Monday, May 25, 2020

The Impact of S. Bede (c. 672-735)

'The Venerable Bede Translates John’ (1902) by James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932)

Every now and then, the Office of Readings sets before us an account of how the saint for the day died. Today is one of those days. This morning we read about the death of S. Bede.  

Bede was born near Sunderland, and lived his entire life in the north of England, yet he is often regarded one of the most learned European of his day. At the age of 7 he was sent to the Benedictine Abbey at Wearmouth for his education. At 11 he continued his education at the new monastery at Jarrow, on the Tyne, eventually becoming a monk and remaining there until his death. He lived a routine and outwardly uneventful life of prayer, devotion, study, writing, and teaching, and left his monastery only in order to preach.

Bede’s writings (over 40 books) depended on the fine libraries which S. Benet Biscop (c. 628-690) had assembled, and cover a very wide range of interests, including mathematics, poetry, timekeeping, history, orthography, chronology, and biblical translation and exposition. He translated large slabs of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon (from which English evolved). He made the Latin and Greek writings of the early Christian Fathers accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons. But he always considered his 25 volumes of Scripture commentary to be his most important work. 

Bede’s best-known book is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, and still published today in modern translation. A good deal of it is based on sources no longer in existence. Because of this work he became popularly acclaimed as the ‘Father of English History’, not only because his is the first serious history of England, but also because of the thoroughness of his historical research. Whenever friends were travelling to Rome, he would ask them to bring him copies of documents relevant to English history. Bede made careful use of oral traditions when written materials were not available.

According to his pupil Cuthbert, Bede fell ill shortly before Easter 735, when he was translating the Gospel of John into the Anglo-Saxon language. Everyone realised that the end was near, but Bede was determined to complete the translation before he died. Between Easter and Ascension Day, he persisted in the task, pushing against the boundary of his life, while continuing to teach his students at his bedside.

After a restless night, he resumed dictating the translation on the morning before Ascension Day. That afternoon he called the priests of the monastery to him to distribute his remaining earthly possessions. Seeing they were overcome with grief, he comforted them with these words:

“If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to him who created me out of nothing when I had no being. I have had a long life, and the merciful Judge has ordered it graciously. The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in his beauty.”

The young man who had been writing down the translation said there was still one sentence remaining, and Bede dictated the final words.

After a short while the boy said, “Now it is finished.”

Bede replied, ‘You have spoken truly; it is well finished. Now raise my head in your hands, for it would give me great joy to sit facing the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may sit and call on my Father.’

And thus, on the floor of his cell, he sang ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit’ to its ending, and breathed his last.

When he received word of Bede’s death, S. Boniface, who had used Bede’s Scripture commentaries, said, ‘The candle of the Church, lit by the Holy Spirit, has been extinguished.’ S. Bede began to be called “Venerable”. His bones were translated from Jarrow to Durham Cathedral in the mid-11th century; in 1370 they were placed in the cathedral’s Galilee Chapel.

S. Bede is the only Englishman named in Dante’s Paradise. He is also the only English ‘Doctor of the Church’ (perhaps one day to be joined by John Henry Newman?).

It was S. Bede who wrote that a priest or bishop ‘who without an urgent reason omits to say Mass robs the Trinity of glory, the angels of joy, sinners of pardon, the just of divine assistance, the souls in purgatory of refreshment, the Church of a benefit, and himself of a healing remedy.’

O God, who bring light to your Church
through the learning of the Priest Saint Bede,
mercifully grant that your servants
may always be enlightened by his wisdom 
and helped by his merits.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. 

Here is Pope Benedict’s teaching on the significance of S. Bede, 
given at his Wednesday General Audience in Rome, 
on 18th February 2009: 

The saint on whom we reflect today is called Bede. He was born in Northeast England, in fact in Northumbria, in the year 672/673. He himself narrates that, when he was seven years old his parents entrusted him to the abbot of the neighboring Benedictine monastery, to be educated. “In this monastery,” he recalls, “I lived from then on, dedicating myself intensely to the study of Scripture, while observing the discipline of the Rule and the daily effort to sing in church, I always found it pleasant to learn, teach and write” (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, V, 24). 

In fact, Bede was one of the most illustrious figures of erudition of the High Middle Ages because he was able to make use of many precious manuscripts that his abbots, who went on frequent trips to the Continent and to Rome, were able to bring back to him. His teaching and the fame of his writings enabled him to have many friendships with the principal personalities of his time, who encouraged him to continue in his work, from which so many benefited. Falling ill, he did not cease to work, always having an interior joy that was expressed in prayer and song. He concluded his most important work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, with this invocation: “I pray, O good Jesus, who benevolently has allowed me to draw from the sweet words of your wisdom, that I may reach you one day, source of all wisdom, and to always be before your face.” Death came to him on May 26, 735: It was Ascension day.

The Sacred Scriptures were the constant source of Bede’s theological reflection. Having made a careful critical study of the text (we have a copy of the monumental Codex Amiatinus of the Vulgate, on which Bede worked), he commented on the Bible, reading it in a Christological vein, namely, re-uniting two things: On one hand, he listened to what the text was saying exactly, he really wanted to listen and understand the text itself; on the other hand, he was convinced that the key to understanding sacred Scripture as the unique Word of God is Christ and with Christ, in his light, one understands the Old and the New Testament as 'a' sacred Scripture.

The events of the Old and New Testament go together, they are together the path toward Christ, though expressed in different signs and institutions (it is what he calls “concordia sacramentorum”). For example, the tent of the covenant that Moses raised in the desert and the first and second temple of Jerusalem are images of the Church, new temple built on Christ and the Apostles with living stones, cemented by the charity of the Spirit. And, as was the case for the construction of the ancient temple of Jerusalem, even pagan people contributed, making available valuable materials and the technical experience of their master builders, thus apostles and masters not only from ancient Hebrew, Greek and Latin stock contributed to the building of the Church, but also new peoples, among which Bede is pleased to enumerate the Iro-Celts and the Anglo-Saxons. St. Bede witnessed the universality of the Church grow, which is not restricted to a certain culture, but is made up of all the cultures of the world which must open themselves to Christ and find in him their point of arrival.

Another topic loved by Bede is the history of the Church. After having taken interest in the period described in the Acts of the Apostles, he reviewed the history of the Fathers of the Church and the councils, convinced that the work of the Holy Spirit continues in history. In the Cronica Maiora, Bede traces a chronology that would become the basis of the universal calendar “ab incarnatione Domini.” Up to then, time was calculated from the foundation of the city of Rome. Bede, seeing that the true point of reference, the center of history is the birth of Christ, gave us this calendar that reads history beginning with the Lord’s Incarnation. He registered the first six ecumenical councils and their development, presenting faithfully the Christian, Mariological and Soteriological doctrine, and denouncing the Monophysite and Monothelite, iconoclastic and neo-Pelagian heresies. Finally, he wrote with documentary rigor and literary expertise the already mentioned Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for which he is recognized as “the father of English historiography.” The characteristic traits of the Church that Bede loved to evidence are: a) its catholicity, as fidelity to tradition together with openness to historical developments, and as the pursuit of unity in multiplicity, in the diversity of history and cultures, according to the directives that Pope Gregory the Great gave to the apostle of England, Augustine of Canterbury; b) its apostolicity and Romanness: In this regard he considers of primary importance to convince the whole Iro-Celtic Churches and that of the Picts to celebrate Easter uniformly according to the Roman calendar. The calculation elaborated scientifically by him to establish the exact date of the Easter celebration, and thus of the entire cycle of the liturgical year, became the text of reference for the whole Catholic Church.

Bede was also an illustrious teacher of liturgical theology. In the homilies on the Sunday Gospels and those of feast days, he develops a true mystagogy, educating the faithful to celebrate joyfully the mysteries of the faith and to reproduce them consistently in life, while expecting their full manifestation of the return of Christ, when, with our glorified bodies, we will be admitted in offertory procession to the eternal liturgy of God in heaven. Following the “realism” of the catecheses of Cyril, Ambrose and Augustine, Bede teaches that the sacraments of Christian initiation make every faithful person “not only a Christian but Christ.” In fact, every time that a faithful soul receives and guards the Word of God with love, in imitation of Mary, he conceives and generates Christ again. And every time that a group of neophytes receives the Easter sacraments, the Church is “self-generated,” or to use a still more daring expression, the Church becomes “Mother of God,” participating in the generation of her children, by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks to this way of making theology, interlacing the Bible, the liturgy and history, Bede has a timely message for the different “states of life”:

a) For scholars (doctores ac doctrices) he recalls two essential tasks: to scrutinize the wonders of the Word of God to present it in an attractive way to the faithful; to show the dogmatic truths avoiding the heretical complications and keeping to the “Catholic simplicity,” with attention to the small and humble to whom God is pleased to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom.

b) For pastors, that for their part, must give priority to preaching, not only through the verbal or hagiographic language, but also valuing icons, processions and pilgrimages. Bede recommends to them the use of the vernacular, as he himself does, explaining in Northumbria the “Our Father,” and the “Creed” and carrying forward until the last day of his life, the commentary to John’s Gospel in the common language.

c) For consecrated people who are dedicated to the Divine Office, living in the joy of fraternal communion and progressing in the spiritual life through ascesis and contemplation, Bede recommends to take care of the apostolate -- no one has the Gospel just for himself, but must regard it as a gift also for others -- either by collaborating with the Bishops in pastoral activities of various types in favor of the young Christian communities, or being available to the evangelizing mission to the pagans, outside their own country, as “peregrini pro amore Dei.”

Placed in this perspective, in the commentary to the Canticle of Canticles, Bede presents the synagogue and the Church as collaborators in the propagation of the Word of God. Christ the Spouse desires an industrious Church, “bronzed by the fatigues of evangelization” -- clear is the reference to the word of the Canticle of Canticles (1:5), where the Bride says: “Nigra sum sed formosa” (I am brown, but beautiful) - attempts to till other fields or vines and to establish among the new populations “not a provisional bell but a stable dwelling, namely, to insert the Gospel in the social fabric and the cultural institutions. In this perspective, the saintly Doctor exhorts the lay faithful to be assiduous to the religious instruction, imitating those “insatiable evangelical multitudes who did not even give the Apostles time to eat.” He teaches them how to pray constantly, “reproducing in life what they celebrate in the liturgy,” offering all actions as spiritual sacrifices in union with Christ. To parents he explains that also in their small domestic realm they can exercise “the priestly office of pastors and guides,” by giving Christian formation to the children and states that he knows many faithful (men and women, spouses and celibates) “capable of an irreproachable conduct that, if suitably pursued, could approach daily Eucharistic communion (“Epist. ad Ecgbertum,” ed. Plummer, p. 419).

The fame of holiness and wisdom that Bede enjoyed already in life, served to merit him the title of “Venerable.” He is thus called also by Pope Sergius I, when he wrote his abbot in 701 requesting to make him come temporarily to Rome for consultation on questions of universal interest. The great missionary of Germany, Bishop St. Boniface (d. 754), requested the archbishop of York several times and the abbot of Wearmouth to have some of his works transcribed and to send him to them so that they and their companions could also enjoy the spiritual light he emanated. A century later Notkero Galbulo, abbot of St. Gall (d. 912), being aware of the extraordinary influence of Bede, equated him with a new sun that God had made arise not in the East but in the West to illumine the world. Apart from the rhetorical emphasis, it is a fact that, with his works, Bede contributed effectively to the making of a Christian Europe, in which the different populations and cultures amalgamated among themselves, conferring on them a uniform physiognomy, inspired by the Christian faith.

Let us pray that also today there be personalities of Bede’s stature, to keep the whole Continent united; let us pray so that all of us are willing to rediscover our common roots, to be builders of a profoundly human and genuinely Christian Europe.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Archbishop Fulton Sheen preaching for Dr Robert Schuller on The Hour of Power

Born in 1895 in El Paso, Illinois, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was in his day the best-known Catholic in the United States next to the Pope. In the 1950s he was well-known for his appearances on the radio programme The Catholic Hour and the television show Life is Worth Living – for which he won an Emmy.  He was down to earth, had an infectious faith and wanted only to proclaim the Gospel wherever he could. Life is Worth Living made Sheen a household name, a celebrity who was called upon to give lectures, conferences, and retreats for laity, clergy and religious. 

This video is of Archbishop Sheen preaching for protestant pastor Robert Schuller at a gathering televised from the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California (which, ironically is now 'Christ Cathedral' of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange). A thoroughly orthodox Catholic, and a friend of evangelicals, Sheen was always meticulously prepared, but in fact spoke without notes using homely anecdotes, illustrations and humour, and his great command of the language, to explain God's truth. He died in 1979. His television programmes are now routinely rebroadcast on Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Jeremy Taylor on the Ascension, the Holy Sacrifice, and Jesus our great High Priest

Alleluia! King eternal, 
Thee the Lord of lords we own; 
Alleluia! born of Mary, 
Earth Thy footstool, heav’n thy throne: 
Thou within the veil hast entered, 
Robed in flesh our great High Priest; 
Thou on earth both priest and victim 
In the Eucharistic feast. 
(William C. Dix, 1867) 

Today's celebration of the Lord's being "taken up in the cloud" as our Great High Priest into the heavenly sanctuary (see my post for Ascension Day 2017 HERE) is a thanksgiving for the unity between our High Priest's sacrifice of love, his ongoing intercessory ministry, and the Church's Eucharist. 

This was a major theme of the 17th Century Caroline Divines, many of whom suffered enormously to preserve the Catholic Faith within the Church of England. One of them, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), was a chaplain to King Charles I. He is still well-known for his devotional books, Holy Living and Holy Dying. Following the martyrdom of the King, Taylor was imprisoned a number of times. Eventually, he was allowed to live quietly in Wales, where he became the private chaplain of the Earl of Carbery. The Catholic life of the Church of England was driven underground during this Commonwealth period, and at great risk to themselves, clergy like Jeremy Taylor exercised their ministry in a clandestine way, protected - and sometimes even hidden - by lay people who dreamt of a restoration of their Church. When the Restoration came, Taylor was made Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland and became vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin. His teaching on the Eucharist and the priesthood of Jesus draws heavily on the Scriptures, as well as both Eastern and early Latin sources. The following is from his book, The Great Exemplar

"… whatsoever Christ did at the institution, the same he commanded the Church to do, in remembrance and repeated rites; and himself also does the same thing in heaven for us, making perpetual intercession for his church, the body of his redeemed ones, by representing to his Father his death and sacrifice. There he sits, a High Priest continually, and offers still the same one perfect sacrifice; that is, still represents it as having been once finished and consummate, in order to perpetual and never-failing events. 

"And this, also, his ministers do on earth; they offer up the same sacrifice to God, the sacrifice of the cross, by prayers, and a commemorating rite and representment, according to his holy institution. And as all the effects of grace and the titles of glory were purchased for us on the cross, and the actual mysteries of redemption perfected on earth, but are applied to us, and made effectual to single persons and communities of men, by Christ's intercession in heaven . . . 

"As Christ is a priest in heaven for ever, and yet does not sacrifice himself afresh, nor yet without a sacrifice could he be a priest; but, by a daily ministration and intercession, represents his sacrifice to God, and offers himself as sacrificed: so he does upon earth, by the ministry of his servants; he is offered to God, that is, he is, by prayers and the sacrament, represented or 'offered up to God, as sacrificed'; which, in effect, is a celebration of his death, and the applying it to present and future necessities of the church, as we are capable, by a ministry like to his in heaven. It follows, then, that the celebration of this sacrifice be, in its proportion, an instrument of applying the proper sacrifice to all the purposes which it first designed. It is ministerially, and by application, an instrument propitiatory; it is eucharistical, it is an homage, and an act of adoration; and it is impetratory, and obtains for us, and for the whole church, all the benefits of the sacrifice, which is now celebrated and applied; that is, as this rite is the remembrance and ministerial celebration of Christ's sacrifice, so it is destined to do honour to God, to express the homage and duty of his servants, to acknowledge his supreme dominion, to give him thanks and worship, to beg pardon, blessings, and supply of all our needs." 

The picture below is the work of Thomas Noyes-Lewis  (1862-1946) who for many years was a worshipper at my parish church - All Saints' Benhilton in the south of London - and, indeed, a server at the altar. He was a professional artist, an illustrator of prayer books and children's books. His passion was to help people catch a glimpse of what is really happening in the Mass when as we gather at our earthly altars we are swept into the heavenly worship with Jesus, our great High Priest and sacrificial Victim, risen, ascended and glorified.   

And here is the hymn, expressing these great truths, that we would have sung during the distribution of Holy Communion had we been able to gather for our Sung Mass today:

Once, only once, and once for all 
His precious life he gave; 
Before the cross in faith we fall, 
And own it strong to save. 

‘One offering, single and complete,’ 
With lips and hearts we say; 
But what he never can repeat 
He shows forth day by day. 

For as the priest of Aaron’s line 
Within the holiest stood, 
And sprinkled all the mercy-shrine 
With sacrificial Blood. 

So he, who once atonement wrought, 
Our Priest of endless power, 
Presents himself for those he bought 
In that dark noontide hour. 

His manhood pleads where now it lives 
On heaven’s eternal throne, 
And where in mystic rite he gives 
Its presence to his own. 

And so we show thy death, O Lord, 
Till thou again appear, 
And feel, when we approach thy board, 
We have an altar here.
(William Bright, 1866)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Praying in the Holy Spirit - more from Gonville ffrench-Beytagh

It is good for us to remember that a Christian is someone who allows himself or herself to be drawn into the prayer of Jesus to the Father by the Holy Spirit. S. Paul refers to this when he tells us not to worry when we don’t know what to say in our prayers:  

‘. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit . . .’  (Romans 8:28)

According to S. Paul, prayer is the work of God within us. Jesus said something similar when he was teaching in the Temple. According to John’s Gospel, 

‘On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’" Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive . . . ‘ (John 7:37-39) 

Something of the adventure of the Christian life seen from this angle is captured by Gonville Ffrench-Beytagh in his little book A Glimpse of Glory. Here is what he wrote about the Holy Spirit and prayer:

'The Holy Spirit is pouring, cascading forth, in tumultuous torrents of love pouring out into the Son, pouring himself in torrents of love. And the Son himself is joyously, gloriously, pouring back his love into the Father. In this great procession of love pouring forth love, it is the Holy Spirit who is poured forth; it is he who is cascading forth in this glorious love affair. And that love is so unlimited, so limitless, that it spills over.

'The Holy Spirit spills over. This is not because God can’t contain himself, but because he is so longing to share his life of love and joy and glory, that he has made us as containers. That is what CAPAX DEI means - capable of containing God. Our glory and our purpose is to be filled with the reality which is God. We are designed to be filled with the love of God. We are like the great tankers, filled with petrol or milk, that go trundling along the road, marked ‘Capacity 20,000 gallons’. But you and I go about with a couple of gallons sloshing around in the bottom instead of being filled with the fullness of God. Yet that is what he made us for. That is the purpose of our existence - to be filled with God. If we think of prayer being for that, then we are expanding ourselves to receive a share of what is poured out and spilling over of the tremendous infinite power of the love of God.

' . . . I once spent four astonished days at the Victoria Falls in Africa. I was being pounded into the ground by their deafening roar and the magnificent sight of the millions and millions of gallons every moment pouring out, cascading, thundering down into the gorge below. It seemed as if the Congo and the Zambezi had drained all the water out of Africa and there it was. For me this made a picture of the ceaseless activity within the being of God himself. It was like the cascades of infinite divine love interflowing within the Godhead between the Father and the Son. God the Father is begetting love; God the Son is begotten love; God the Holy Spirit is the ceaseless flow of love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit binds them together in the gorgeous, ceaseless torrent of love.

'And beside the Victoria Falls is the rain forest. It is a weird place where you can put on a sou’ wester, hat, oilskins, gumboots, and walk into the forest and you’re just soaked to the skin. Water gets through everything. The heavy mist comes from the spray that rises up from the great canyon into which the torrent flows. It penetrates everything and seems wetter than ordinary water. As the mist from the cascade will drench us and soak into us if we put ourselves there in the forest, so, if we put ourselves close to the Lord God, his love that overspills and overflows will soak us in the Spirit. We long to share his love in as far as it can be shared by human beings. And he has made us for that, he has made us to be CAPAX DEI, to stand, as it were, in the rain forest, to be drenched in the love of God. That is the spiritual life.

'. . . the Falls make a picture of this torrential love of God which never stops. We are caught up into God’s love in the prayer of the Spirit praying within us. And we are caught up with the prayer of all the ages and the prayers of all the saints and of our own forbears. We are in their prayers with the angels and the archangels. It is the one great paean of love, agonizing sometimes, from the great chorus of heaven of which we are a part.'

A preacher of the Holy Name - S. Bernardine of Siena


Today we celebrate the work of God’s grace in Bernardino degli Albizzeschi, born near Siena in Tuscany, Italy, in 1380. Even in childhood he helped care for the sick during a time of pestilence in Siena. Then, in 1402, when he himself was severely ill, he joined the Franciscan Order and was assigned the task of an evangelist. His superiors told him that he had to preach, and although he suffered a severe throat affliction, he submitted. The Lord heard his cry for help, and he was miraculously healed.

From then on, Bernardine travelled the length and breadth of Italy preaching the Gospel and extolling the Name of Jesus. So powerful was his preaching that Pope Pius II called him ‘a second Paul.’ The thousands who flocked to hear him packed the piazzas of Italian cities. He explained the Good News of Jesus, often with stories and parables, sometimes with humour, but always in terms that gripped the people’s hearts. His preaching was often followed by outpourings of the Holy Spirit, with collective weeping, miraculous healings, and exorcisms. Bernardine was also noted for his work in bringing warring clans and family groups together in mutual forgiveness. Whenever he preached, as he got into the body of his sermon, he would hold up a placard with the sign of the name of Jesus, ‘IHS,’ written on it, urging the congregation to turn to the one symbolized by those letters. Many of his followers even had ‘IHS’ painted on their houses. He ushered in a period of genuine renewal and revival. 

Bernardine was sometimes criticised by more ‘settled’ interests in the Church, as is sometimes the case even today with those who have the kind of ministry he exercised. But each time he was eventually vindicated. In spite of this criticism, three times the Pope asked him to become a bishop, and he declined on the basis that his calling was evangelistic preaching.

He did, however, come to hold high office in the Franciscan Order. And, far from being a ‘mere’ popular preacher, he not only wrote serious theological works in both Latin and Italian; he founded two theological schools. He also assisted at the Council of Florence.

Bernardine died at Aquila in 1444in the middle of a preaching tour. His tomb there was said to be the site of many miracles. He was canonised within six years of his death.

S. Bernardine, pray for the Church in our time, that many more evangelists may be raised up to proclaim Jesus and the salvation he came to bring.

This is from S. Bernardines writings, translated into English, but originally Sermo 49, De glorioso Nomine Iesu Christi, cap 2: Opera omnia, 4. 505-506

‘The name of Jesus is the glory of preachers, because the shining splendor of that name causes his word to be proclaimed and heard. And how do you think such an immense, sudden and dazzling light of faith came into the world, if not because Jesus was preached? Was it not through the brilliance and sweet savor of this name that God called us into his marvelous light? When we have been enlightened, and in that same light behold the light of heaven, rightly may the apostle Paul say to us: Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.

‘So this name must be proclaimed, that it may shine out and never be suppressed. But it must not be preached by someone with sullied mind or unclean lips, but stored up and poured out from a chosen vessel. That is why our Lord said of Saint Paul: He is a chosen instrument of mine, the vessel of my choice, to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel. In this chosen vessel there was to be a drink more pleasing than earth ever knew, offered to all mankind for a price they could pay, so that they would be drawn to taste of it. Poured into other chosen vessels, it would grow and radiate splendor. For our Lord said: He is to Carry my name.

‘When a fire is lit to clear a field, it burns off all the dry and useless weeds and thorns. When the sun rises and darkness is dispelled, robbers, night-prowlers and burglars hide away. So when Paul’s voice was raised to preach the Gospel to the nations, like a great clap of thunder in the sky, his preaching was a blazing fire carrying all before it. It was the sun rising in full glory. Infidelity was consumed by it, false beliefs fled away, and the truth appeared like a great candle lighting the whole world with its brilliant flame.

‘By word of mouth, by letters, by miracles and by the example of his own life, Saint Paul bore the name of Jesus wherever he went. He praised the name of Jesus at all times, but never more than when bearing witness to his faith. Moreover, the Apostle did indeed carry this name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel as a light to enlighten all nations. And this was his cry wherever he journeyed: The night is passing away, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves honorably as in the day. Paul himself showed forth the burning and shining light set upon a candlestick, everywhere proclaiming Jesus, and him crucified.

‘And so the Church, the bride of Christ strengthened by his testimony, rejoices with the psalmist, singing: 0 God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. The psalmist exhorts her to do this, as he says: Sing to the Lord, and bless his name, proclaim his salvation day after day. And this salvation is Jesus, her Saviour.’

O God, 
who gave the Priest Saint Bernardine of Siena 
a great love for the holy Name of Jesus, 
grant through his merits and prayers, 
that we may ever be set aflame 
with the spirit of your love. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, 
for ever and ever. Amen.

One of the best hymns Charles Wesley (1707-1788) wrote is ‘Jesus, the Name high over all.’ S. Bernardine would have loved it: 

Jesus! the Name high over all,
In hell or earth or sky;
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners given;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It turns their hell to heaven.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that the world might taste and see
The riches of his grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

His only righteousness I show,
His saving grace proclaim;
’Tis all my business here below
To cry 'Behold the Lamb!'

Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp his Name,
Preach him to all and cry in death,
'Behold, behold the Lamb!'

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

He “filled all England with light.”

In order to grasp the significance of S. Dunstan, we have to remember how, beginning with the merciless sacking of Lindisfarne in 793, the Danish invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries resulted, not only in the widespread destruction of monasteries and churches, but also the violent massacre of many clergy. The civilisation that had developed in Britain perished.

Raids for the purpose of plunder and robbery eventually gave way to the seizing of land for settlement. But the impact of the invasions, together with the other crises being experienced in Europe meant that during the last two centuries of the first millennium, many thought in apocalyptic terms that the end of the world was near.

In 878 Alfred (849-899), King of Wessex, gathered his remaining few warriors in the marshes at Eddington, and, to everyone’s surprise, conquered the Danes, becoming King of all England. He was educated and devout, dedicating himself to the restoration of peace, the revival of learning, true holiness and the renewal of the Church. So Alfred founded schools, and personally translated many books (including Bede’s History) from Latin into the English of the day. He also began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in English. At a time when there were almost no local vocations to the religious life, he founded monasteries and filled them with men and women from the Continent. The provision of bishops for the vacant sees and the creation of new ones was accomplished just after his death.

Building on this foundation, three significant leaders in the reigns of King Athelstan (c. 894-939) and King Edgar (c. 943-975) led a turn-around in the 10th century. They were Dunstan (909-988), Ethelwold (908-984), and Oswald (d. 992).

Dunstan received his schooling at Glastonbury, and as a youth belonged to King Athelstan’s court, which was itself a rich source of education, for there were many contacts with the Continent, Wales and Scotland. Dunstan became a monk of Glastonbury, and then Abbot of Glastonbury (940-957), Bishop of Worcester (957-960), Bishop of London (958-960), and finally Archbishop of Canterbury (960-978). He established many of the great monasteries of England, ensuring high standards of religious devotion and obedience. He inspired spiritual renewal and a higher level of education among the clergy generally; he promoted celibacy as the norm for the clerical life. He also brought artists from the Continent to beautify England’s churches, and he introduced great music to the people. Above all he is remembered as an educated, saintly man who established a standard – even an “ethos” – of worship which was to dominate the life of the English Church for centuries. When he died, it was said of him that he had “filled all England with light.” As well as his attendance at Mass and the Divine Office, Dunstan’s last ten years in retirement at Canterbury saw him spending long hours, day and night, in prayer.

Dunstan was a scholar, a holy priest, a mystic and a practical man. Angels are reported to have sung to him heavenly canticles. He improved the spiritual and temporal well-being of his people; he built and restored churches, established schools, judged suits, defended widows and orphans, promoted peace, and enforced respect for purity. He practised his crafts, made bells and organs and corrected the books in the cathedral library. He encouraged and protected European scholars who came to England, and was active as a teacher of boys in the cathedral school. 

On the vigil of Ascension Day 988, it is recorded that a vision of angels warned Dunstan he would die in three days. On the feast day itself, Dunstan said Mass and preached three times to the people: at the Gospel, after the Agnus Dei, and at the blessing. In his final address, he announced his impending death and wished the people well. That afternoon he chose the spot for his tomb and went to bed. His strength failed rapidly, and on Saturday morning, 19 May, he assembled the clergy. Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received the Sacrament of Anointing and Holy Communion, and died. His final words are reported to have been, “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear him.”

The collect from today's Mass:
O God, source of all gifts,
who raised up the Bishop Saint Dunstan
to be a true shepherd of the flock,
a restorer of monastic life
and a trusted counsellor of kings;
grant at his intercession, we pray,
an abundance of your Spirit to all pastors,
that with wisdom and truth
they may offer worthy service to Christ
and to his people.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, for ever and ever. 

Love and vulnerability - Fr Gonville ffrench-Beytagh & C.S. Lewis

Yesterday I shared some of the insights of Fr Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991). Here he reflects on the Lord's commandment to love one another. This is from Encountering Light, William Collins & Sons Co Ltd, Glasgow, 1975, pages 66-67:

Jesus told us that the distinguishing mark of his disciples is their love for each other, and this is not the ordinary 'loving our neighbours as ourselves' which is required of all men, but 'the fellowship of the Holy Spirit', Koinonia, a belonging together at the depth of ourselves. So we have to be a communion of saints, bound together, belonging together, needing, trusting, accepting each other.

I do not believe that any of us, whether minister, priest or layman, can find God without also finding a 'company of the beloved' with whom he can in some way share his search. 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name,' said Jesus, 'there am I in the midst.'

This is another paradox. I have already emphasized the utter necessity for every Christian to make time to be alone with God, and I have expressed my own belief in the sacrifice of the Mass as the focal point of Christian life. But it is too easy to get bogged down in generalities and pious resolutions. We have to make actual the trust and forgiveness and love which we learn and express in private prayer and public worship by actually practicing these things with our 'even Christians', as Julian of Norwich calls them.

This is the real test of love - to let others experience you as you really are, and trust that they will accept you as God accepts you, and then in turn to seek truly to accept them as they are, dull, ugly, boring, stupid, and selfish though they may be, and, indeed, as you may be. The work of Jesus is to make men whole, and the work of the Holy Spirit is to make men into a whole, to bring us closer and closer together until we find our unity with each other in him. These two kinds of healing go together, and it just is not possible to be whole and isolated at the same time. Even the Greeks were aware of this, thousands of years ago. Their word for a private person, someone who is cut off from the rest, was 'idios', from which we get the word 'idiot' - someone who is so mentally handicapped that he lives in a world of his own. 

C.S. Lewis expresses the same truth fairly starkly (some might say brutally!) in Four Loves, William Collins & Sons Co Ltd, Glasgow, 1960, page 169:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Monday, May 18, 2020

We are so greatly loved - Fr Gonville ffrench-Beytagh

St Vedast Foster Lane, London (just near St Paul's Cathedral), as seen from Paternoster Row

If anybody's life demonstrates the power of the Lord's resurrection in the ebb and flow of our faltering discipleship, it is Father Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), the anti-apartheid Dean of Johannesburg, who endured a forty day trial and imprisonment.

On his release he came to England where he lived the rest of his life 'in exile', as he saw it. He became well-known for his ministry of spiritual direction which he carried out from St Vedast's Church near St Paul's Cathedral, London. He published numerous books, including Encountering Darkness, an account of his imprisonment, Facing DepressionEncountering LightTree of Glory, and A Glimpse of Glory.

Go HERE to Canon Patrick Comerford's blog for the story of Father ffrench-Beytagh's life.  

Here are some extracts from Fr ffrench-Beytagh's teaching:

"What distinguishes a Christian from anybody else is not that he goes to church, or that he is good, or that he has been baptised, but that he knows that he, John Smith, is loved and valued at a depth beyond any human imagining and that he desires to respond to that love. He may feel almost filled with hate and lust and envy, but he knows he is loved - the whole of him, not just the 'good' bits - and so he can begin to open himself to God and his fellowmen and allow the power of divine love to flood through him."
From Encountering Light

"Think of yourself for a moment. There is no one on this earth who is like you. This may be just as well, but it is true. You may have an identical twin who was removed at birth for all you know, but there is not, and cannot ever have been, nor will there ever be, a person who is exactly like you. Even if someone has exactly the same genes and chromosomes, the environment in which he (or she) grew up will have been different and so he will have become a different person. It is not possible for someone else to have the same loves and hates and lusts and fears and anxieties and hopes and desires as you yourself have.

"You are unique, you are yourself and there has never been, or can be, someone who is just like you, or who fills your place in the world. And if religion is, as it claims to be, a personal relationship with God, your relationship with God will be something unique to yourself and him. You can listen to preachers preaching, you can read about religion — and probably ought to do so because we can learn from each other's experience — but in the last resort your religion and your prayer is something of your own self.

"Finally, at the end of your life, you will stand before the judgement seat by yourself. You are responsible for yourself. Many people have contributed towards your goodness and badness. Many of them may well be blamed and have some responsibility for what is in you, but in the last resort, you are you and no one can take your place."
From Encountering Light

"Consider this world in the present day - the fear, the starvation, the many kinds of distress and our terrifying weakness. Some of the trouble exists because Christians are too damned lazy to pray - I mean that literally. Jesus loves the whole world and our concern should reach out towards the evil and horror of the whole world."
From A Glimpse of Glory

“Behind the horror of the cross shines the tremendous, transcendent beauty of the God who is present even in the horror.” 
From Tree of Glory 

"[The Church must face things like apartheid] if our faith is to have any reality in world aftairs, and is not itself to be a kind of apartheid . . . a shutting off from the real issues of the twentieth century in a cosy game of liturgical reform where the crucifixion is forgotten and love involves no cost and no sacrifice." 
Quoted by William Barclay in 'The Expository Times'

“The pattern of prayer is a looking towards God, a listening for him, a leaning towards him, and a longing for him, until there comes the experience of love.”
From A Glimpse of Glory

Monday, May 11, 2020

Spiritual warfare

During times of personal struggle, church difficulties, or global conflict, it is all too easy for us to abandon basic Christian insights when trying to understand what is happening. The same goes when we are attempting to discern the response we should make. In our time many first world churches of a very wide range of traditions seem hell-bent on accommodating themselves to current secular world views on key issues, rather than gently and lovingly, but firmly, adhering to what God has revealed.  

It seems to me that one of the key passages of Scripture for us to constantly revisit in our day is Ephesians 6:10-13, in which S. Paul reminds us of the struggle with evil that is part and parcel of being a Christian:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 

Commenting on this passage, the great evangelical Archbshop Marcus Loane (at whose hands I was confirmed 55 years ago when he was an Assistant Bishop in Sydney) wrote, 

There is a marked pause at the end of the long and salutary passage on home relationships; then Paul called on his scribe once more and the Letter was brought to a close with a call to arms. He knew that, just like the ancient Spartans, we were born for battle: therefore we must learn to ‘endure hardness’ as good soldiers of Christ (2 Timothy 2:3 Authorised Version). We have to live on ground where we will be under attack; it is like a camp in hostile country which must be held until the Captain returns in triumph. Attacks are launched against it by unseen adversaries, for the devil is in command of a vast host. He is always a most aggressive enemy, and that host is skilfully organised for war without quarter. No true soldier of Christ will be immune from its assaults, nor can he be neutral in that conflict. The battle field is overhung with clouds, and he will be forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat. But each member of that beleagured [sic] garrison can stand fast and prevail, because there are sources of strength available in Christ which can make them invincible.  Marcus L. Loane, Grace and the Gentiles (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), 110.

Now, I know that some of our liberal friends smile condescendingly at that kind of teaching, but no less a teacher than Dr Eric Mascall reminded us in his Boyle Lectures that 

. . . it is part of traditional Christian belief that, behind and beyond the physical universe, there is a realm of purely spiritual beings, in whose affairs we have become implicated. I need hardly recall you to the tremendous and superb imagery in which the last book in the Bible . . . depicts the warfare in the unseen world between the angels of light and the powers of darkness. E.M. Mascall The Christian Universe (Darton, Longman & Todd, London 1966), p. 110

Scripture, tradition and Christian experience combine in assuring us that the struggle against evil with which Christians on earth are concerned can be seen in its true proportions only against the background of a vaster and more mysterious conflict in the unseen world in which they, too are caught up. When we are faced with the claim that Christians in a secular age ought to live as completely secularised men we can only reply that such a programme does no justice either to the true nature of this world or of existence as a whole . . . It ignores also the resources which we have at our command. (ibid. p. 129)

May the Lord open the eyes of all Christian people, not just to the cosmic struggle in which we have become involved, but also, as Mascall says, to the resources God has given us with which to overcome.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High 
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 
I will say to the Lord, 
“My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler 
and from the deadly pestilence. 
He will cover you with his pinions, 
and under his wings you will find refuge; 
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 
You will not fear the terror of the night, 
nor the arrow that flies by day, 
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, 
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. 
A thousand may fall at your side, 
ten thousand at your right hand, 
but it will not come near you. 
You will only look with your eyes and see 
the recompense of the wicked. 
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place 
- the Most High, who is my refuge- 
no evil shall be allowed to befall you, 
no plague come near your tent. 
For he will command his angels concerning you 
to guard you in all your ways. 
On their hands they will bear you up, 
lest you strike your foot against a stone. 
You will tread on the lion and the adder; 
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; 
I will protect him, because he knows my name. 
When he calls to me, I will answer him; 
I will be with him in trouble; 
I will rescue him and honour him. 
With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

- Psalm 91 (ESV)