Monday, July 21, 2014

St Lawrence of Brindisi and the power of God's Word

Today we thank the Lord for St Lawrence of Brindisi, who is honoured as a Doctor of the Church.

He was born Caesar de Rossi at Brindisi, in the kingdom of Naples, Italy, on July 22, 1559 but took the name Lawrence when he became a Capuchin Franciscan at the age of 16. 

While a deacon, Lawrence became well-known for his powerful preaching of the Word of God, and after his ordination to the priesthood startled the whole of northern Italy with his sermons. 

In 1596, he became a Superior in his order, and five years later went to Germany with Benedict of Urbino. They founded several priories throughout Europe. 

In 1602, Lawrence became the Master General of his order. He worked, preached and wrote to spread the Gospel. He also went on important peace missions to Munich and Madrid. The rulers of those places listened to him and his missions were successful. Eventually Lawrence was worn out by constant travell in difficult conditions and by the strain of his ministry. He became ill and died in 1619. But he lived and died for the Lord, and through his faithfulness many embraced the saving Gospel.

Here is the passage set for the Office of Readings today. Would that all preachers today had such confidence in the power of God's Word!

There is a spiritual life that we share with the angels of heaven and with the divine spirits, for like them we have been formed in the image and likeness of God. The bread that is necessary for living this life is the grace of the Holy Spirit and the love of God. But grace and love are nothing without faith, since without faith it is impossible to please God. And faith is not conceived unless the word of God is preached. Faith comes through hearing, and what is heard is the word of Christ. The preaching of the word of God, then, is necessary for the spiritual life, just as the planting of seed is necessary for bodily life.

Christ says: The sower went out to sow his seed. The sower goes out as a herald of justice. On some occasions we read that the herald was God, for example, when with a living voice from heaven he gave the law of justice to a whole people in the desert.

On other occasions, the herald was an angel of the Lord, as when he accused the people of transgressing the divine law at Bochim, in the place of weeping. At this all the sons of Israel, when they heard the angel’s address, became sorrowful in their hearts, lifted up their voices, and wept bitterly. Then again, Moses preached the law of the Lord to the whole people on the plains of Moab, as we read in Deuteronomy. Finally, Christ came as God and man to preach the word of the Lord, and for the same purpose he sent the apostles, just as he had sent the prophets before them.

Preaching therefore, is a duty that is apostolic, angelic, Christian, divine. The word of God is replete with manifold blessings, since it is, so to speak, a treasure of all goods. It is the source of faith, hope, charity, all virtues, all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, all the beatitudes of the Gospel, all good works, all the rewards of life, all the glory of paradise: Welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you.

For the word of God is a light to the mind and a fire to the will. It enables man to know God and to love him. And for the interior man who lives by the Spirit of God, through grace, it is bread and water, but a bread sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, a water better than wine and milk. For the soul it is a spiritual treasure of merits yielding an abundance of gold and precious stones. Against the hardness of a heart that persists in wrongdoing, it acts as a hammer. Against the world, the flesh and the devil it serves as a sword that destroys all sin.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Who gets to decide if particular developments are right?

Suppose that another Letter from the Apostle Paul to Timothy is discovered, and all the scholars agree that it is genuine. Suppose it contains some amazingly wonderful uplifting and spiritually nourishing passages, and appears not to alter seriously our existing theological paradigms. Suppose that some Christians think it should now be included in the New Testament and others say it shouldn’t be.

Who gets to decide?

The New Testament is a gift from God that we share with the rest of the Church Catholic. As a tiny minority of the Church Catholic, could the Church of England – or even a Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion – authorise on its own the inclusion in the NT Canon of that newly discovered Letter of Paul? 

Surely in such a basic area as the New Testament Canon our claim to be but part of the Church Catholic would impose serious constraints upon us, even if we ourselves favoured the proposed development. We simply could not say for certain ON OUR OWN that it is right.

Why is it so difficult to understand that this is exactly the issue for many Anglicans with regard to altering the male character of the ordained ministry, a gift, which like the NT Canon, we have always claimed to share with the rest of the Church Catholic?

The truth is that we cannot say for certain ON OUR OWN that it is right. 

In fact, that’s what is meant by an “open process of reception.” Even proponents of women priests and bishops sometimes admit that if this development is not in the end “received” by the great churches of East and West, then the Anglican provinces that have gone down that track will have to say, “Oops . . . sorry . . . we were wrong!” 

At the very least, the theology of “reception” morally obliges provinces with women priests and/or bishops to make “proper provision” for those who oppose the development on the basis that it is has not been discerned as right by the rest of the Church Catholic.

As part of the implementation of women bishops, the Church of England has decided to do just that. Provisions (meagre though they may seem) are being put in place that will enable those opposed on Catholic grounds to be assured in their consciences of an authentic Catholic sacramental life.

It’s the very least that should be done.

The question now is: Will other Anglican provinces throughout the world – including those who have so far acted ruthlessly towards the most Catholic of their people – follow the example of the Mother Church of the Communion?

Forward in Faith North America responds to the English women bishop's vote

In the light of recent events within the Church of England, and reports regarding Forward in Faith (U.K.), the officers of Forward in Faith North America (FiFNA) hereby issues the following statement.

First, it is with deep sorrow that FiFNA acknowledges the vote by the General Synod of the Church of England to proceed with the “consecration” of women to the episcopate. This action heightens the level of difficulty for Anglicans during this period of reception, by placing more barriers before those who are seeking to live under and promote the historic priesthood and episcopate. Sadly, the autonomy of the local church, albeit provinces, has usurped the authority and unity of Ecumenical consensus and the Church catholic, exposing yet again the ecclesial deficit of our Communion that can only be addressed through the historic tools of Conciliar discernment.

For our brothers and sisters in the Church of England who maintain the worldwide majority position of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church regarding Holy Orders, we pledge our prayerful support, love, and respect. You have consistently upheld biblical and theological principles in an age of secularism. However, we are encouraged that this most unfortunate decision, has been accompanied by provisions enabling Catholic Anglicans to remain in the Church of England with integrity, and the Church of England’s stated commitment to enable them to flourish within its life and structures. Sadly, since the beginning of the ordination of women as priests in the Episcopal Church, and their subsequent consecration to the episcopate, those assurances were offered, only to be later withdrawn to faithful Catholic Anglicans (in the Episcopal Church). The many divisions, coupled with massive litigation, have produced an environment which we pray will not become your reality.

We also assure you of our prayerful support as you seek to develop “The Society” under the patronage of St. Wilfrid and St. Hilda, as the ecclesial structure for bishops, clergy, religious and parishes to live in full communion with each other within the Church of England, as you recommit yourselves to Mission. Although this became impossible in the Episcopal Church, we pray that wisdom will prevail for you in the days ahead. We also wish to thank all those who have worked tirelessly in simply restating what the Church has always believed, and in particular what became obvious to many people in Forward in Faith – the necessity of working with faithful Anglicans of various traditions that may in some ways differ from our own, for the sake of unity in Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

We also reaffirm the position which FiFNA published previously concerning human sexuality, the importance of which, in many current challenges in Church life, cannot be overstated: “Under the authority of holy scripture and the tradition of the church, we affirm that sexual activity can only properly take place within the context of holy matrimony between a man and a woman. We affirm that any other type of sexual relationship is sinful regardless of context or degree of fidelity, and that the church cannot bless any type of sexual relationship outside of holy matrimony between a man and a woman. We affirm Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference as the standard for Christian sexual behavior.”

The Rt. Rev. Keith L. Ackerman, President
The Rt. Rev. William H. Ilgenfritz, Vice President
The Rev. Lawrence Bausch, Vice President

Dr. Michael W. Howell, Executive Director

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Mount Carmel is in a richly forested area at the southern end of a long fertile valley known from ancient times for its wine and oil production. From the summit of the mountain can be seen the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, making it a strategic site for defence of the rich land below. Stone age people dug caves into the side of the Mountain. As far as the  Scriptures are concerned, Mount Carmel is known chiefly as the site of a contest between Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (both false gods.) (1 Kings 8) 

The area is famous for its flower blossoms, shrubs, and fragrant herbs. The beauty of the bride in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 7:5) is compared to the mountain's beauty.  On its slopes are plentiful pastures (Isaiah 33:9, Jeremiah 50:19, Amos 1:2) Through the ages, monks sheltered in the caves, as did Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 18:19, 2 Kings 2:25.) Reference to Mt Carmel frequently suggests God’s care and generosity. The Hebrew name “karmel” means “garden land” and “a fruitful place.”

Today we celebrate the foundation of the Carmelite religious order in the 12th century. Berthold, the founder of the order, is sometimes said to have been a pilgrim to the area (perhaps to cave of Elijah), sometimes he is said to have been a crusader. Tradition says that he originated in southern France and was venturing in the Holy Land when he encountered fierce soldiers.  Receiving a vision of Jesus, he went to Mount Carmel and built a small chapel there. Before long he was joined by hermits who all lived there in community in imitation of Elijah. After his death, it seems that St. Brocard became leader of the hermits eventually leading to the establishment of the Carmelite Order in the 12th century. 

In Carmelite tradition Mount Carmel is understood to have been a place of deep devotion and monastic-style prayer since the time of Elijah. So they built an actual monastery there, and it was dedicated to the the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she was “Star of the Sea” – the cloud of life that dwells over the sea promising rain and fertility (1 Kings 18:41-45). (Remember that the Mediterranean is seen from Mount Carmel and is a garden of life.) Throughout the monastery’s long history, there were periods of sadness, especially when it fell under Islamic control, becoming a mosque known as El-Maharrakah (the place of burning, referring to Elijah’s challenge to the pagan prophets.) In the 18th century, Napoleon established the location as a hospital, but this was destroyed in 1821. Funds were collected by the Carmelites, by then a worldwide order, and they restored the monastery, which is considered the order's spiritual headquarters.

As time went by, the Carmelite order built monasteries throughout Europe and other parts of the world. It is not unusual for nuns and monks to receive visions from Mary and Jesus. 

For Carmelites Our Lady is the perfect model of the life of prayer and contemplation. She primarily points Christians to Jesus, saying to each what she said to the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” For Carmelites, Mary is a spiritual Mother. 

Fr. Gabriel of St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, OCD, wrote that devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel means:

"a special call to the interior life, which is preeminently a Marian life. Our Lady wants us to resemble her not only in our outward vesture but, far more, in heart and spirit. If we gaze into Mary’s soul, we shall see that grace in her has flowered into a spiritual life of incalculable wealth: a life of recollection, prayer, uninterrupted oblation to God, continual contact, and intimate union with him. Mary’s soul is a sanctuary reserved for God alone, where no human creature has ever left its trace, where love and zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind reign supreme. [. . . ] Those who want to live their devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel to the full must follow Mary into the depths of her interior life. Carmel is the symbol of the contemplative life, the life wholly dedicated to the quest for God, wholly orientated towards intimacy with God; and the one who has best realized this highest of ideals is Our Lady herself, ‘Queen and Splendour of Carmel’.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Day After . . . Two important statements

Many in the Church of England are celebrating today, following final approval of the legislation to permit women to be ordained as bishops.

While recognizing this, we deeply regret the further obstacle that this decision places in the path to the full, visible unity of the whole Church.

We do, however, welcome the provision that has been made in the House of Bishops’ Declaration. It recognizes that our theological convictions about ministry and ordination remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition. It assures us that bishops will continue to be consecrated within the Church of England who can provide episcopal ministry that accords with those theological convictions. It makes provision for parishes to gain access to that episcopal ministry by passing resolutions.

This gives us confidence in our future as catholics who are called to live out our Christian vocation in the Church of England. For this we give thanks to God.

On behalf of the Council of Bishops

Rt Revd Tony Robinson 
Bishop of Pontefract 

14/07/2014 4:50 pm

The Catholic Church remains fully committed to its dialogue with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. For the Catholic Church, the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion.

Such full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office. The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us. Nevertheless we are committed to continuing our ecumenical dialogue, seeking deeper mutual understanding and practical cooperation wherever possible.

We note and appreciate the arrangement of pastoral provision, incorporated into the House of Bishops’ Declaration and the amending Canon passed by the General Synod, for those members of the Church of England who continue to hold to the historic understanding of the episcopate shared by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

At this difficult moment we affirm again the significant ecumenical progress which has been made in the decades since the Second Vatican Council and the development of firm and lasting friendships between our communities. We rejoice in these bonds of affection and will do all we can to strengthen them and seek together to witness to the Gospel in our society.

Chairman of the Department for Dialogue and Unity 
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

Sunday, July 13, 2014

With the General Synod in mind, and the problem of the Church's "credibility" . . .

Friday, July 11, 2014

St Benedict, pray for us

It is difficult to look at the state of “Christian” Europe and the cultures derived from it without concluding that a new dark age is upon us. Now, however, according to Alisdair MacIntyre, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” Our not knowing this, MacIntyre adds, “constitutes part of our predicament.”

And so, Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was elected Pope, chose the name “Benedict”, drawing our attention to St Benedict of Nursia (whose solemnity it is today), pointing out that St Benedict and the monastic communities he founded carried the Gospel through difficult times like our own, influencing whole societies and regions, and preserving the best in the culture which would again one day flourish. Benedict’s apparently insignificant movement evolved into what Ratzinger called “the ark on which the West survived.”

While there will always be well attended shrines, cathedrals, mega-churches, and parishes propped up by trust funds or the primary and secondary schools that give them the appearance of effectiveness and usefulness, it is clear that today’s Church in western European cultures is entering a new era which will (as Ratzinger said) be characterized by the mustard seed — small groups that seem to have little significance in the world. But these small groups of Christians who are serious about real discipleship, holiness of life and evangelisation - in the manner of St Benedict and his communities - will incarnate an alternative way to the rabidly secular, individualistic patterns of living we have got used to, and pave the way for real Gospel renewal in our chaotic society entrenched in its culture of death. 

Born around 480 AD in Norcia, a town near enough to Rome to have felt the convulsive effects of its sack in 410 by Alaric, the Visigothic King (the first time in eight centuries Rome had fallen), Benedict grew up in a world whose moorings had been completely uprooted.  Less than a half-century after Alaric, the Vandals would finish the job he’d begun, leaving Rome looted and in ruins once more. We gain an idea of the upset of this period when we look at the effect on Rome’s population. According to the most conservative estimates there were just under a million people in Rome by the end of the 4th century. By 550 AD this had dwindled to a mere thirty thousand.  

Sent to Rome as a student, Benedict experienced first hand the trauma of its loss and, recoiling from its depravities, fled into the wilderness to pursue an undistracted life of union with God.

And there in a life of prayer, pondering the Scriptures, and fasting in order to gain "self-mastery", Benedict discovered the truth that would make him a great light in the darkest of ages. He saw that by drawing nearer to God and responding to those promptings of grace and love that the Lord had given him, the world he had fled was itself beginning to be transformed into a better and more wholesome place.  Benedict had become, unwittingly, an agent of renewal and regeneration.

A movement began. Others joined him who were equally thirsty for a life of transforming intimacy with God. Eventually Benedict made his way to Monte Cassino, some eighty miles to the southeast of Rome, demolished the altar of Apollo, and raised up his own altar, consecrating it to the glory of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here emerged the ideals of Benedictine life, enshrined in the famous Rule with its exhortation to “pray and work.”

Five years before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger said about Benedict that

“turning the earth into a garden and the service of God (were) fused together and became a whole . . . Worshipping God always takes priority . . . But at the same time, it’s a matter of cultivating and renewing the earth in an ethos of worship . . . Manual labor now becomes something noble . . . an imitation of the Creator’s work.  [And] along with the new attitude toward work comes a change in our ideas about the dignity of man.”

From such a modest beginning, a handful of religious would in due course create the Christian West. In a very moving essay on St Benedict published more than sixty years ago, Whittaker Chambers wrote: 

“At the touch of his mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages.  For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.”

It has often been said that thanks to St Benedict and Western monasticism, the demise of classical civilization was the occasion for a new beginning - and, eventually, a nobler civilizational accomplishment.

(For Anglicans it is important to recognise the centrality of Benedict to our “patrimony.” Go HERE to read an article written on this subject by Dom Robert Hale OSB back in 1980.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Burning Bush and the Voice of the Lord

Lev Gillet (who wrote as “A Monk of the Eastern Church”) was a monk of both the Western Church’s Benedictine order and of the Eastern Church. Born in 1893, in Isère, France, his early life included service in World War I and university study of philosophy and psychology. Later in life, his work as a priest and scholar would take him across Europe and to the Near East. After entering the Orthodox Church, he was rector of the first French language Orthodox parish in Paris. Lev Gillet was also considered a pioneer of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. He died in 1980. The following is taken from his book, The Burning Bush:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” (Exodus. 3:1-4 RSV)

Moses, in the Egyptian desert, was looking after the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. Wending his way across the desert he came to Horeb, ‘the mountain of God’. And it was there that the angel of the Lord, or rather the Lord God Himself in the shape of an angel, appeared to him in the midst of flames of fire. The flames were blazing out of a bush. Yet the bush was not consumed or destroyed. Moses was overcome with amazement. He decided to turn aside, to deviate from his intended course, so as to gain a closer view of ‘this great site’ and to see ‘why the bush is not burnt’.

Moses turned aside from his original path. He felt that the marvel of the Burning Bush warranted making a stop; he was moved with desire to contemplate it and ponder deeply on it. He accepted without question this sudden, extraordinary, divine event. And it was because he did not hesitate to change his direction towards the Burning Bush that God was able to call to him. ‘And when the Lord saw that [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the Bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.’

All this applies just as much to us today as it did to Moses. If during the course of our lives we hurry along without stopping, without even a glance toward the Burning Bush (which nevertheless continues its blazing along the whole of our way…), we shall miss the opportunity God desires. If on the contrary, we do not hesitate to leave aside for a time the flocks of Jethro – our daily cares – the Lord will call to us from the midst of the bush. He will call to each one of us by a name that is our own.” 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Bible Christians . . . that's what we're supposed to be

From 1962 to 1965 the Second Vatican Council met in Rome to work out how the Church could be more open to the renewing love and power of the Holy Spirit. Grass-roots Christian people were encouraged to rediscover aspects of Church life that had been neglected. Even at the time, this was not seen a matter just for Roman Catholics. In many areas of living the Faith in our daily lives, the work of the Council has proven to be of vital importance for ALL Christians. 

One of the most significant documents produced by the Council is DEI VERBUM, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965). Its purpose was to encourage all the faithful to use the Bible to nourish our relationship with God. As the following quotes indicate, it encourages us to become much more familiar with Scripture so as to hear the voice of God speaking to us from day to day. It is a powerful document and has always been one of my favourites.

(I have inserted headings into the following passages from Dei Verbum, and broken up the long paragraphs into shorter ones, for the ease of the modern reader.)

God speaks through Scripture

“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.

“She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and apostles.

“Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.

“For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: ‘For the word of God is living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12) and ‘it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thessalonians 2:13).”

- Dei Verbum 21

Scripture needs careful interpretation

“Those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for ‘literary forms.’ For truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another, or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry, or some other type of speech.

“The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expresses in particular circumstances as he used contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.

“For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of perceiving, speaking, and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the customs normally followed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.

“But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted according to the same Spirit by whom it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly brought to light.

“The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith . . . The way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.”

- Dei Verbum 12

All Christians should read Scripture

“Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.”

- Dei Verbum 22

“. . . The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially . . . to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Philippians. 3:8). ‘For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’(St Jerome)

“Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere.

“And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for ‘we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.’ (St Ambrose)

- Dei Verbum 25

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Evelyn Underhill on self-abandonment, the Cross, St Thomas and Sacramentality

From The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed (pp. 64-66), by Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)

The Crucifix, which is the perfect symbol of generous sacrifice, is the perfect symbol of victory too: of the love which shirks nothing and so achieves everything, the losing and the finding of life. “He was crucified, dead and buried—rose again and ascended.” With this double statement the Creed, the rule of prayer, reaches its climax, and shows us in a sentence the deepest meaning of our life: declaring in plain language that unlimited self-offering is the only path from man to God.

This means that the Thought of God, penetrating our tangled world and entering into union with our imperfect nature, saves and transforms that nature, raises it to a new level, not by power, but by the complete exercise of courageous love ; the deliberate facing of the world’s worst. And we, following the footsteps of that holy Life which reveals reality, must take the same way. “As dying and behold we live” is a literal fact for the genuine Christian. 

The release of power, the transformation of life which comes from unconditional self-abandonment, is guaranteed to us by the story of Easter and the Forty Days: its continuance in the sacraments and the saints. We too achieve all by risking all. Christianity is a triumphant heroism. The valiant obedience of the Blessed Virgin makes the Incarnation possible: the more complete and awful self-giving of the Cross makes the life-giving life of the Church and the Saints possible. The ancient Easter Sequence sums it up:

“Death and Life strove together in awful combat;
The Lord of Life, who died, living reigns.”

And yet this reign, with its strange triumphant beauty, is not manifested in any of the sensational incidents of which Apocalyptic writers had dreamed; by a sudden coming in the Clouds of Heaven, or by the shattering of our ordinary human world. Still true to the Divine method of hiddenness and humility, it comes back into that world very quietly; brought by love, and only recognized by love. It appears by preference in connection with the simple realities of everyday existence, and exercises its enlightening, pacifying, strengthening influence in and through these homely realities. Personal needs, friendly affections, become the consecrated channels of the immortal Love, which declares its victories by a quiet and tender benediction poured out on ordinary life. 

The glory of the Divine Humanity is not shown in the Temple and the Synagogue. He seeks out His nervous followers within the arena of ordinary life; meets them behind the locked doors of the Upper Room, waits for them in early morning by the lake side, walks with them on the country road, and suddenly discloses Himself in the breaking of bread. The characters of the old life which are carried through into this new and glorified life are just those which express a homely and cherishing love. It is the One who had fed the multitude, pacified the distracted, washed the dusty feet of His followers and given Himself to be their food, who now re-enters their troubled lives ; for their sake, not for His own.

For us, these scenes have an other-worldly beauty. We see them bathed in the supernatural light. But for Peter and Thomas, James and John, they happened under normal conditions of time and place. Frightened, weary and discouraged, worried about the future and remorseful about the past, for them the wonder abode in the quiet return of the Holy and Immortal who was yet the familiar and the human, to the commonplace surroundings in which they had known Him best. 

Silently disregarding their disappointing qualities, their stupidity, cowardice and lack of trust, He came back to them in a pure impetus of charity; came down to their level as one that serveth, making visible the Invisible Love, and gave the guarantees which their petty standards demanded and their narrow souls could apprehend. Thus, by this unblemished courtesy, “binding His majesty to our lowliness,” as the Byzantine liturgy says, He restored their faith, hope and charity; and gave them an example only less searching in its self-oblivious gentleness than the lesson of the washing of the feet.

Even their own fragmentary notes of what happened, or seemed to them to happen, shame and delight us by their witness to the splendour and humility of generous love. “My Lord!” says St. Thomas, seeing, touching, and measuring the Holiness so meekly shown to him in his own crude terms; and then, passing beyond that sacramental revelation to the unseen, untouched, unmeasured, uttering the word every awakened soul longs to utter—” My God! “The very heart of the Christian revelation is disclosed in that scene.

So it is that the real mark of spiritual triumph - the possession of that more lovely, more abundant life which we discern in moments of deep prayer - is not an abstraction from this world, but a return to it; a willing use of its conditions as material for the expression of love. There is nothing high-minded about Christian holiness. It is most at home in the slum, the street, the hospital ward: and the mysteries through which its gifts are distributed are themselves chosen from amongst the most homely realities of life. 

A little water, some fragments of bread, and a chalice of wine are enough to close the gap between two worlds; and give soul and senses a trembling contact with the Eternal Charity. By means of these its creatures, that touch still cleanses, and that hand still feeds. The serene, unhurried, self-imparting which began before Gethsemane continues still. Either secretly or sacramentally, every Christian is a link in the chain of perpetual penitents and perpetual communicants through which the rescuing Love reaches out to the world. Perhaps there is no more certain mark of a mature spirituality than the way in which those who possess it are able to enter a troubled situation and say, “Peace,” or turn from the exercise of heroic love to meet the humblest needs of men.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A moderated, sterilised Gospel? (Fr Michael Harper)

A couple of weeks ago I obtained VISITED BY GOD - THE STORY OF MICHAEL HARPER’S 48 YEAR-LONG MINISTRY, written by his widow, Jeanne. I have previously written about Father Michael Harper on this blog as a man whose influence on my life in the 1960s and 70s was great indeed. I re-read a few bits of the book last night, and found myself praising the Lord for people like Father Michael and Jeanne who serve the Lord unstintingly, and who gently but without fear or favour tell the truth about what is happening in so many of the churches. I’ll comment more about VISITED BY GOD in the next few days.

But here is part of an article Father Michael wrote in 2008 (he died in January 2010), as a western Christian who embraced Orthodoxy:

. . . the Orthodox Church has never revised its Liturgies. They have evolved, but they are substantially the same through all the centuries. We are fortunate indeed to have escaped the modern western obsession with liturgical revisions. We enjoy the blessing of continuity. Orthodox services can be very long. I have been at some that last four hours. But the length can be exaggerated.

The St John Chrysostom Eucharist usually lasts 90 minutes. But in any case, as one Orthodox Priest put it “when you are in heaven, what’s the hurry.” We can be thankful also that Orthodoxy is not in the business of flirting with “being relevant”. We do not have any inclination to please the world, or fashion our church life to accord with worldly principles. We see our faith as bringing us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and to be relevant to Him eclipses any inclinations to satisfy the world. Orthodox “right teaching” and “right worship” are to be seen and experienced as a partnership.

The Orthodox understanding of “teaching” is that it affects our whole being. It is not just a mental exercise. And Orthodox worship is packed with teaching, expressed in such a way as to fill the worshippers with joy and peace. It is all there in the words of the services. If the question is asked “what is Orthodoxy?” we can truthfully reply, “come and see (and hear)”. The words and the symbolism tell the whole story.

An important Orthodox prophet of the 20th century was Paul Evdokimov, who taught for many years at the St Sergius Institute in Paris. He wrote:

“Christians have done just about everything to sterilise the Gospel. We could say that it has been plunged into a neutralising solution. Everything that is striking in it, all that transcends and turns things upside down, has been moderated, sterilised to death. Religion, having become inoffensive, is now flat, shrewd, and above all, reasonable, and remains simply to be vomited out.”

He goes on

“the Church is no longer, as in the first centuries, the triumphal march of Life through the graveyards of the world”.

Let me conclude – sadly the church scene in the West is of a body of people electing to join the graveyard rather than being the agency of resurrection. However, for a growing number of people the Orthodox Church is a sign of hope and a bastion of strength.

Christ is Risen is the cry that goes up at Pascha (Easter) – He is Risen indeed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here is the blurb on VISITED BY GOD:

The first edition of this account of a churchman of major influence in the twentieth and twenty-first century was greeted by a fanfare of tributes from churchman of major Christian denominations whose lives and work Father Michael Harper had touched. 

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, writes that ‘I remember Michael most of all as a personal friend of years. He was a man who witnessed in the most direct and convincing way to the great truths that hold all believers together’. 

This capacity to bring the scattered denominations together was manifest in Michael Harper’s ability to cross boundaries in his early career when he championed the nascent Pentecostal movement, first in the Anglican Church, then world-wide. As editor of Renewal, he brought sanity and sobriety to what was a truly New Testament re-discovery of the still-available gifts of the Spirit; through his work at the Fountain Trust and later as Chairman of SOMA he was immensely influential in the field of Christian mission. 

Charles Whitehead, Chairman of Catholic Charismatic Renewal writes of ‘Michael’s enduring influence on Renewal and ecumenism in every part of the world-wide Church’. 

His capacity to span what might have appeared to be great gulfs was illustrated by his late journey from being a life-long Anglican minister to being a priest of the Orthodox Church and founding Dean of the British Antiochian Orthodox community. He kept old friends and found new ones: the distinguished Orthodox Bishop Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes that the book ‘brought to my mind moving memories of a dear friend . . . it is a most attractive and vivid account of Father Michael’s many-sided ministry’. 

The senior Orthodox hierarch in Great Britain, Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain, congratulated Father Michael’s devoted and self-effacing wife and biographer on chronicling ‘in an extraordinarily detailed way your late husband’s involvement with the Charismatic Movement . . . You have created a lasting historic record of these activities and of the many people throughout the world associated with them.’ 

This book, written with first-hand knowledge and love, but also with honesty and a ‘warts and all’ approach, is a major contribution to the history of one of the most formative periods of the world-wide Church. But it serves most to demonstrate that return to the early Church and its ways of thinking and believing was not just an exercise in nostalgia but an essential re-vitalizing: as much a challenge to the thought-patterns of the twentieth-first century as when the Gospel was first proclaimed.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Come to me all who . . . are carrying heavy burdens

(A recent sermon:)

Everyone has their burdens. Everyone! Whether it’s trying to stretch out meagre incomes that never go far enough. Or managing difficult marriage and family relationships.

Or being out of work. Or desperately wanting a better job. Or anxiously awaiting the results of medical tests. 

Or coping with the wounds left by emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Or parents carrying burdens, trying to provide for their children, trying to nurture their character in spite of everything that is wrong in our culture.

We struggle under our burdens. 

They get to us. They cause our thinking to spiral downwards, and we are plagued by self-doubt, self-blame, shame, and guilt: “ . . . this is ALL my fault.” “If I were a better wife . . .” “If I were a better husband . . .” “If I’d tried harder at work . . .” “If I could only be more loving . . .” 

On and on it goes!

The little passage out of the Bible I want to share with you today is something Jesus said. Listen to these words: 

“Come to me, all who labour and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29 N.A.B.)

Isn’t it amazing that we take so long to come to Jesus! Do you know that some people never come to him!

One reason they don’t come to him is that what Jesus said and did has been so twisted by Christians that they can’t take it seriously. There are so many BEAUTIFUL TEACHERS of the Good News. You’ll find them in churches of all backgrounds and traditions. But there are FALSE TEACHERS out there as well. There always have been. Some of them say that faith in Jesus removes our temptation to sin, or that it automatically gets rid of doubt and fear. Or that with Jesus in our lives we’ll never feel lonely again. Some of you have even been told that if you really trust in Jesus your kids won’t go wrong, or they’ll get rich quick, or they’ll never get sick. If only! 

Jesus himself was not free of pain. And he had so many burdens to bear. Just look at his irritating friends, or the rejection he got from those he was trying to help! Yes, he prayed, and he enjoyed his communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit (and so do we, in him)!  But the Word of God makes it quite clear that CHRISTIANITY IS NOT AN INSURANCE POLICY AGAINST CALVARIES OR GETHSEMANES. 

What Jesus says to us in that little verse out of Matthew’s Gospel is that if we let him, he will yoke us up to himself, and pull us through. (Actually, I think that a lot of the time he ends up DRAGGING us through!) Sharing his yoke – being yoked up to him - means that his strength is what we draw on. Together we overcome obstacles. Together we make progress in what he’s given us to do. We still have to do it. We still have to struggle some of the time. But we’re not alone. He is stronger than we are. And he gets us through!

Some of you will know the old story of the mouse and the elephant who had become good friends. One day they were out walking in the jungle. They came to a precarious looking rope bridge over a deep chasm at the bottom of which was a roaring river. They got onto the bridge, the mouse and the elephant, these good friends. And the rope bridge creaked and groaned under the weight. It swayed dangerously as they reached the middle, but eventually they got to the other side. The little mouse looked up, smiled at the huge elephant and said, “Boy, we sure shook that bridge!”

Well, that’s what it’s like being yoked with Jesus. It’s HIS strength that matters. We draw on HIS strength for our struggles, our burdens. So it was that St Paul, who suffered so much, could say that because “HIS grace is sufficient” . . .  “when I am weak I am strong” (2 Corinthians 11:9-10).

But there’s more! When you read the Bible, you see that the people around Jesus bore really heavy burdens, and their religious leaders – without any shame – imposed even more: laws, rules and regulations that could never be met, as well as the idea of a viciously angry God who was never satisfied.

No wonder the relationship they observed Jesus having with his Father-God was the envy of his friends. They said to him, “Lord, teach US to pray.” Jesus knew his Father to be gentle, caring, and generous, with a love infinitely greater than any human love. 

Did you know that being yoked up to Jesus is letting him drag us into his relationship with the Father. 

That’s why he came. That’s why he died on the cross. That’s why he’s reaching out to you right now. According to the Good News of Jesus there is nobody who cannot be forgiven. There’s nobody who cannot have a new start. Nobody. In the words of the old hymn: “His blood can make the foulest clean - his blood avails for me!”

Lord Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd
who restores my soul.
You forgive me, you heal me,
you pour your love into my heart
and make me a new person.
You ask me to come to you and rest.
It is the last thing I imagined you would say
or want from me.
You surprise me with your gentleness
your humility, your kindness and your love.
Help me to rest in your presence.
May I find peace for my soul.
Lord Jesus, strengthen me to bear my burdens,
with your grace that is sufficient
for all my need.
And help me reach out to others
as you have reached out to me.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Irenaeus - God shares his glory (Keble's translation)

The wonders of the Internet! A facsimile edition of John Keble’s translation of Irenaeus “Against Heresies” can be read at

Here is Keble’s translation of the wonderful passage about God’s sharing his glory with us:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dr Pusey on loneliness, solitude and God's loving presence

It is a pity that the Oxford Movement leader, Dr Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), is often compared unfavourably to John Henry Newman, or thought of primarily as a contoversialist and/or theologian. Of course he was a very great theologian and Biblical scholar. But Fr John Hunwicke spoke for many when he said in his blog a few years ago that Pusey was “one of the very greatest Catholic teachers and spiritual directors of the modern period.” Throughout his long life, Pusey had his fair share of personal disappointments and tragedies, so what he says when he preaches or gives spiritual direction is neither trite nor untested by experience.

I share with you today large slabs of a wonderful sermon of his, GOD’S PRESENCE IN LONELINESS, from the book “Sermons for the Church’s season from Advent to Trinity”, published in 1883.

Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably to her . . . (Hosea 2:14-15)

God says, “I will allure her.” He vouchsafes to speak to us after the manner of men. He will give us. He saith, “Love for love.” The world hath its sweetnesses, but so hath God. The world would allure us by tinsel, pleasures  which fade, joys which destroy; God would allure us by realities, some foretaste of “the torrent of pleasure” which shall overstream the whole soul, some light from Himself, parting through the clouds and illumining the soul, if but only with one flash of unearthly brightness, a sweetness which bathes it, as it were, in joy unspeakable, a sense of childlike love, with which, if it but last, it feels itself again a child of God. 

“I,” He saith, “will speak to her heart; “sometimes, so that the soul seems to hear His Voice within her, saying, as it were, “The Master is come, and calleth thee; “rise up quickly; sometimes by the gift of tears, in which the long pent-up heart seems to gush forth; or in some devoted purpose, henceforth to be wholly His, and in all things to aim at Him alone and His glory; or in willingness to suffer gladly any chastisement He vouchsafes to send; or in some thrill of the whole soul, at the thought that it can be yet the object of the love of God. He speaks as we may best bear to hear, and is fittest for us; but by Himself or by His servants does He speak to every soul which, led by Him, in silence waits for Him. 

Yes! blessed are those holy hours, in which the soul retires from the world to be alone with God. God’s Voice, as Himself, is everywhere. Within and without He speaks to our souls, if we would hear. Only the din of the world, or the tumult of our own hearts, deafens our inward ear to it. Stillness is as His very Presence, for, like the prayer for the Prophet’s servant, it opens our senses to perceive what was there to behold, only our eyes were holden. “There is neither speech nor language; the voice is not heard; but “day unto day uttereth speech” to hearts that hearken, “and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” All God’s works, because He has made them, bear the traces of His Hand, and speak of Him to the soul which is alone with Him. All works of man, directed or over-ruled by His Providence, every thing, good or bad, speaks of His Presence or His absence. But, chiefly, in the inmost soul He speaks, because there He dwells. 

Thoughts of Him seem to occupy the infantine eye, as it gazes with such fixed, placid, loving earnestness on something we see not. Him the child’s heart, unknowing, seeks, as, unsatisfied with all around, it longs for some deeper love, which shall fill its soul, some one who shall love it best, whose whole love it can have, undiminished by His love for all besides, which can understand every motion of its heart, share its every feeling, wholly love it, and be wholly beloved. And if these first bright drawings have been wasted, still, while it wearies itself with vanities, each pause and breathing-place in its pursuit tells it of another Object, for Whom it was made, Who is not to be found where and as it seeks. Thence is it, that until, worn out with chasing the wind, it turns to its God, the soul shrinks firom being alone. Ye must have felt, some time, an awe come over you, as ye of a sudden stood alone. 

To be alone is to feel the Presence of God, in love or in displeasure, as a Friend or a Stranger, as One Whose Voice the soul hath heard and known and loved, or One it dreads, feeling itself condemned by It. So does God watch over the soul, so plead with it, so ever-present is He, so unwilling to part with it, or that it should part with Him, its only Good; so doth He long, as it were, to find an entrance there, ever knocking at the heart, ever striving to find an avenue unto it, that it may receive Him, and, in Him, be blessed for ever. And hence, until the soul will open its whole self to God, it shrinks from inward and outward loneliness. The restless love of amusement, society, outward excitement, even reading, besides any object for itself, has mainly this, to escape being alone with its own thoughts, because there it will find God. Dull often, and weary will the employment be, but, like the clay used by savages to dull the pain of hunger, it stifles in the soul the sense of the Presence of Him, Whose love it knows not. 

And, therefore, does God so often create in the soul a still more awful loneliness, rending from it that on which its very being hung, that at length it may learn to live alone with God, when all it loved with God is withdrawn from sight. Then, in those sacred solemn hours, if these too it wastes not, it learns to love and to be with Him, Whom “none loseth but who leaveth,” that only “place of rest imperturbable, where love is not forsaken, if itself forsaketh not.” 

Once, brethren, at least, ye must be alone; and lonely indeed is that journey, if He be not by thee, Who first trod it for thee, that in it thou mightest “fear no evil.” None else can then share thy fears; none can so speak to thy heart; none, though he would die with thee, can share thy journey with thee. Alone must each give up his spirit unto Him Who gave it. Oh may it not be alone, but in union with Him, Whose Words we shall soon hear, “Father, into Thine Hands I commend My Spirit,” and Who, with His own, commended ours. But will He then indeed be with us in death, if we be not with Him in life ? 

Oh, let us then learn to be alone with God now. It is only afar off that the wilderness looks a waste and terrible and dry. Was it not there, that man did eat angels’ food, and water gushed out of the hard rock, and bitter waters were made sweet, and God bare His own, and their feet did not swell, and He spake unto them, “and proclaimed Himself merciful, and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” Trust thyself alone with Him, and so in thine inmost heart will He proclaim Himself unto thee, “The Lord, thy God, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” There shalt thou speak to God “face to face,” and “hear what the Lord thy God will speak “in thee; thou shalt tell Him thy sorrows, thy falls, thy sins, the wildness, or forgetfulness, or carelessness of thy youth; there pour out before Him griefs which thou wouldest shrink that the world should know, and He shall say unto thee, “Thy sins be forgiven thee; go and sin no more.” There shall He renew thy soul, hear thy prayer and answer it, shed hope around thee, kindle thy half-choked love, give thee some taste of His own boundless Love, give thee the longing to pass out of all besides, out of thy decayed self, gathered upward unto Him, Who came down hither to our misery, to bear us up unto Himself and make us one spirit with Him.

Treasure any season in which God Himself maketh thee lonely. When He brings thee back into thyself, seek not to go forth out of thyself. Whether it be by sickness, or by bereavement, or by any other sorrow, by want of the sympathy of the world, by distresses which make the heart sick and faint, go not forth out of thyself, but, with the prophet, stand in loneliness “upon thy watch, and set thee upon the tower; “dwell in Him, Who “is a most strong Tower to all them that put their trust in Him; “wherein the righteous runneth and is safe; and “watch to see what He shall say unto thee, and what thou shalt speak when thou art reproved,” and He, while He reproves thee of sin, will shew thee His Righteousness, and “be gracious unto thee and say, “deliver him from going down into the pit, I have found a Ramson.” 

“He will allure thee and bring thee into the wilderness, and speak unto thy heart.” He will fence thee round, that nothing outward break in upon the sacred stillness of thy soul, which seeketh to be hushed in Him. Where He is, is great peace. Learn to commune with Him in stillness, and He, Whom thou hast sought in stillness, will be with thee when thou goest abroad. Go not abroad out of thyself, and He will not depart from thee. He cometh not to us, to leave us, if we would detain Him with us. 

Gather thyself from time to time in thyself; recall to thyself, “Whose am I? for whom am I doing this? how would God have me do it?” Lift up thine eyes to the holy “Pattern shewed thee in the Mount,” even His, “Who came not to do His Own Will, but the Will of Him Who sent Him.” Thy Redeemer, Who would work all thy works in thee, will gather thee up wholly into Himself, all thy thoughts, words, and deeds, that they be thought, spoken, done in Him. 

His visitations are seasons of grace. Miss we not for our own souls, any. So shall joy spring out of sorrow, abundance out of want, comfort out of desolation, hope out of hopelessness, rest out of trouble, life out of death, from brief “afflictions” an “eternal weight of glory.” God shall speak to our hearts, and our hearts shall say unto Him, “Thy Face, Lord, will I seek;” and He Himself shall be the Strength of our hearts now in this “valley of the shadow of death,” Himself, “Who filleth all things,” shall, “in the land of the living,” and “the Brightness of His Presence,” be our Portion for ever.