody, not exactly 'heard', and yet somehow perceived, something that can take the character of a presence.

Silence begets an attitude of listening; a recollected capacity to receive the manifold communications of being through the doors of the senses, which yet go beyond the sensual to become mediators of a communion of our mind and spirit with what is. The artist, the philosopher, the praying person may perceive or, at least, express in different words diverse aspects of this reality, but all have need of silence, receptivity and awareness.

Peter-Damian Belisle, OSB Cam

People are finding less silence in today's societies. They seek out places of refuge and retreat, hoping for the blessing of mere quiet and, perhaps, sheer silence. They go to monasteries and hermitages so they can learn to listen, or listen more attentively. Within monastic walls, silence is maintained so as not to disturb anyone who may be listening to the Word or simply resting the body. But listening is crucial there, and people recognize that fact instinctively. To what are monastics listening in their silence? To the word of God; to their inner-most hearts; to grace at work in the spirit; to what they discern to be truth--ultimate truth. Here is the place where one is ultimately completely naked--stripped of all pretension and illusion--and where one stands truly as one in the presence of God. Here one stands, simply and utterly, in truth.

Litany of St Benedict  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Today being the commemoration of St Benedict of Nursia in the Episcopal Church, I'd like to share a litany to him found on the Prayers to St Benedict website.


Lord, have mercy on us, Christ, have mercy on us.
God the Father of Heaven, Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God, Have mercy on us.

Holy Mary, Pray for us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us.
Holy Virgin of virgins, Pray for us.
Holy Father, Saint Benedict, Pray for us.
Father most reverend, Pray for us.
Father most renowned, Pray for us.
Father most compassionate, Pray for us.
Man of great fortitude, Pray for us.
Man of venerable life, Pray for us.
Man of the most holy conversation, Pray for us.
True servant of God, Pray for us.
Light of devotion, Pray for us.
Light of prayer, Pray for us.
Light of contemplation, Pray for us.
Star of the world, Pray for us.
Best master of an austere life, Pray for us.
Leader of the holy warfare, Pray for us.
Leader and chief of monks, Pray for us.
Master of those who die to the world, Pray for us.
Protector of those who cry to Thee, Pray for us.
Wonderful maker of miracles, Pray for us.
Revealer of the secrets of the human heart, Pray for us.
Master of spiritual discipline, Pray for us.
Companion of the patriarchs, Pray for us.
Equal of the prophets, Pray for us.
Follower of the Apostles, Pray for us.
Teacher of martyrs, Pray for us.
Father of many pontiffs, Pray for us.
Gem of abbots, Pray for us.
Glory of confessors, Pray for us.
Imitator of anchorites, Pray for us.
Associate of virgins, Pray for us.
Colleague of all the saints, Pray for us.

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Have mercy on us.

V. Intercede for us, O holy father St Benedict,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray: O God, Who hast called us from the vanity of the world, and Who dost incite us to the reward of a heavenly vocation under the guidance of our holy patriarch and founder, St Benedict, inspire and purify our hearts and pour forth on us Thy grace, whereby we may persevere in Thee. Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Amen.

Theology Isn't a Head Trip  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Macrina Walker's excellent site A Vow of Conversation (blogrolled here under "Favorite Links" in the sidebar) partially transcribes a lecture by Notre Dame University professor David Fagerberg in which he rather forcefully differentiates between Western theology and that of the Eastern Churches (click here for the audio version). Fagerberg refers to Fr Alexander Schmemann, a prominent 20th-century Orthodox theologian. The words in bold type were stressed by me.


The West tends to think of theology as a mental activity. Probably this is because the people to whom the West gives the name theologian live in the academy...The only reason for calling these people theologians is because of what they think about. Worship is taken to be either an expression of belief, or an instrument for the creation of belief. And only if that believing requires a tune-up clarification does theology enter the picture. Liturgy is a place to stage the theological content we have deduced and believe. But theology's origin is not in liturgy, it is in texts and its output is more texts for the next generation of theologians to critique and surpass...

[Quoting Schmemann]: "I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is here. All that is needed for one's spirit, heart, mind and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It's all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one's heart and mind."

I think it would be wrong to use this as a brush to paint Schmemann or Orthodoxy as anti-intellectual. Instead, there are two things going on here. First, Schmemann is identifying theology's home, its native habitat. Theology is more a vision than a cognition. Schmemann is not opposed to theological discussion; he is opposed to letting theological discussion ever break free from a vision of the Trinity in action.

The second thing going on in this quotation is the connection of theology with theosis. The beginning of theology is not the card catalogue, but doing battle with the passions. And the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint.

Zizioulas on Baptism and Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Metropolitan John Zizioulas is a leading contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian. In this essay he discusses the intimate relationship between the two sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Orthodoxy stresses the ontological changes made by the sacraments in their recipients; changes leading the Christian to a progressively closer union with God. Many liberal mainline Christians, by contrast, see these sacraments as thoroughly demystified rituals reinforcing social bonds between community members. These issues are especially prominent in the Episcopal Church, where there is an ongoing debate over the fairly widespread practice of giving communion to non-baptized people. Compare and contrast.

A hat-tip to Facebook friend Freeman Ioannis Edward.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ not only the death of the past--which is henceforth abolished--but also the Resurrection into a new life, which new life however is expressed...with our incorporation into the body of the Church. There can be no baptism which does not automatically entail incorporation into the Body of the Church...For us is of vital importance to insist that Baptism, the Chrism [Confirmation] and the Divine Eucharist constitute a unified and inseperable liturgical unity. Our criterion is that we undergo an ontological change; that a person must enter a new relationship with the world. One cannot be baptized and yet distance himself from experiencing the Community of the Church; this is why Baptism simultaneously signifies a placement within the Community of the Church and participation in the Divine Eucharist.

...What is important with regard to the Eucharist experience is that man now enters into a relationship with others and the world in general, with Christ as its center. The Church has, at her center, the Body of him who overcame death, and this victory over death that the risen Christ possesses is the same victory from whence life springs for all members of the Church. This Christ-centeredness of the Divine Eucharist is what makes it different from every other experience that the faithful (or people in general) may have. There is nothing so Christ-centered as the Divine Eucharist. There is no other experience that the faithful can have, which is so directly associated to the corporeal presence of the risen Christ.

Rowan on Wisdom, Science, and Faith  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

When he isn't getting his knickers in a twist over gay bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury is actually a pretty fair theologian. Evidence of this can be found in a recent sermon delivered at a service honoring the 350th anniversary of the British Royal Society, held at St Paul's Cathedral in London. Alluding to the fact that many of the Society's founders were practicing Christians as well as practicing scientists, +++Rowan reminds us that science and faith do not exist in watertight compartments.


...The house of wisdom is a house of many dimensions; seven pillars, not merely four walls. It is upheld by a variety of questionings; the so-called scientific worldview is itself a complex pattern of deeply diverse disciplines, very resistant to any idea of global reductionism--to the conclusion that there is one and only one kind of basic question...The wisdom celebrated here is something indeed that could never fully be dealt with by any one question or any one style of questioning...

...Science needs to remain human in that sense, to be self-aware of itself as human science, aware of incompleteness, aware of the joy of non-fulfillment. And at that level at least, science is bound to be operating with an image of humanity itself as a life form attuned to truth and to growth. Metaphysics, perhaps, or even worse, faith; and yet it's hard to see how the real life of the scientific enterprise can be sustained without that image of what is properly and joyfully and fulfillingly human. Recognized or not, the resonance of this with the life of faith is worth noting. Faith, our Christian faith, presupposes that we are indeed as human beings attuned to truth and to growth, made by a God whose love has designed us for joy, and discovering that this directedness towards joy mysteriously comes alive when we look into the living truth, the living wisdom, of the face of a Christ who drives us back again and again to question ourselves so that we stay alive.

A faith which can discover joy in penitence, self-questioning and growth is a faith which can reasonably (I use the word with forethought) hold out its hand to a science that is determined to be human. That kind of faith and that kind of science joined hands 350 years ago; and while at times the grip has somewhat slackened in the intervening period, I dare to hope in the name of eternal wisdom that we may yet join again in our search for the joys of being human, the joys of being wrong, the manifold wisdom in which we find life.

Bishop Andrewes' Chapel  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) was one of the academic and ecclesiastical superstars of his day. With connections to both Oxford and Cambridge, he successively served as bishop of Chichester, Ely, and Winchester. He chaired the committee of translators that produced the King James Version of the Bible. He was a favorite preacher of the king, who loved Andrewes' erudite sermons, replete with numerous quotations from the Fathers. Andrewes' spirituality and churchmanship had a strongly "catholic" sensibility, rooted as they were in patristics and the Sarum Rite of the late medieval English church. In an age when the typical Anglican service was Morning Prayer led by a priest in a surplice (and the Puritans objected violently even to this), Andrewes swam against the current by insisting on a weekly Eucharist celebrated with a fairly rich ceremonial. However, he could pull this off only in his private episcopal chapel.

Fortunately, historical documentation allows us to reconstruct what these semi-public liturgies were like. An excellent article by Andrewes scholar Marianne Dorman summarizes this data, giving us a picture of a bright spot in an otherwise dim liturgical landscape. The excerpt deals with the physical layout of the chapel; read the whole essay to see how he augmented the official Prayer Book in creatively catholic ways. And, no, I have no idea whatever what "tricanale" and "triquestral" mean.


The focal point was the altar, raised on a foot-board and adorned with its lavish frontal against the eastern wall...It was railed off from the rest of the chancel to denote it was sanctum Sanctorum. These rails served another purpose as Andrewes insisted that communicants kneel before the altar to receive the Sacrament. On the altar were two candlesticks with tapers, basin for the oblation, and a cushion of violet and crimson damask which matched the altar frontal, for the service book. When the Eucharist was celebrated a chalice, paten, and tricanale for mixing the wine with the water were also placed upon it, whilst on the credence table were the silver and gilt canister for the wafers like a wicker-basket and lined with cambric laced...On an additional small table in the sanctuary was place a "navicula" (ie boat-shaped vessel) from which frankincense is poured into a triquestral censer for censing at the appropriate places in the Liturgy. This censer hung in the chancel behind the lectern during the services to symbolize the offering of worship to God. In the center of the chancel on a pedestal was the lectern with its great Bible, and in front of it was a faldstool, that is, a small desk for praying the Litany. There were also seats for the bishop (his seat was canopied), the chaplain, for ordinands and two long benches for the family. On the eastern wall above the altar there was a...hanging depicting the story of Abraham and Melchizedek emphasizing no doubt both the blessing and sacrificial ministries of the latter. The pulpit also was richly covered with a matching cloth of crimson and violet damask.

Trinitarian Dance  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

It has been observed somewhere or other that it is impossible to preach about the Trinity for longer than fifteen minutes without falling into heresy. I have not timed Fr Matt Gunter's essay, which appears in full on Into the Expectation, but I am confident that heresy-hunters will be disappointed. Special greetings on this Trinity Sunday to all members of churches named after this puzzling yet vital dogma.


...before and beyond and within all creation God is a dance, God is a friendship dance. From all eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit dance the dance of love and truth and joy. God is a dynamic dance of mutual giving and receiving and delighting. As they sought language to point toward an understanding of God as Trinity, the early Christian theologians used the Greek word perichoresis, which means something like "they dance around together".

...The triune nature of God is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. But mystery is not the same as conundrum. Nor is it the result of a presumptuous desire to explain more than can be explained...[The Cappadocians of the 4th century] argued that all we can really know of God is what God has revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What God is beyond that is unknowable. We do not use trinitarian language for God out of presumption. It is just that, as Rowan Williams has said, "It is the least worst language for God we have".

...The doctrine of the Trinity is also good news because it means there is room for otherness. If there is "space" within God for the Son to be other than the Father, and the Spirit to be other than the Father and the Son, then there is space for us to be other than God. God makes space for creation and for us in it. Understanding God as Trinity means understanding God as involved in, but not overwhelming, everything. There is room for real freedom. We can celebrate our unity and diversity, not as a contemporary cliche', but as a reflection of what it means to be created in the image of God. God is one, but one in whom there is intimate otherness.

Irenaeus on Pentecost  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Irenaeus was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor. His dates are uncertain but he somehow migrated to Gaul, where he eventually became the bishop of Lyons. He is known mainly for his work Against Heresies (ca 180), in which he defends a fairly mature orthodox faith against Gnosticism and other "alternative" explanations of Christianity. The excerpt below, dealing with the theological interpretation of Pentecost, describes the action of the Holy Spirit using a moisture metaphor instead of the more customary wind image.


This is why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

Julian and the Motherhood of God  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) lived for many years as an anchoress or solitary in a church in Norwich, England. At the age of 30 she had fallen very ill and had experienced a series of visions, which she later recorded in Revelations of Divine Love (numerous editions), the first book in Middle English by a woman. Today being Julian's feastday as well as the day before Mothers' Day, we honor both with passages from her book describing God's love in strikingly maternal terms that are perhaps even more relevant today. They may be found here on the website of the Anglican Order of Julian of Norwich.


57. Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and never shall come to birth out of Him.

58. ...The Second Person of the Trinity is our Mother in human nature in our essential creation. In Him we are grounded and rooted, and He is our Mother in mercy by taking on our fleshliness. And thus our Mother is to us various kinds of actions (in Whom our parts are kept unseparated) for in our Mother Christ, we benefit and grow, and in mercy He redeems and restores us, and, by the virtue of His Passion and His death and resurrection, He ones us to our essence. In this way, our Mother works in mercy to all His children who are submissive and obedient to Him.

59. As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother...I understood three ways of looking at motherhood in God: the first is the creating of our human nature; the second is His taking of our human nature (and ther commences the Motherhood of grace); the third is motherhood of action (and in that is a great reaching outward, by the same grace, of length and breadth and of height and depth without end) and all is one love.

60. The mother can give her child such from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the Precious Food of true life. And with all the sweet Sacraments He supports us most mercifully and graciously.

Theosis in the Catholic Catechism  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Today being the third anniversary of this blog, I revisit the concept of theosis, which was the subject of our very first post. Theosis lies at the center of Eastern Christian theology and spirituality, but is by no means restricted to that tradition. In a very useful essay on the Jesuit site Ignatius Insight, Carl E Olson points out a number of places in which theosis is alluded to in Catechism of the Catholic Church (Doubleday 1994), the definitive statement of Roman Catholic dogmatic teaching.


460. The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature"(2Pet 1:4): "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God (Irenaeus)..."The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods" (Athanasius).

654. Justification...brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ's brethren...We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection.

1996. Our justification come from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.

2009. Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life" (Council of Trent). The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due...Our merits are God's gifts" (Augustine).

God in Creation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Slightly in advance of Earth Day, I share two writings dealing with the subject of God/Christ in the created world. The first is from a book by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Beginning of the Day. It comes from Fr Stephen's blog, which gets a well-deserved hat-tip. The other excerpt is from Ilia Delio's Christ in Evolution (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2008), pp 61-62. Delio is a Franciscan sister and professor of spirituality at Washington Theological Union. In this passage she refers to the work of the medieval Franciscan theologian St Bonaventure.



...recall with me how every part of the created order played a part in the story of Christ's life and death:
* a star appeared at his birth (Matt 2:9-10)
*an ox and ass stood beside his crib as he lay in swaddling clothes (cf Is 1:30)
* during the forty days of his temptation in the wilderness he was with the wild beasts (Mark 1:13)
* repeatedly he spoke of himself as a sheperd, and of his disciples as sheep (Lk 15:3-7; Matt 18:10-14; John 10:1-16)
* he likened his love for Jerusalem to the maternal love of a hen for her chicks (Matt:23-37)
* he taught that every sparrow is precious in the sight of God the Father (Matt 10:29)
* he illustrated his parables with references to the lillies (Matt 6: 28-30), to the mustard bush full of nesting birds (Mark 4:32), to a domestic animal that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day (Matt 12:11)
* he urged us to show reptilian subtlety and avian guilelessness; "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16)
* as Lord of creation he stilled the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walked upon water (Mark 6:45-51).

Most noteworthy of all, the created order in its entirety participated in the Savior's passion: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the whole cosmos shuddered (Matt 27:51).


In every creature, the first person of the Trinity is reflected as the power that holds the creature in being. The second person is reflected as the Wisdom or the Exemplar by which it is created. The third person is reflected as the goodness that will bring the creature to its consummation. The difference in these levels of of expression reflects the degree of similarity between the creature and creator. The trace (or vestige) is the most distant reflection of God and is found in all creatures. That is, every grain of sand, every star, every earthworm reflects the Trinity as its origin, its reason for existence, and the end to which it is destined. The image, however, is only found in intellectual (human) beings. It reflects the fact that the human person is created not only according to the image of the Trinity, but as image, the human person is capable of union with the divine. Bonaventure says that those humans conformed to God by grace bear a likeness to God. In his view, every creature is understood as an aspect of God's self-expression in the world, and since every creature has its foundation in the Word, each is equally close to God (although the mode of relationship differs). God is profoundly present to all things, and God is expressed in all things, so that each creature is a symbol and a sacrament of God's presence and Trinitarian life. The world is created as a means of God's self-revelation so that, like a mirror or footprint, it might lead us to love and praise the creator. We are created to read the book of creation so that we may know the Author of Life. This book of creation is an expression of who God is and is meant to lead humans to what it signifies, namely, the eternal Trinity of dynamic, self-diffusive love.


Posted by Joe Rawls

With the approach of Earth Day we turn our attention to how our contemplative practice intersects with the material world--not that we shouldn't be thinking of this constantly in any event. Today I revisited Dennis Patrick Slattery's Grace in the Desert (Jossey-Bass 2004), his account of a sabbatical visiting various monasteries and retreat houses. The first stop on his itinerary was the monastery of New Camaldoli, a Camaldolese Benedictine foundation near Big Sur, California. Having stayed there once, I can attest to the ease with which one can interact with the local flora and fauna. The part about the coyotes howling in response to the monastery bells is really true. The excerpts are found on pp 14, 16, 17, and 18.


...I noticed something astir in my little fence-enclosed backyard.

Two foxes lay lazily and with great familiarity beneath the gray weathered benches. They seemed to doze lightly as they gazed indifferently at me now standing by the back door. Their large and fluffed tails rivaled the size of their bodies. They lay very close together--apparently, like me, prepared to settle in for the night. I felt both delighted and honored that they had chosen my little hermitage green space to bed down in, and I felt strangely safer by their presence. I thought of these two foxes, which became permanent hermitage mates of mine during my week's stay, and thereafter I looked for them each night as I prepared to turn off the lights. Apparently they too enjoyed the arrangement, for they were present each day of my entire stay...

...Even this early, my monastic foxes, who lived just over the edge of the cliff but slept in my backyard, were already stirring. One of them peered, head bobbing and nose alert and twitching, through the back door to see if I was awake and perhaps even ready to feed them. The only nourishment they received from me was a silent salute each morning.

In their early friskiness they leaped onto the wooden fence and began their ritual promenade, back and forth, slowly gathering momentum, as if they literally wound themselves up in an accelerated dervish dance for the day's hunt. I knew they had been schooled by the order of life here and thus practiced a learned monkish patience. They did not press their claim for food too insistently...

The bell summoning us to Vigils suddenly sounded, cracking the monastery open to a new day. The coyotes in the mountains surrounding me on three sides and just behind the chapel responded with their own litany from the deep and brittle-dry forest thickets. They too waited to be called, if only to sing.

Patriarch's Paschal Proclamation  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople and world leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, issues a circular letter each Easter that is read in all Orthodox churches. Since Easter falls on the same day for both the Eastern and Western churches this year, we reproduce part of it (available in full here) below.


...Christ has risen from the tomb as divinely human and humanity has risen with him! The tyranny of death belongs to the past. The hopelessness of hades' captivity has irrevocably gone. The only powerful Giver of Life, having through His Incarnation voluntarily assumed all of the misfortune of our nature and all that it entails, namely death, has already "brought death to hades by the lightning of divinity", granting us life--and "life in abundance" (John 10:10).

...The devil assaults Life by means of the sinful tendency that exists within us like "old rust", using this to entrap us in either tangible sin or delusional belief. Hubris is the offspring of that "rust", while both comprise the sinister couple responsible for disrupting relationships within ourselves, with others, as well as with God and the whole creation. Accordingly, it is imperative that we purify ourselves of this rust with great attentiveness and carefulness in order that the profuse life-giving light of the Risen Christ may shine in our mind, soul and body, so that it may in turn dispel the darkness of hubris and pour the "abundance" of Life to all the world.

This cannot be achieved by philosophy, science, technology, art, or any ideology; it can only be achieved through faith in what God has condescended for us human beings through His Passion, Crucifixion and Burial, descending to the depths of hades and rising from the dead as the divine human Jesus Christ. It is also expressed in the sacramental life of the Church as well as through laborious and systematic spiritual struggle. The Church as the Body of Christ unceasingly and to the ages experiences the miracle of the Resurrection; through its sacred mysteries, its theology and its practical teachings, it offers us the possibility of participating in that miracle of sharing in the victory over death, of becoming children shaped by the light of the Resurrection and truly "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

The Mystery of Holy Saturday  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) was one of the most prominent Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century. He was made a cardinal by Pope John-Paul II but died two days before getting the red hat. In Mysterium Paschale he discusses what is meant by Jesus' "descent into hell" between his death and resurrection. A good summary can be found here in an article by John Webster of St John's College, Durham.


The fundamental category in von Balthasar's conception of the atonement is that of solidarity. In this he moves significantly beyond some of the more familiar classical models--Anselm's "satisfaction" theory, the "penal substitution" of the later Calvinist divines--although the roots of his thinking are arguably deep in the patristic writings. For him, the mystery of redemption is the demonstration in the death of Christ of God's solidarity with the sinner who seeks to estrange himself from God.

To expand this theme, von Balthasar focuses not only on the events of Good Friday and Easter Day, but also on Christ's descent into hell on Holy Saturday. One of the strangest impulses to develop along this direction came from his close collaboration with Adrienne von Speyr, a doctor who was converted under him and who was the subject of mystical experiences of participation in the paschal sufferings of Christ. Von Balthasar later wrote of her that she "possessed in a special way a charism of theological insight. To the central insights bestowed on her belong the mysteries of Holy Saturday and hence of hell and universal redemption as well"...From von Speyr's experiences and writings, von Balthasar has taken the motif of the descent into hell as expressing God's refusal to abandon those who abandon him. Because he shares hell with the sinner, the sinner's willful attempt to live and die without God is forestalled. Even in hell, God himself is present in the Son. "On Holy Saturday there is the descent of the dead Jesus to hell, that is...his solidarity...with those who have lost their way from God...In this finality (of death) the dead Son descends...He is...dead together with them. And exactly in that way he disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner who wants to be 'damned" apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God in the absolute weakness of love who...enters into solidarity with those damning themselves". However much the sinner may seek to put himself beyond God in "the complete loneliness of being-only-for-oneself, God himself enters into this very loneliness as someone who is ever more lonely...even what we call 'hell is, although it is the place of desolation, always still a christological place".