Rowan Williams' Final Christmas Message  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For his final Christmas reflection as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams speaks on the Prologue of St John's Gospel.

Cyril of Jerusalem on Advent  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Now that Advent has officially begun--with first Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent--we have St Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) reminding us that Advent is not about shopping or even the birth of a baby into a destitute family two millenia ago.  Advent is in fact a very eschatological season; we will pick  up on this if we pay reasonably close attention to even the Sunday scripture readings.  The first coming of Jesus in the flesh prefigures his glorified second coming, when we and the entire cosmos will also be transfigured into glory.  The excerpts below are taken from his Catechetical Lectures.


We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first.  The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom.

In general, what relates to our Lord Jesus Christ has two aspects.  There is a birth from God before the ages, and a birth from a virgin at the fullness of time.  There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.

At the first coming, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.  At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment.  In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels.  We look then beyond the first coming and await the second.  At the first coming we said:  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  At the second we shall say it again; we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration:  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Elder Aimilianos on the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Archimandrite Aimilianos (Vafeidis), born 1934, was for many years abbot of the monastery of Simonopetra on Mt Athos.  He is one of the leading spiritual fathers in the Orthodox world.  His insights into the Jesus Prayer, the underpinning of Athonite spirituality, are expressed in the following essay translated by John Sanidopoulos, owner of the excellent Mystagogy blog.


The prayer of Mount Athos, who does not recognize it?  It is comprised of one small phrase, of measured words.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

With the loud cry Lord, we glorify God, His glorious majesty, the King of Israel, the Creator of visible and invisible creation, Whom Seraphim and Cherubim tremble before.

With the sweet invocation and summons Jesus, we witness that Christ is present, our Savior, and we gratefully thank Him, because He has prepared for us life eternal.

With the third word Christ, we theologically confess that Christ is the Son of God and God.  No man saved us, nor angel, but Jesus Christ, the true God.

There follows the intimate petition have mercy, and we venerate and entreat that God would be propitious, fulfilling our salvation's demands, the desires and needs of our hearts.

That on me, what range it has!  It is not only myself, it is everyone admitted to citizenship in the state of Christ, in the holy Church; it is all those who are members of the body of the Bridegroom.

And finally, so that our prayer be full of life, we close with the word a sinner, confessing--since we are all sinners--as all the Saints confess and become through this sound sons of light and of the day.

Through this we understand, that this prayer involves:
and Confession.

Samuel Seabury on the Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Episcopal Church is "episcopal" due in large part to the initiative of Samuel Seabury (1729-1796).  A rather unlike candidate for the first bishop of an independent Anglican church in the United States, Seabury was not only a committed Loyalist during the American Revolutionary war, but he also served as the chaplain of a Loyalist regiment under British command in New York City.  After the American victory he made his peace with the new regime and served a parish in Connecticut. 

There had never been an Anglican bishop in any of the colonies prior to the war.  The Church of England parishes were administered, often rather loosely, by the Bishop of London.  With independence, this already-bad situation was completely untenable.  A group of Connecticut rectors met and nominated Seabury as their bishop.  He agreed to travel to England to seek episcopal consecration.

Despite his impeccable Loyalist credentials, he was unable to be consecrated in England.  The hands of the English bishops were tied because they were forbidden by law to consecrate anyone who could not swear allegiance to the king.  As a foreign citizen, Seabury was incapable of doing this.  He then traveled to Scotland, where he had better luck with the Scottish Episcopal Church.  This church had separated from the Church of England about 100 years earlier when its bishops refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary after the deposition of James II.  The Scottish Episcopal Church, small, marginalized, and largely despised by the Scottish mainstream, was nonetheless free of government control and was strongly "Catholic" in its sacramental theology and ecclesiology.  It agreed to Seabury's consecration if he would try to influence the development of an American prayer book so that it would be similar to the Scottish book (itself largely unchanged from the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer).

And so, on November 14, 1784, Seabury was consecrated, in a room over a bank in Aberdeen, by the Bishop of Aberdeen, the Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen, and the Bishop of Moray, Ross, and Caithness.  Upon his return to America he was in fact able to influence the development of the first American prayer book in a Scottish direction (among other things, the Eucharistic prayer had an epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine, which was lacking in the 1662 book).  Seabury's high-church tendencies are further evident in the quote below taken from his essay An Earnest Persuasive to Frequent Communion.  I am indebted for this to the Anglican Centrist site. 


The general practice in this country is to have monthly Communions, and I bless God the Holy Ordinance is so often administered.  Yet when I consider its importance, both on account of the positive command of Christ and of the many and great benefits we receive from it, I cannot but regret that it does not make it a part of every Sunday's solemnity.  That it was the principal part of the daily worship of the primitive Christians all the early accounts inform us.  And it seems probable from the Acts of the Apostles that the Christians came together in their religious meetings chiefly for its celebration (Acts 2:  42, 46; 20:  7).  And the ancient writers generally interpret the petition in our Lord's prayer, "Give us this day", or day by day, "our daily bread", of the spiritual food in the Holy Eucharist.  Why daily nourishment should not be as necessary to our souls as to our bodies no good reason can be given.

If the Holy Communion was steadily administered whenever there is an Epistle and Gospel appointed, which seems to have been the original intention--or was it on every Sunday--I cannot help thinking that it would revive the esteem and reverence Christians once had for it, and would show its good effects in their lives and conversations.  I hope the time will come when this pious and Christian practice may be renewed.  And whenever it shall please God to inspire the hearts of Communicants of any congregation with a wish to have it renewed, I flatter myself they will find a ready disposition in their minister to forward their pious desire.

In the meantime, let me beseech you to make good use of the opportunities you have; and let nothing but real necessity keep you from the heavenly banquet when you have it in your power to partake of it.


Stillness is Not a Threat  

Posted by Joe Rawls

An Episcopal priest of my acquaintance--whom I actually respect a great deal--once went to a monastic retreat house planning to stay for a week.  She left after two days because she could not deal with the silence.  And the monastery was not a Trappist place located in the middle of nowhere. 

Greek Orthodox deacon and theologian John Chryssavgis has some insightful things to say about silence, stillness, and related matters in his essay "Solitude, Silence, and Stillness:  Light from the Palestinian Desert."  It is the final chapter in the excellent and highly-recommended The Philokalia:  a classic text of Orthodox spirituality, ed Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, Oxford, 2012, pp 262-276.  The Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual texts compiled over two centuries ago by two monks of Mt Athos.  It pretty much underpins all contemporary Orthodox spiritual writing, and in the past few decades it has come to the attention of ever-increasing numbers of Western Christians.  It is, however, a difficult read and the above book is an invaluable introduction.


Nevertheless, stillness is not merely something frightening; it is, above all, something sacred.  Stillness is closely associated with the desire for "life in abundance" (Jn 10:  10), beyond "mere survival".  Most of us tend to deny the relation between death and stillness by entering a whirl of activity that makes death either improbable or else impossible.  Stillness is like waiting respectfully and reverently.  It is a renewing sense of anticipation, an overture to heavenly resurrection.  In stillness, we are aware of being alive, and not dead--of having needs and temptations and of being able to face and embrace these without turning elsewhere.  In  stillness we are not empty; we are not alone; we are not afraid.  "In stillness we know that God is" (Ps 46:  11)--an experience that may occur in a split instant or develop over an entire lifetime.

Finally, stillness introduces an apophatic element to the way of intimacy and love.  This is why Gregory of Sinai claims:  "Stillness requires above with all one's heart and strength and might".  Citing Isaac the Syrian, Peter of Damascus links "the state of stillness" with "freedom from discursive thought."  In this regard, silence and stillness become greater than love itself.  In the Philokalia, Thalassius the Libyan closely links "stillness and intense longing for God."  Indeed, through stillness comes the refreshing suggestion of approaching God and others by "not knowing" them.  If we are fixed to our preconceptions about God or our fears of people, then we may never enjoy perfect stillness.  When we "know" someone, we have already shut our eyes to that person's constant process of change and growth.  We limit ourselves by rooting others only in the past and not rejoicing in their potential.  In the isolation of solitude, we can risk being who we are; in the echo of silence, we can risk facing the other person as he is; and in the intimacy of stillness, we can embrace the other person in his entirety, in his eternal dimension--beyond what we can ever comprehend, tolerate, or merely find useful.  For, then, we are--to adopt the phrase of Nicephoros the Monk--"wounded by love."

Franciscan Avian Homiletics  

Posted by Joe Rawls

It has been the fate of Francis of Assisi, whom we commemorate today, to end up as the ornament in innumerable bird-baths.  There is of course much more substance to him than that, but even this banality is a sign of the near-universal love he inspires, a love transcending time, culture, and even religious bickering.  As the church makes a genuine if belated effort to address our ongoing ecological crisis, Francis stands out as a primary stimulus to a theology of the environment, both by his words and his deeds. 

An iconic moment of Francis' life--made literally so by Giotto--was the time he preached to a flock of birds.  Close interaction between contemplative humans and animals is by no means rare in Christian spirituality--the example of Seraphim of Sarov feeding the bears near his forest hermitage leaps to mind--but Francis talking to birds is probably what many people think of when his name is mentioned.  I think it would be helpful to look at the origins of this legend.  It is found in the writings of Thomas of Celano, one of Francis' brother friars.  An English version is in Regis J Armstrong, OFM Cap, et al, The Francis Trilogy of Thomas of Celano (Hyde Park, New City Press, 2004).  It and other animal stories can be found here, quite appropriately on the site of the American Humane Society. 


One time as [Francis] was passing through the Spoleto valley, he came upon a place near Bevagna, in which a great multitude of birds of various kinds has assembled.  When the holy one of God saw them, because of the outstanding love of the Creator with which he loved all creatures, he ran swiftly to the place.  He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason.  As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic. 

Meanwhile his joy and wonder increased as he carefully admonished them to listen to the Word of God.  "My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love him always.  He clothed you with feathers and gave you wings for flying.  Among all His creatures He made you free and gave you the purity of the air.  You neither sow nor reap; He nevertheless governs you without your least care."

At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way.  They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him.  They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.  On returning to the brothers he began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.  From that day on, he carefully exhorted birds and beasts and even insensible creatures to praise and love the Creator.

Angelic Choirs  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In popular culture angels have a high potential for banality.  They provide visual motifs for sappy birthday cards and even sappier sympathy cards.  It is commonly thought that dead people as well as dead pets undergo a post-mortem transformation into angels.  Sometimes angels show up in movies or television shows as non-judgemental life coaches. 

For today's feast of St Michael and All Angels, I would like to share a bit of authentic traditional teaching on angels.  The Celestial Hierarchy is part of the corpus attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius, dating probably to the late 5th/early 6th centuries.  The Dionysian works were among the few Greek texts to become known--via Latin translation--in the early medieval Western church.  The Celestial Hierarchy is the source of the notion that angels are not undifferentiated but rather organized into nine distinct classes or "choirs".  Readers of this blog will be interested to learn that Dionysius considered angels to be contemplatives, "...because they are full of a superior light beyond any knowledge and because they are filled with a transcendent  and triply luminous contemplation of the one who is the cause and the source of all beauty."

The above quote as well as the following descriptions of the angelic choirs are taken from Colm Luibheid (tr) Pseudo-Dionysius:  the complete works (Paulist Press 1987), pp 161-173.


The holy name "seraphim" means  "fire-makers", that is to say, "carriers of warmth"...a perennial circling around the divine things, penetrating warmth, the overflowing heat of a movement which never falters and never fails...It means also the power to purify by means of the lightning flash and the flame.

The name cherubim signifies the power to know and to see God, to receive the greatest gifts of his light, to contemplate the divine splendor in primordial power, to be filled with the gifts that bring wisdom and to share these generously with subordinates as a part of the beneficent outpouring of wisdom.

The title of the most sublime and exalted thrones conveys that in them there is a transcendence over every earthly defect, as shown by their upward-bearing toward the ultimate heights...and forever in the presence of him who is truly the most high...

The revealing name "dominions" signifies...a lifting up which is free, unfettered by earthly tendencies...It rejects empty appearances,  returns  completely to the true Lord, and shares as far as it can in that everlasting and divine source of all dominion.

As for the holy "powers", the title refers to a kind of masculine and unshakable courage in all its godlike activities.  It is a courage which abandons all laziness and softness during the reception of the divine enlightenments granted to it, and is powerfully uplifted to imitate God.

...they are so placed that they can receive God in a harmonious and unconfused way and indicate the ordered nature of the celestial and intellectual authority.

The term "heavenly principalities" refers to those who possess a godlike and princely hegemony, with a sacred order most suited to princely powers...

[This order] communes with the most holy principalities and with the holy angels...Its relationship with the angels is due to their shared order as interpreters of those divine enlightenments mediated by the first powers.  It generously announces these to the angels and through them to us insofar as we are capable of being sacredly enlightened.

For being closer to us, they, more appropriately than the previous ones, are named "angels" insofar as their hierarchy is more concerned with revelation and is closer to the world.

Hildegard and Veriditas  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A frequently-used term in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, whose feast we celebrate today, is veriditas.  Literally meaning "greenness" in Latin, it occurs in a number of contexts and the precise translation is a matter of some scholarly debate.  Jeanette Jones points out in this article that veriditas first shows up in the writings of Gregory the Great (specifically Moralia in Iob) with which Hildegard would have been familiar. 


...the word veriditas symbolizes an important concept of relating to God and to creation.  Creation is the metaphor for how the Christian flourishes.  As God created and sustains the earth, so He creates the "new life" of the Christian and causes this life to flourish.  Veriditas is a picture of this particular kind of thriving, one that is created and preserved by God...Both occasions of veriditas in the opening of Hildegard's  Liber divinorum operum are in a context of the union of God with creation, from the fields to the human being.  They paint a picture of the blessing and the life that results from communion with God...

...the word veriditas has a meaning with respect to a Christian's spiritual life that goes beyond mere references to life, fecundity, or freshness.  Veriditas implies a particular understanding of the nature of creation and the sovereignty of God.

Clement on Essence, Energies, and Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement (1921-2009) in his The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press 1993) succinctly ties together the Eastern Christian concepts of  divine essence, divine energies, and the process of theosis or divinization.  The quote is found on pp 237-238.


The Fathers distinguish here, without in any way separating them, the inaccessible essence of God and the energy (or energies) by means of which his essence is made inexhaustibly capable of being shared in.  It is a distinction that is inherent in the reality of the divine Persons and it points, on the one hand, to their secret nature and, on the other hand, to the communication of their love and their life.  The essence does not imply a depth greater than the Trinity; it means the depth in the Trinity, the depth that cannot be objectivized, of personal existence in communion.  The inaccessibility of the essence means that God reveals himself of his own free will by grace, by a "folly of love" (St Maximus's expression).  God in his nearness remains transcendent.  He is hidden, not as if in forbidden darkness, but by the very intensity of his light.  It is only God's inaccessibility that allows the positive space for the development of love through which communion is renewed.  God overcomes otherness in himself without dissolving it and that is the mystery of the Trinity in Unity.  He overcomes it in his relations with us, again without dissolving it, and that is the distinction-identity of the reality and the energies.  "God is altogether shared and altogether unshareable", as Dionysius the Aeropagite and Maximus the Confessor say.  The energy is the expansion of the Trinitarian love.  It associates us with the perichoresis of the divine Persons.

God as inaccessible essence--transcendent, always beyond our reach. 

God as energy capable of being shared in--God incarnate, crucified, descended  into hell, risen from the dead and raising us up, that is, enabling us to share in his life, even from the starting point of our own enclosed hell--God always within our reach.

The energy--or energies--can therefore be considered from two complementary standpoints.  On the one hand is life, glory, the numberless divine Names that radiate eternally from the essence.  From all eternity God lives and reigns in glory.  And the waves of his power permeate the universe from the moment of its creation, bestowing on it its translucent beauty, masked partially by the fall.  At the same time, however, the energy or energies that create and maintain the universe, and then enable it to enter potentially into the realm of the Spirit, and to be offered the risen life.  All these operations therefore are summed up in Jesus, the name that means "God saves", "God frees", "God sets at liberty".  In his person humanity and all creation are "authenticated", "spiritulalized", "vivified", since, as St Paul saves, "in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells  bodily" (Col 2: 9).  The energy as divine activity ensures our share in the energy as divine life, since what God gives us is himself.  The energy is not an impersonal emanation nor is it a part of God.  It is that life that comes from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.  It is that life that flows from the whole being of Jesus, from his pierced side, from his empty tomb.  It is that power that is God giving himself entirely while remaining entirely above and beyond creatures.

Jeremy Taylor on the Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) lived during one of the most crucial periods in Anglican history.  Educated at Oxford, he enjoyed the patronage of Archbishop Laud, who gave him a fellowship at All Souls College as well as an appointment as royal chaplain.  As can be imagined, these royalist ties did him little good when Cromwell came to power, and after several stints in jail he spent most of the years of the Protectorate in semi-seclusion, as tutor to the children of a Welsh nobleman.  He took advantage of this time to produce most of his theological writings, which assure him a place within the pantheon of the "Caroline Divines".  His fortunes took an upswing with the restoration of Charles II, who named him bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore in Ireland, as well as chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin.  Neither of these positions was a sinecure, since the college was in very poor shape and a number of his clergy had presbyterian sympathies, lacked episcopal ordination, and saw no reason why they should seek it from him. 

Taylor's output was voluminous and he wrote on a wide range of topics.  For his feastday I choose some of his thoughts on the Eucharist, taken from his 1653 book The Great Exemplar.  It can be found in the very useful Anglican Eucharistic Theology website.  Note references to "partaking in the Divine nature", analogous to the Eastern Christian concept of theosis.


[Christ's] power is manifest, in making the symbols to be the  the instruments of conveying himself to the spirit of the receiver:  he nourishes the soul with bread, and heals the body with a sacrament; he makes the body spiritual, by his graces there ministered, and makes the spirit to be united to his body, by a participation of the Divine nature.  In the sacrament, that body which is reigning in heaven is exposed upon the table of blessing; and his body, which was broken for us, is now broke again, and yet remains impassible.  Every consecrated portion of bread and wine does exhibit Christ entirely to the faithful receiver; and yet Christ remains one, while he is wholly ministered in ten thousand portions...God hath instituted the rite in visible symbols to make the secret grace as presential and discernable as it might; that by an instrument of sense, our spirits might be accomodated,as with an exterior object, to produce an internal act...Our wisest Master hath appointed bread and wine, that we may be corporally united to him; that as the symbols, becoming nutriment, are turned into the substance of our bodies; so Christ, being the food of our souls, should assimilate us, making us partakers of the Divine nature.

Carthusian Thoughts on the Transfiguration  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In western Christianity the Carthusian monastic order best maintains the lifestyle of the original Desert Fathers.  The monks live as hermits in strictly enclosed "charterhouses" with no outside ministries, spending most of their time in their cells engaged in meditation and personal prayer. 

The order was founded in 1084 by St Bruno of Cologne, and survives today in 25 charterhouses sheltering about 350 monastics, including nuns.  It has largely adhered to its original rule, despite the extreme rigor of the Carthusian life--only about 10 percent of the monks die in vows.  There is a small body of  Carthusian writing,  usually anonymous.  a sample of this is found in The Wound of Love:  a Carthusian miscellany (Cistercian Publications 1994).  A sermon on today's feast of the Transfiguration, excerpted below, is found on pp 35-39.


In the Transfiguration, we are dealing with exceptional prayer.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus.  As at his baptism, he must enter into a solemn moment of his return to the Father.  The Transfiguration is a pinnacle of his existence, yet it is much more a point of departure.  Jesus enters thus into the mystery of his 'exodus', as St Luke says in reference to the conversation between the Saviour and Moses and Elijah.  The Paschal Mystery is already beginning and is played out in light, just as in Gethsemane it will be played out in darkness.  Jesus is at the summit of a new Horeb, flooded by the Spirit; he is in the process of concluding the new alliance which will soon be sealed in his blood.  The light in which he is bathed reveals his full right of access to the Father.  It inaugurates already his entrance into glory. 

However, this meeting of the humanity of the Son with the Father does not take the form of a crushing presence on the part of an impersonal God.  It appears rather as communion with Moses and Elijah.  His two predecessors on the holy mountain are there to welcome him and to show that the New Covenant is a work of love.  There is not only the communion of the Father and the Son in the Spirit; there is its permanent and visible sign:  the encounter between human beings of flesh and blood, who, when transformed by light, continue to possess a heart that thirsts to give itself. 

[The apostles] are to become sharers in the glory which suffuses Jesus.  What occurred in the depths of his soul is made known to them by the Father's voice.  He reveals once again that Jesus is his Son, the Beloved, the Chosen One of whom the prophets spoke.  The occasions on which the Father himself proclaims his intimacy with the Son in the Spirit so directly are extremely rare in the Gospel.  The baptism of Jesus was the first time; Peter at Caesarea Philippi had spoken in the same way under the direct inspiration of the Father; now today, on the mountain top, the Father again intervenes to make the disciples penetrate more profoundly into the mystery of the Son, the Son who enters into the Paschal Mystery so as to return to his Father.

From now on, the disciples will be bearers of a momentous secret.  They had followed Jesus into a mountain solitude in order to pray near him; now they are introduced into a solitude still greater:  the solitude of mystery.  They were told by the Father to  listen to Jesus, but he has nothing to say to them for the moment other than to keep quiet.  Solitude in the company of Jesus has introduced them to silence.

An Anglican Perspective on Benedictine Spirituality  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of St Benedict we turn to Irish Anglican priest Patrick Comerford who has written a very succinct and useful summary of the ways in which Anglicanism is informed by Benedict and his Rule. 


Benedictine spirituality is not a spirituality of escape.  Benedictine spirituality is a spirituality that fills time with an awareness of the presence of God.  Benedictine spirituality is a way of life that helps a person to seek God and his will daily.  It encourages a life balance between corporate worship, spiritual reading and work in the context of community.

People are seen as an integrated whole:  body, mind, and spirit.

The core values in Benedictine spirituality are stability, obedience (to God), personal transformation, humility, hospitality, care of the ill, building a lifestyle of love centered in Christ and listening for God in all of life...

The guiding principles of Benedictine practice are found in the Rule of St Benedict...

The primary concern of the Rule is to confront those who live by it as forcefully as possible with the Gospel and its demands.  The major themes of community, prayer, hospitality, study, work, humility, stability, peace, and listening find their expression in this rule.

Irenaeus on the Incarnation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Although bishop of Lyons in Gaul, Irenaeus (ca 130-208) was a Greek-speaking native of Asia Minor, a disciple of the venerable martyr Polycarp of Smyrna, who was in turn a follower of John the Evangelist.  So he was steeped in the theology of the Christian East, which was already at this early stage differentiating itself in noticeable ways from the spiritual teachings of the West.  One of these was the Incarnation.  Western theology tends to stress the necessity of Jesus assuming humanity so that he could atone for our sins.  The Christian East, by contrast, emphasizes that the Incarnation is primarily about God uniting in love with his creation.  This is evident in the writings of Irenaeus, even when he is passionately inveighing against Gnosticism and other heresies.  As Olivier Clement puts it in his invaluable The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press 1993), "...Irenaeus developed a vigorous theology emphasizing the reality of the incarnation (and therefore of the flesh), the unity of the two Testaments, and the positive nature of history.  The word and the Holy spirit are the 'two hands of the Father'.  With them he creates, directs, attracts and fulfills humanity.  History appears thus as an immense procession of incarnation...God wishes to deify human beings but without destroying their freedom.  Time enables 'man to grow used to receiving God and God to grow used to dwelling in man'.  Irenaeus does not dramatize the fall" (pp344-345). 

Below are three passages of Irenaeus dealing with the Incarnation, all taken from his main work Against Heresies (pp36-38 in Clement).


The Lord has given us a sign "as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven", such as we should not have dared to hope for.  How could we have expected to see a virgin with child, and to see in this Child a 'God with us' (Isaiah 7:  11-14) who would descend into the depths of the earth to seek for the lost sheep, meaning the creature he had fashioned, and then ascend again to present to his Father this 'man' [humanity] thus regained?

How could the human race go to God if God had not come to us?  How could we free ourselves from our birth into death if we had not been born again according to faith by a new birth generously given by God, thanks to that which came about from the Virgin's womb?

This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became the Son of Man:  so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God.  Indeed we should not be able to share in immortality without a close union with the Immortal.  How could we have united ourselves with immortality if immortality had not become what we are, in such a way that we should be absorbed by it, and thus we should be adopted as Sons of God?

Desert Benedictines  

Posted by Joe Rawls

On this feastday of John the Baptist we salute the monastery of Christ in the Desert.  Christ in the Desert is a Roman Catholic Benedictine foundation, a member of the Subiaco Congregation of the Primitive Observance.  It is located about 70 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  The community attempts to adhere very closely to the Rule of Benedict, following a contemplative way of life with no external ministries.  It does maintain a guest house which is usually quite full, as the monks' simple but intense lifestyle is very attractive to Christians and non-Christians alike.  I myself have been fortunate to visit the place on several occasions.  The monastery is under the patronage of John the Baptist because its founding prior, Fr Aelred Wall, entered New Mexico on this date in 1964. 

The interview with Abbot Phillip will provide some insights into this monastic way of life.

Justin Martyr on Baptism and Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Justin, who lived approximately from 100 to 165, was born in Samaria in what is now the town of Nablus.  His parents were Greek-speaking pagans, and he received a good classical education.  He explored various traditions of Hellenistic philosophy, but while living in Ephesus a chance encounter on the beach with an old Christian man led him to embrace Christ as his primary teacher.  Far from rejecting philosophy, he came to see it as providing an intellectual preparation for the truths revealed in the Gospel.  Eventually he relocated to Rome, where he founded a school for his synthesis of philosophy and Christianity.

After engaging in a debate with a pagan philosopher he was denounced to the imperial authorities for practicing an illicit religion and eventually executed; his feast day is observed on June 1.  Ironically, he died under the rule of emperor Marcus Aurelius-- himself no mean philosopher--who felt compelled to enforce the pagan cult as a means of maintaining the empire's social cohesion.

Justin left behind several works, including the First Apology from which the excerpt below is taken.  It contains significant descriptions of second-century Christian worship, written to present an accurate account of these things to often-hostile pagan readers.  The translation used is found in The Christianity Reader, Mary Gerhart and Fabian E Udoh editors (University of Chicago Press 2007), pp 348-351.


As many as are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and ask God with fasting for the remission of their past sin, while we pray and fast with them.  Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are born again in the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were born again, for they then receive washing in water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit...And this washing is called illumination, as those who learn these  things are illuminated in the mind.  And he who is illuminated is washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all the things about Jesus.

...And this food is called among us eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things which we teach are true, and has received the washing that is for the remission of sins and for rebirth, and who so lives as Christ handed down.  For we  do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior having been incarnate by God's logos took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the word of prayer that is from Him, from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of Jesus who became incarnate.
...And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.  Then when the reader has finished, the Ruler [bishop] in a discourse instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.  Then we all stand up together and offer prayers, and, as we said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought and wine and water, and the Ruler likewise offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; and the distribution and the partaking of the eucharistized elements is to each, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.  And those who prosper, and so wish, contribute what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the Ruler, who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who, on account of sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among us...But we all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the Universe, and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.

Ascension and Adoration  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

In my neck of the ecclesiastical woods, at least, it is rare for the Feast of the Ascension to be celebrated at all, let alone be the subject of theological reflection.  A partial remedy for this can be found in the following passage from The Activities of the Ascended Lord (London, 1891), by Anglican theologian George Body (1840-1911), a "Catholic Evangelical" who served at Durham Cathedral and at King's College, London.  Body points out the implications of Jesus' ascension for Christian worship, a topic which had never occurred to me before.

It can be found on pp 497-498 of the invaluable Love's Redeeming Work:  The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press 2001) compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams.


But the distinctive worship of the Christian Church is the worship of the Incarnate God, the Man Christ Jesus, Who in our nature is seated at God's Right Hand, and in that nature is by us to be adored.  The Ascension Day marked a distinct crisis in the worship of God both in Heaven and on earth.  Until that mysterious morning when Jesus in His  assumed Humanity passed within the Veil and took His place within the true Holy of Holies, the "Agnus Dei", the great hymn of Christendom, had never rung through the courts of Heaven;  but when the thronging Angels watched the Ascent of the Sacred Humanity of Jesus--and saw its mysterious flight cease only when it was throned on the Right Hand of the Eternal--a new light flashed across their intellects, a new adoration filled their spirits, a new song burst from their lips, a new worship was begun, the worship of Jesus Christ:  "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing!" (Rev v. 12).  And as the Ascension of Jesus formed a crisis in the worship of Heaven, so was it also on earth.  "They worshipped Him"--His very withdrawal from among them, His very elevation to the Throne of God, was the development of new relations between the disciples and their Lord.  As long as He was on the earth the worship of Him was not the principal feature of their life; but as soon as He was withdrawn from them and seated at God's Right Hand in the Heavenly places, the adoration of the Lamb--the worship of Jesus Incarnate, Crucified, Risen, Ascended, Enthroned--the distinctive worship of the Christian Church--began to be.  And a new aspect stood revealed of that holy Eucharist which He had ordained:  it was to be the earthly centre of that glorious worship wherewith, in Heaven, in Paradise, and on earth, the Ascended Jesus is ever adored.

Julian of Norwich on God's Wrath  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Julian of Norwich lived ca 1342-1416 (few details  of her life are known, including her birth and death dates).  It is known that she lived as an anchoress in a cell located in a church in the East Anglian market town of Norwich.  Her fame rests on Revelations of Divine Love, a text describing visions she had during a prolonged period of illness.  It was, incidentally, the first literary work in Middle English by a woman. 

The excerpt below from chapter 46 is striking in its treatment of God's wrath.  Or rather, the non-existence of God's wrath.  In our own day, when entire ministries are based upon the presumed wrath of God, Julian's remarks will come across as hopeful and outrageous in equal measure.


But notwithstanding all this, I saw truthfully that our Lord was never angry, nor ever shall be, for he is God:  He is good, He is life, He is truth, He is love, He is peace; and His power, His wisdom, His love, and His unity do not allow Him to be angry (For I saw truly that it is against the character of His power to be angry, and against the character of His wisdom, and against the character of His goodness).  God is the goodness that cannot be angry, for He is nothing but goodness.  Our soul is one-ed to Him who is unchangeable goodness, and between God and our soul is neither anger nor forgiveness, as He sees it.  For our soul is so completely one-ed to God by His own goodness, that there can be absolutely nothing at all separating God and soul.

Athanasius on the Incarnation  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (298-May 2, 373), was a towering figure in the 4th-century church.  As a young deacon he attended the Council of Nicea and was a lifelong opponent of Arianism.  While patriarch he defined the list of 27 books which was eventually accepted universally as the New Testament canon.  He wrote a life of St Antony the Great that greatly stimulated the growth of monasticism.  And his tenure as a church leader was anything but placid; he was deposed and sent into exile by imperial edict a total of five times, as Arianism fell into or out of favor with various emperors. 

Among other things, Athanasius is famous for having said, "God became man that man might become God."  I thought it would be interesting to see the context in which this aphorism occurs.  It is found towards the end of his treatise On the Incarnation and is tied in with Athanasius' conception of the Incarnation, which has a decidedly kenotic cast. 


54  As, then, he who desires to see God Who by nature is invisible and not to be beheld may yet perceive and know Him through His works, so too let him who does not see Christ with his understanding at least consider Him in His bodily works, and test whether they be of man or God.  If they be of man, then let him scoff, but if they be of God, let him not mock at things which are not fit subject for scorn, but rather let him recognize the fact and marvel that things divine have been revealed to us by such humble means, that through death deathlessness has been made known to us, and through the Incarnation of the Word the Mind whence all things proceed has been declared, and its Agent and Ordainer, the Word of God Himself.  He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.  He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father.  He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality.

Doubting Thomas, Doubting Doubt  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Sunday after Easter is often called "Thomas Sunday", since the appointed Gospel reading from John relates the apostle Thomas' skepticism regarding the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Thomas almost comes off as the first-century version of  a hyper-rational empiricist.  Of course, when Jesus offers him the hard evidence he demands, Thomas can only stammer out "My Lord and my God!"

Today's offertory hymn at my parish, Trinity Episcopal in Santa Barbara, California, These things did Thomas count as real, encapsulated Thomas' skepticism quite succinctly.  What struck me is that the de facto official theology of the parish--or at least much of its leadership--is that of the Jesus Seminar, which explicitly denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  So perhaps someone on the worship committee managed to sneak it in, or perhaps it was included as a gesture of evenhandedness.  At any rate, I include the lyrics, followed by some words of NT Wright on Thomas, found on p 715 of his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress 2003).


These Things Did Thomas Count As Real
These things did Thomas count as real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
that one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
and thus the risen Christ receive,
whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

NT Wright
Thomas comes to the question with one particular epistemology uppermost in mind:  he wants to touch as well as to see.  Indeed, he insists that the data must be caught within his proposed epistemological net or he will not acknowledge it as real data at all.  However, when Thomas is confronted by the risen Jesus, and even invited to touch,  John does not say...that Thomas went ahead and did so.  Seeing was enough...

Enlightenment historiography has often placed itself in the position from which the doubting disciple began.  Like Thomas, it protests that it has not shared the deep Christian experience of those who now believe, who look as though they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land.  It insists on "hard evidence', on "scientific proof".  It maintains a dignified if perhaps brittle skepticism.

Equally, certain branches of theology have stressed the gentle rebuke of Jesus.  If you need proof, if you even want proof, that seems to show that you have not yet discovered true faith.  One should not reply to the Enlightenment in anything like its own terms.  As the book of Proverbs warns, answering fools according to their folly is itself a foolish thing to do.  And yet the very next verse declares that one must answer fools in their own terms, lest they be wise in their own eyes--in other words, lest they imagine they have won their case by default.  Far be it from me, of course, to agree with the totally negative view of the Enlightenment implied by that use of Proverbs 26...There was much wisdom, as well as much folly, in the eighteenth-century appeal to history against dogma and hierarchy, even if now, with the Enlightenment's own dogma and hierarchy firmly in power, it is time to turn the historical argument against post-Enlightenment skepticism itself.


Posted by Joe Rawls

One of the high points of the Easter Vigil liturgy is the chanting of the Exultet, a hymn in praise of the newly lighted pascal candle, which is a very rich symbol of the risen Christ, with links to both Passover and the Exodus.  It is very ancient in the western church, originating during the 5th-7th centuries.  Traditionally, it is chanted by a deacon, as in the picture at left, though in many congregations without a deacon--or at least a deacon who can chant well--it is sung by a member of the choir. 

Some more information on the Exultet is available here.  I also include a video of a good English version.

Keble's Holy Light  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today the Anglican calendar commemorates John Keble (1792-1866), whose 1833 Assize Sermon is generally reckoned as the jumping-off point of the Oxford Movement.  He wrote a number of theological treatises including a translation of Irenaeus, a critical edition of the works of Richard Hooker, and several of the Tracts for the Times.  But his greatest fame was as a poet.  The Christian Year, a poetic anthology dealing with the feasts and seasons of the liturgical calendar, appeared in 1827 and achieved great popularity, going through numerous editions for the rest of the 19th century.  He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1831-1841 and spent the last thirty years of his life as vicar of Hursley, a small country parish.  Keble College Oxford was named in his honor.

Keble wrote a number of hymns  and these are probably how he is likely to be known by the average Anglican.  The following translation of Phos hilaron, made from the Greek in 1834, gives a taste of his talent as a hymnographer.


Hail, Gladdening Light

Hail, gladdening Light, of His pure glory poured,
Who is immortal Father; heavenly blest;
Highest and holiest--Jesus Christ our Lord!
Now are we come to the sun's hour of rest;
All times are ordered in Thy Word alone,
Therefore the day and night Thy glories own.

The lights of evening now around us shine;
We hymn Thy blest humanity divine;
Worthiest art Thou at all times to be sung,
By grateful hearts, with undefiled toungue,
Son of our God, Giver of life, alone!
Therefore shall all the worlds Thy glories own.

Eschatological Thoughts  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Today's Daily Office readings contains one of my favorite passages, Romans 8:19-23:  "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."

This passage underpins Christian eschatological thought, which occupies a preeminent place in the theology of the Eastern churches.  Metropolitan Kallistos Ware addresses this topic with his usual clarity in The Orthodox Way (revised ed, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), pp 136-137.  His notion that post-resurrection life is not just for people, but for animals and the whole created order as well, adds a powerful spiritual element to our thinking about ecological issues.


"At the resurrection", state The Homilies of St Macarius, "all the members of the body raised; not a hair perishes" (compare Luke 21: 18).  At the same time the resurrection body is said to be a "spiritual body" (see ! Cor 15:  35-46).  This does not mean that at the resurrection our bodies will be somehow dematerialized; but we are to remember that matter as we know it in this fallen world, with all its inertness and opacity, does not at all correspond to matter as God intended it to be.  Freed from the grossness of the fallen flesh, the resurrection body will share in the qualities of Christ's human body at the Transfiguration and after the Resurrection.  But although transformed, our resurrection body will still be in a recognizable way the same body as that which we have now:  there will be continuity between the two...

..."A new heaven and a new earth"[Rev 21: 1]:  man is not saved from his body but in it; not saved from the material world but with it.  Because man is microcosm and mediator of the creation, his own salvation involves also the reconciliation and transfiguration of the whole animate and inanimate creation around him--its deliverance "from the bondage of corruption" and entry "into the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:21).  In the "new earth" of the Age to come there is surely a place not only for man but for the animals:  in and through man, they too will share in immortality, and so will rocks, trees and plants, fire and water.

Gregory of Nyssa and Epektasis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Gregory of Nyssa (335-384), whose feast is observed today by the Episcopal Church, is one of the great theologians of the Christian East;  in recent years his fame has spread westwards.  He had nine siblings, two of whom were Basil the Great and Macrina.  He left behind a large corpus of writings and was influential in formulating the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  One of his major contributions to spirituality was the concept of epektasis.  Meaning roughly "upward striving", the notion first appears in Paul: "Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark" (Phil 3:13).  The upward striving towards God is incremental and never ends, whether in this life or the next.  Seen in this light, theosis means that people get more and more like God but without, however, attaining God's transcendence.  This contrasts with Platonic philosophy, itself very influential in Eastern Christian theology, which regarded stability as perfection (many references to an unchanging, passionless God) and change as a sign of imperfection.

One place where Gregory discusses epektasis is in his Life of Moses (many editions), a recasting of the patriarch in terms of Christian mysticism.  A sample appears below. 


For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course.  Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.

...He shone with glory.  And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in  his desire for more.  He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God's true being.

In Praise of Icons  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today our Eastern Orthodox friends celebrate the First Sunday of Great Lent, also known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Triumph of Orthodoxy.  It is preeminently an affirmation of the role of icons in Christian life, following the long and debilitating struggle over iconoclasm.  An informative reference to the subject can be found here on the site of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.

Below can be found a quote from the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea, 787), which summarizes the Eastern Christian teaching on icons quite succinctly.


We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people.  Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype.  We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (proskynesis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature.  The veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerates in it the reality for which it stands.

Laudian Ceremonial  

Posted by Joe Rawls

One aspect of the turbulent history of Anglicanism in 17th-century England was the so-called "Laudian" movement.  Essentially it was an attempt to reform the Church of England along sacramental, patristic and catholic (emphasis on the small c) lines.  It was the project of men such as Andrewes, Cosin, and Laud; the latter became Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I and used his authority to promote this agenda.

Laudians strove to recover the spirituality of the ancient and medieval church and to express it liturgically in conformity to canon law and the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.  These norms were widely ignored, especially by those of the Puritan persuasion.  With regard to public worship, Laudianism translated into ornately decorated churches with railed altars against the east wall, use of the Prayer Book for all services, trained choirs of men and boys, and clergy in copes or at least surplices.  These liturgies were actually carried out in a few places, mostly chapels royal and private chapels of sympathetic bishops.  However, they seldom trickled down to ordinary parishes.  The elitism inherent in the movement was exacerbated by the unpopularity of Laud and his king, and things came to a crashing halt when the archbishop was arrested, and later beheaded, by the Puritan-dominated parliamentary faction.  It is interesting to speculate that if Laudianism had become more widely entrenched at the parochial level, it would have preempted the rise of Tractarianism, at least in the form it actually took in the 19th century.

The Hackney Hub, a site advocating a non-Anglo-Catholic type of high churchmanship, has some interesting and comprehensive posts on Laudian ritual which are linked to here and here .  I reproduce below an eyewitness report from a hostile Puritan which nonetheless captures the flavor of Laud's worship.


He does not say the mass indeed in Latin:  but his hood, his cope, his surplice, his rochet, his altar railed in, his candles, and cushion and book therein, his bowing to it, his bowing, or rather nodding at the name of JESUS, his organs, his violins, his singing-men, his singing-boys, with their alternate jabbering and mouthings (as unintelligible as Latin service), so very like popery.

In Praise of Holy Smoke  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A very useful liturgical resource is the Smells and Bells site maintained by Roman Catholic scholar Matthew D Herrera.  It contains a comprehensive article outlining the ways in which incense may be used in Christian worship as well as its scriptural and theological justification.  The article contains some good quotes by Monsignor Romano Guardini which I reproduce below.  As an added treat, I could not resist including a video of extreme censing, the famous botafumeiro in Spain's cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.


The offering of incense is a generous and beautiful rite.  The bright grains of incense are laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds.  In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality; and like music also is the entire lack of practical utility:  it is a prodigal waste of precious material.  It is a pouring out of unwithholding love...

The offering of incense is like Mary's anointing of Jesus at Bethany.  It is as free and objectless as beauty.  It burns and is consumed like love that lasts through death.  And the arid soul still takes his stand and asks the same question:  What is the good of it?

It is the offering of a sweet savour which Scripture itself tells us is the prayers of the Saints.  Incense is the symbol of prayer.  Like pure prayer it has in view no object of its own; it asks nothing for itself.  It rises like the Gloria at the end of a psalm. in adoration and thanksgiving to God for his great glory.


Wisdom of the Desert Mothers  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, those bold spiritual pioneers who protested the increasing coziness of the Church with the Constantinian empire by seeking a more authentic Christianity in the wastes of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.  It is too easy to overlook the fact that this movement included many women, living as solitaries or in monastic communities.  A good antidote to this ignorance is Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers (Paulist 2001).  Swan, the prioress of St Placid's Priory in Olympia, Washington, has combed through the patristic literature and has put together a pretty complete catalog of the holy women mentioned therein.  Sadly, the actual words of only a few are preserved, but we can look below for a small sample.  The sayings of Syncletica (pictured in the icon) and Macrina especially stand out; the latter was the sister of both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, being the actual founder of the community where they received their monastic formation.


Amma Syncletica
In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy.  It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said:  "Our God is a consuming fire" [Heb 12:24]):  so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.
It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, St Paul does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says:  "Let not the sun go down" [Eph 4:25].  Will you wait till all your time is ended?  Why hate the one who has grieved you?  It is not this person who has done the wrong, but the evil one.  Hate sickness but not the sick person.
There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time.  It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts.

Amma Theodora
Another of the old ascetics questioned Amma Theodora saying, "At the resurrection of the dead, how shall we rise?"  She said, "As pledge, example, and as prototype we have him who died for us and is risen, Christ our God".

It is you, O Lord, who have freed us from the fear of death.  You have made our life here the beginning  of our true life.  You grant our bodies to rest in sleep for a season and you rouse our bodies again at the last trumpet.
You have given in trust to the earth our earthly bodies, which you have formed with your own hands, and you have restored what you have given, by transforming  our mortality and ugliness by our immortality and your grace.
May you who have power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may draw breath and that I be found in your presence, "having shed my body and without spot or wrinkle" in the form of my soul, and that my soul may be innocent and spotless and may be received into your hands like incense in your presence.

Rublev's Iconographic Theology  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's commemoration of St Andrei Rublev (recently added to the calendar of the Episcopal Church) we turn to Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge's The Rublev Trinity (St Vladimir's Seminary Press 2007).  Fr Bunge, a native of Cologne, Germany, entered the Benedictine monastery of Chevetogne in 1962.  Chevetogne is a "dual-rite" institution, meaning that it houses two distinct monastic communities, one adhering to western patterns of worship and spiritual practices, the other to eastern Christian customs.  Fr Bunge began to live  as a hermit in Switzerland in 1980 and in 2010 he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The book deals with the icon from a variety of perspectives; the quote below (pp 86-87) shows how it artistically expresses a particular form of trinitarian theology.


Through his master, Feofan Grek, Rublev had been entrusted with the older christological type.  The main characteristic of this type is that the central angel. identified by a variety of attributes as Christ, the Son, always completely dominates the picture.  He faces the beholder, who looks directly towards him, the other angels being simply accompanying figures, who are often depicted as smaller.  Regardless of the title of the icon, we are formally dealing with an icon of Christ, a distant echo of the early Christian christological interpretation of Gen 18.

In the case of the Greek icons, several of which existed in Russia at all periods, Rublev was, moreover, aware of a more recent, more formally Trinitarian type.  Here, the three angels are as similar one to another as possible.  Attitude, gesture, and posture of the angels are now very marked and allow one to recognize relationships of interaction.  This is achieved mainly through the abandonment of the frontal view, even though the central angel still looks directly at the beholder.  While the christological type retains the biblical background (house, tree, and so on), the Trinitarian type often replaces this with a richly developed architectural setting. 

If one compares Rublev's Troitsa with its predecessors, then it becomes immediately apparent that it reproduces simply neither the one nor the other type.  The form of composition is essentially that of the Trinitarian type, with these striking modifications: 

  • The central angel no longer looks at the beholder but at the angel on the left.  Because the gaze of the angel on the left and that of the angel on the right cross one another, the center of gravity moves from the central angel to the one on the left.
  • This impression is strengthened because the angels at each side are of the same size as the one in the middle.  This distinguishes Rublev's Troitsa, too, from the icons that immediately preceeded it in the Trinity Monastery.
  • From the christological type, Rublev gives the angel in the middle the clothing characteristic of Christ and adds an unusual feature:  the golden clavus (sewn on stripe).  Moreover, he makes the clothing of the other two angels unique and not interchangeable.
  • The gestures of the three angels are essentially those of the Trinitarian type, yet with striking modifications.  Originally, the play of the hands was motivated by the objects on the table.  The central angel pointed to the great chalice in the middle of the table; the angel on the left blessed the chalice-bowl standing before him; and the angel on the right stretched out hands towards what was in the bowl standing before him or towards a piece of bread on the table.  These gestures appear in the icons that immediately precede Rublev's Troitsa.  However, in Rublev's icon the table is so small and the figures are so close together that there is no room for any other vessels except for the great chalice in the middle of the table.  The table is bare apart from this bowl.  Over this bowl...the right hand of the central angel points.  The angel on the left raises his right hand both pointing and blessing in the direction of the angel on the right, who for his part drops his hand to the table, a movement that reflects the inclination of his head.  
  • Although still in keeping with traditional elements, these gestures clearly express another meaning.  They no longer relate to the food but, in an individual way, to the persons.  In short, Rublev has not simply re-created another icon with christological interpretation:  one individual form with two companions; neither has he created what could be considered a standard Trinitarian icon, that is, three equal, interchangeable forms.  Rather, he has shown three non-interchangeable persons.

Aquinas on Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Thomas Aquinas, whose feastday was recently added to the Episcopal Church sanctoral, is stereotypically regarded as a dry, quintessentially cerebral theologian, with nary a mystical bone in his body.  That this is a gross oversimplification is shown by a number of passages in his works referring to theosis or deification, which we stereotypically pigeonhole as an Eastern Christian concept.  This aspect of his thought is addressed by Daniel A Keating in his Deification and Grace (Sapientia Press 2007). 

A hat tip to the site Joe Versus the Volcano.

Commentary on Ephesians (3:20)
The human mind and will  could never imagine, understand or  ask that God become  man, and that man become God and a sharer in the divine nature.  But he has done this in us by his power, and it was accomplished in the Incarnation of his Son.

Commentary on John (15:9)
The Son did not love the disciples in either of these ways.  For he did not love them to the point of their being gods by nature, nor to the point that they would be united to God so as to form one person with him.  But he did love them up to a similar point:  he loved them to the extent that they would be gods by their participation in grace--"I say, 'You are gods'" (Ps 82:6).

Summa Theologiae (I-II, q. 112, a. 1)
Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect.  Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the divine nature, which exceeds every other nature.  And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace.  For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the divine nature by a participated likeness as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.

Back to the Monastic Future  

Posted by Joe Rawls

At the very end of Atheist Delusions:  The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale 2009) the philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, speculates on a possible future scenario of monasticism vis-a-vis the declining Western church.  But read the rest of the book too.


[The birth of monasticism in the fourth century] might be viewed as the final revolutionary movement within ancient Christianity:  its rebellion against its own success, its preservation of its most precious and unadulterated spiritual aspirations against its own temporal power (perhaps in preparation for the day when that power would be no more), and its repudiation of any value born from the fallen  world that might displace love from the center of the Christian faith.

It may be that ultimately this will again become the proper model of Christianity in the late modern West.  I am not speaking, of course, of some great new monastic movement.  I mean only that, in the lands where the old Christendom has mostly faded away, the life of those ancient  men and women who devoted themselves to the science of charity, in willing exile from the world of social prestige and power, may perhaps again become the model that Christians will find themselves compelled to emulate.  Christian conscience once sought out the desert as a shelter from the empire, where those who believed could strive to cultivate the pure eye (that could see all things as gifts of God) and the pure heart (that could receive all persons with a generous love); now a very great deal of Western culture threatens to become something of a desert for believers.  In other parts of the world, perhaps, a new Christendom may be in the process of being born--in Africa and Asia, and in another way in Latin America--but what will come of that is impossible to say.  We live in an age of such cultural, demographic, ideological, and economic fluidity that what seems like a great movement now may surprise us in only a very few years by its transience.  Innumerable forces are vying for the future, and Christianity may prove considerably weaker than its rivals.  This should certainly be no cause of despair for Christians, however, since they must believe their faith to be not only a cultural logic but a cosmic truth, which can never finally be defeated.  Even so, it may be the case that Christians who live amid the ruins of the old Christendom--perhaps dwelling on the far-flung frontiers of a Christian civilization taking shape in other lands--will have to learn to continue the mission of their ancient revolution in the desert, to which faith has often found it necessary, at various times, to retreat.

Wright on the Birth Narratives  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

A good read for this tail-end of the Christmas season is this essay by NT Wright dealing with the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.  "Suspending Scepticism:  History and the Virgin Birth" examines the interplay between the worldview of the gospels and that of the post-Enlightenment West.  Wright deftly places the virginal conception of Jesus in proper context, certainly not denying it but subordinating it to his bodily resurrection and divinity.


...Some things must be put in a "suspense account"--in Marcus Borg's happy phrase--while others are sorted out.  The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus' public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross.

...Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this worldview is forced to reactivate various things in the suspense account, the birth narratives included.

There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in post-Enlightenment metaphysics.  The "closed continuum" of cause and effect is a modernist myth.  The God who does not "intervene" from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion.

...There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin...

The only possible parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them.  Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod.  Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk--unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?