Holy Cross Monks on Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Anglican Order of the Holy Cross has published Holy Cross News 2011-2012 which is entirely dedicated to prayer, as seen from the perspective of several of the community's monks.    I include three excerpts.  Nicholas Radelmiller and  Andrew Colquhoun talk about how prayer affects them in very personal terms.  Adam McCoy presents a more scholarly essay aiming to reinterpret the spirituality of Evagrius Ponticus in contemporary terms.  (The newsletter is apparently unavailable online but can probably be obtained by contacting one of the monasteries).


Nicholas Radelmiller:  The Divine Office:  Food for the Soul
...A principal value is that [the Office] is not dependent upon my emotional state, desire to pray, nor often on my effort.  Instead it is a format or activity into which I insert myself on a regular basis and which supports me in prayer.  Sometimes I greatly look forward to praying the Office.  Other times I am not much interested.  Still the Divine Office happens, prayer is offered, and often it is a rich experience of God.  Sometimes it seems to be a kind of divine conversation in which I am invited to participate. 

...If, for some reason, I am away from the celebration of the Office I find I miss it.  Occasionally if I am in a bad mood it seems to take forever to get through one Office.  Occasionally an Office provides a vivid glimpse of glory.

The Divine Office is also known as the "Work of God" or "Opus Dei".  After some years I think it is called this because God does most of the work.  Benedict was so right when he said that nothing should be preferred to the work of God. 

Andrew Colquhoun:  Prayer Can Get Old
...Then I started getting old.  Prayer changed.  I thought I was in trouble with my faith but that wasn't so.  I believed and trusted more than I ever had.  I just found that formal ways of prayer were few and far between.  Things between me and God were more familiar than distant.  Praying has become quieter and without drama.

I remarked to someone that I had lost my passion.  She retorted that that seemed appropriate to her.  Passion in old age is less sweaty, more even.  I imagine myself on one side of the fireplace and God on the other.  Both of us sitting quietly, not having to say much but delighting in one another's presence, in love without drama.  It feels good!

I still love to pray the office.  I love lectio.  I have worn out rosaries.  And every now and then I lose it with God and act like the child I feel.  With great love, God waits for me to come back to the fire and the intimacy and I find the love has deepened.

Adam McCoy:  Evagrius and Me
...We do not believe in the four humors as a basis of understanding how the body and mind interact.  Rather, we have come to believe that the mind functions best when the body functions well.  We do not give the name "demon" to external mental forces, but we know they exist.  Advertising, propaganda, music and entertainment, reading and conversation all stimulate our desires and passions.  We recognize that our own thought need management, but we have very different understandings of how they work, through psychology and through understanding how the brain works.

So taking our understanding of what Evagrius was doing in his own time--giving his readers a complete program of body and mind management to lead them to the conversation with God--what might our own ascetical practices be?  How can we direct our bodies and minds to the goal of conversation with God?

For me the conclusion is clear.  I should get my body healthy and keep it that way.  Eating less and more healthily, exercising, reducing stress, living more simply, getting and implementing medical care when it is needed without becoming a hypochondriac, all serve this end and are spiritual practices.  I should learn more about my mental and psychological life, getting better at distinguishing reality from fantasy, learning how my mind customarily works and disciplining it to understand my past and my preoccupations so that they don't control me.  It also means choosing to control external activities and stimuli, reading, music, entertainment, personal interactions, and work (to the extent that I can) to help me in my goal of conversation with God, making time for God.

This is ascetic practice that makes sense to me.  I have the same goal that the desert fathers and Evagrius did:  conversation with God.  I have the same instruments they did:  my body, my mind and my spirit.  I have the same intention:  to bring them all into alignment with my goal.  But since physiology and psychology are different, the means to these goals will be from our era, not theirs.

Merton and the Beats  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's commemoration of Thomas Merton, I combine a longstanding interest in his life and writings with a slightly more recent preoccupation with the Beats.  The two had more in common than a superficial knowledge of either would suggest, as pointed out by Ron Dart in a perceptive essay on the site Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice. 


There is little doubt that the American Beats such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg were in search of a deeper and more meaningful way of knowing than the frantic and driven American work ethic.  This is why all of them turned to the contemplative East in search of a more nourishing way...

The Orient, particularly India and Japan, became meccas and sites of inspiration and wisdom for the American Beats that birthed the counter culture of the 1960's.  The interest in the East was, in principle, a quest for a deeper way of knowing the self and living a more contemplative, integrated, ecological and holistic life.  Merton had many an elective affinity with many of the American Beats and their subversive questioning of the American establishment and mainstream way of thinking.  Merton's definition of a monk was that of a person that was on the margins of power and privilege, and, in this sense, many of the counter culture were monks.  This more metaphorical  read of the monastic way placed Merton much more on the same trail as the Beats...

Many of the American Beats called into question both American foreign policy and much American domestic policy when the contemplative vision was translated into public action.  The politics of the Beats tended to be, for the most part, protest and advocacy politics...It was this anarchist tradition that held high social criticism and activism that Merton had some affinity with also.  The retreat to the country by many Beats had im portant points of convergence with the monastic tradition.

The American Beats...had three important things in common that Merton shared.  Both sought to return to the depths of the contemplative way, both sought to engage the hard questions of American injustice at a variety of levels, and both tended to resort to anarchist politics as a way of being political and prophetic...

Merton's attempt to think through and live forth the tensions of the contemplative-active had less in common with those in his Cistercian order such as Bernard of Clairvaux and his Abbot General, Gabriel Sortais, than with the insights of the American Beats and Roman Catholic anarchists.  Merton was a reformer within the monastic tradition...

Ambrosian Advent Hymn  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, is known for many things, not the least of which is his baptism of Augustine of Hippo.  But he is also known as the father of Western hymnody.  His musical motivations were not entirely artistic; Arianism was still a force to be reckoned with, and Ambrose's hymns are metrical poems expressing doctrinally orthodox themes set to popular tunes, some of which were marching songs of Roman legionaries.  One such is Veni Redemptor Gentium, "Come, Savior of the Nations", suitable for use during Advent.  A version appears as number 54 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, but this is really a paraphrase of an English translation of a German translation done by Luther.  The video contains the whole text in a very nice plainchant setting.  Below I include an English translation made by John Mason Neale, the great 19th century Anglican liturgist.


O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every eye in wonder fall;
such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no human will
but of the Spirit, Thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.

The Virgin's womb that burdened gained,
its virgin honor still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in  His temple dwells below.

Proceeding from His chamber free
that royal home of purity
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now His course to run.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light
where endless faith shall shine serene
and twilight never intervene.

All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
whose advent sets Thy people free,
whom, with the Father, we adore,
and Holy Ghost, for evermore.  Amen.

Cabasilas on Incarnation, Theosis, and Eucharist.  

Posted by Joe Rawls in , , ,

Nicholas Cabasilas (1322-ca 1391) was born in Thessaloniki.  He was a functionary at the imperial court, where he became a friend of Emperor John VI Cantacuzenos.  When John was faced with a palace coup, he abdicated and became a monk.  Nicholas followed him into the monastery and eventually succeeded his uncle as archbishop of Thessaloniki.  He was a strong supporter of Gregory Palamas in the latter's dispute with Barlaam of Calabria over the validity of hesychastic spirituality.  He wrote Exposition of the Divine Liturgy but is probably better known for The Life in Christ (St Vladimir's Seminary Press 1974).  In these works he stresses that the spiritual riches of hesychasm, nurtured in the monastic cloister, are accessible by ordinary Christians living "in the world". 

Of central importance is the notion that theosis, the process of attaining union with God, is greatly facilitated by frequent reception of the eucharistic bread and wine.  The following quote comes from The Life in Christ, pp 122-123.


Since it was not possible for us to ascend to Him and participate in that which is His, He came down to us and partook of that which is ours.  So perfectly has He coalesced with that which He has taken that He imparts Himself to us by giving us what He has assumed from us.  As we partake of His human Body and Blood we receive God Himself into our souls.  It is thus God's Body and Blood which we receive, His soul, mind, and will, no less than those of His humanity. 

It was necessary that the remedy for my weakness be God and become man, for were He God only He would not be united to us, for how could He become our feast?  On the other hand, if Christ were no more than what we are, his feast would have been ineffectual.  Now, however, since He is both at once, He is united to those who have the same nature as Himself and coalesces with us men.  By His divinity He is able to exalt and transcend our human nature and to transform it into Himself.  For when the greater powers are brought to bear upon the lesser they do not permit them to retain their own characteristics: when iron comes together with fire it retains nothing of the property of iron, when earth and water are thrown on fire they exchange their properties with those of fire.  If, then, of those which have similar powers the stronger thus affect the weaker, what must we think of His wonderfully great power?

It is clear, then, that Christ infuses Himself into us and mingles Himself with us.  He changes and transforms us into Himself, as a small drop of water is changed by being poured into an immense sea of ointment.  This ointment can do such great things to those who fall into it, that it not only makes us to be sweet-smelling and redolent thereof, but our whole state becomes the sweet-smelling savour of the perfume which was poured out for us, as it says, "for we are the sweet savour of Christ" (2 Cor 2:15).

Rehabbing Dogma  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Alister McGrath in The Science of God (Eerdmans 2004) devotes some space to salvaging the notion of theological dogma, which has gottten a justifiably bad rap in the West over the last four centuries or so.  Rather than a tool for inquisitorial repression, dogma is better seen as a way of setting generous definitions for the boundaries and content of Christianity.  It is a truism, but one needing constant reiteration, that communities with no boundaries and no content save the idiosyncratic  opinions of its members have little survival value.

The quotation is found on pp 188-190.


...I believe that Christianity cannot avoid theoretical reflection and formulation, however tentative.  Yet this is by no means universally accepted, and would be vigorously contended by some.  There continues to be resistance to the notion of a 'dogmatic' Christianity, reflecting unease about the very nature of 'dogma', as well as the idea of shutting down what ought to be an ongoing discussion...

There are a number of particularly important factors which create this sense of unease and distrust about doctrinally shaped approaches to Christianity.  Among these may be noted the lingering concerns about the relation between dogma and conflict, as in the European Wars of Religion and the fading impact of the 'History of Dogma' movement, which argued that theoretical developments within Christianity were something of an historical aberration, resulting from a malignant Greek influence on the development of Christianity as it expanded from Palestine into new geographical  territories.

I respond with three points in arguing for the inevitability of doctrine:

1.  The demand for an 'undogmatic' Christianity often seems to amount to little more than imposing a global embargo on critical reflection in matters of faith.  It represents a retreat from precisely the kind of intellectual engagement which makes Christian theology such a genuinely exciting and challenging discipline.  Instead of encouraging Christians to think about their faith, it represents a demand that they suspend use of their intellectual faculties in any matters to do with God, Christ, or human destiny.  Precisely because human beings think, they will wish to develop theories concerning the nature of God and Jesus Christ--whatever form those theories may take.

2.  Some use the term 'undogmatic Christianity' in a highly invidious manner, meaning something like "an understanding of Jesus Christ which is opposed to the official teachings of the Christian faith'.  Yet the ideas which are held to displace these are generally as dogmatic as their predecessors.  It is a new set of dogmas that is being proposed, not the elimination of dogma as such.  Theoretical statements, whether implicit or explicit, lie behind all reflection on the nature of God or Christ.  To pretend that they do not is to close one's eyes to the pervasive influence of theories in religion, which must be honestly addressed and acknowledged at every point.

3.  To demand an 'undogmatic' Christianity often involves confusion over the tone and substance of Christian doctrine.  'Dogmatic' can rightly be understood as meaning 'enclosed within a framework of theoretical or doctrinal beliefs', and in this sense, I must insist, reflects some integral themes of the Christian faith.  Yet the term can also bear the meaning of 'uncritical', 'unreflective', or 'authoritarian'--referring, in other words, to the tone of voice in which Christian theological affirmations are made, rather than to their substance.  I have no in terest in supporting shrill, strident, imperious and overbearing assertions of Christian doctrine, which demand silent unthinking compliance on the part of their audiences, and lead to conflict and tension.  Yet I remain convinced that such statements are necessary and legitimate, while insisting that they can and should be stated more graciously and humbly.

Praying Together Alone  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

In the American Episcopal Church, the Eucharist has largely supplanted the Daily Office as the liturgy of choice.  Many congregations omit the Office entirely as a form of public worship.  This is largely the case in my own parish, where Evening Prayer is sometimes a last-minute substitution when no priest is available to celebrate a weekday Eucharist.  The Office has become a form of private prayer, recited by relatively small numbers of people with a conscious commitment to spiritual practice.  This is obviously not an ideal situation, but probably inevitable given the liturgical history of the last 50 years or so.

Anglican priest Gary W Kriss stresses in this essay that even private recitation of the Office has a definite communal aspect, even if we must sometimes remind ourselves of it.  So it is not merely an exercise in spiritual introspection.  Click here for a handy on-line tutorial  in praying the Office.


A number of years ago, while I was on a sabbatical, I spent a week at St Alban's Cathedral in England...where the whole staff is actually expected to be present  [at Matins and Evensong].  The Dean...liked to say that we prayed the Office for ourselves and for those who did not.  When he spoke of those who did not pray the Office, he was not referring to people who were simply unable for some reason to pray it.  I am quite sure that he was referring to everyone who was not praying Morning Prayer, whoever and wherever they were.

From his perspective--and I think that this is the correct understanding of the intention behind the Book of Common Prayer--reading the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer is everyone's responsibility.  What the Prayer Book envisions is the whole company of Christian people praying the offices morning and evening, every day, either with others in church, or wherever they might gather, or even by ourselves.

Whether one does this with other people or alone, he or she is in fact praying the Office communally, because we are praying the same Office that everyone else is praying, even though we may be separated in space and even time.  The Office is part of "common prayer"--common prayer is not ordinary prayer, it is communal prayer, the prayer of everyone, the prayer, in fact, that everyone says together.  So even when we are alone, we are praying it with all of the other people who pray it.  And we do so not merely because we have promised to do so, not merely because it is a good thing to do.  Rather, we do it precisely because is is something that the whole Church is called to do.  In fact, when we pray the Office, the purpose is not our own personal spiritual growth and fulfillment.  It may be, indeed it should be, spiritually enriching in a personal way to keep this rule of prayer, but that is a peripheral benefit, and not at all the basic purpose.

A Note on Posts  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Effective with this month's posts, no new titles will be added to the inner sidebar's "Older Posts" section, which will,  however, remain up for your convenience.  Please consult the blog archive for more recent posts.  I am also adding labels to all the posts, allowing them to be accessed via the "Categories" section.

Catholic Anglicanism  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

The newly ordained Fr Robert Hendrickson is a curate at Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut.  He blogs at The Curate's Desk and in this post addresses the longstanding question of how one can simultaneously be Anglican and Catholic.  A tip of the biretta to Society of Catholic Priests.


At the parish I serve, we hear Confessions, offer daily Mass, believe strongly in the Real Presence, say the Daily Office, offer Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and hold Our Lady in high esteem. These are all integral parts of a Catholic faith that sustains this community. They point toward “the thing itself” which we hold dear – that we worship a living God that condescends to come among us.
We are also a parish that has women serving as priests, has long supported LGBT causes, supports a degree of freedom in matters of conscience such as birth control.
For some, this seems like a case of serious cognitive (or at least theological) dissonance. Yet this is the joy of Catholic Anglicanism. We balance holy tradition with reason and Scripture in such a way that the individual is neither left unmoored to their own devices (as with much of mainline Protestantism) nor denied the dignity of conscience (as with much of Romanism). This kind of Generous Orthodoxy, to purloin a term, is supported by the comprehensive underpinnings of a creedal theology and Prayer Book Catholicism.
Our first concern is “the thing itself.” This means that our worship and service are directed toward the Holy One. All that we have we offer in worship, praise, and thanksgiving. It also means that we trust in a competent God that can handle the many issues that divide the Church today.
I believe that Catholic Anglicanism offers the best of traditional Catholicism and also offers substantial and distinctive contributions to the life of the Church.

Gregory the Great on Angels  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Angels in popular culture, especially in New Age circles, have acquired an existence largely independent of established spiritual traditions.  Angels can be prayed to so as to receive spiritual or material benefits, and it is commonly thought that relatives or even household pets become angels after death.  A welcome corrective is provided by Pope Gregory I in one of his sermons (Hom. 34, 8-9:  PL 76, 1250-1251). 


You should be aware that the word "angel" denotes a function rather than a nature.  Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits.  They can only be called angels when they deliver some message.  Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels. 

And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary.  It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.

Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform.  In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known.  But personal names are assigned to some, not because they  could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us.  Thus, Michael means "Who is like God?"; Gabriel is "The Strength of God"; and Raphael is "God's Remedy".

Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power.  So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying:  I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High.  He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment.  Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John:  A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.

So too Gabriel, who is called God's strength, was sent to Mary.  He came to announce the One who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers.  Thus God's strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.

Raphael means, as I have said, God's remedy, for when he touched Tobit's eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness.  Thus, since he is to heal, he is rightly called God's remedy.

Lancelot Andrewes on Theosis and Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls in , ,

For today's commemoration of Bishop Andrewes we have a passage from a 1605 Christmas sermon preached before King James I.  It well illustrates Andrewes as a theologian with very deep catholic and patristic roots.  It can be found, along with much other useful information on Andrewes, on the Anglican Eucharistic Theology website, accessible under the "Anglicans" section of the outer sidebar.

For "the Word" He is, and in the word he is received by us.  But that is not the proper of this day, unless there be another joined unto it.  This day Verbum caro factum est, and so must be "apprehended" in both.  But specially in His flesh as this day giveth it, as this day would have us.  Now "the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body, of the flesh, of Jesus Christ?"  It is, surely, and by it and by nothing more are we made patakers of this blessed union.  A little before He said, because the children were partakers of flesh and blood, He also would take part with them--may we not say the same?  Because he hath so done, taken ours of us, we also ensuing His steps will participate with Him and with His flesh which He hath taken of us.  It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might "dwell in us and we in Him".

Begging for Mercy in the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church.  A convert from Anglicanism, she is in a good position to explain Orthodox spiritual practices to Western Christians.  In The Jesus Prayer:  the ancient desert prayer that tunes the heart to God (Paraclete Press 2009), she gives a wealth of advice on how we may incorporate this prayer into our own spiritual practice.  Pp 80-82 deal with the objections some beginners--or even more experienced folks--might have with the notion of beseeching Jesus for mercy ("Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me").  As the excerpt below demonstrates, it all depends on how we interpret the word "mercy".


People newly introduced to the Jesus Prayer often think:  Why should we continually beg God for mercy?  Can't we be certain that he has already forgiven us?  What, do we have to grovel?

The problem, I think, is that we are imagining a prisoner in court, begging the judge for mercy.  It is up to the judge whether to kill this man or free him, and she is justifiably angry.  His only hope is to squirm and plead, and beg her to be lenient.

Picture instead the man in Jesus' parable (Lk 10:  30-37) who was robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho, then left for dead.  His helplessness was so extreme that he was not even able to ask passersby for mercy, and the priest and scribe passed by on the other side of the road.  Yet, the Samaritan saw him and had compassion, and rescued him from death.

That's the kind of "mercy" the Jesus Prayer asks for.  We are not trying to get off the hook for a crime, but recognizing how the infection of sin has damaged us.  Revealing all the extent of our illness to the heavenly physician, we seek his compassionate healing.

The word in Hebrew is hesed, which has the sense of long-suffering love.  The prophet Hosea married a woman who was a prostitute.  Though she betrayed him many times, he kept seeking her and drawing her back again to himself.  This is hesed love, long-suffering love, a love that is valiant and breaks through the walls of self-love and pride.

In Greek, the word is eleos, and many of the Western liturgical churches still pray in Greek, "Kyrie, eleison," that is, "Lord, have mercy."

A listener in the ancient church would have heard a resonance between eleos and elaion, the word for olive oil.  Your experience with olive oil might be limited to salads, but in the ancient Mediterranean world, olive oil was used in a wide variety of ways, and filled essential roles.  A wick placed in a clay lamp filled with olive oil could burn and illuminate the darkness.  Medicinal herbs were combined with olive oil for healing; the Good Samaritan "bound up [the beaten man's] wounds, pouring on oil and wine" (the latter for the antiseptic quality of alcohol).  Olive oil would also be a medium for fragrant herbs in the making of perfume.  And of course it would be eaten; in a region where there were few sources of fat, olive oil provided essential nutrition.  Sufficient fat in the diet conferred a health glow, and the psalmist thanks God for giving "wine to gladden the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine" (Ps 104:  15).  This poetic echo between eleos and elaion contributed to a richer sense of "mercy" than we perceive in English.

I would guess that the majority of Christians I talk to don't particularly feel a need for mercy.  They might think of repentance as an initial step toward salvation, but that once you have become a follower of Jesus Christ, once you're baptized and going regularly to church, you're set for life.  There's still plenty of work to do, of course--work for the poor, for justice, for the church, for your family--but as far as you go, personally, you're pretty much done.

In the contemporary West, repentance is now considered an introductory activity to life in Christ (if it's considered at all); in the East, repentance lasts for a lifetime.  Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, and we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and to be healed at ever deeper levels.

New Format Update  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Well, I cleaned up the "Previous Posts" cluttering the background by deleting all of them.  They will reappear under the title "Older Posts".  While this is happening, the old posts can be found in the blog archive.  Thanks again for your patience.

Everything Old is New Again  

Posted by Joe Rawls

I've just switched to a new template.  I've wanted to go to a 3-column format for a long time because the old sidebar was getting unmanageable.  Now the "Previous Posts" section has faded into the background, literally.  Any hints as to how to get it back in the right format will be most welcome.  I'll be tweaking the new format over the next few days; your patience is much appreciated.

Lossky on the Transfiguration  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958) was one of the leading Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century.  For today's feast of the Transfiguration we offer an excerpt from his The Meaning of Icons (Co-author Leonid Ouspensky, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1983).  The icon referred to and reproduced to the right is of the 15th century Novgorod school.

The quote is found on pp 209-212.

What is it that the three disciples were able to contemplate when they saw the face of Christ "shine as the sun" and His rainment "white as the light" when a  "bright cloud overshadowed them " (Matt 17:2, 5)?  According to St Gregory of Nazianzus this light was the Divinity manifested to the disciples on the mountain.  St John Damascene, speaking of this "splendor of the Divine nature", of this "a-temporal glory", observes that the comparison made by the Evangelists with the light of the sun remains quite inadequate, for uncreated reality cannot be expressed by a created image.  The matter in question, then, is the vision of God and it is evident why, from St Irenaeus of Lyon to Philaret of Moscow, the theme of the Transfiguration  of Christ has never ceased to feed the thought of the Fathers and theologians of the Church...St Gregory Palamas (died 1359), in defending the traditional teaching on the Lord's Transfiguration against the attacks of certain rationalist theologians, well understood how to give full value to the importance of this evangelical event for Christian dogma and spirituality.  "God is called Light", he said, "not according to His Essence, but according to His energy".  The light which illuminated the Apostles was not something sensible, but on the other hand it is equally false to see in it an intelligible reality, which would be called "light" only metaphorically.  The Divine Light is neither material nor spiritual, for it transcends the order of the created, it is "the ineffable splendor of the one nature in three hypostases"...

Christ appeared to the disciples, not in kenotic form, as  "servant", but in the "form of God", as an Hypostasis of the Trinity Who, in His Incarnation, remains inseparable from His Divine nature, which is common to the Father and the Holy Spirit...

Christ transfigured is represented standing on the summit of the mountain, speaking with Moses ans Elias.  His rainment is shining white.  The geometrical figure inscribed in the circle of the mandorla must represent the "bright cloud" which revealed the transcendant source of the Divine energies.  The three rays pointed down upon the apostles are an indication that the action of the Transfiguration is trinitarian...Moses (on the right) in our icon is holding a book; generally it is the tables of the Decalogue--Elias (on the left) is an old man with long hair...Moses represents the dead, whilst Elias, taken up to heaven on a chariot of fire, represents the living...This [interpretation] is comprehensible; it underlies  the eschatological  character of the Transfiguration.  Christ appears as the Lord of the quick and the dead, coming in the glory of the future age.  The Transfiguration was "an anticipation of His glorious Second Coming", says St Basil:  the moment which opened a perspective of eternity in time.

Rublev's Circle of Love  

Posted by Joe Rawls in , ,

English Anglican Ann Persson is the author of The Circle of Love:  Praying with Rublev's Icon of the Trinity (Bible Reading Fellowship 2010).  She gave a talk based on the book at St Paul's Cathedral, London, which is well worth a listen.  Of particular interest is her emphasis towards the end on the empty space at the table, which is an invitation to the viewer to join in the life of the Trinity.

Eucharist and Creed  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Anglican priest Ralph McMichael is director of the Center for the Eucharist in St Louis, Missouri.  He is the author of Eucharist:  A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark International 2010).  This is an excellent overview of eucharistic practice and theology from a very catholic and sacramental perspective.  Chapter 5 analyses the sequence of actions that comprise the eucharistic celebration (in the Western church), including the significance of the congregational recitation of the Nicene Creed.

The excerpt is found on pp 115-116.

Two types of confession characterize the Eucharistic life.  The first type is associated with the recitation of the Nicene Creed, and the second type is associated with the confession of sins...One type of confession is the act of adhering to a statement or set of beliefs preceding  the confessors.  There are statements of belief, truth, and meaning that one recites as a way of submitting to them.  Confession is not a sharing of opinion, and the corporate act of confession is not an aggregate of opinion.  In fact, agreement with content is not the essence of the confession; it is not an expression of what we think.  It is to submit to the boundaries of belief so that one might learn to live in this new territory.  The content becomes the subject of thought; we are to wrestle with what is said.  The Creed, and whole Eucharist, is the way that we are incorporated into the mind of Christ, which exists as the ecclesial Body of Christ.  The development of Creeds began in a Christian regula fidei, a rule or a way to regulate the faith.  Faith as that which is believed, in contrast to faith by which one believes, is not an amorphous entity requiring our agreement to keep it afloat.  Faith is a regulation of Christian life; it keeps us heading the right way.  The recitation of the Nicene Creed in the Eucharist is directed forward and is not a bit of nostalgia for the old days of certainty.  The Creed is our way to communion...

The common faith recited and received in the Eucharist requires commitment but not consensus.  A theme present in each dimension of the Eucharistic life is that communion is received by the offering self, the offering assembly, and is not an achievement of proper order and thought.  We do not achieve, possess, or produce communion, but we do submit faithfully to its life and demands.  Confessing a common faith is a visible manifestation of a gathering of persons for the purpose of sharing a life given to them.  These gathered, confessing, persons will keep meeting each other within this faithful act, a place to encounter confessors from previous ages and other Eucharistic celebrations within this common faith.

Benedict on Humility in Christ  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

For today's feast of St Benedict we turn to the monk-scholar Terrence Kardong, a member of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota.  In The Benedictines (Michael Glazier, 1988), he provides a good overview of Benedict and his monastic heritage.  The twelve steps of humility outlined in Chapter 7 of the Rule are crucial to Benedictine spirituality yet are too easily misunderstood in contemporary society.  Kardong ties in what Benedict has to say about humility with the important concept of kenosis, Jesus' self-emptying in assuming human nature.

The excerpt is found on pp 86-88.

We have not even mentioned the name of Jesus in our discussion thus far, but he is not absent from Benedict's treatise on humility.  Far from it; steps three and four are concerned precisely with Christ's own humility...

The reference is to the kenosis of Jesus, his willingness to enter fully into the human condition, even to the point of voluntary death as a consequence of serving the kingdom of his heavenly Father.  The monk is asked to enter into Jesus' pattern of self-gift, with the promise that the ultimate reward will be spiritual fulfillment, indeed, communion with God.

Whether Benedict meant the example of Christ to serve as the center of his chapter on humility is debatable...Nevertheless, it seems vitally important that the humility of Jesus be maintained as the heart of monastic humility.

Too often monastic self-discipline is presented without adequate reference to its New Testament basis.  Even the great theorists of ascetical theology, such as Evagrius of Pontus, have a tendency to put too much stress on the human element, and not enough on divine grace and its embodiment in Jesus.  In doing this, they seem to verify what the Protestant Reformers suspected all along:  that Catholicism, and especially monasticism, is really a religion of works and not of faith.

It can also be shown historically that apart from the person of Christ and his salvific cross, suffering is easily distorted in the Christian scheme of things.  The example of the early martyrs is instructive; they instinctively attached themselves to the sufferings of Christ and were able to endure with patience in the knowledge that the Lord was intimately united to them in their hour of affliction.  Apart from this Christ-connection, martyrdom could lapse into mere stubbornness, defiance, masochism, and even suicide.

Likewise, Christian, monastic humility that is rooted in anything other than Christian self-gift often turns into self-pity and even worse.  It is all too easy for certain personalities to wallow in self-contempt, thinking all the while that they are truly humble.  Such people often turn out to be anything but selfless once they are confronted with difficulties that are not of their own fabrication.  The cross we fashion for ourselves has nothing to do with true humility...

To turn again to the figure of Christ, we should note the true context of his suffering and death:  it was not the purpose of the heavenly Father that his Son die on the cross, nor did the Son live in order to die at the hands of murderers...The purpose and goal of  Christ's whole life was to make present and operative the Father's love for the world.  Suffering and death came because the forces of evil could not let this happen unchallenged.  Christian faith says hatred did not overcome love:  instead, Jesus' resurrection transformed the cross into a tree of glory.

The Benedictine monk, like any other follower of Jesus, is called to tread this path.  The path is not primarily the way of the cross but the way of love.  That seems to be a much less demanding way, but in fact it turns out to be the very same; once we set out earnestly  to love as Jesus loved, we discover quickly why he was crucified.  The difference is that his enemies are by and large within.

Irenaeus on the Trinity  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Irenaeus (d ca 202) was a native of Smyrna in Asia Minor.  He was a follower of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John the Evangelist.  At some point he migrated to Gaul, where he eventually became bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyons).  He is best known for Adversus Haereses (Against Hersies), in which he defends a nacent orthodox faith against Gnosticism and other theological rivals.

Since his feastday falls today and we have recently celebrated Trinity Sunday, it is appropriate to hear what he had to say on trinitarian doctrine.  The excerpt following is from Alister E McGrath (ed), The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed, Blackwell 2001, pp 174-175.


This is the rule of our faith, the foundation of the building, and what gives support to our behavior.

God the Father uncreated, who is uncontained, invisible, one God, creator of the universe; this is the first article of our faith.  And the second is:

The Word of God, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who appeared to the prophets according to their way of prophesying, and according to the dispensation of the Father.  Through him all things were created.  Furthermore, in the fullness of time, in order to gather all things to himself, he became a human being amongst human beings, capable of being seen and touched, to destroy death, bring life, and restore fellowship between God and humanity.  And the third article is:

The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and our forebears learned of God and the righteous were led in the paths of justice, and who, in the fullness of time, was poured out in a new way on our human nature in order to renew humanity throughout the entire world in the sight of God.

Chittister on Benedictine Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Joan Chittister (b 1936) is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, and is one of the leading spiritual writers of our day.  In her new book The Monastery of the Heart:  an Invitation to a Meaningful Life (BlueBridge 2011) she talks about Benedictine prayer as an underpinning for real life, not an esoteric spiritual relic.  A hat-tip to National Catholic Reporter.


Benedictine prayer,
the heartbeat of Benedictine spirituality,
is always about
the presence of God in time--
this time, our time, my time.

Benedictine prayer is not mindless repetition
of endless formulas.
It is about the immersion in the mind of God
that living the God-life requires
if we are to be faithful to it
all our living days.

Prayer restores the soul
that is dry and dulled
by years of trying
to create a world
that never completely comes.

It heals the wounds of the day
and reminds us who we want to be
at the deepest, truest part of us.

Prayer lightens the load.
It gives fresh direction and new energy.
It fixes the eyes of the soul
on the real ends of life,
when the real goals of real time
seem unattainable.

It feeds the streams
of silence and sacred reading,
public and private prayer,
that are the pulse
of Benedictine life.

Benedictine prayer is steeped
in the psalms--
the cry of the poor throughout time.

It immerses us in the fullness of the scriptures
and their history of salvation.

It fills us with the Gospel accounts
of the life and message of Jesus.

As regular as the movement of the clock,
Benedictine prayer becomes for us
the pulse of the day,
the rihythm  of a life that might otherwise
be caught in the drumbeat
of ambition or profit or self-centeredness.

Prayer is the sustaining force
of a Monastery of the Heart
in a demanding world.

Prayer in the Benedictine tradition,
and so in a Monastery of the Heart,
springs from the reflection and soul-wrestling
that brings us to the bar of our deepest selves,
seeking forgiveness, pleading for strength.

It is said in concert
with monastics of the heart everywhere,
with those for whom care for the soul
and care for the world
are always equal concerns.

In a Monastery of the Heart,
we do not pray merely to pray.

We pray to become
more a sign of the mind of God today
than we were yesterday.

The Benedictine prays
to put on the mind of God
more and more
and forever more.

Ascension and the Sanctification of Matter  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

We honor today's feast of the Ascension with an excerpt from The Incarnate God, by John V Taylor (Continuum 2003).  Taylor was the Anglican bishop of Winchester and a rather atypical evangelical theologian.  A hat-tip to Episcopal Cafe.


So that he might fill the universe the Christ was emptied to the last drop of self.  But in his ascended glory he remains man.  Dare we believe that?  If incarnation did something to God, ascension did something to matter.  This was the culmination of the stupendous process we call creation.  The God who went to such infinite pains in the making and development of electronic systems, molecules, and chemicals, metal, rocks and living cells, structured forms and responsive nerves, did not at the final stage abandon matter; he liberated it.

The ascension of Christ promises the transfiguration of matter, its divinization, as the Orthodox Churches have never ceased to teach.  The physical will glow with God like metal enveloped and permeated by fire.  "The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).  That is the end to which we aspire.  And the way is the way of descent, the way of the death of self, again and again, the way of the broken bread shared with all, of the scarred hands that hold the world.

Ramsey on Anglican Theology  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974.  He was also a distinguished Anglican theologian.  His article "What is Anglican Theology?", published in the January 1945 issue of  Theology is perhaps even more relevant now, in light of the ongoing fracturing of the Anglican Communion.  A hat-tip to the site Full Homely Divinity.


The method, use and direction characteristic of Anglican divinity first came into clear light in the writings of Hooker.  His theology claimed to do both far less and far more than the theologies of Calvin, of Luther, and of Trent.  It did less in that it eschewed any attempts to offer a complete scheme of Biblical doctrine, or an experiential assurance of justification, or an infallible system of dogma.  It did more in that it appealed to a larger field of authority and dealt with the whole man rather than with certain parts of him.  For it appealed to Scripture, tradition and reason:  "the Spirit everywhere in the scripture...laboreth to confirm us in the things which we believe by things whereof we have sensible knowledge".  And it dealt with the whole man, both by its reverence for his reason and his conscience and by its refusal to draw a circle around the inward personal element in religion and to separate it from the world of external things.  It was congruous with all this that the Incarnation, with the doctrine of the Two Natures, was central, and that the Church and the Sacraments were closely linked with the Incarnation.  The claim of this theology to be "Catholic" rested not only upon its affinity with antiquity but upon the true "wholeness" of its authorities and of its treatment of man and his need.  It offered him not only justification in his inward self but the sanctification of his whole being through sharing in the divine life.

The method, use and direction seen in Hooker persisted.  Amid many diversities of emphasis there can be traced in Anglican divinity an appeal to Scripture which refuses to treat Scripture as a self-contained law or to select the doctrine of justification by faith as the essence of the Gospel, and insists instead that Scripture needs interpreting with the aid of the tradition of the Church as the witness and keeper of holy writ.  And with the appeal to Scripture on these lines there is linked both the study of the ancient Fathers and a reverence for reason and conscience such as commands authority while eschewing infallibilism.  In the centuries between Hooker and today the different elements in the Anglican unity have have often "gone apart".  High-churchmen, valuing tradition but missing the more  dynamic aspect of the Word in the Scriptures, have sometimes been led into a "traditionalism".  Evangelicals, holding the Bible in high esteem but divorcing it from the living tradition of the Church, have sometimes been led into a "scripturalism".  Broad-churchmen, reverencing reason but missing the significance of certain aspects of Scripture and tradition, have sometimes been led into a sort of "rationalism".  In each case there has been a tearing asunder of things which in the Anglican vocation are bound together--the Gospel,  the Catholic Church, sound learning.  Yet the underlying unity, often strained and never to be defined, has not perished.

Myrrh-bearing Witnesses  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

In the Eastern Orthodox calendar today is the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women.   Several women disciples of Jesus came to his tomb to properly anoint the body, which had been hastily sealed up so as not to violate the sabbath.  In first-century Palestine this was women's work.  However, they became the earliest witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, which was definitely not women's work.  In the ancient world women were almost universally considered too flighty and prone to hysteria to be trusted as witnesses.  This issue is addressed by NT Wright in his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress 2003), who paradoxically advances it as proof for the historicity of the resurrection.  The excerpt is found on pp 607-608.


Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material, and did so some time into the late 60s at the earliest, it will not do to have him, or anyone else at that stage, making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it.  The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt:  women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses.  We may regret it, but this is how the Jewish world (and most others) worked.  The debate between Origin and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction?  If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding reliable male witnesses being first at the tomb, they would have done it.  That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both.  Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy?

...It is easy to imagine that, when a tradition was established for use in preaching to outsiders, stories of women running to the tomb in the half-light would quietly be dropped, and a list produced of solid witnesses who could be called upon to vouch for what they had seen.  It is not easy at all--in fact, I suggest, it is virtually impossible--to imagine a solid and well-established tradition, such as that in 1 Corinthians 15, feeling itself in need of some extra stiffening  in the first place, or, if such a need was felt (why?), coming up with a scatter of women on a dark spring morning.  The stories may all have written down late in the first century...But we must affirm that the story they tell is one which goes back behind Paul, back to the very early period, before anyone had time to think, "It would be good to tell stories about Jesus rising from the dead; what will best serve apologetic needs?'  It is far, far easier to assume that the women were there at the beginning, just as, three days earlier, they had been there at the end.

Resurrection in Judaism and Christianity  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Resurrection as a concept is not a Christian invention; it entered Judaism during the post-Exile period (cf the Book of Daniel) and by the time of Jesus it was widespread among Jews.  Not uniformly, however, since some factions like the Pharisees embraced the notion enthusiastically, while the Sadducees, strict adherents of the Pentateuch, rejected it.   NT Wright in a recent article points out seven ways in which the resurrection view of the earliest Christian community differed from that of its Jewish matrix.


  1. There is virtually no spectrum of belief on this subject within early Christianity.  The early Christians came from many strands within Judaism and from widely differing backgrounds within paganism...Christianity looks, to this extent, like a variety of Pharisaic Judaism.
  2. In Second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important...But in early Christianity resurrection has moved from the circumference to the center...
  3. In Judaism it is usually left vague as to what sort of a body the resurrected will possess...But from the start the early Christians believed that the resurrection body, though it would certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object, would be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, would have new properties.  That is what Paul means by the "spiritual body".
  4. ...The resurrection, as an event, has split into two...the resurrection itself has happened to one person in the middle of history, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of his people at the end of history.
  5. ...The early Christians believed...that God had called them to work with him...to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.
  6. ...In the Old Testament "resurrection" functions...as a metaphor for return from exile [Ezekiel 37]...in the New Testament resurrection is used [metaphorically] in relation to baptism and holiness...though without affecting the concrete referent of a future resurrection itself.
  7. No one in Judaism had expected the Messiah to die, and therefore nobody had imagined the Messiah rising from the dead...It is impossible to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection.

Victory in Christ  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Macrina Walker of A Vow of Conversation has very helpfully  transcribed a talk by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on "Salvation in Christ".  Ware summarizes the various theological interpretations of just how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus "save" us.  The excerpt below deals with Jesus as the victor over sin and death.


Here Christ's work of salvation is seen as a cosmic battle between good and evil, between light and darkness.  Dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Christ is victor over sin, death, and the devil.  this victory is summed up in the last word that he spoke on the cross, tetelestai (Jn 19:30) which is usually translated "It is finished".  But this is not to be seen as a cry of resignation or despair.  Christ is not just saying, "It's all over.  This is the end", but he is affirming, "It is accomplished.  It is fulfilled.  It is completed"...

The Father who particularly uses the idea of victory is St Irenaeus of Lyons at the end of the second century.  If you want to see the idea of victory lived out, then think above all of the Paschal Midnight service, with its constant refrain, Christos anesti ek nekron, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death"...

...when Christ says "it is finished", the Evangelist intends us to think back to what was said four chapters earlier, "Having loved his own, he loved them to the end", eis telos.  From this we understand exactly what is finished on the cross, what is fulfilled:  it is the victory of love.  Despite all the suffering, physical and mental, inflicted on him, Jesus goes on loving humankind; his love is not changed into hatred.  We are to see the victory then as not a military victory but as the victory of suffering love, unchanging love, love without limits.  As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth said, "the Christian God is great enough to be humble".  And that's what we see above all in his victory on the cross.  God is never so strong as when he is most weak.

Passover and Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Since Passover falls during Holy Week this year, it is most appropriate to consider possible connections between the Passover seder and the Christian Eucharist.  (And even if the Last Supper did  not take place during a seder, as some New Testament scholars maintain, Passover was definitely in the air.)

A worthy effort in this direction is Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Roman Catholic scholar Brant Pitre (Doubleday 2011).  Pitre documents parallels between the Eucharist and a number of Jewish concepts such as messianism, Exodus, manna, the Bread of the Presence, and the paschal lamb.  What Jesus and his followers did was not to discard the seder but to reinterpret it in a radically new way.  Examples are found on pp 70-74.


...the Last Supper was also different--radically different--from an ordinary Passover meal.  Any ancient Jew, including the apostles, could easily have seen this.  For one thing, most Passovers were celebrated within families, with the father leading and acting as head.  At the Last Supper, by contrast, Jesus acted as host and leader of the Twelve, even though he was not the father of any of the disciples.  Even more, at an ordinary Passover, the focus was on God's covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, and the entry into the promised land of Canaan.  Yet Jesus spoke instead of the "new covenant", prophesied by Jeremiah to be fulfilled in the age of salvation...Perhaps most significant, at an ordinary Jewish Passover, the entire liturgy revolved around the body and blood of the sacrificial Passover lamb.  First, the lamb would be slaughtered, and the priests in the Temple would pour out the blood of the lamb on the altar.  Then the Jews would bring the body of the lamb from the Temple to the Passover meal, and the father would explain its meaning at the meal.  Yet at the Last Supper, Jesus did something entirely different.  With his words of explanation, he shifted the focus away from the body and blood of the Passover lamb (of which there is no mention), and turned it toward his own body and blood.

... Along the same lines, before the Temple was destroyed, the climax of the Passover sacrifice was the pouring out of the Lamb's blood by the priests in the temple...[Jesus calls the Passover wine "my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many".]...When we compare Jesus' actions to these ancient Jewis traditions, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out his point.  By means of his words over the bread and wine of the Last Supper, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms, "I am the new Passover lamb of the new exodus.  This is the Passover of the Messiah, and I am the new sacrifice".

Why the Creed Matters  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Theologian Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University in The Creed:  what Christians believe and why it matters  (Doubleday 2003)  takes on the issue of the Nicene Creed and its seeming intellectual incoherence to many--both inside and outside the Church--whose worldviews are informed largely by the assumptions of post-Enlightenment modernism.  An excerpt can be found here on the Beliefnet site.


For Modernity, belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure.  Creeds involve faith, and faith  makes statements about reality that can't  be tested.  Everyone knows that statements can be true only when they don't really say anything about the world or when they have been empirically tested.  Creeds are therefore structures of fantasy.  One cannot be both a believer and a critical thinker...To be authentic, people must own each statement they make passionately and personally, and must accept nothing on the basis of outside authority...

My aim is to make the creed controversial for those Christians who say it but do not understand it and therefore do not grasp what a radical and offensive act they perform when they declare these words every week in a public assembly.  In other words, I want to make the creed more controversial rather than less controversial for the right reasons rather than the wrong reasons.

I think that the Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity.  There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility.  At the same time, it communicates a compelling vision of the world's destiny and humanity's role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom.  Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them and what they are saying when they mean them.  This is the precondition to celebrating a specifically Christian conception of reality, and the presupposition for their challenging the dominant conceptions of the world.

Olivier Clement on the Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Olivier Clement (1921-2009) was a French Orthodox lay theologian. He was born in Aniane, an ancient town in the Languedoc that was a center of Cathar activity during the Middle Ages. Long before that it was the home of Benedict of Aniane, a monk who helped reform western monasticism during the reign of Charlemagne. Given these roots, it was perhaps inevitable that his life would turn towards spirituality despite the religious indifference of his parents. After taking a degree in comparative religion from the University of Montpellier, he moved to Paris where he obtained a position in a secondary school. There he came into contact with the Eastern Orthodox community, many of whom were White Russian refugees. He underwent Orthodox baptism at the age of 30 and eventually wrote approximately 30 books, as well as teaching part-time at the Institute St Serge, an Orthodox theological school. Click here for more information on his life.

One of his books, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press 1993) is a gold mine of information on the subject. Excerpts from the Fathers on a wide variety of topics are interspersed with his own incisive commentary. His remarks on the Eucharist quoted below are found on pp 107-109.


The Fathers never ceased repeating these stupendous assertions of Jesus--Jesus is the "bread of heaven", the "bread of life"--the Risen One gives himself fully to us in the Eucharist which is thus resurrection food. Jesus is bread because his body is composed of the whole life of the cosmos kneaded together by human labor. He is also "living bread", life-giving bread, because in him the divine life permeates the earth and the human race. The Eucharist is therefore a real power of resurrection, the "leaven of immortality" as Ignatius of Antioch says. Certainly, it needs to be received in faith, and there needs to be an encounter within which the transmission of divine energy may take place, but its power is "objective", and independent of our attitude towards it. Our attitude can only encourage (or restrict) the spread of the eucharistic fire through our soul and body...

The eucharistic body is that of the historical Jesus as well as that of the risen Christ. It is the body of the Child of the crib, the body that endured the suffering on the cross--for the bread is "broken", the blood "poured out"--the body that is risen and glorified. The term "body' covers the whole human nature. For God's human nature since the resurrection and the ascension encompasses the world and secretly transfigures it. However, Jesus' historical body, while allowing itself in the foolishness of love to be contained in a point of space and a brief moment of time, in reality already contained space and time in itself. For it was not the body of a fallen individual, crushing human nature in order to take possession of it. It was the body of a divine Person assuming that nature, with the whole universe, in order to offer them up. Incarnate, the Logos remained the subject of the logoi, the spiritual essences, of all created beings.

At the same time God-made-man had to accept into himself all our finiteness, our whole condition of separation and death, in order to fill it all with his light.

It is this deified humanity, this deified creation, this transfigured bread and wine, this body bathed in glory yet bearing forever the wounds of the Passion, that the Eucharist communicates to us.

Eucharist and Ecology  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

The ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan provokes, among other things, reflection on the relationship between Christian theology and ecological concerns. Is the material world a kind of metaphysical waiting room we inhabit until it's time to go to heaven, or is there a deeper connection between heaven and earth? A decisive no to this question is provided by Denis Edwards, an Australian Roman Catholic theologian, in Ecology at the Heart of Faith (Orbis Books 2006). Edwards engages with environmental issues from a standpoint of firm creedal orthodoxy. On pp 103-104 he integrates the material cosmos with that most distinctive mark of Christian identity, the celebration of the Eucharist.


The Christ we encounter in the Eucharist is the risen one, the one in whom all things were created and in whom all are reconciled (Col 1: 15-20). God's eternal wisdom and plan for the fullness of time is "to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph 1: 10). Even when, in the Eucharist, the focus of the memorial is on Christ's death and resurrection, this is not a memory that takes us away from creation. On the contrary, it involves us directly with creation. It connects us to Earth and all its creatures.

When we remember Christ's death, we remember a creature of our universe, part of the interconnected evolutionary history of our planet, freely handing his whole bodily and personal existence into the mystery of a loving God. When we remember the resurrection, we remember part of our universe and part of our evolutionary history being taken up in the Spirit into
god. This is the beginning of the transformation of the whole creation in Christ. As Rahner [German Jesuit theologian] says, this resurrection of Jesus is not only the promise but the beginning of the glorification and divinization of the whole of reality.

The Eucharist is the symbol and the sacrament of the risen Christ who is the beginning of the transfiguration of all creatures in God. In eating and drinking at this table we participate in the risen Christ (1 Cor 10: 16-17). Bread and wine are the sacraments of the Christ who is at work in creation. According to Christian faith, what is symbolized is wonderfully made present. And what is made present is Christ in the power of resurrection, as not only the promise but also the beginning of the transformation of all things. Every Eucharist is both sign and agent of the transforming work of the risen Christ in the whole of creation.

...Because the Word is made flesh, no part of the physical universe is untouched. All matter is transformed in Christ: "Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate". Because of this, Earth, the solar system, and the whole universe become the place for encounter with the risen Christ: "Now, Lord, through the consecration of the world the luminosity and fragrance which suffuse the universe can take on for me the liniaments of a body and a face--in you" (quoting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe).

The Eucharist is an effective prayer for the transformation of the universe in Christ. It p;oints toward and anticipates the divinization of the universe in Christ. The one we encounter sacramentally in the Eucharist is the one in whom all things were created and in whom all will be transfigured. Human action, which is an expression of love and respect for the living creatures, the atmosphere, the seas, and the land of our planet, can be seen as not only in continuity with, but also in some way part of, the work of the Eucharistic Christ. Willfully contributing to the destruction of species, or to pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, must be seen as a denial of Christ. It is a denial of the meaning of all that we celebrate when we gather for the Eucharist.

The Anglican Great Litany  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Today being the First Sunday of Lent, many Anglican churches begin the liturgy with the Great Litany, often chanted in a procession winding about the worship space. Litanies are an ancient part of Christian worship, and remain of central importance in the various Eastern rites. The Great Litany was the first specifically Anglican form of public worship, being written by Archbishop Cranmer in 1544 and predating the first Book of Common Prayer, which was published in 1549. The always-outstanding Chantblog site contains this informative post, a bit of which I reproduce below. It also has several videos of both the Anglican and Orthodox versions of the Litany. To get some idea of a full-blown liturgical rendering of the Litany, check out the customary of Boston's Church of the Advent.


It was used as early as the fifth century in Rome. It was led by a deacon, with the collects led by a bishop or priest. The Litany was the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. It was first published in 1544. Cranmer modified an earlier litany form by consolidating certain groups of petitions into single prayers with responses. The Litany's use in church processions was ordered by Henry VIII when England was at war with Scotland and France. It was printed as an appendix to the eucharist in the 1549 BCP. The Litany was used in each of the three ordination rites of the 1550 ordinal, with a special petition and concluding collect. The 1552 BCP called for use of the Litany after the fixed collects of Morning Prayer on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The 1928 BCP allowed the Litany to be used after the fixed collects of Morning or Evening Prayer, or before the Eucharist, or separately. The 1928 BCP included a short Litany for Ordinations as an alternative to the Litany. The 1979 BCP titled the Litany "The Great Litany" (p. 148), distinguishing it from other litanies in the Prayer Book.

Underhill on Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

This year marks the centennial of the publication of Evelyn Underhill's magnum opus Mysticism. It has held up remarkably well and Underhill's work remains the subject of much scholarly and popular interest. To honor the book's 100th birthday I have culled a few quotes on theosis (which she calls by its synonym deification) from chapter 10. Two striking things about this material are her use of metaphors drawn from alchemy to describe deification, and also the fact that almost all the mystics referred to are western Christians, proving that theosis is not some parochial notion limited to Eastern Orthodox monks.

The complete text of the book may be found here in an online version.


The mystic, I think, would acquiesce in these [psychological] descriptions, so far as they go: but he would probably translate them into his own words and gloss them with an explanation which is beyond the power and province of psychology. He would say that his long-sought correspondence with Transcendental Reality, his union with God, has now been finally established: that his self, though intact, is wholly penetrated--as a sponge by the sea--by the Ocean of Life and Love to which he attained. "I live, yet not I but God in me". He is conscious that he is now at length cleansed of the last stains of separation, and has become, in a mysterious manner, "that which he beholds."

...In the image of the alchemists, the Fire of Love has done its work: the mystic Mercury of the Wise--that little hidden treasure, that scrap of reality within him--has utterly transmuted the salt and sulphur of his mind and his sense. Even the white stone of illumination, once so dearly cherished, he has resigned to the crucible. Now, the great work is accomplished, the last imperfection is gone, and he finds within himself the "Noble Tincture"--the gold of spiritual humanity.

We have said that the mystic of the impersonal type--the seeker of a Transcendent Absolute--tends to describe the consummation of his quest in the language of deification. The Unitive Life necessarily means for him, as for all who attain it, something which infinitely transcends the sum total of its symptoms: something which normal men cannot hope to understand. In it he declares that he "partakes directly of the Divine Nature", enjoys the fruition of reality. Since we "only behold that which we are", the doctrine of deification results naturally and logically from this claim.

...Whilst the more clear-sighted are careful to qualify it in a sense which excludes pantheistic interpretations, and rebuts the accusation that extreme mystics preach the annihilation of the self and regard themselves as co-equal with the Deity, they leave us in no doubt that it answers to a definite and normal experience of many souls who attain high levels of spiritual vitality. Its terms are chiefly used by those mystics by whom Reality is apprehended as a state or place rather than a Person: and who have adopted, in describing the earlier stages of their journey to God, such symbols as those of rebirth or transmutation.

...The first thing which emerges from these reports, and from the choice of symbols which we find in them, is that the great mystics are anxious above all things to establish and force on us the truth that by deification they intend no arrogant claim to identification with God, but as it were a transfusion of their selves by His Self: an entrance upon a new order of life, so high and so harmonious with Reality that it can only be called divine. Over and over again they assure us that personality is not lost, but made more real. "When," says St Augustine, "I shall cleave to Thee with all my being, then shall I in nothing have pain and labour; and my life shall be a real life, being wholly full of Thee". "My life shall be a real life" because it is "full of Thee". The achievement of reality, and deification, are then one and the same thing: necessarily so, since we know that only the divine is the real.

Luther and Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Lutheran theology rests mainly on the concept of justification by faith, with "justification" understood in juridical terms and "faith" conceptualized more as an act of the will rather than an experience of the mystical heart. Theosis, the notion of intimate union with God so characteristic of Eastern Christianity, is generally not the first thing that pops into one's head when hearing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God".

However, Lutheran scholars in Finland have over the past few decades reevaluated their theological corpus. Aided by an ongoing dialog with the Russian Orthodox Church--Finland was ruled by Russia for over a century and has its own indigenous Orthodox church--Lutheran theologians such as Tuomo Manermaa and Simo Puera have taken a fresh look at the former Augustinian monk and have uncovered consistent references to theosis in his voluminous writings. Their work is summarized by Jonathan Linman in an essay appearing in Partakers of the Divine Nature: the history and development of deification in the Christian traditions (eds Michael J Christensen and Jeffery A Wittung, Baker Academic 2007). The article (on pp 189-199) contains several quotes from Luther's writings which I reproduce below.


Just as the word of God became flesh, so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so that man may become God. Thus power becomes powerless so that weakness may become powerful. [1514 Christmas sermon]

We should not doubt at all that whenever one is being baptized the heavens are assuredly open and the entire Trinity is present and through its own presence sanctifies and blesses the person being baptized. [The Freedom of a Christian]

Christ appointed these two forms of bread and wine, rather than any other, as a further indication of the very union and fellowship which is in this sacrament. For there is no more intimate, deep, and indivisible union than the union of the food with him who is fed. For the food enters into and is assimilated by his very nature and becomes one substance with the person who is fed. Other unions, achieved by such things as nails, glue, cords, and the like, do not make one indivisible substance of the objects joined together. Thus in the sacrament we become united with Christ, and are made one body with all the saints, so that Christ cares for us and acts on our behalf.

What's Really Important?  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Around this time of year many Episcopal parishes, my own included, are having their annual meetings. Vestries are elected, budgets are adopted, committee reports are submitted. There is a great and probably unavoidable preoccupation with numbers--average Sunday attendance, baptisms, the size of the budget (and whether it is bigger or smaller than last year's).

Weighing in with a different view on this whole process is Fr Michael Marsh, the rector of St Philip's Episcopal church in Uvalde, Texas. In this post on his always-interesting blog Interrupting the Silence, he argues that, while numbers are not trivial, they must take second place to the community's spiritual growth.


...The business model of profit and loss has in many ways infiltrated the church...Sometimes the gospel truth is spoken softly, if at all, to avoid angering parishioners and losing attendance or pledges. The reality is, numbers matter. While most priests and bishops would probably agree that numbers do not tell the complete story, the underlying and often unspoken assumption is that the larger the numbers, the more successful the ministry. The numbers may be growing but are the people growing? Isn't that the real question? Perhaps we should be asking what theosis, union with Christ, looks like in the parish and how is it manifested in the lives of our parishioners? ...Simple numerical analysis of Sunday attendance and giving, though significant, is not the ultimate indicator of growth. The critical question is not how much money was collected or how many people showed up, but rather, how effectively did we transform and effect lives...Such evidence might be found in asking the following:

  • How is your life of prayer? What is it like today? How has it changed over the last year, five years?
  • What is your participation in the sacraments and worship, both quantitatively and qualitatively? Is your experience different now than it was three years ago? How?
  • Describe your study of scripture, theology, spirituality. What are you reading? What are you learning?...
  • How are you involved in outreach and social justice ministries? How has this changed? Where and how is compassion being expressed and manifested?...
  • Where in your life is reconciliation taking place?

Baptism and Kenosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

The Baptism of Jesus, which is liturgically commemorated today in the Western churches, can be interpreted in several ways: as a theophany, or manifestation of God (and a fully Trinitarian manifestation at that); as Jesus' institution of the sacrament of Baptism; as Jesus setting a good example for his followers; as proof that Jesus started out as a disciple of John the Baptist (this latter sometimes gets overblown by liberal theologians).

Another interpretation of the baptism is that it was an act of divine kenosis, or self-emptying. Fr Mariusz Majewski, a Roman Catholic priest serving in the diocese of Boise, Idaho, takes this tack in a post on his blog Talks about God.

Kenosis is the general idea that God accepts some limitations on his divine powers and attributes in order to more fully unite in love with his creation. It is a recurring theme in Anglican theology, closely linked to interpretations of the incarnation of God in Jesus, his resurrection from the dead, and his atonement for sin.


In the mystery of the Incarnation, of God becoming flesh, one of us in all things but sin, we touch and experience the very mystery of God. St Paul, speaking about that in his letter to the Philippians, says that Jesus "though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness...he humbled himself (Philippians 2:6-8). God's humility...Paul speaks here of the "kenosis" of God, of the humbling of God, who for our sake was willing to come down to our dirt, to become flesh in order to save us from the power of death. In another place St Paul says that Christ became "sin" for us. God comes down in Jesus Christ and lowers himself to the point of accepting our human nature in order to heal it.

...The first public deed of Jesus' ministry is not some magnificent deed, some miraculous deed, but a simple baptism! Jesus does that in order to show us that his mission was to take upon himself all of our sins in order to save us from them.

This is precisely the irony, the surprise of the story--that the first move, the first public deed of the sinless Son of God is to stand shoulder to shoulder with us who are sinners. This is the core of the revolutionary message of Christianity--that God comes down to us to be with us, that God is Emmanuel. God, the creator of heaven and earth, the supreme God, the most holy God, the powerful deity, is a God of love, a God who is interested in the lot of his creatures, a God who is willing to go to the extreme in order to save what he had created.

The Baptism of Jesus is the very first act of the drama of Jesus' public ministry. The drama that will end with the Pascal Mystery--the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is indeed surprising because God is surprising. It is indeed shocking, but isn't the Incarnation shocking as well? Isn't Jesus on the cross shocking? God identifies with us so much that he "appears" among us as a sinner in the person of Jesus. The Sinless One takes upon himself human sin. If this isn't shocking, I don't know what is!

Mystical Tofu  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A highly recommended overview of mysticism is Carl McColman's The Big Book of Christian Mysticism (Hampton Roads Publishing Co, 2010), which will benefit both spiritual novices and folks with a more deeply established contemplative practice. One of many gems is his comparison of mysticism to tofu. Tofu absorbs the flavor of whatever is cooked with it; by itself it is quite bland and uninteresting. So we really never have "pure" mysticism, but mysticism flavored by whatever religious tradition happens to be nurturing it. This is a good corrective to the hackneyed--and thoroughly erroneous--notion of "spiritual but not religious".

The excerpt is found on pp 60-61 of the book. Also recommended is McColman's site Anamchara which is blogrolled on this site.


Mysticism is, in fact, like tofu. When you cook with tofu, it has a fascinating tendency to adopt the flavor of whatever you cook with it. Scrambled tofu, tofu curry, even barbecued tofu (yes, I'm from the South) all taste more like scrambled eggs or curry or barbecue than like tofu. Likewise, mysticism thoroughly and completely adopts the flavor and identity of whatever wisdom tradition it inhabits. Thus, Christian mysticism has an entirely different cultural and religious identity from, say, Vedanta or Zen.

Granted, tofu is tofu, regardless of the recipe you use it in. Mysticism is mysticism, regardless of the religious or cultural context. So in that sense, there really is an important unity of mystical wisdom that crosses religious boundaries. But if you've ever eaten plain, uncooked tofu, you'll notice that it is rather bland. If tofu's strength lies in its ability to adapt to whatever is it's cooked in, its weakness lies in its lack of defining taste or texture of its own. Likewise, a "pure" mysticism might sound nice in theory--an experience of unity or ecstasy, unencumbered by religious dogma--but in practice, the beauty of mysticism rests in how it manifests unity in a distinct, particular way.

So Christian mysticism is more than just pure mysticism with a little bit of Jesus mixed in. It is actually a unique, distinctive, and beautiful expression of God's love and truth. Conservative Christians believe it is the only expression of such truth, and even more liberal Christians might insist that they think it is the best possible way to God. But even if you do not see Christianity as any better (or worse) than any other wisdom tradition, I hope you'll recognize that Christian mysticism cannot just be reduced to other kinds of mysticism. There are important ways in which the Christian mystery is unique among world religions.

This is why any serious exploration of of Christian mysticism has to look at the nuts and bolts of the Christian religion in order to do justice to the topic. Indeed, immersing yourself in the world of Christian mysticism means something far beyond just learning to meditate: Christian mysticism explores meditation through a relationship with the Holy Trinity. This doesn't mean that it is all about thinking Christian thoughts, however. Rather, it means exploring a way of life that is shaped by the love and wisdom of Christ and Christ's followers, who Christian mystics understand to be literally part of Christ.

Take the Trinity and the Incarnation, for example--central teachings of Christianity that remain mysteries, which means they transcend and defy logical comprehension. No one can truly explore the splendor of Christian mysticism without embracing these great Christian mysteries. There's no way to avoid it. The mystery of a God who became flesh, or of a God whose very nature consists of loving relationships, is at the heart of what is distinctive about the Christian path.