The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Friday, June 30, 2006

Igor Stravinsky's Agon

In the early 1950's, Igor Stravinsky was crossing the Mojave Desert in a car with his wife and personal assistant, but Stravinsky was stranded in a desert of his own. He had hit a creative wall; his neo-classical leanings had warn themselves out. He was being taunted by audiences, not for being too avant-garde, but rather for being too tame and predictable. He was in the composer's wasteland, and there seemed like there was no way out of it.

His assistant, however, suggested something that was right in front of his musical face: the current musical fad of the time, serialism. Stravinsky had been a contemporary of Schoenberg and Webern but had yet to even touch a twelve-tone row nor did he even know how to write one. He had kept a cool distance from atonality. Nevertheless, he went after this music for his creative life, but he did it not in a cold or impersonal style like Boulez or Stockhausen, but as, well..... Stravinsky.

Agon is Stravinky's last ballet, and in Greek means "game" or "challenge". It is a classical competition between the new and old styles of music, with lots of "Greek-sounding" stuff sprinkled in between. As in all struggles, both styles compete, feed off each other, and grow as the piece progresses. But all throughout, there is no mistaking who composed it. The typical Stravinsky energy of L' Oiseau de Feu, Le Sacre du Printemps, and Pulcinella is there. Like all these pieces, too, it has a very unique inspiration, but the end is still the same: a manifestation of Stravinsky's genius.

What this piece teaches to us non-musicians is not to be afraid of modernity, but that if we embrace things in the right manner, we can assimilate them, change them, and learn to love them. While we can still be traditional in many ways, we have to find a way to struggle with the world that will lead in the end to growth on both sides. This is a very Christian attitude, if not the most Christian.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


When it comes to action, we can never wait until we have an absolutely certain understanding of the entire situation. We only take the path down which we are lead by probability. Every "duty" must follow this path; for this is how we sow, sail, make war, get married, and have children. In all these things, the result is uncertain, but we nevertheless decide to undertake those actions which we think have some hope of succeeding..... We go where reason- and not absolute truth- leads us.

- Seneca, On Benefits

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

And You Thought We Had Problems....

Catholicism is a faith in flux across U.S.,from the Belleville News Democrat, June 28th 2006

There's a tension between Catholicism and American culture, [said Chester Gillis]. American culture is winning out.

That is what I am talking about, people! If the Vatican tommorrow decided to ordain women, relax its stand on homosexuality, divorce, or anything else, do you think there would be an uproar in the American Church over it? Of course not.

Roman Catholics are no different from anyone else in society. That is the experience that I had growing up. My 16 year old sister is a lay Eucharistic minister. Does she believe in the Real Presence? I don't know. I am afraid to ask her. And she was just confirmed!

Sorry, this is not a problem of confessional lines. This is a problem of the entire Christian experience in the face of postmodernity. There are good guys and bad guys in every confession of Christendom. There is no tower of safety, but we have to fight nonetheless.

Vivaldi's Stabat Mater

You need this CD . Stop listening to the Four Seasons over and over again and get some real Vivaldi red meat! Even if the title piece is Vivaldi's Stabat Mater, the real gem of this recording by Andreas Scholl and the Ensemble 415 is the recording of the work, "Cessate, omai cessate". That alone is worth the price of this recording, if not much more.

Cessate, omai cessate,
rimembranze crudeli
d'un affeto tirano?
Gia barbare e spietate,
mi cangiaste i contenti
in un immenso affano.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Immediacy of God

"At the present time," the Elder replied, "owing to our almost universal coldness to our holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and our inattention to the working of His Divine Providence in us, and to the communion of man with God, we have gone so far that, one may say, we have almost abandoned the true Christian life. The testimonies of Holy Scripture now seem strange to us, when, for instance, by the lips of Moses the Holy Spirit says: And Adam saw the Lord walking in paradise (cp. Gen. 3:10), or when we read the words of the Apostle Paul: 'We went to Achaia, and the Spirit of God went not with us; we returned to Macedonia, and the Spirit of God came with us'. More than once in other passages of Holy Scripture the appearance of God to men is mentioned.
"That is why some people say: 'These passages are incomprehensible. Is it really possible for people to see God so openly?' But there is nothing incomprehensible here. This failure to understand has come about because we have departed from the simplicity of the original Christian knowledge. Under the pretext of education, we have reached such a darkness of ignorance that what the ancients understood so clearly seems to us almost inconceivable. Even in ordinary conversation, the idea of God's appearance among men did not seem strange to them. Thus, when his friends rebuked him for blaspheming God, Job answered them: How can that be when I feel the Spirit of God in my nostrils? (cp. Job 27:3). That is, 'How can I blaspheme God when the Holy Spirit abides with me? If I had blasphemed God, the Holy Spirit would have withdrawn from me; but lo, I feel His breath in my nostrils.'
"In exactly the same way it is said of Abraham and Jacob that they saw the Lord and conversed with Him, and that Jacob even wrestled with Him. Moses and all the people with him saw God when he was granted to receive from God the tables of the law on Mount Sinai. A pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, or, in other words, the evident grace of the Holy Spirit, served as guides to the people of God in the desert. People saw God and the grace of His Holy Spirit, not in sleep or in dreams, or in the excitement of a disordered imagination, but truly and openly."

More accurate words have not been written to describe the crisis of modern thought. And this from an 18th century Russian merchant's son, St. Seraphim of Sarov, in his Conversation with Motovilov.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


When one discerns in the bodily the Idea that binds and masters matter of itself formless and indeed recalcitrant to formation , and when one also detects an uncommon form stamped upon those that are common, then at a stroke one grasps the scattered multiplicity, gathers it together, and draws it within oneself to present it there to one's interior and indivisible oneness as concordant, congenial, a friend.



I began reading Cardinal Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine with a hostile attitude. We all want to justify ourselves, our actions and our decisions by refuting those of others, particularily those who have taken a different path. His Eminence, however, ends his work with the following admonition:

And now, dear Reader, time is short, eternity is long. Put not from you what you have found; regard it not as mere matter of present controversy; set not out to refute it, and looking about for the best way of doing so; seduce not yourself with the imagination that it comes of dissapointment, or disgust, or restlessness, or wounded feeling, or undue sensibility, or other weakness. Wrap not yourself round in associations of years past; nor determine that to be the truth which you wish to be so, nor make an idol of cherished anticipations. Time is short, eternity is long.

What shall I say to this? Shall I try to refute it? For Newman, what he was talking about was an issue of eternal life and eternal death. One wonders if even those Anglicans presently swimming the Tiber consider it to be so. If not, what is the point of all of the angst and catharsis?

Newman's book is a convincing read. Yes, he was pointing the finger right at me, except I have left the truth in order to go over to simulacra and shadows. If we are to create a Platonic idea of Newman, floating in the aetheral realm of ideas, he would indeed be a witness against me. The Roman Catholic Church is the same church as it was back then. Yes, it is in crisis, but that is almost one of the marks of the Church. The idea that it is we who must submit to the Church, we were created for the Church and not it for us, is a most Christian one indeed. To "shop around" for a church, to not commit, is in this sense the most gravest of follies. A priest once told me that St. Augustine hated his local Catholic Church at first, since the priest was an idiot and the people corrupt. Who knows? Maybe it was just as bad as the local Roman Catholic "community" of today? And should not the all Christians form a united front behind the Pope of Rome, who has abundant evidence to back up the claims to his authority, in the face of a new anti-Christian age?

Yes, this all makes sense. I say it in order to bring myself toward deeper repentance. All theology, however, is personal, and all ecclesiology local. I have brought these things up not to justify myself, not to refute them with fancy arguments, but rather to say that I simply don't see this Church that Newman is talking about. Maybe this is out of malice, or bitterness, or because I am blind to it. I spent my first quarter century in and around the Roman Catholic Church as it existed around the turn of the second millenium here in California and South America. For me, a lot of what Newman argues is directed to the Church I saw growing up as well. Piety, devotion to the saints, respect for tradition still existed but they were frowned upon. Roman Catholics were not pariahs, members of a massive dangerous sect out to conquer the world but rather as normal or worse than everyone else, both in belief and morals. The Roman Catholic Church I knew growing up was no different from the world it existed in. Sorry, maybe I don't read L' Osservatore Romano enough, or watch EWTN every night. Newman is preaching in this book apostolic Christianity, pure and simple. This I will not refute. It's too bad that by the time I came of age it was all a faint memory.

If you want to go over to Rome, go ahead, it's not as if I can argue with you. I have abundant reasons for doing what I am doing, but in the face of Newman's sincerity and appeal to the gravity of the discussion at hand, I will end here the way Ludwig Wittgenstein ended the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

Whereof one cannot speak, whereof one must be silent.

Friday, June 23, 2006

On "the Institution"

Some Ramblings that You Would Do Best to Ignore

Look, I do not like to get into polemics. They don't solve anything, and in the end no one is convinced of anything other than "the other side is an idiot." But as I am officially a(n) (continuing) Anglican blog, I suppose I have to say something about the mess shown here.

Having been a Roman Catholic for so long, I have a great acquaintance with the "Institution". What is the "Institution"? It's a lot of things. Mostly its power, prestige, buildings, influence, and so on and so forth. It is argued that Christ founded an institution, so that the Gospel would spread, the Flock would be governed properly, the bills would be paid on time, and the ladies of the Altar Society would not cut each other with garden scissors in arguments over lilies. The Institution makes the Church visible, without it, who would know where to go?

So institutions are built, are corrupted and are reformed. But above all, they are taken for granted. People when asked, "Where is the Church?", point to the one on the corner and say "Over there," as if it has always been there, always will be there, and gee, "I don't have to worry about it too much." Just pay your dues, go with the flow, and everything will be alright. Right?

This is not about constructing cathedrals in the clouds, nor is it about becoming your own Pope. I am not about to sit in judgment on other denominations, nor unchurch those to profess to believe in Christ. Let other bloggers with higher IQ's and longer attention spans deal with those issues. What is being addressed here is the irrational and unChristian fear of "illegitimacy" and going it on your own. People want to be part of the big, Gothic church on the corner with the Sunday school and professional choir. People don't want to be called a cult, or be accused of being closed-minded or sectarian, or be viewed as antiques from a backwards past. People may not want these things, but the Gospel requires this of us. And the Gospel trumps the Institution. Every time.

If your are in communion with the Anglican Communion, ask yourself if this is doing you any good, or are you there because of inertia? If you are thinking of swimming the Tiber, are you merely trading one Institution for another, with a whole set of problems you have yet to foresee? And if you want to seek refuge in the Continuum or in Orthodoxy, are you doing this in the right spirit, or out of bitterness or judgment?

I left the Roman Catholic Church but I will not argue against it, and I would never condemn anyone for joining it. But I saw where it was going, and I saw where I was going , and I decided it might just be better if we parted ways. That was all. Life away from the Institution might seem like the desert. But there are many oases in the desert. And that is where the Faith becomes stronger.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Featured Blog

I am too busy to blog, so just read this one:

Jason Kranzusch's Axegrinder blog

He is almost as eccentric as I am, but not quite! A very thoughtful webpage.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Real Life

It is no less ridiculous to be shocked by these things than it is to complain because you get splashed in the baths, or get shoved around in a public place, or that you get dirty in muddy places. What happens in life is exactly like what happens in the baths, in a crowd, or on a muddy road..... Life is not for delicate souls.

-Seneca, Letters to Lucilius

The gaping jaws of a lion, poison, and everything unpleasant- mud, thorns and so forth- are accessory consequences of these sacred and venerable things on high. Don't imagine, then, that these things are foreign to the principle that you venerate, but rather rise up by your rational power to the source of all things.

-Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Monday, June 19, 2006

A More Conventional Requiem

Here is a more conventional Requiem Mass recording I can recommend to all. It is one of the most beautiful examples of classical polyphony I have yet to hear: the Gabrieli Consort performing Cristobal Morales┬┤ Requiem Mass in liturgical context.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Theology by the Numbers

(And a Musical Interlude)

The unifying numbers, in themselves, are unknowable. For they are more ancient than Beings and more unified than Forms, and since they are the generators of Forms they exist prior to those things called "intelligibles". The most august of theurgies demonstrate this, since they make use of numbers capable of acting ineffably, and by means of them, they effect the greatest and most ineffable of operations.

-Proclus, from Platonic Theology

I never really liked studying mathematics in school. It was rather dry stuff, with only one answer, and no "passion" to it. I remember struggling to pay attention to the teachers as they explained the intricacies of quadratic equations, geometric postulates, and other things I found boring to no end. For me, these classes were about getting the grade that I wanted so I could move on, and I had to fight for that grade.

Imagine my surprise, then, when in reading Theurgy and the Soul by Gregory Shaw, I found an chapter on the religious significance of mathematics in antiquity. This particular quote floored me:

For Pythagoreans the study of numbers was a religious exercise. Iamblichus says that, "if we wish to study mathematics in a Pythagorean manner, we ought to pursue zealously its God-inspired, anagogic, cathartic and initiatory process" Hardly the prerequisites of mathematicians today! The requirements for a Pythagorean mathematicians were far more demanding, for Pythagoreans accepted only those who were willing "to share their entire life with the community". (p. 195)

Shaw continues:

Buckert maintains that prior to 460 B.C. "Pythagoreans" had discovered that the diagonal of a square with the side of "1" has an irrational value and therefore cannot be defined arithmetically. Nevertheless, it becomes defined when it is geometrically performed, which means that the irrational becomes rational when it functions as a generative power. In the same way, a corresponding irrational power was understood to exist in the soul, a power that remained ineffable until it was revealed in theurgic performance: the "ineffable acts". The supposed "irrationality" of the theurgic rites, therefore, was consistent with the mathematic solution to the problem of incommensurate lines within the "unit square and "unit cube". Like the irrational diagonal, the ineffable power of the gods was alogos with respect to discrete (arithmetic) reasoning yet became the source of a logos revealed in embodied (geometric) action. (p. 211)

There is another significant quote, this time from Jean Trouillard, that Shaw cites on p. 190, roughly translated as the following:

We must note the capital thesis of Neoplatonism according to which thought was not the primary value. It was rather a mediation between the dispersion of the sensible and pure mystical union.

A far cry from today's postmodern intellectual universe! According to this model, all things that are not quantifiable are uncertain, and that which is quantifiable has no metaphysical or moral significance. For modern man, to mix mathematics and religion would be like mixing oil and water, and they would dismiss the above quotes as pagan superstition, quaint and rather outdated interpretations of what is really a hollow and meaningless universe.

In the ancient system, however, numbers were viewed as the highest symbols of the gods in the sensible cosmos. Even in St. Augustine, there was an attempt to view the significance of numbers in the Scriptures and in creation. It is significant that even in what we would deem the most "irreligious" of realms, ancient man could see the hand of God.

Perhaps I should go back to crunching those numbers again.....


Indeed, before the soul gave itself to the body, it heard the divine harmony plainly. Therefore, after it departs into a body and hears the sort of melodies that especially preserve the trace of the divine harmony, it welcomes these and recollects the divine harmony from them. It is drawn to this, makes itself at home with it, and partakes of it as much as possible.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

Not that I agree with this quote in terms of pre-existence of souls in another realm; in that sense I am thoroughly Christian and Aristotelian. There is a similar quote in Origen, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, when he says that when we enter the temple of God for the first time and behold the truths of the Christian Faith, we do not so much discover them but rather remember them. Again, Origen had his problems too.....

A friend once told me about a program he saw where a group of agnostic musicians spent a year touring European churches while giving performances of Bach. One suprisingly said at the end of the ordeal that the whole experience, "made him feel closer to Jesus." An they were not just performing the sacred cantatas, either.

If Christianity has any hope of evangelizantion in this new dark ages, much of it will come from our musical heritage. In spite of the rather low quality of contemporary music (and even music deemed religious), there is still a thirst for beauty amongst many young people that a Bach, a Palestrina, or Gregorian chant satisfies. If there is any way to reach them, this is a good place to start, if and only if we can portray these works as products of traditional doctrine and liturgy and not just things in themselves. There is a whole life, the Life, of which this music is only a faint manifestation.

In a sense, too, when they listen to these works, they are indeed remembering a sacred past, if only for the first time.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Pagan Prayer

Good people will therefore say when they are dying:

I leave full of greatness to you [God], for you have judged me worthy of celebrating this festival with you, of contemplating your works, and of following together with you the way in which you govern the world.

-from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

How much more should we rejoice, we who have been invited to the Eternal Wedding Feast of the Lamb!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Draft of Shadows

I am where I was:

I go behind the murmur,

Footsteps inside of me, heard with the ears,

The murmur is of the mind, I am my footsteps,

I hear the voices that I think,

The voices that think me as I think them.

I am the shadow that my words cast.

-Octavio Paz, from the poem, Pasado en Claro (my translation)

Very appropriate for a blogger.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Chrysalid Requiem

A challenging a cappella work that defies the hegemony of equal temperament. If you do buy this recording, the singers are not out of tune. Keep listening, and the music will do its work on you.

My only qualm is why he had to set the Requiem Mass. This does not have the feel of a Requiem Mass, and while some "classical" settings can be used liturgically (Mozart, to some extent, and Faure definitely), others (Verdi, Berlioz, etc.) cannot. This is definitely one of the latter. Still to be rcommended, though.

Go here for more info.

A Picture Is Worth.....

c.1843- "On the whole, all parties will agree that, of all the existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation to the Church of the Fathers..... Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own."

-John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, pg. 97

2006- Really, Your Eminence? What would St. Athanasius say about this scene?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Language and Liturgy

We Egyptians do not use words, but sounds.....

- from the Corpus Hermeticum

How do you express the ineffable? This is one of the main problems facing modern man as he confronts the liturgies of the past. How much do we change, and how much do we leave alone? How much are we supposed to understand, and how much is veiled in a mystery that cannot be grasped? Liturgy has changed in the past, why not again? This has indeed been the excuse of all liturgical reformers from any number of Christian confessions. Clarity, simplicity, and contemporary language are to be desired in all attempts at liturgical reform. Modern people are too smart to be patronized by a sacred language. They need to "know what's going on."

I have been in the front seat watching attempts to translate the Byzantine liturgy into modern English, and it is a headache. Right off the bat, one realizes that all of the Greek poetic play on words is gone, many of the terms no longer make sense, and the prose is far from high quality in the English translation. If you kept it in Greek or Slavonic, you wouldn't understand it, but put it into English, and it just sounds exotic and at worst non-sensical. So how do you get around the problem? Do you keep it in the "prayer wheel"mentality of reciting the prayers just because they are there, or do you do your best to write a theological treatise of the prayers that all can understand?

Let us take a more radical opinion to shed light on the subject. Gregory Shaw, in his book on Iamblichus that we have been studying, cites Claire Preaux on this question: "The attitude of religious communities with regard to translation is conditioned by the degree of rationality that they admit in the relations between man and the divine." (p. 181)

Gregory Shaw continues:

"For Iamblichus, however, to deny the value of the god's audible expression would dismiss the energeia of the god, and in principle it would deny the value of the entire sensible cosmos as the energeia of the Demiurge. The names of the gods were individual theophanies in the same way that the cosmos was the universal theophany, and since both preceded man's conceptual understanding Iamblichus says that they should not be changed according to conceptual criteria.... The sacred names were "bodies" of the gods that should not be violated by translation." - p. 182

and again Shaw writes:

"Since the ascent of the soul was integrally tied to the descent of the gods in cosmogenesis, when the soul chanted the names and vowels associated with the gods, it entered their energeia. Because the names were divinizing the soul ascended, yet insofar as the soul chanted the names, it descended with them into the sensible world..... Since the soul itself could never grasp or initiate theurgy, the incantation, strictly speaking, was accomplished by the god, yet it freed the soul by allowing it to actively experience what it could never conceptually understand." - p. 187 , my emphasis.

All well and good, you might say, but how does this neo-Platonic pagan gobbly-gook apply to Christian liturgy? First, we must say that the idea of a sacred language was also shared by the early Christian writer Origen, when he wrote in his Contra Celsum that Hebrew was a sacred language, "not concerned with ordinary, created things, but with a certain mysterious divine science that is related to the Creator of the universe." Perhaps this is why the Septuagint translation of the Psalms was so servile to the Hebrew and at times incomprehensible: the translators did not just want to convey an idea, but rather give the reader a real impression of the original Hebrew text deemed sacred in itself, even if it meant sacrificing comprehensibility. This is even more the case when they translated the Septuagint Psalter into Old Slavonic when the Slavs converted to Byzantine Christianity, and was even more revered even though it was a translation of a translation.

We moderns, however, can ask if there is any foundation to all of this. Is the sign something in itself that must be revered, or is the "content" that which is most important? Is there another theological foundation to all this? If not, does this mean we need to switch back to Hebrew as a liturgical language?

The way to resolve this problem is to consider the Hebrew/Christian concept of memory. Ours is a thoroughly historical religion. From the traditional Passover feast to the remembering of the saints in apostolic liturgies, much of how we worship has to do not just with a vertical communion with God (worshiper to God directly), but also a horizontal communion with the Body of Christ over time and space. When we worship with the same prayers as our ancestors, there is something profound that is passed on to us that I would contend we do not fully understand. The rhythms and cadences of Latin, Greek, Old Slavonic, or Elizabethan English form us in a way that merely telling us a theological truth could never do. There is a history to these prayers, and Christianity is a Faith of history. In a sense, as long as we do not exaggerate the point, they do have a power of their own, a power that begins to work on us even before we understand them, either as children or as converts to the Faith.

No matter what the traditional manner of worship, no matter how authentic, ancient, or new it may seem, we are confronted with a transmission from our elders who did know more than we know now. Change may be desirable or even necessary in some cases, but those cases should be kept to a minimum lest we destroy the traditional sound, the music of the words of worship.

(to be continued...)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Asking Permission to Be Catholic

VirtueOnline: No Refuge For Anglicans Seeking Unity With Rome

You do not need Rome's permission to practice traditional apostolic Christianity! Get over yourselves, already! If they won't give permission to do a good thing, than they are in the wrong. There is always the Anglican Continuum, you know!

(thanks for the link, Conservative Blog for Peace )

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Starry sky above....

A Very Informal Meditation on the Veni Creator

I always have strange para-liturgical things that I do around holy days. The one I do for Pentecost is listen to Gustav Mahler's Eight Symphony, which opens with his choral rendition of the ancient hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus. I first bought this recording when I was fourteen when I had my first full time summer job. (Fourteen year olds should never listen to Mahler!) Only when I went off to seminary, however, did I learn the original Gregorian setting to this chant, and it has always been one of my favorites.

I remember back at the end of my first year as a seminarian that we spent an entire week working hard in preparation for the consecration of the seminary church. One of the days, we worked from nine in the morning to two o'clock the next morning! Needless to say, we were exhausted! But what I remember most from that night was running through the cloister under the starry summer sky and listening to the priests (who didn't have to work!) singing the Veni Creator Spiritus in a novena leading up to ordinations that would take place some days later.

Tu, septiformis munere,
digitus paternae dexterae,
Tu rite promissum Patris,
sermone ditans guttura.

I joined in for a snipet of it, and ran frantically to the next job during that long night.

I have always thought it a bit absurd to encourage devotion to the Holy Ghost. True, we should pray to Him often, but how can you have devotion to your own breath, your own heartbeat? The Holy Ghost was given to us as the supreme Gift of God given to us at baptism, sealed in confirmation, and strengthened in us during the Eucharist. He is the very Life of God, the Spirit of filial adoption. Pneuma, ruah.....

We are thus getting to know Him in our lives as Christians. He is acting in us, and the best way we can give Him homage is to lead our Christian lives as faithfully as possible, to feel Him not just in ecstatic moods but as the blood that runs in our veins. He is our Life; He is the Giver of Life.

Immanuel Kant, I believe, ends the Critique of Pure Reason praising "the starry sky above us, the moral law within." We, as Christians, have more than a moral law. We have the Grace of God, the very life of God in us. We are His temple, and that is more than enough.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fleeing the World

I lived in a retreat center of the Society of St.Pius X for a year about six years ago now. I had just dropped out of college and was enjoying the quiet surroundings of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a life of prayer and work. I remember once, though, going into a department store during this time and feeling that the world that I had left was evil and the advertisements around me were the new idolatry of man abandoning God. I felt almost superior to that consumer culture that no longer thinks about the last things, its Creator and Redeemer. It was very childish to think that, and also very wrong.

Not that our postmodern society is Christian by any stretch of the imagination. The world, as the Gospel understands it, is very evil, but not in the ways we would like to think. It is not the noise, the distractions, and the responsibilities we are given that make us sin. It is the forgetfulness of God, and that can happen anywhere, even in a monastery in the middle of the desert.

Seneca said that a true man colors everything that he encounters the color that he wants. If we give thanks to God even in a department store, on a busy bus, or in a cubicle, we have found our sanctuary, our inner citadel, our altar where we offer our sacrifices to God, solus cum Solo. It is never about location. You will be yourself, no matter where you go.

I sometimes think that while many have been human beings that have become mystics, few are those who have been mystics trying to become human beings. I think that I may be one of the latter, but then I think I might just be neurotic. In any event, we have no excuse to not behave as Christians in every circumstance of our lives. Any hand-wringing against an evil world is just a sorry excuse. Life is a battle, and it is not for the timid.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Anaphora of Addai and Mari + Anglican Orders

I was reading the other day about the anniversary of a Vatican document recognizing the validity of this ancient Christian eucharistic prayer. As many may know, this prayer used by the "Nestorian" Assyrian Church of the East does not have an "Institution Narrative" (with the words, "This is my Body"- "This is the chalice of my Blood"). For this reason, it has been considered invalid in the past by Roman Catholic theologians, and the Chaldeans who came into communion with the Pope of Rome had to insert these words into their liturgy. The reversal of this opinion by the Holy See has been called the greatest doctrinal decision since Vatican II and the Council of Trent.

While I was reading this document, I could not help but reflect on how this would affect the argument of those who still say that Anglican orders are invalid. The former position of the Roman Catholic Church, that the words of Institution are the words of consecration and thus absolutely necessary to confect the sacrament, was very clearly defined dogmatically, and it was supposed, once and for all during the Middle Ages. This is a total about-face, and one that I do not necessarily disagree with.

If this de fide position was wrong, what are we to say about Leo XIII decision that Anglican orders are absolutely invalid? It was not a de fide decision, and the basis for why he decided in that manner is much less strong than why Latin theologians thought this ancient anaphora was invalid. The Roman objection, as I understand it, states that the grade of order is not mentioned in the ordination prayer, and that the intent is not the same as handing down the priesthood or episcopacy as the ancient Church understood it. On the latter, I think that this has changed in the Roman Church as well since the time of Leo XIII; the prayers of ordination are not the same. On the former, we can say if the Vatican could change its mind on the necessity of the words of institution in a Eucharistic prayer, it cannot be certain of the invalidity of Anglican ordination when the Prayer Book is very clear what order is being passed on in the ordination service.

You can't have your cake and eat it too. Either Roman Catholic sacramental theology is consistent, or it is uncertain.

God Owes Us Nothing

A book by Lesek Kolakowski

"[Racine] asked what was wrong with innocent amusements, poetry, and theatre. But to [the Jansenists] everything was wrong with these things; there is simply no such thing as an innocent divertissement, for to amuse oneself is no less than to abandon God, even for a short time. Should we weep all the time and never laugh? asked Racine. Yes, exactly- was the [Jansenists] reply." [p.96]

I have had a very odd fascination with the Jansenists, if only as a phenomenon that I seek to understand. So when I saw this book, I had to buy it. I started reading it with the intention of sympathizing in some way with their cause. They lived in an epoch where they felt that Christianity was getting lukewarm and the sacred was coming under attack. They wanted to restore the Church to her ancient splendor and rigor, and turn back the tide of the modern world. Unknowingly, the system that they created was just as much a symptom of the modern crisis as the attitudes that they were fighting against, and Kolakowski does a fine job in exposing this.

I will start by saying that I am a "semi-Pelagian". I cannot help it, but I side more with St. John Cassian in the debate on the cooperation between the human will and divine grace than I do with St. Augustine. I don't think that our election as justified in the eyes of God takes place on a plain that is separate from our daily lives and struggles, at least from our point of view. Man does choose to be saved in a very real and not just in an indirect sense. Grace is primary, but not "sufficient" in a manner of speaking. Man, with the cooperation of God, without which we can do nothing, does save himself. While I realize that this creates a series of problems concerning the sovereignty of God and other issues, the position of St. Augustine and the Jansenists concerning irresitible grace creates a whole set of other nastier problems, the worst of which can be seen in Calvin's position on double predestination.

So much then, for the first part of this book, that deals with these issues. For me, though, the most interesting part of the Jansenist heresy are the intellectual and cultural aspects. The Jansenists wanted to return to the Church of the Fathers, or rather to the Church of The Father (St. Augustine). From this comes their infamous position on infrequent communion for the faithful and their continuous cry of "sancta sanctis" (holy things for the holy) that excluded most people from any real life in the Church. Becoming a small elite flock did not bother them at all; indeed, that is what they saw the early Church as.

Here again, we see the Don Quixote syndrome: they read books about the early Church and tried to apply it to their own time not realizing that what they were doing was creating their own distortion of what the Church should be like. Books cannot transmit the realities of the situation in which people lived. Just because certain things were written somewhere does not mean that they were applied strictly and rigidly. Such readings of history also tend to exclude other aspects of antiquity that do not necessarily agree with the vision that is trying to be put forward. It is true that the early Church had very strict canonical penances, but it also knew when to be lenient and merciful. It did not pass down a moral code but rather a cure for the selfish and sinful heart. Thus, these strict regulations were not things to be valued in themselves, but rather were a means to a higher end. The Jansenists did not quite understand this due to a very modern concept of law and morality.

What was most enlightening about this book was the time spent analyzing the most famous Jansenist of all: Blaise Pascal. Pascal seemed to have his feet in two realms at once: on the one hand, he was trying to defend the "ancient Church" from Jesuit modernism; on the other, he was very much a child of the post-Cartesian age. Pascal's philosophical point of view was post-metaphysical, i.e. he did not buy into the proofs of the divine order from creation that can be found in Aquinas or even Descartes. Pascal's universe was a gloomy one indeed, where the birds and the leaves no longer sang the praises of God; where nature was no longer God's temple, but something to be dissected and analyzed. His famous Pensees were in this sense an attempt to do apologetics in this climate of a dead and meaningless universe. It was an apologetics of fear and despair.

What do we say then after considering these things? The spiritual life, following St. John Cassian, is a matter of discernment. At some points, we have to apply rigor and strictness, at others we have to loosen the reins a bit. The trick is to know when to do what, and this is very difficult indeed. The Jansenists did not believe this, they thought they were doing best by steering very strictly toward one extreme. In this sense, they were creating a very modern totalitarian system under the guise of restoring the ancient Church.

As for our poor Pascal, I reply that it is the exaltation of wonder and awe that is the true method of convincing modern man of his errors. True, the marvels of temporal creation are fleeting and passing away, but they can serve as a ladder to ascend to that which does not pass away. It is our disconnection from true interaction with the physical universe that leads to atheism, not our attachment to it.

And even St. Anthony the Great, founder of Christian monasticism, played board games once in a while. So lighten up already!