Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Advent is over for another year and what we have waited for is finally here: the first advent, Christmas. This year, after blogging on the intense, but beautiful O Antiphons, I was almost afraid that the coming of this first coming of Jesus would be a bit of a bathetic crash for me this year. The exalted titles behind the O Antiphons and the dramatic salvation story of Israel which goes on behind them almost threaten to overwhelm the simplicity of the Christmas story as we have it from the Gospels. After all,  the birth of a simple infant to a tradesman and his wife in the middle of a no-account town in a troublesome, but minor province in a now dead-empire a couple of thousand years ago could seem to be a let down for someone awaiting O or Clavis Jesse or Rex Gentium, but it isn't. It isn't because there is more to the story than just the birth of a baby. More was born on that day over two thousand years ago than just a baby. The hope that this story is just the beginning of the restoration of the world to its rightful state first arose that day. An invitation to participate in that restoration more fully than we could have asked or imagined echoes that night. It doesn't matter that that restoration is still going on. It doesn't matter if that restoration sometimes seems to stall. It has started and the hope that it brought with it emerged that night in Bethlehem.

So, tonight, on the eve of Christmas, we are called to rejoice at this beginning. Rejoice because God has restore what he has already called good. Rejoice because God come to be one of us. Rejoice because the lion will lie down with the lamb and the Prince of Peace is still coming. .

                                        Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel. 

Merry Christmas to all my readers. May the coming year be a wondrous one, filled with joy and fulfillment!


Monday, December 23, 2013

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

 Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!

With Emmanuel, we come to the end of the O Antiphons and to the cusp of Christmas. I don't know if that news fills you with joy or with dread, but the last days of Advent are marching on toward Christmas, that moment in time when God broke into the mundane march of human history and, by doing so, transformed it utterly. At the end of the day, this revelation of God's presence in our lives, both communal and individual, changes everything and gives us real hope that the world will be set to rights and that grace will win out. It all starts with a baby in a manger and ends with the full revleation of God's redemption of this world. Those are the advents we remember in this season and which call us to witness to God's love of this world, yesterday, today and in the days to come. 

Our antiphon starts with Emmaneul, whose name translates as 'God is with us'. One way we could go with our consideration of this antiphon is to examine the admittedly interesting historical context of this antiphon. We could talk about the original prophecy to Ahaz, its (admittedly partial) fulfillment in the life of Ahaz' successor, Hezekiah, its transference to the expectation of a messiah to rescue Israel from its bondage to its eventual assignment to the person of Jesus Christ. However, that would involve a rather extended romp through Old Testement and inter-testamental history which, perhaps, would do little to edify most readers, who might wonder what this antiphon has to do with anything today. 

I think the place I have to start with this antiphon is with that reminder which the name gives of God's presence. This antiphon, by connecting itself with the name Emmanuel, reminds me that God is never far from me, but rather is with us through whatever is going on in our lives. Now, that is a bit of a Chrstian truism and, what is more, a rather pious one, but I wonder sometimes if I always fathom why that is important. I certainly don't think that I have always done justice to the extent to which that the God who is with us is the answer to that longing that I know my soul has for something more than myself. Many of the problems that I've faced in my 20s and 30s could have been better addressed by recognizing that the anxiety and loneliness that I experienced in those years were signs of a God-shaped hole in my life. It has taken me decades to realize that and I'm sure that it will take decades more to learn the habits needed to see that God who is with us all the time and to learn how to respond. That is the work of a lifetime and I know that I've barely started. 

Of course, one of the primary problems in seeing God in our lives is the myriad of ways that He can be found. Yes, of course, I pray and, given the time, I even meditate. Both are important and both are something that I spend time doing; not always well, not always thoughtfully, but I try to be consistent with my little prayer and that helps. Of course, I can also point out those important spiritual turning-points where God nudged my path unexpectedly and, even, a little frighteningly. But, these are exceptional by their very definition as turning-points. No, the real challenge is seeing God in my everyday life as I rub shoulders with colleagues and students, strangers and friends. That isn't so easy, partly because God has a way of disguising himself quite cleverly and partly because I don't always want to meet him in those uncomfortable moments when I want to take charge and do something I want to do for a change. I say, "for a change'", but all too often that isn't the change. God is with us, but I'm not sure I always want to pay attention, even when I know that it is better for myself and everyone involved when I do. 

Emmanuel reminds me both of my longing for God and where that longing can be satisified. God remains with us through everything we do or experience, but He does more than that. Somehow He manages to take all that we do- the good, the bad and the ugly- and make it work to the good. Somehow he saves us, from ourselves mostly, merely by abiding with us. May God remain with you and you with Him.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

 King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makes one out of two, come to save man, whom You have made out of the dust of the earth!

Kingship is a bit of a tough sell these days, so this antiphon already starts with a discordant note for the modern listener. Kingship just feels so mediaeval and seems to go along with those things which cause people to dismiss Christianity as hopelessly outdated and irrelevant to these much more enlightened (and democratic) times. Seeing Jesus as King is more likely to cause people to turn off than it is to inspire. Yet, there is something about this title for Jesus which resonates differently than a mere king. 

Notice that this antiphon celebrates Jesus as the King of the Gentiles. That is interesting on a quite a few levels, but, for our purposes, largely because of the persistent prophecies in the later books of the Old Testament which saw one of the primary signs of the coming Messiah to be the acknowledgement of Israel's priestly authority by the Gentiles (the nations). So, we get prophecies about the Gentiles pouring into Jerusalem to worship along side Israel at Mt. Zion. These magnificent images of peace in the early part of Isaiah make possible by the Gentiles coming to Zion and pounding their spears into pruning shears, but don't happen because the Gentiles are compelled. Instead, it is voluntary submission of all peoples to God's priestly people and, through them, to God himself which brings about this peace. This represents the restoration of the nations from the rift which tore them apart at Babel and it is Christ, as king of both Israel and the Gentiles, which bring together these two peoples together.

This unification of Israel and the Gentiels is further reinforced by the image of the cornerstone in this antiphon. The cornerstone of a building takes two walls, approaching at 90 degree angles, and makes them one, It also providing a major structural support for the whole edifice. Furthermore, Jesus refers to himself as the cornerstone which the builders rejected, which I'm sure we're expected to have in mind here. Yet, it is the function of the cornerstone joining of two into one which caught my attention. In this world of division and acrimony, we very much need a few cornerstones to draw us together. All to easily, we can divide the world into a chosen and righteous Israel (us) and an unchosen and damned Gentiles (them). We see this all the time as we watch liberals damn conservatives and conservatives return the favour as the same old conflicts flash through conventional and social media like periodic thunderstorms. It is a persistent tendency of people to divide themselves into different camps and wall themselves off from dissenting opinion. And that makes perfect sense to me. I don't know about you, but I'd really prefer to believe in my own righteousness, thank you very much and reject those who disagree with me as not worth listening to. Unfortunately, this antiphon suggests that all of us are, in fact, one, so separating out the unworthy is no longer our job or our concern. If God is the common king of us all, we have no call to divide into two, but rather seek its joining into one. 

In the end, Israel and Gentile, liberal and conservative, believer and atheist, all of us share a common humanity. We are, even if only metaphorically, formed out of the same mud. We all need some kind of salvation from the mess that we've made of the world and our own lives. What this antiphon is saying is that, whatever our differences, we share the need for a solution and that solution is found in the same king. This king doesn't lead armies out to fight the forces of evil. Nor does he divide the people into the worthy and unworthy. Instead, he calls both Israel and the Gentiles to His mountain to share in the solution and in the joy of release from hostility. Peace will come to Israel and the Gentiles and, as I hope, to you and yours this season of Advent. 


Saturday, December 21, 2013

O Oriens

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death! 

Here we pass from the darkness of O Clavis to the breaking dawn of O Oriens. The hope which was latent in the previous antiphon emerges, as it were, into the full light of day. That image is important to me because, all too often, I'm tempted to focus on what has gone wrong and what could go wrong in my life, rather than those flashes of light which remind me that God is still working in the world.It is easier to sit in the darkness sometimes 
than to seek out the illumination which this Antiphon seems to promise. That sounds a bit crazy,
I know, but, for many years, I've thought this to be the route to realism because if one didn't expect good things, there would be no need to be disappointed if they don't come. And, if I'm to be honest, I have to admit that I am still tempted to think this way sometimes.

Yet, this light is compelling. It is the dawning light, breaking through the darkness. It is the sun which disperses the fears of the night and reveals a world where the good and bad can be seen and sorted out. It is a light which doesn't set, but lasts forever. It is the light of the New Jerusalem, which needs neither sun nor moon because God's glory is enough to keep it lite. It is the promise of a life lived openly with God and in harmony with Him. If Jesus is the light of the world, isn't this the kind of light that we expect Him to be? Advent is a season when we both remember and await the coming of Jesus, so is it surprising that we also sing of the breaking dawn of his coming in this antiphon?

What is more, I don't think this dawn light is something from the indefinite future which most of us assign to the second coming of God. It isn't the spotlight on the 'pie in the sky when we die', but rather this light breaks into our lives in unexpected and awesome ways. It breaks in during the difficult times, when help comes from an unexpected direction. It breaks in when we speak with a wisdom we don't really have, but somehow have discovered how to say. It breaks in when we take a look at our lives, not with the lens of what is missing, but with the lens of what is filling it with good things. My own experience with this light has convinced me that the world, however flawed, is still a world filled with mystery and grace which goes all the way back to God's creative energies. It commands my gratitude for what is. That changes the polarity of my thinking from the negative place I defaut to, expecting and fearing something bad will soon happen, to a positive hope that the graces that I see around me will only grow, eventually, to overcome the negative things that linger in the world. Gratitude and hope is a reasonable response to the coming of dawn, any dawn. How much more so with this dawning of this eternal day of God's kingdom! We live at a awkward time in history, in between the deep darkness of a night which seemed like it wouldn't end to the glorious beginnings of a joyous day which will not end. The sun is coming up at last. 


Friday, December 20, 2013

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death. 

Today's Antiphon takes us to another place that most people would sooner not be: prison. Prisons are not, understandably, very happy or inviting places and it might seem odd to approach them at a time when the world is highlighting the joy of Christmas (and of Christmas giving!), but that is Advent for you. Advent is not a feast, but, rather, a time of waiting and reflection as we wait for the coming of Jesus into this world. Besides, wasn't this part of Jesus' first proclamation about himself at Nazareth that 

                                     "The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed
                                      me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me
                                      to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight
                                      for the blind, to release the oppressed; to proclaim the
                                      year of the Lord's favour" (Luke, 16-19

The Key of David we see here is just another one of those signs for Jesus as a Savior of all, not just for me or the members of my church or even just Christians. The Advent of God has a real impact on the world around us and it is a powerful one because we are promised that this Key of David (Jesus)  can open what nothing else will (and close it!). In fact, that degree of power should unsettle us a bit. One might be forgiven for worrying that this power will be used to exclude not to include. That fear has some reason because all too frequently the image of keys (usually, Peter's) is used to exclude those we consider are damned or who are outsiders. Yet, aren't keys also used to open up, to include people? Does it, rather, rest with the kind of person who uses the keys whether keys open or close? In some ways, the real question about this image isn't the key, but the kind of God who wields them. If we believe in a harsh and judgmental God, the Key of David threaten our exclusion. If we believe in a loving and forgiving God, these Key invites our inclusion. And I would suggest that, if we take seriously the imagery in this Antiphon, we mean the latter use of the keys. 

After all, these keys aren't being used to lock up those in prison, but rather to release them. The Clavis David lead out those sitting in this prison, away from the shadows and into the light. What's more, these captives are not so much prisoners as people who are bound by we know not what and for reasons unknown to us. There are many ways to be bound and to feel that we are held captive. Perhaps we are in a literal prison. Perhaps we are imprisoned in an unhappy situation, or imprisoned by habits and compulsions beyond our control to break away from. Perhaps our grief is imprisoning us. I don't know. Yet, what we have in this Antiphon is a promise of release; that, somehow, someone will lead us away from our prisons, that somehow there is hope for us captives. 

So, we're back to hope again, which makes sense. One of the things I like most about Advent and these Antiphons in general, is that they look forward to a hope that is not just an easy "look[ing] on the bright side of life" rightly satirized by Monty Python, but a hope which looks at the difficult things in life, but which believes that redemption and salvation are coming. That makes for a tougher-minded hope and an infinitely more resilient and practical one. 


Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

Branch of Jesse, which stands as a standard of the people, over Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry. 

I admit that I found this antiphon a bit challenging today, partially because I'm not entirely sure what to do all this talk about  kings and Gentiles in this antiphon. Well, actually, I think I know what one could do about them. In this antiphon, the Branch of Jesse represents the signum  (the military standard) of Israel which leads it to victory over its enemies. Therein lies the source of my discomfort because that kind of imagery could lead to one of two theological moves I'd prefer not to take. First, we could imply that God's signum should be our own which we can lead against our (and thus, God's) enemies. This move would produce, in its extreme form, all the incoherence of a Crusade in which the followers of the Prince of Peace slaughter their fellow-humans with the sign of a cross. Or we could see ourselves as the persecuted Israel, surrounded by her enemies, but saved by God in some miraculous manner. Both of these images presume a violence which just isn't part of my lived experience (thanks be to God!) or the experience of anyone in, say, North America. Culture wars aside, we North Americans still have a pretty cushy deal because the most we have to face is the dismantling of some of the perks of cultural Christianity and, perhaps, at worst, a bit of obnoxious prejudice from this or that cultural despiser. Really, all this talk about standards and deliverance seems to be coming on rather too strong. 

Yet, when I start thinking about it, what I find interesting about the image in this antiphon is that, despite the military undertones implied in it, it, actually, doesn't lead to violence. There isn't a sense that this standard says 'Kill them all!" or such like. Instead, what seems to be happening is that, at the very sight of this signum, the powerful shut their mouths and the hostile outsiders which surround Israel begin to call upon God, the Branch of Jesse, for themselves. The image which remains isn't that of a battle for supremacy or even for survival, but rather a conversion of one's enemies. The observer is awestruck and silent and soon begins to invoke the God he has so unexpectedly encountered. Hostility is transformed into friendship, danger into deliverance. And all of this is achieved without violence or fighting. 

Of course, life isn't so simple that all we have to do is unfurl our standards and the whole world will convert to what we believe. We will always find people who find our faith nonsensical and our beliefs absurd. Yet, this antiphon shows us something about what it can mean to come to God in these days. For myself, my early encounter with God shocked me pretty profoundly to the point that I didn't really know what to say about it. Only in retrospect, do I realize that it sparked years of searching out who this Jesus person was and why he was butting into my life in such an unexpected way. And, only in retrospect, do I see those moments when I invoked that mysterious God I barely knew anything about as I, painfully and almost spasmodically, sought to learn more about Him. All this was and is messy, but it produce the hope of deliverance from my character defects and my faults, even if that deliverance doesn't happen on my timetable or according to my plan. Perhaps that is why this antiphon ends with a plea not to delay, since it sometimes feels that this hope has already been delayed enough. Perhaps it is only in following this signum that we find that hope realized. 


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento. 

 Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm! 

 In the brief moments I've had to reflect on this antiphon over the last couple of days, the image that keeps getting my attention is the burning bush. That's understandable as that is one of the most vivid, if freaky images in the Bible. The idea of a bush burning, but not being consumed is enough to get the attention of anyone and it sure got Moses'. It startled him into realizing that God was right in front of him and he was standing on holy ground. In that sense, the image is truly sacramental- a physical sign of the divine presence. The uncanniness of this should unsettle us, even if familiarity might insulate us from how weird a sight that bush must have been.

 What is more, it seems to me that we are also looking at an image of God in all His strangeness and power. The image of the burning bush makes me think of the unusual power (and unpredictability) of God's love which cannot be consumed, but rather blazes on and on. It reminds me of the tongues of fire at Pentecost which descended on the disciples and allowed them to praise God in the languages of the world- foreshadowing the translation of Christianity for many peoples. The fire of the Spirit is supposed to burn in the hearts of all believers as we seek God's way in this world. The burning desire which I think all of us have for justice, for goodness and for peace serves as a reflection of the fire of the Spirit. Those desires are a reflection of God's faithful love for us and for the world He created. They are part of the fire which burns for the good of our neighbour and the world around us and is not consumed, not matter what we ourselves do because the fire doesn't originate with us, but rather with God.

 Yet, I admit that I don't often tap into that fire. In truth, I am rather more like the Abba Lot, who is reported to have gone to another desert monk, Abba Joseph and confessed "Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer and meditations and quiet, and, as far as I can, I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else can I do?". I manage my daily prayer. I try to meditate and pray (some days are definitely better than others!). I try to let go of 'bad thoughts' which lead me places that aren't good for me. I don't really fast and quiet is at a premium in my life, what with two children running around the house. And I share that sense that all that, while good, falls short of that exhortation that, if I wanted, I could become all flame with the love of God. That fire seems to be thousands of miles away from me pretty much every day, but that love which blazes for into the world reminds me to hope for better, even when I am trudging along spiritually, day to day. That fire, which didn't consume the burning bush, which didn't consume the disciples or even Abba Joseph, shines forth on my good days and guides me to seek God where I am, reminding me that I am ever on holy ground where redemption is found. May that redemption shine forth for you and yours this Advent season.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

O Wisdom

O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ. 

Wisdom that comes out of the mouth of the Most High, that reaches from one end to another, and orders all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence! 
(source: http://www.fisheaters.com/customsadvent10.html)

Wisdom is an under-appreciated characteristic in this day and age. We tend to think in rather different terms, assuming that the mere accumulation of knowledge and qualifications serves to demonstrate that the worthiness of a persons' contribution to discussion or debate. Yet, wisdom seems to be something else than merely compelling others to listen to us, but, rather, it has a reflective element that we seem to have neither time nor desire to seek. Wisdom isn't primarily about what we know, but rather understands a relationship to what we know and the people around us which sees all of it as somehow integrated. It is that integration which gives wisdom its depth. It applies the ability to take the long view, to eschew the short-term gain in favour of what is best over the long-term. Perhaps this is why wisdom seems so difficult to attain and why it is difficult to value in this peculiarly amnesiac culture of ours.

Yet, wisdom has always been difficult to attain in all ages. The reason for this difficulty is that it is remarkably difficult for any person to maintain the long-term reflective view needed to achieve true wisdom. True wisdom, it seems, should be able to start with the beginning of time and see to the end of it again. True wisdom, as this antiphon suggests, has to be an attribute of God. It is only God whose Wisdom can be felt a fine usque ad finem- from one end to the other, from the beginning of time to the end of time, from one edge of the universe to the other edge. And it is only God's Wisdom which can create the order that we see and enjoy in this universe. We are, whether we acknowledge it or not, dependent on God's Wisdom to keep our own chaos at bay and that Wisdom will outlast us and our petty efforts to pretend we're in charge.

So, if we're attentive, we see God arranging the world 'mightily and sweetly'. I love the juxtaposition of these adverbs. That God arranges the world 'mightily' is hardly surprising, if we presume a God who is omnipotent, he is going to be do things mightily. Yet, he acts 'sweetly', not harshly or bitterly. He acts 'sweetly', filled with grace and an attention to what is good. Yes, of course, I know. It is frequently difficult to see the 'sweetly' in the world as it is today. A lot of distinctly not sweet things happen everyday and one can be forgiven for thinking that seeing God as acting 'sweetly' int the world borders on delusional. Yet, that 'sweetly' reminds me to look for the pleasant traces of God's sweetness, of his grace, of his good work in the world. That 'sweetly' reminds me of the hope found in the goodness of this life, when, frankly, I want to focus on the injustices or hurts which I see in my life. God acts and will continue to act 'mightily' in the world and that might be terrifying if we did not remember God's sweetness, which delights in the good and the pleasant. It delights in the same goodness and pleasantness that we dismiss with a 'yes, but....' when reminded of it. That sweetness is a reminder that we can live in gratitude for the good that we see in our life and that is a viable alternative for pessimism and despair. The problem is that we often have to learn gratitude, while pessimism is, altogether too easy to practice.

So, that is why we learn the path of prudence. Again, prudence is one of those unpopular virtues- one which looks frumpy and old fashioned. Yet, prudence, while a scarce phenomenon, remains important and relevant. Prudence, at its root, is the human relative of Wisdom. It is the recognition of one's limits. That recognition tends to go against the grain for our culture, nurtured by the power of positive thinking and message of self-help. Prudence begins with the recognition that we are not and will not be gods, which should be a relief to the prudent person. Ultimately, God is the one with true Wisdom and it is prudence which recognizes our limitations in this area. We are not God and that is, because of the state of our 'wisdom', is a good thing. The path of prudence encourages us to eschew the immediate and see ourselves in the longer view. It helps us to move past the disappointments and disturbance of our day in order to see the long-view; that God's grace created this wondrous world and that that same grace will redeem the mess we've made of it. And it is this sense of perspective which gives us the hope we need to seek out God's Wisdom as a guide for our life. That path isn't always easy, but it has its comforts.

May the God of Wisdom stay with your on your path today and always.


Sunday, December 01, 2013


"The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 

In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills;all the nations shall stream to it. 
Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;nation shall not lift up sword against nation,   neither shall they learn war any more." Isaiah 2, 1-4 NRSV

Advent is upon us and that is a good thing. It is a good thing because it is all to easy to how God enters into this world, in dramatic ways and in less dramatic, everyday ways. For me, the last two months of Ordinary time are times of incredible busyness as I return to school after a two month break and get back to the busy routine of a thriving Latin program. Advent hits me just after report cards and just as deadlines for registering for extra-curriculars are just coming due. The coming of advent is, for me, a reminder to watch for the ways that God is entering into my life daily and how I very often miss it entirely. 

It is, of course, very easy to get lost in the daily grind, so my experience is hardly an unusual one. Yet, I know that, for me, it is those daily advents which connect me to God and keep my perspective where it needs to me- off myself and onto what God is calling on me to be and to do where I am. Those daily advents connect me to those around me and keeps me from dwelling in my head and thinking that I am in control of the things and people in my life. Advents, whether they are of the daily variety or that of Christ, which, so far, is unique in human history, include more than a little layer of mystery because our sense of what is coming remains unknown until it is here. Who could have anticipated the coming of God's son in 1st century Judaea? And who expects the moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary in the middle of a conversation or a class or a coffee with a co-worker, when the mystery of another person or of God's healing presence suddenly reveals itself unexpectedly? No one can plan for those little advents and, yet, they remain precious because they are the raw material for hope which is a precious commodity these days. 

Yet, Advent is more than even these little moments. There are bigger Advents as the passage of Isaiah which I quoted at the top of this post suggests. This passage of Isaiah is familiar, of course, to any of us who hang around our churches during Advent; so familiar that I wonder if we really get the wonder of the vision. Amid the chaotic world of the last years of the Judaic kingdom and the exile which followed, Isaiah dared to dream of a time in which Jerusalem would not only experience peace, but it would be the agent of peace throughout the whole world. That is incredible, given the reality that Isaiah was himself facing at the time. And it hasn't lost its power over centuries of war and injustice in the world for both Jews and all people. 

The reading of this passage at church today was also a reminder for me to look for the peace in the here and now. That, of course, calls me to face the injustice and hostility of others, but, even more so, my own. A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to reflect on my tendency to retreat into a stronghold to deal with my own failings as well as whatever difficult things occur to me from time to time. Now, that isn't all bad. We are constantly reminded that God is our stronghold, but I recognized that that defensiveness, occasioned by anxiety, also tends to cut me off from people and from finding ways to do good in the world. As I reflected further on this, a thought jumped into my head, just as the Eucharist was starting, that asked me 'what would peace look like?' And that thought has stuck in my head for the last few weeks. What this passage says about that question, I think, is not only that the weapons which my anxiety thinks I need will be transformed into the tools of peace and abundance, but, also, that I must rely on God's justice if I want to find peace, not on my control of the situation. And that is hard because I want to control things from inside my little fortress. The fact that my attempts to do that usually end badly is evidence of how effective a strategy that is. Perhaps it is time to trust in the new tools God has given me in order to get on with the work in front of me

So, Advent is here, not a moment too soon. 


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sulpicius Severus, Letter II- To the Deacon Aurelius- Part 1

Here is the second of the three letters of Sulpicius Severus on St. Martin

After you left me in the morning, I had settled down in my cell and that thought stole up to me which often has occupies me- the hope for the future and the aversion to the present; the fear of  judgement and the dread of punishment- and, what follows and from where the whole thought descends, the record of my sins returned to me, sad and worn out. (2) Then, after laid out my limbs, tired because of my anguished mine, on my little bed,, as I am mostly accustomed to do out of out of sorrow, sleep crept up- which as it is lighter and uncertain in the early morning, so it, wavering and doubtful, was scattered through my limbs, as what does not happen in any other sleep, almost awake, you perceive yourself sleeping--(3) When, suddenly, I seemed to see bishop Martin, adorned in a white toga, with a fiery face, eyes like stars and bright red hair. In this way, he seemed to have the appearance and form of a body in which I knew him so that, what is different is difficult for us to day, he could not be examined, while he could be recognized. Smiling at me, he held in his right hand that little book which I wrote about his life. (4) I, embracing his holy legs, as usually, I asked his blessing. I felt his hand placed on my head with a very soft touch, when, among the solemn words of blessing, he repeated that name of the cross in an intimate way. Soon, with my intent on him, I could not be satisfied with his face or his visage, suddenly being taken up, he was snatched from me until, in the immense vastness of the sky I followed him travelling in a sweet cloud. He was received into open heaven and could not be seen beyond.

(5) I saw, not much later, the blessed priest, Clarus, his disciple, who recently died, climb by that same road as his master. I, rashly desiring to follow, tried to struggle towards them on high and woke up. I, roused from sleep, began to congratulate myself on my vision which I had seen, when a young relative came to me, his face sadder for speaking and giving pain.

 (6) I said "What do you bear so sadly to say?"

 He said, "Two monks are here now from Turo. They announce that lord Martin is dead" I admit, I fell and I wept very much with tears springing up. Truly, even while I write this to you, brother, tears flow. Nor do I allow any solace for this, my unendurable pain. Truly, when it is announced to you, I wanted you to share  my grief, you who are an associate of my love.

(7)  I cam immediately to myself so that we mourn equally whom we love equally, although I know that, of all men, Martin must not be mourned. (He is one), after the world is conquered and the age triumphed over, to whom the crown of justice will be granted. (8) However, I am not able to rule over myself. I am in pain. Indeed, I sent ahead my patron, but I lost the solace of my present life.


Letter #2 is the first of the two letters dealing with the death of St. Martin and is clearly the most emotional of the two. As we'll see in the next segments, Sulpicius gives vent to his grief to a point which can legitimately be considered excessive even in the less emotionally inhibited context of the late Roman period. Indeed, the whole of the third letter is explained by the suggestion that perhaps he gets a bit carried away in this letter.

In our passage, however, we see a fairly standard after death appearance of the a saint to a faithful disciple. There is an echo of this in the Life of Martin, when Martin sees the rising of a far-off bishop. Here, Sulpicius is supernaturally blessed by Martin before the news of his death has reached Sulpicius' monastery. This is, of course, logical, given Sulpicius' role as St. Martin's literary agent and protector and, no doubt, would have the effect of building up Sulpicius' spiritual credentials for continuing in this capacity. This sounds needlessly cynical, perhaps, but there is a disturbing undertone to this story which makes one wonder.

Watch for the second installment of this letter in a short while.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Sulpicius Severus, Letter 1 Part 2

Welcome to the second installment of the first letter of Sulpicius Severus. The first installment can be found here. In this excerpt, we get a clear account of the incident which opponents of St. Martin were trying to use against him.


9. but, however, I will not allow (myself) to hide that about which the question came to light and I will report the whole affair as it was done so that we will, by chance, seem to bypass intentionally that which could expose that blessed man to blame.

10. When, in almost the middle of the winter, Martin arrived at a certain diocese for a solemn custom, just as it is the custom for bishops to visit their churches, the clerics prepared a resting place in the sanctuary of the church and put much fire under a rough and weak floor. They  heaped up a bed with much straw. Then, when Martin placed himself to lie down, he shuddered at the unaccustomed softness of the soothing bed, seeing that he was accustomed to lie down on bare ground with one goat-hair cover spread over him. (11) Thus, disturbed as if having received an injury, he threw off the whole covering. By chance, it heaped part of the chaff which he had moved over the oven. He himself rested, as was his custom, on the bare earth due to the urging of his tiredness from the journey. As we said, at almost the middle of the night, the burning fire seized the burning straw through the broken flooring. (12) Martin, roused from his sleep unexpectedly, with a very great and two-fold danger, as was reported, hindered by the devil's ambush and urging, fled to the help of prayer more slowly than he ought. For, desire to break down the door, when, struggling for a very long time with the bolt with which he shut the door, he perceived a very serious fire around him to such an extent that the fire caught his clothes which he wore. (13) At last, coming to his sense, knowing that his help was not in flight, but in God, taking up the shield of faith and prayer, he turned himself and gave himself completely to God. he prayed with him unharmed in a circle of flames. The monks, who were at the door, after (hearing) the roaring,crackling sound of fire, broke down the bolted doors and, with the fire extinguished, brought Martin out the midst of the flames. although he was thought to have been consumed by such a long-lasting fire. (14) Yet, and God is the witness to my words, Martin himself reported to me and admitted not without a groan, that he was deceived in this situation by the skill of the devil so that, shaken out of sleep, he did not have a plan by which he might fight the danger through faith and prayer. Finally, for as long as the fire raged around him, he, disturbed in his mind, tried to break down the door. (15) When he sought the standards of the cross and arms of prayers, in the middle, the flames ceased and he, then noticed sprinkling water which fought the fire. From this, whoever reads this understands that Martin was tempted by that danger indeed, but he was truly proven by it.    


With this passage, after much rhetorical flourish, we finally get to the incident which has created the occasion for Sulpicius' discussion about saintly power and its limitations. The incident itself, I think, is reasonably simple to reconstruct. An accidental fire was caused by Martin throwing off what was, to his mind, overly soft bedding which fell into the furnace. The fire caught the walls and, while trying the obvious route of escape- the door-, Martin was injured. When he fell back into the room, aided by a mysterious 'dew', Martin found he was safe from the flames until the monks in the rest of the house were finally able to break into the room and save the beleaguered saint.

To us, this story seems almost trivial. Of course, Martin should have watched where was kicking his bedding, but past a warning about fire safety, is this really something to get so worked up over? There is, however, an odd hint of the supernatural implied in how Martin was saved from the flames. As long as Martin struggled against the door, he was, apparently, relying on his own strength. When Martin stopped fighting with the bolt and retreated into the midst of the fire, not only did he get away from the flames, but a sprinkling of water helped keep him safe. The suggestion is that the fire was, actually, a diabolical test of Martin's confidence in God  and that, as soon as he stopped acting on his own will to save himself and started praying, he was victorious. The fact that he didn't immediately see it as a spiritual trial is merely a confession of Martin's human weakness, especially, one must conclude, when roused from a sound sleep by a raging inferno. Of course, he overcame the temptation and the danger which is the point of  the power of his saintliness. Or, at least, this is what Sulpicius wants us to take from this story.

Of course, it is exactly this sort of spiritualizing natural events which drives many people these days crazy. Are we really expected to believe that God saved St. Martin from an everyday house fire because he prayed his way to safety? What about those faithful people, God only knows how many, who have died in fires over the ages? Were they not faithful enough? Doesn't this prove that faith, as conceived by Sulpicius and many of his peers, was merely some sort of magic which has no place in our scientific world of material cause and effect? Why shouldn't we just reject this story as yet another puerile miracle story?

I'm not sure if I have a definitive answer to these questions. Clearly, the conception of the 'holy man' which we discussed in the last post should influence how we read Sulpicius' interpretation of this event. To the 'holy man' and his supporters, even the most trivial thing is spiritual, so it is natural to look whether the spiritual forces of evil were in play during particular events in a way that we wouldn't in this post-Enlightenment age. And I do think we have to take this automatic spiritualizing of natural events as a warning when we are tempted to tell a person that their illness was the result of their lack of faith or other such nonsense. Or, for that matter, when we insist that the survival of one person amid a disaster was a sign of God's favour, when many others, possibly as faithful, perish. I'm not entirely sure I see the difference between this and Sulpicius' spiritualizing of this house fire.

What humbles me about this incident is the recognition that not all that much has changed in the world. It is easy to latch onto this episode's miraculous, almost magical character and use it to assure ourselves that we are so much smarter, so much less credulous than our ancestors. Yet, if we are entirely honest, we have to recognize that, as Christians, we can't escape the real question that Sulpicius raises here: what is the relationship between the physical dangers of this world and our spirituality. While I think, in his desperate attempt to depict St. Martin as a archetypical 'holy man', Sulpicius over-reads the spiritual into this story, his main point is that even godly people like the apostles suffer from the physical injury without losing their status as godly people. In many ways, Sulpicius seems to be trying to answer the age-old question of why do bad things happen to good people- or, at least, here, saintly people. To my eyes, it doesn't look, despite our presumed greater knowledge and sophisicated, like we have any greater insight into that question.

Peace, Phil

Sunday, August 18, 2013

First Letter of Sulpicius Severus- Part 1

As promised here is the first installment of the 1st Letter of Sulpicius Severus:

(for those of you who are interested, here is the link to the Latin (p.138ff)

1. Yesterday, when many monks came to me, in the midst of continuous stories and a long conversation, mention of my little book which I published about the life of the blessed Bishop Martin came up. I listened with great pleasure that it was eagerly read by many. 2. Nevertheless, it is reported to me that someone, caught up by an evil spirit, had asked why Martin, who had raised the dead and drove flames away from houses, had himself recently been burned by fire and suffered a dangerous injury.

3. O that wretch, whoever he is! We recognize the treachery and speech of the Jews in his words, who mocked the Lord, placed on a cross, with these words "He saved others; he cannot save himself" (Matthew, 27,42). Truly, had that man, whoever he is, been born in those times so that he, who falsely abused the holy man of the Lord in the similar way for example, could speak to the Lord with those words. 5. What, then, who ever you are, is Martin not powerful for that reason? Is he not holy that that reason, because he was tried by fire?

O blessed man, similar in all things to the Apostles even in the insults of men! Without a doubt, the gentiles were reported to think this about Paul, when a viper bit him: "This man must be a murderer whom the fates did not allow to live after being saved from the sea" (Acts 28,4). He, after he shook off the snake into the fire, suffered no evil. Rather, when they saw nothing evil touched him, turning to him, they said he was God. Yet, by examples of this type, most unlucky of all mortals, you must prove your treachery so that, if scandal moved you because Martin seemed to be touched by the flame of a fire, you report his merits and spiritual power tainted because, surrounded by fire, he did not die.

6. Understand, wretch, understand what you do not know, that almost all holy men are more proven by their dangers. Indeed, I see Peter, powerful by faith, with stubbornly passed over the sea with his feet and pressed the unstable water with a human step. Nor did the prophet of the nations, whom the waves swallowed and restored him after three days and as many nights, emerging from the deep, seem to be less to me for that reason, whom the waves swallowed and restored him, . I do not know whether, as I may say, he who lived in the deep or who crossed over the depths of the sea was greater.

7, But I think you, you idiot, did not read this or, if you had read them, did you understand (these stories). Nor did the blessed Evangelist bring an example of this type by divine plan in his sacred letters unless that the human mind should be educated by these calamities of shipwrecks and serpents and, just as the Apostle reported, who was glorified by the nakedness, hunger and dangers of brigands, all of these things are common things to endure for holy men, but there was always power for the just to endure and conquer these things. While they endure through all their trials and, so much more bravely do they, who are always unconquered, conquer, by so much they endure more difficulties.

8. Hence, what is called the weakness of Martin, is full of worth and glory, if only because, being tried by a very dangerous fate, he overcame. In this respect, no one should be astonished that I left this out in my little book which we wrote about his life, when, in that very place, I admitted that I did not embrace all of his deeds: because If I had wanted to pursue everything, I would have published an immense volume to my readers. Nor were these things so few which he did that everything could be included. Nevertheless, I will not allow this to be hidden and I will report the whole story as it was done so that, by chance, we should seem to pass by intentionally this incident which could be presented for criticism against that blessed man.    


This letter raises several interesting issues. To start with, we get a glimpse of how Sulpicius' the Life of St. Martin was received. In a way, the Life of St. Martin is a peculiarity because, not only is it written when those who knew Martin were still alive, but, even more unusual, it was written when its subject was still alive. Martin was a highly controversial bishop in his days as the Life itself indicates, so it is inevitable that there would be critics of so laudatory a work as the Life. While Sulpicius makes it clear that most monastics liked his Life, he has to address criticism of his portrayal and, more importantly, his casting of Martin as an archetypal 'holy man' in the already developing monastic tradition emerging out of Egypt and Syria. The criticism is double-edged- first an attack on Martin's status as a holy man through what looks like a lapse in his spiritual power (virtus), but, just as importantly, an attack on Sulpicius' credibility because he failed to report this damaging evidence.

This last point has some point to it, of course. The Life is so laudatory, so positive in its claims for Martin that it is hard not to believe that Martin has his lapses as well. While contemporary Western society seems to have the daft notion that saints are perfect (probably nurtured by well meaning nonsense from within the Church), it is clear to anyone who investigates it that, while saints might reflect an extraordinary devotion to God, they had as many flaws as anyone else. Yet, what is interesting is the implication that the criticism of Sulpicius' omission of this story comes from a source which also knew Martin and his community well enough to dredge up this seemingly damaging evidence. There is no indication who the critic is, although it is difficult to believe that Sulpicius didn't know. The continued coy repetition of 'whoever he is' in the early part of the letter makes me thinks Sulpicius knew very well who the critic is, but he just didn't want to say. For my money, I wonder if it isn't Brice (later Martin's successor as bishop and, oddly, also a saint, but, at this time, a fierce critic of Martin who went so far as to question Martin's grip on reality) or someone associated with him. That is speculation and, given the opposition we know Martin stirred up, the criticism could have come from other directions.

Yet, the real point of this letter is not a critic catching Sulpicius out. The more important point is that this story forces Sulpicius to talk about the how we know a 'holy man'; a spiritual stereotype which governed much monastic literature in the fourth century. There has been quite a bit written about the holy man in Late Antiquity over the last thirty or forty years, so I can't hope to replicate that literature. However, briefly, the figure of the 'holy man' becomes important fairly early on in the history of monasticism with St. Anthony and various other Egyptian and Syrian monastics who adopted a severely ascetic lifestyle. Some of these figures began to emerge as spiritual leaders by virtue of their miraculous powers (as reported by the literature) and their wisdom developed through prayer. As a result, in their village communities, they became important intercessors with God, but, also, with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities on a whole range of issues. Indeed, both bishops and civil authorities all the way up to emperors would opt to visit these holy men in the hopes of receiving their blessing and, possibly, their support. The implication is that the monastic 'holy man' gained power through his special relationship with God, which allowed him to do all sorts of things; some miraculous, because of their special spiritual power.

Sulpicius' Life can be understood as an attempt to encourage the spread of monasticism in 4th century Roman Gaul by portraying him as a native-born 'holy man' in the tradition of the Desert Fathers. As a result, Sulpicius makes much of Martin's miraculous healings, supernatural battles with the 'gods' of the countryside and his dealings with Emperors and near-Emperors to buttress the claim that Martin had the extraordinary spiritual power, gained through his conquest of his own passions and faults. This conquest of his human limitations makes him a valued spiritual guide and, more importantly for Sulpicius' hope to encourage the ascetic life in Gaul, spiritual authority. So, it was important for Martin's spiritual authority to always be able to overcome the dangers put in his way. He does this throughout the Life, but, here, he seems to fail. Why is this a problem?

The problem with this failure is the unstated suggestion that this fire may have had a supernatural origin. It is a common place in hagiography that fire often is deployed by evil spirits, particularly when they arise suddenly and spread unpredictably fast. For example, in the Life, Sulpicius depicts Martin, while on one of his expeditions to clear of pagan altars, turned aside a tree set on fire by a demon which threatened to destroy a whole pagan village (Life, 14-). The irony, of course, must have been too good to resist, of course, that Martin who turned aside a flaming tree on one occasion proved to be helpless later one, when surrounded by flames. Where, one can almost hear being asked, is Martin's power now!

What is interesting with this criticism, however, isn't the deployment of evil spirits and/or demons to explain what would strike us as natural phenomena or coincidence. Rather, it is the implication that the saint demonstrates his power, at least partly, by his invulnerability whether physical or spiritual. The 'holy man', according to this view, has to have such power that he cannot be injured by the machinations of evil in this world. If he is, he is not really a 'holy man'.

Of course, this position, if it was truly held, is absurd. Sulpicius easily refutes it by noting the multitude of times that the Apostles or, even Christ himself, suffered from the attacks of evil in this world. Nobody can earn immunity from suffering in this world, so the implication that Martin's authority is somehow injured by being burned in a raging fire flies in the face of clear examples of holy men and women being injured or killed in this world. Sulpicius refers back to the Apostles and prophets to emphasize that God's holy ones might be injured, but those injuries were evidence of their endurance and faithfulness and turned out for their and the church's building up. And that is leaving off the voluntary suffering of Christ which used the force of evil to break evil's hold on the world.

Yet, this is the point when the 'who cares?' question needs to be asked. Isn't this just a moment in the arcane disputes about sainthood and who wins the prize in the ascetic Olympics (okay, you're sitting on a 10 foot pole. I'll beat that. I'll sit on a 50 foot pole! Luxury, you think a 50 foot pole is bad! I....). For me, however, what we're really talking about here is the problem of suffering and the Christian life. For so many people, both those practicing a faith and those not, faith serves as some kind of invisible shield from bad things. God is the cosmic cop who prevents bad things from happening to us because we have preferred status as his children. One look at the headlines in Egypt or a glance at a parish prayer list should make that claim an absurdity, but the delusion of faith giving immunity to suffering remains a prevalent temptation. If God himself doesn't avoid suffering or a saint can't avoid injury, then who are we to think we can? Faith isn't magic. It is, instead, a hope which will carry us through the suffering that is so much a part of this beautiful, but damaged world. Sulpicius' well-chosen examples reinforce this because the sufferings and failings of Paul, Peter, Jonah and others, ultimately, are made good in encouraging us to persevere in the face of difficulties. They represent a reflection of the Cross' divine 'judo' which takes the force of the evil in this world and uses it to overthrow it. And it is the hope implicit in this turning of evil to good that sustains me throughout the struggles that I experience in my ordinary life.

Watch for the second installment of this letter in a few days!


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

St. Martin in the Letters of Sulpicius Severus

I've decided now that I've finally finished the three letters of Sulpicius Severus on St. Martin, that I'd publish a draft translation of them for comment or, at least, to help me think through some of the linguistic and/or historical issues with them. So, I'm intending to publish them, section by section with commentary, as it occurs to me. I should note that this is not incredibly well researched commentary, but just things that popped into my head as I translated. So, consider both it and the commentary as a work-in-progress.

There is, of course, a bit of a history to this project. Way back in 2009, I finished posting my translation of Sulpicius Severus', Life of St. Martin. You can find that translation and commentary series right here. My intention was that I'd do a few more revisions, work-up a decent translation and self-publish a serviceable Letters of Sulpicius Severus, the Dialogus by the same author, bits of the same author's Chronicle and Gregory the Great's much later biography of Martin. My rationale for this is that these works aren't generally as well known as the Life, but give important supplementary information. My observations on my preliminary reading of this material can be found in my Return to St. Martin post from last July.

translation as a gift to the two St. Martin-in-the-Field churches' I've attended (in West Toronto and London, Ont). However, last year, it got into my head that I'd like to add the other sources which discuss St. Martin such as the

So, the Letters are first. These are, presumably, part of a larger collection of letters which have not survived. I suspect that these letters survive because they were preserved with manuscripts which also contained the Life (I will check on that, of course). By any measure, they are peculiar. They pick up where the Life leaves off. Indeed, the First Letter purports to answer sceptical critics of the Life and of St. Martin, while St. Martin was still alive. In this letter, Sulpicius Severus rebukes an critic who scoffed at Martin's presumed status as a holy man because he had been injured in a fire whereas, if he was truly blessed and/or powerful, he should have escaped injury. The criticism exploits the common view of the monk as holy man who had almost magical powers because of God's favour. Sulpicius Severus rebukes this conception and, of course, defends his hero.

The next two letters deal with Martin's death. The Second Letter passes on the bad news to a colleague. Severus is in the depths of grief, so the writing is highly rhetorical and emotional. Modern readers might be a little put off by the extremes of emotion and rhetorical flash. Indeed, to judge from the introduction of the Third Letter, so were some contemporaries including, possibly, Severus' own mother. The Third Letter gives a more sober account of Martin's death, albeit with flashes of the grief from the previous letter.

My procedure with the Letters will be to break them into digestible chunks, publish the translation and commentary together. So, this will take a few weeks to manage, but I hope you'll enjoy exposure to the story of St. Martin as told by Sulpicius Severus.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Practical Patristics

Summer's here again and so is the time for blogging. Well, it isn't quite that bad, but close. Certainly, the summer is the time when I have the most time to reflect on what I've been reading and thinking for the times in the year in which there isn't much time to sit down and write.

What has come back into my mind is a slip of the tongue I made one day about a year or so ago, when I was talking to my wife about St. Vladimir's Popular Patristics series and said, instead, Practical Patristics. We laughed, of course, but it did get me thinking about what does Practical Patristics, actually, look like.

Of course, there are people (many people, I suspect) who might well think the idea of practical patristics is oxymoronic. Isn't patristics just a bunch of dead old white guys spouting off about stuff that no one actually cares about; that is, when they aren't actively oppressing anyone who doesn't agree with them? Didn't the Fathers put those darned angels on the pin for the scholastics to count because of their tedious philosophizing on the Christological and Trinitarian heresies? How would that be practical?

I get what people like this are saying. There are a lot of highly technical, highly philosophical patristic treatises on the fine points of Trinitarian theology, often including very difficult to follow polemics against those unfortunate enough to stray from the author's own sense of orthodoxy. I admit that, to this day, I haven't been about to get more than five pages into St. Cyril of Alexandria's On the Unity of Christ (also available through St. Vlad's Popular Patristic series). The fault, I hasten to add, isn't in St. Cyril, but in my own not particularly philosophical mind. I am still a fan of the hypostatic union and I think I get it, but don't ask for the philosophical underpinnings because, as soon as I think about it, my head starts hurting and I get sleepy.

Yet, focusing only on these works, as critics and academic fans alike often do, ignores not only the sheer variety of patristic writings, but the attention that the Church Fathers gave to the pastoral side of their ministries. It is a very different experience to read, say, St. Basil's technical treaties on the Holy Spirit and to read his sermons. Or, for that matter, consider all those sermons by so many Church Fathers which discuss the nitty-gritty of Christian life. St. Basil's or St. John Chrysostom sermons on social justice will curl your hair and make you wonder if you are giving enough or doing enough for the poor. I could multiply examples, but the practicality of these authors is difficult to escape.

Nor are the Father's only about moral admonition. Take the very way that they assume that theology is done; through the lens of prayer. This sounds odd to us in the modern age who seem to think that theology as an academic pursuit can be done in the absence of prayer or those who have thought (and may continue to think) that it is best done that way. Yet, the aridities of many modern theologians are part of the reason why theology has a bad name these days because one can detect the disconnect between faith and theology. The patristic example offers a way to fuse these back together and, I suspect, explains the modest revival among some evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox theologians of the past twenty or thirty years.

Furthermore, the modest revival in interest in the Desert Fathers- those monastic figures whose teachings come to us in collections of saying from the Egyptian and Syrian desert communities- also reveals the relevance of patristic teachings on prayer. The advice and insights given by these monastic writers are intensely practical guides to the obstacles to prayer which betray such a subtle understanding of human psychology that they remain useful even today. Indeed, one of the books which has fed my reflections in this post, Father Alexis Trader's Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy, directly parallels the teachings of the Fathers on prayer with cognitive behavior therapy, which is one of the leading therapy methods for depression, addiction and anxiety. The parallels are intriguing and suggest a usefulness in the teachings of the Desert Fathers which is rather under appreciated.

Alright, but is any of this practical? It depends on perspective, I suspect. If we mean practical as in something which will make us money or famous, then, probably not. If we mean practical as in something that we can take from the pages of a book and actually apply it in real time, make it part of our Christian praxis, then, yes, I think so. One of the glories of patristic thinking is that firm belief that theory and practice (theoria and praxis) aren't at odds, but should constantly feed each other. The trick is figuring out how.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Wrongs that are so wrong that there is nothing you can do to make them right

Over the last few weeks, I've been mulling over a particularly striking phrase employed in a video of Stanley Hauerwas talking at Azuza Univeristy (the part I'm thinking about starts around the 9:45 minute point in the attached video). In a discussion of his discomfort with being called the best theologian in America, Hauerwas explains that "America is a country which has no idea of what to do with wrongs so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make it right". While his discussion goes on to what Hauerwas perceives as the American inability to come to terms with its past wrongs, I was struck with his phrase 'wrongs so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make them right'. That's a striking phrase in the Hauerwasian vein--provocative and memorable. Yet, I admit, on reflection, that its meaning isn't necessarily so clear.

What I think Hauerwas is getting at are wrongs that strike at the heart of who we are as people in a God-made world. That is, they challenge what God is trying to do in this world by elevating our self-interest and drive for power to the place that it overrides the justice and compassion that we are called to exercise in this world. They are, in that sense, the wrongs committed while we are imprisoned by the idolatry of ourselves and our place in the world. That makes them, I think, one of the multiple milestones that we hang over our own necks as we seek our will to the exclusion of God's and our neighbours. The fallout of these wrongs distort our relationships, create new conflicts, perpetuate old ones and, ironically, make it increasingly difficult to face up to our wrongs because of our need to create a self-justifying narrative to avoid admitting to our weakness and need for forgiveness. The result is that it is frightfully difficult to break out the cycle of these wrongs which are so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make them right', partly because it is easier to ignore them than to face up to our capacity for evil and partly because they tend to be the start of a string of such wrongs by all sides in a situation. So, these wrongs merely feed the cycle of violence, injustice and brokenness which characterizes not only the political realm which is Hauerwas' focus, but our communal and personal lives.

Anyone who reads Christian history knows that we, like most other groups of people, have any number of wrongs so wrong that there is nothing that we can do to make them right. It isn't difficult to generate a list: the Crusades, religious wars, treatment of Jews and other religious minorities etc.. Nor have we been immune from the temptation to whitewash them as we think about our past. That is, I think, one reason why ecclesiastical history has such a bad name in the historical profession because all too often our historians have tried to spin our wrongs to blame our victims and cast ourselves as the injured in too many cases. No wonder even a whiff of Christian theology is likely to cause other historians to dismiss what we have to say.

Yet, as Hauerwas points out, Christians have a unique understanding of these 'wrongs that are so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make them right' because of our participation in the passion of Christ. In fact, the Cross may represent the ultimate wrong that is so wrong that there's nothing we can do to make them right because it represents the moment when humanity rejected the Son of God and inflicted our injustice and violence on an entirely innocent God. There is nothing that we can do to make it up that humanity, nearly as one, cried 'Crucify Him' when they confronted God as Man.

What is more the phrase continues to percolate down from the level of our faith communities and into our own lives. Wrongs that are so wrong that there's nothing that we can do to make them right are also legion in the lives of individuals, Christian or not. We have all, I think, done damage to our relationships and each other by insisting on our own will and disregarding or overriding those around us whom we will hurt in consequence. We can come up with all sorts of excuses for that like "I felt led to do that' or the 'The Lord told me...' or 'I had no choice....' or 'I had to live my truth....', but the damage is no less real. Relationships break, resentment grows, the desire for revenge is sparked and soon we're in a tit-for-tat exchange of wrongs. Christian or not, this is a sad reality in our lives.

Yet, what is remarkable about Hauerwas' discussion is not that he identifies these wrongs, but that he identifies what solves it--the ability to be forgiven and the consequent commitment to speak truthfully about our wrongs. The temptation in these wrongs is to sweep them under the rug, possibly by affected cluelessness about the impact of our decisions, or denial that it even mattered, or by angrily blaming the person we have wronged, or by framing the resistance of those we've wronged as aggression, or by tireless self-flagellation without any attempt to seek forgiveness. All of these attempts to sweep aside these wrongs are founded upon a rejection of the humility needed to admit one's sins and seek forgiveness. It is hard to be honest enough to admit even to oneself the depth of our wrongs. And so the poison of resentment or self-righteousness can seep in our lives and blight everything we see and we love. Receiving forgiveness is a hard remedy to many of us, but the disease which results from these kinds of wrongs, not only in the one who suffers the wrong, but the one who perpetrates it, is so much worse.

Wrongs that are so wrong that there's nothing we can do to make them right, in whatever form they take, the collective or the individual, are scary things. They're scary because, not only because they reveal the truth of how we all sin and fall short of the the good God made us to do, but also because they are demonstration of our powerlessness in the face of our failings. No one goes out to commits these kinds of wrongs. They almost always appear when we seek our advantage or the advantage of those around us without regard for the bigger picture; when the good we seek becomes greater than the good God would have us do. It happens when what we seek becomes the idol and God and his children becomes the means to feed that idol. They are the relational fallout of our will to power and they can only be fixed by an equally scary emptying of our desires and 'needs' to seek the restoration of relationship through forgiveness. That effort demands both humility and rigorous honesty. And a hefty supply of divine help.