Tag Archives: creation

Homily: “On Beholding Our God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the First Sunday of Advent (Year B), 2017.

We have asked Our Lord Jesus Christ in our Collect today to give us grace to heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus our Redeemer. That is, the grace to take seriously the words of Isaiah who sings in the highest register, “Behold your God!”; the grace to forsake sin—the separation—between ourselves and God through our daily prayer, a habit that absolves us of the common, low-intensity sins we commit, because daily prayers prepares Him room so that heaven and earth can sing in our hearts; and the grace to greet with joy the God of all creation as He comes into our bodies as the consecrated bread of life and spiritual drink, and still more into our hearts, words, and deeds, for He is speaking peace to His faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to Him.

“Joy to the World” exquisitely captures all the Advent themes of expectation, hope, joy, and acceptance of the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Continue reading

Homily: “On the most blessed and holy Trinity”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on Trinity Sunday, 2017.

I have said previously and will say again in the future that the Collects of the Anglican tradition, including those in our 1979 Prayer Book, are a goldmine. They are a goldmine for both theology and prayer, and even moreso are a goldmine for the proper balance between theology and prayer that found in the language. It is because the Collects are so important that they are to be prayed not just on Sunday at Mass, but prayed, along with other Collects, every day of the week that begins on Sunday, particularly in the daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

It is not every Sunday that the Collect perfectly matches with the Readings. But on this a solemn day, the Feast of the Most Blessed Trinity, a Feast celebrated throughout the western Church within the Catholic tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, the Collect of the Day is composed in relationship to the Readings. Let us hear again the Collect and then consider how it helps us understand the readings provided us by the Lectionary of the Church. Continue reading

“The Diverse Riches of Prayer”

By the Rev. Dr Martin Thornton
The Times (UK)
14 December 1968

The Creeds grew out of the first disciples’ confrontation with Christ, that is out of “prayer,” and they remain the only source of responsible experiment in prayer. But these formulae need reinterpretation in every age; spirituality constantly changes with new situations and “traditional” prayer presents itself not as some simple set pattern but in a gloriously rich diversity.

All the great names in the unfolding story of Christian devotion were startling innovators in their day. Now, as then, “modern” theology is the Church’s attempt to make intellectual sense of the Gospel as it impinges—or fails to impinge—upon the practical situation. “Modern” prayer must grow out of this foundation.

The unquestioned emphasis in world-wide theological thought is now centered on the doctrine of creation. This is not “new” but a revival of a traditional strand of spirituality traceable from Saint Paul through Saint Benedict, the School of Saint Victor, the Friars Minor and the Dominicans, up to Teilhard de Chardin. There are some significant pointers as to where this movement is leading.

First, creation, including human society, is to be wholeheartedly affirmed, because God is active within it and because it has its proper share in Christ’s redemption. Thus prayer is seen primarily as a contemplative union with created things rather than as a series of discursive “acts” of meditation: it is a question of intuition rather than of intellectual understanding; more a living continuum and less of a series of pious exercises; a quest rather than a duty.

It is from this perfectly orthodox and historical strand that responsible Christians are led to reject the rigid timetables, methods, and disciplines of former times. The current concern with society and its various relationships, with the sanctification of daily work, with a continuing “holy worldliness,” all spring from the same theological source.

Secondly, it is from a revival of interest in the doctrine of creation, not from outworn controversies, that modern spirituality becomes more eucharistically oriented. Therefore other liturgical acts and cults—whether Anglican mattins or the cult of the Sacred Heart—are likely to diminish in popularity and meaning. A further decline in “church-going,” even among the faithful, could be a quite legitimate outcome, and we should not panic because it has all happened before: St Bernard criticized the Cluniacs for spending too much time in chapel; both Franciscan and Jesuit have lifted the divine office from the choir into the market-place.

Thirdly, moral disciplines, which support prayer, are thoroughly world-affirming, because creation is part of man not merely an arena in which he strives. Moral “permissiveness” and the rejection of “asceticism” are little more than new names for certain forms of probabilist casuistry: both may be unwise, but they do not necessarily spring from irresponsible laity. Saint Benedict, no less than the modern radical, was insistent that the created environment was to be loved not rejected. The Church has always warned against austerity for its own sake, and against “asceticism” in its more exaggerated forms, while the doctrine of a thorough-going “detachment from creatures” has but a fleeting place in the total story of Christian spiritualist.

Throughout history theological stresses come and go, the pendulum swings, and it has often swung too far in one direction or another. This may well be true of the present exciting, and potentially creative situation, and we should be warned of three of the more apparent dangers.

First, prayer is always response to the prevenient divine action, and this implies some sort of disciplined daily pattern of devotion. Tradition insists that the ancient ideal of “holy worldliness” is never achieved without it, and the not unhealthy revolt against too rigid methods, rules, and time-tables, could leave us only with an unattainable ideal.

Next, the intuitive, prophetic, inspirational aspects of Christian life upon which both modern prayer and theology place so much stress, themselves demand the seedbeds of quiet silence, solitude, and withdrawal. These, too, can be exaggerated and they may become pietistical, but they can never be wholly eliminated.

Lastly, is the overriding danger of immanentism: there must always be a central place for the pure praise of God Almighty, or we are in danger of bringing our God so much into the market-place that he turns out to be something less than the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

Cover image “Christ Acheiropoietos” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

The Case for a Prologue Office of Praise

“It is not sufficient to participate regularly in the Eucharist, with its unequal stress on individuality and formalism; rather we have to be eucharistic people. We have to live perpetually in the eucharistic context and this means preparation in the form of constant attempts to resolve the underlying paradoxes involved. The cosmic and the local, with stress on the former because the contemporary balance veers strongly towards the other side. Then the corporate and the personal, for the same reasons in the same order, and the immanent-transcendent balance which boils down to an application of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity: which says it all.”

Martin Thornton, A Joyful Heart, Chap. 11

 

“The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 35

INTRODUCTION

From the earliest moments of the Christian Church, in part influenced by our Jewish heritage, a fundamental aspect of the life of the disciples of Jesus was to enact formal set-prayer. Jesus bestowed upon us the “Our Father” prayer, the Pater Noster. It is the model for set-prayer: particular words in a particular order to give thanks as a body to God the Father. We now call this the Divine Office.

In simple terms, the purpose of the Divine Office is to praise God and to magnify God, day by day: an “office of praise.” Christians do so because it teaches us who God is. This habitual activity becomes what William of St Thierry termed “necessary obedience.” God is Maker, Lover, and Keeper of all creation; His truth indeed endures forever, and knowledge of Him invites deeper participation in the goodness of Christ’s eucharistic holiness. Internalizing who God is prepares us to receive the Sacraments and to see all of creation eucharistically.

Nonetheless, relationship with God is always conditioned by societal context, and today many Christians increasingly live within media-rich environments where travel over significant distance is the daily norm. God works within our conditions, and so must our prayer life: grace perfects nature, as Saint Thomas taught. Yet, oddly, the Divine Office form standard today within Anglican patrimony has remained largely unchanged over almost 500 years, then introduced to a late-medieval, rural society of largely illiterate peasants ruled by a monarch; theirs was a society that lived and worked under the shadow of the village church. Ours is a post-industrial “global village” where the preferred church can be several miles away.

Social conditions change. Saint Benedict and Thomas Cranmer boldly and pastorally amended their Divine Office forms so as to tune into God more efficiently, given their social conditions. We seek to do the same, and the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium laudis) seeks to nurture a reunified Church Militant that in many ways, despite its strengths given by grace, has been torn apart by the jumbled, even dissociated, conditions of a mobile, secularized society in an satellite-driven information age. In Anglican patrimony the Divine Office was fashioned as the heart of common prayer. Yet today, because the Divine Office has developed so many variations, such unity—whereby laypersons, deacons, priests and bishops pray together in the same way—appears obscured at best, and in some places lost. For those that do daily liturgical prayer, the variety of options—numerous Prayer Book iterations, Common Worship, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary, and more—are on one hand a blessing, yet erode ascetical unity, upon which the daily set-prayer hinges.

Even worse is that many people do not do any kind of daily liturgical prayer. For these souls, the routine of life for the Faithful finds little space and clearing for the Divine Office. Yet because the Divine Office is a baptismal obligation, and unity is an important characteristic of Anglicanism, something must be done.

The pastorally minded corrective begins by going “back to basics” as means for creative, necessary renewal. But how do we do that without sacrificing orthodoxy and catholicity, nor the enduring insights of Benedictine spirituality, nor the basic worship pattern of Prayer Book heritage?

THE THEOLOGY BEHIND THE DIVINE OFFICE

The key is to see corporate prayer as a dynamic, theological whole. At its core, orthodox and Catholic prayer is responding to God within our baptismal status, and has been since the cosmic explosion of the Pentecost event. “Faith’s name for reality is ‘God,'” wrote Anglican theologian John Macquarrie. Prayer life can be said to be full, integrated, embodied, Catholic, and orthodox when it is an active and intentional response to God-named reality.

But how do we name reality as God? To us it has been revealed that reality for the Christian is a diversity of three-in-oneness: reality in the dimension of its “transcendent otherness,” which is named God the Father; reality in the dimension of its “immanant nearness,” which is named God the Holy Spirit; and reality in the dimension of “incarnate mediation,” which is named God the Son, Jesus Christ, named in our liturgy as our only Mediator and Advocate. Catholic reality, and hence its prayer life — liturgical, sacramental, salvific — is ultimately derived from, and correlated with, nothing less than the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Prayer is responding to God. How are we to respond? Our triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — invites a threefold response that Anglican theologian Martin Thornton appropriately called Regula, meaning “pattern” or “framework.” Gloriously formulated for 6th-century monastic life by Saint Benedict and for 16th-century secular life by Cranmer (and in many other ways within the family of Catholic churches), the basis for Regula in scripture is the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). Today the terms are, respectively, Devotion (that is, baptismal ministry), Mass, and Divine Office; these are distinct, but interwoven and irreducible. More than mere formula or framework for organizational discipline, Regula is dynamic praxis; for Thornton, it is the lifeblood of participation in the divine life of the redemptive organism, the Church.

Regula is the doctrine of the Trinity arranged for prayer. It orients us to the threefold reality of God. Devotion orients to the immanent dimension: increasing openness to the Holy Spirit who is infinitely variable to us in time and space and who reconciles us to Christ, the definitive revelation of the Father. Divine Office orients to the transcendent dimension: surrender to our heavenly Father, wholly and invariably otherness, our source and origin from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds to unite us to the Son. And Mass orients to the incarnate dimension: mediated communion with the real presence of Jesus Christ both deity and man — fully transcendent as the Son of God, fully immanent as human being. Yet this is all one response, one prayer life, to love heavenly God who loves us beyond measure and yearns for our spiritual growth. As Saint Athanasius wrote, God became human so that humans might become God — that is, through Himself and His sacraments, we might become numbered with His saints and, in the words of Walter Hilton, reformed into the likeness and holiness of Jesus.

Moments of the life of Jesus Christ reveal Regula, the fundamental pattern of holiness. Besides the Pater Noster, given by Jesus to be our set-prayer, His baptism in the River Jordan points to the Divine Office, an objective daily ritual of corporate repentence that, through Jesus, discloses God’s identity and story. The feeding miracles of Jesus point to the Mass, where we too are fed by Jesus and his love for us. And the myriad episodes where Jesus heals, preaches, teaches, and eats with others point toward Devotion, ministry to the creatures of the cosmos in relationship with Scripture. Regula, then, is the means by which we live; Regula articulates our corporate experience of being Christ’s Body, and the means by which we cultivate the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

THE PURPOSE OF THE DIVINE OFFICE

Through Thornton’s theology, the specific purpose of the Divine Office as a whole is clarified. First given by Jesus to his disciples as the Pater Noster (“Our Father”), as mentioned already, the Divine Office is transcendent reaching toward and joining with the unceasing praise by Angels, the Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven. The whole Body of Christ sings the Divine Office in the power of the Holy Spirit to glorify God the Father Almighty, “primordial Being,” in the words of John Macquarrie. To glorify the unchanging Father warrants an unadorned yet beautiful recounting of His radical otherness and cosmic creativity. God invites us to abandon ourselves and surrender in Holy Fear to the light inaccessible, the mystery incomprehensible. To live daily as if in the orans posture: this is what the Office is for. Its purpose is not to “sanctify the time” but to pray to the Father as Jesus would have us pray: “an eschatological proclamation of the salvation received in Christ, and a glorification and thanksgiving to God for that gift,” in the words of Roman Catholic theologian Robert Taft, SJ. Simply put, the Pater Noster is the germ of God’s theology.

Accordingly, what the Prologue Office of Praise seeks to do is make Catholic theology unmistakably evident within its text and enacted in its performance. Its invariable, fixed, and unchanging form seeks to revivify the entirety of the scheme of daily Offices. It is intended to support the underlying, and original, purpose of the Divine Office as a whole: Marian awe in the face of radical otherness.

In the Prologue Office of Praise (Antelogium Laudis), we celebrate the beyond-time and space, unfathomable reality of heavenly God as mediated by His mighty acts of creation, salvation, and reconciliation, initially revealed to the Old Testament prophets and the Children of Israel, and consummated definitively in the Incarnation of Christ as announced by the Holy Spirit through Angel Gabriel to Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, our exemplar in discipleship and witness to Christ: Our Lady truly is the Mother of the Church. As such, the purpose of the Divine Office, more refined, is to invite daily through praise the unfathomable presence of divine otherness that confronted Blessed Mary. This is an otherness that confounded her in holy fear, that taught her, that empowered her. And, by baptismal incorporation into the Body of Christ, this mystery can do so for us, in a continuous and gradual unfolding of God’s revelation of himself.

As Mary intercedes that we may be made worthy to receive the promises of Christ, we enact obedience to the grace of God through the Divine Office. It is prologue in that it prepares us — hones us — by means of the Holy Spirit to adore, and then receive, Holy Communion. Through this heavenly food we can become Christ’s out-poured and kenotic love, most precious as it is most plenteous, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich. But Saint Paul instructed, before we eat and drink, we are to discern the Body (1 Corinthians 11.29) — such discernment is our daily work: the Divine Office on Monday prepares us for Eucharist the following Sunday. To take the Christian claims seriously means every morning is a test of faith. Yet our obedience, often difficult and even dry feeling, patiently teaches us about Jesus and our baptismal incorporation into Him. A genuine sacramental outlook upon all of creation is a gift from God, yet we must always remember that Blessed Mary had her moments of arid boredom, too.

Likewise, our obedience means internalizing, absorbing, and living-out God’s theology. This ascetical responsibility coincides with the pastoral fact that in a mobile society, a “global village,” there is simply less time available for daily formal set-prayer. Might not this fact also be of divine providence? Yet we cannot forswear orthodoxy, which would deny our baptism, so a Prologue Office of Praise, which can be prayed amid a hectic, busy life as an ascetical minumum, seems quite overdue.

A NEW ADDITION 

What must be stressed is that a Prologue Office of Praise is not intended as a substitute for the Cranmerian Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, or any form currently in use. The Prologue Office of Praise does not replace what is used now, but rather is meant to add to the daily round of set-prayer. One can continue to do Morning and Evening Prayer as one always has, along with the daytime Hours of Terce, Sext and None. The suggestion here is to chant or recite the Prologue Office of Praise as another “hour” for daily set-prayer. This could be for a first hour of the day, for an hour right before Sunday Mass, for a Midday hour, for an evening before sleep.

Why make this addition? The primary reason is for ascetical unity — a truly common prayer. We need to pray a common prayer, knowing it as common prayer. Being a concise form, it is perfect for the home, to cultivate the “domestic Church.”

Another is that this Office form catechizes. Refined to its bare theological core, the Prologue Office becomes a sturdy rock of daily doctrinal catechesis for young and old alike, experientially absorbed through memorization and singing. This points directly to the theological virtue of “Faith,” what Macquarrie called “existential knowledge” and Aidan Kavanagh called “theologia prima.” This Prologue Office of Praise is fittingly seen as a pledge of allegiance to God, an eschatological proclamation of faith, the basis for “a school for the service of the Lord” in the Benedictine sense: it teaches as much through the mere habit of it as it does through its content. Our lives showly adjust to the truths embedded in this Office.

It catechizes also because of its predominant focus on doctrine. This Antelogium Laudis is a theological and experiential expansion of the Pater Noster by means of the Nicene Creed. Analyzed as a whole, its text proclaims a variety of authoritative doctrine, the crucibles of the Church’s historical experience. Doctrines include that of Prevenient Grace, Baptismal Incorporation, Remnant and Adoration in the Preces; God and Metanoia in the Jubilate; of Creation, Angels, the People of God and Remnant in the Benedicite; of Incarnation, the Church, Atonement, Resurrection, Parousia and Theosis in the Te Deum; of Penitence and Adoration in the Kyrie Eleison; of the Kingdom of God in the Pater Noster; and of the Theotokos and Assumption in the Ave Regina Caelorum — these and more, directly from scriptural and scripturally derived prayers primarily of patristic ethos. Yes, these are canticles and hymns, but embedded within them is Catholic imagination: tremendous theology and glorious doctrine ecumenically celebrated.

Why the emphasis on doctrine? Because to sing the Antelogium Laudis is to confess doctrinal truth, a constant need in the Church no matter the age. And as in the patristic era, particularly prior to Constantine, doctrinal confession manifests through joyful performance and almost secretive memorization: to memorize is to internalize, to internalize is to embody, to embody is to teach by example, with or without words. We are to serve the Lord with gladness and come before His presence with a song (Psalm 100). Singing forms us, and formation through catechesis, as theological reflection in relationship with doctrine and experience, is the beating heart of evangelization.

CONCLUSION: AN ORTHODOX AND BENEDICTINE PASTORAL SOLUTION

To reconcile the pastoral situation today with our baptismal obligation, an orthodox solution is to add a Prologue Office that is comparatively shorter, more accessible, more doable, more explicitly doctrinal — and a Benedictine and Cranmerian solution is to restore a common Office able to to be sung by laity and clergy alike: a true unity of the Church Militant. This counteracts a clergy-only Divine Office, too often our situation today, upends the entire theology of historic Prayer Book heritage. It is called the Book of Common Prayer not for nothing.

All of which is to say, this Prologue Office is pastorally attuned for a missional Church in a mobile, “post-Christian” society. It is doctrinally vigorous, yet ascetically realistic. It does not require paging through books, does not discriminate against the illiterate, young or old, and can be sung anywhere and at any time, whether in the morning, noonday, or evening: whenever the holiness of beauty is disclosed (Psalm 29).

This Office is also family-friendly. For those with young children, its second half — Kyrie Eleison, Pater Noster, and Ave Regina Caelorum — is a gentle place to start for adult and children alike, and it is quickly memorizable. Subsequently, the Jubilate can be added, followed in turn by the Benedicite and Te Deum, first in portions and then in their entireties. Because even the youngest of children, through the help and example of their parents, day by day can magnify God, and worship His Name ever world without end. May we join Ananias, Azariah, and Misael, the three holy children — saved by God in the fiery furnace of His abundant and gracious love. And in so doing, may we sing — may we trumpet! — our love of our heavenly Father, who confers upon us our very being, and who gives for our salvation His only Son, Jesus Christ.

As a final note, the reason that the Prologue Office of Praise uses classic, non-contemporary language — also known as “sacral English” — is two-fold. The first is to be consistent with the sensibility of the Pater Noster, the prayer that controls the theology of the Divine Office; despite it too being non-contemporary, it is nonetheless beloved today — “art,” “thy,” and “thine” are familiar precisely because the prayer is used. Likewise, the more one uses the JubilateBenedicite, and Te Deum, the more “ye,” “hath,” and the rest become familiar and second nature.

And the second follows from the first. Without question, the sacral English translations simply sing better: the phrasing and literary sensibility of that era have more musicality and hence more poetical allure. Contemporary does not necessarily mean improved, and a persuasive case can be made that contemporary translations of these prayers obstruct rather than edify. The translations selected here are better to sing, theologically more transparent, and, in the case of the Benedicite, shorter. The choice therefore is obvious. We are, after all, to bring the first fruits of our ground into the house of the Lord our God (Exodus 23.19). Not only Truth, and not only Goodness, but also Beauty adores our Maker, our Lover, and our Keeper — for He is their source.

CONCLUDING PRAYER

Heavenly Father, who bestowed upon your Church from its first baptismal moments the grace of Regula: capacitate us to love you, the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our Mind; and likewise enable us by your presence to love our neighbor as our self, that our life in response to you can indeed become holy, holy, holy; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, our comforter, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 

 

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 3: Angels are Sacramental Beings


Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY I | HOMILY II

Homily 3 of 3: “Angels are Sacramental Beings”
Given at St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois

We conclude this morning this three-part homily series on the Holy Angels with an exploration of the relationship between angels and ascetical theology. That is, the relationship between angels and the articulation of the church’s corporate experience, for that is what “ascetical theology” means.

Doctrine is to be used. Doctrine is the beginning, not an end. That is why I began with doctrine two weeks ago — the doctrine of Angels. The Holy Angels are all about God. They are created beings of spirit that can be perceived only with spiritual eyes. Angels are innumerable and in nine orders. They are named because of their activity. They were created with the words, “Let there be Light”. And so they announce God’s creative Word. They serve the Light. They minister to the church and to us, so that we perceive the light with our spiritual eyes. So that our lives are ordered to the Light. So that we as the church are ever-growing toward the light.

All of that is the way we begin to talk about angels and the church’s corporate experience. We continue when we simply recognize that insofar as we are biblical people, a people whose lives are lived sacramentally and liturgically according to the Catholic Rule of Mass + Office + Devotional Ministry, a people who thereby look to Scripture as the thesaurus of our corporate experience, and whereby Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Church’s corporate experience mutually interpret one another — then angels already help to articulate the Church’s corporate experience. There are over 300 appearances of angels through the Bible, from the book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, through both canons of the Old Testament to the New Testament, and with Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And because of their centrality to the experience of Blessed Mary and her encounter with the archangel Gabriel, through whose announcement to Mary the whole of godly creation is a becoming, on its way to the New Jerusalem; their centrality therefore to her entire mystagogical life — a life savoring the mystery of her Son, pondering in her heart — a mystagogical life lived toward the foot of the cross — because we relive the actually making present again of an angel of the lord to the shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” — because, ultimately, of our baptism: the Church’s corporate experience is angelic!

The angelic is not an option. It is not a “app” for our cellphone we can choose to download or not. We are amid the angelic presence at all points and in all ways in our life! To recognize this, to be conscious of this, to be aware of this, to be caught by this, to be curious about this, to ponder this — for the angelic to impinge upon our prayer life, our quiet moments, our playful and engaged moments, our moments serving others — to accept the fact, the reality, that all that is perceived by the Church is ministered to by the angelic, is loved by the angelic, is interpreted to us by the angelic — this is nothing less than what catholic people have been doing since Gabriel’s encounter with Mary. This is nothing less than what catholic people have been doing since the confrontation of the twelve disciples by Jesus of Nazareth. Mary’s pondering in her heart IS our model for a catholic imagination. It doesn’t mean we understand all of it. It doesn’t mean there isn’t chunks of angelic theology that confuse us, or sound strange, or even remote. It doesn’t mean that we “get it all now”. We won’t get it all now. But the food of angels we already eat; the air of angels we already breath; the presence of angels we already imagine.

The angelic is like another layer of the reality we have all been living since our baptism. This layer of reality, present in its fullness no matter who much or how little we have perceived it, invites our participation. The angels rejoice when one sinner repents — when one sinner’s mind is transformed, when one sinner’s conscience is expanded and ordered to the Light of Christ — when the woman, having lost one of her ten coins, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and intercedes to seek that coin. Could it be that this woman is Mary, her nine coins being the nine orders of the angels, and the one lost coin, humanity? Mary is the Queen of the heavens, and Lady of the Angels. Maybe something of this is part of the meaning of the parable of the Lost Coin.

So what remains to be said? Let me suggest something that might be a simple, condensed summary of everything we have so far discussed.

It is this: that Angels are sacramental beings. Angels, by their nature, bestowed by the words, Let there be Light, point the church toward an attitude. An attitude that is sacramental. Now, as our Prayer Book, which is catholic, says, the sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. And the historic Catholic Church cerebrates seven sacraments. Sacramentality is not the same, but is intimately related. It is more general. If the sacraments are specific liturgical and ritual patterns of ontological grace, then sacramentality is what results from the Christian life of sacraments. In the words of John Macquarrie, “this is a sacramental world.” We don’t recognize that by logical syllogism: it is an existential attitude one learns through participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Body of Christ.

This is a profoundly joyous and grace filled attitude! This is the attitude of the first Christians, Christians willing to die as martyrs! It is the attitude of Christians throughout history who realize it and celebrate the sacramentality of all of creation. This is the attitude we are invited to deepen through Holy Communion at the Altar of Christ, this Holy Table around which are all the angels, the archangels, the entire company of heaven, and at which we are joined with all the saints, known and unknown, as well as our Lady, the queen of the heavens, and Lady of all the angels.

Angels are sacramental beings. And the way to join with them is to allow them to light us, to guard us, to rule us, to guide us. It is to ascend and descend with the angelic — ascending in our gathering around the Word and Table at Mass, descending as we are dismissed into mission to enact our baptismal covenant and to empty ourselves in love for others.

And it is to sing with them every day through the prayers common to the whole Church; that is the Office, which teaches us in the doing of it to be like angels, who are all about God. Let us conclude with a prayer.

May we all be joyful in the Lord, serving the Lord with gladness and coming before his presence with a song. May we know that it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. May we regard all of creation as God himself does, as very good, and in so doing see all of God’s works as a profound blessing, so that we praise him and magnify him forever. May we join with the angels who cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein, with the Cherubim and Seraphim who continually cry, Holy Holy Holy, Lord, God of Power and Might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. May all of our lives be centered around the king of Glory, the everlasting Son of the Father, who having overcome the sharpness of death, opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. May we sing in all our moments, Lord have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! May we be all emboldened by angels innumerable, like Mary was by Gabriel, as we boldly sing, Our Father who are in heaven! Hallowed be thy name! And may we ever in our hearts know something like the profound, the startling, the beautiful song of the angels to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth! Amen. Amen!

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 2: Angels and God’s Creative Word


Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY I | HOMILY III

Homily 2 of 3: “Angels and God’s Creative Word”
Given at St Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois

In last Sunday’s homily on Michaelmas, I offered a five-point outline of the doctrine of angels.

  1. Angels are all about God — praising God and “presencing” God.
  2. Angels are created beings of spirit with no physical body. Hence they are invisible to the eye.  To see an angel means to perceive an angel.
  3. Angels are in nine orders and innumerable — a fact well worth pondering in our heart — innumerable yet created.
  4. Angels are named because of their activity. Their identity is their activity, and their activity is to announce.
  5. Angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creation.

And this fifth point bears a moment of reflection and offers a distinct way into scripture and something of what scripture tells us about angels and angelic presence no matter which book of the Bible we might read. Now if it is true that angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creating action, a reasonable person might very well ask, where does it say so in scripture? And the truth is that in plain, direct terms, the Genesis narrative of creation doesn’t appear to give explicit witness to how angels were created.

And yet it would be wrong to say that the creation of angels is passed over in the Genesis narrative. St Augustine, in his book, The City of God, points out that elsewhere in scripture it is clearly stated that God spoke and angels were created (Psalm 148). This tells us that Angels were created at some point in the seven days of creation. In the Book of Job, when God answers out of the whirlwind with a summary of his creating act, we learn that when the morning stars sang together, all the angels shouted for joy. So angels had already been created on the fourth day, the day that stars were created. What about the third day? This day brought earth and seas, plants and trees yielding seeds and fruit according to their own kinds — this doesn’t seem to fit for the day of angelic creation. Perhaps then the second day? On this day God made the firmament to separate the waters above and below. Angels don’t seem to fit here, either.

And so, it must be the first day. It must be from God’s very first words, “Let there be light”, and there was light — that is, and there were angels. And God separated the light from the darkness — that is, angels of the light from angels of the dark. The angels of the light he called Day; and the angels of the darkness he called Night. It is the Word of God — Christ, the Logos — through whom all things are made, that made the Angels.

Angels are rightly called “day” in their participation in the unchangeable light that is Christ the Word of God. Angels are not the light itself — but only through God. And when angels turned away from God, they became Night because they turned from the light of the Lord. And without the light of the Lord, angels became Darkness. In the loss of light, all things become evil. Not created evil — rather, evil by their own choice.

This accords with what we have already said about angels. To be created on the first day fits with being created spirits without body — when the earth was without form and void — named because they announce God’s light. Angels are all about God — filled, then with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word.

In scripture we then read that angels are filled with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word for Moses, for Abraham, for Isaac, for Jacob — all of whom encounter the angelic. And angels are filled with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word for Mary.

Who can imagine what it felt like for Mary, our Lady, a very young Jewish lady, to encounter the angelic presence Gabriel? Who can imagine such an encounter? Such a confrontation? Who wouldn’t be floored by a presence that speaks Hail O favored one, the Lord is with you!”? Who wouldn’t tremble and shake? This is Gabriel, a name that means the Strength of God.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

How does one imagine a presence that speaks this way? Who names your son? Who names her Lord, our Lord, and who names the very presence around which we gather this morning, right now?

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Do we hear the power, the force of these words? Do we hear them how Mary heard them? Do we allow ourselves to hear this language, this event, with Mary’s ears? God wants us to try, every day.

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

And how could it be impossible, for angels speak with the power of God’s original creation! And, here, it is an angel, Gabriel, who is announcing nothing less than the nature of ultimate reality, of the emergence of an unfathomable new creation — a message in its fullest too immense and too incomprehensible by mortal ears, even the ears of Mary — and so Gabriel, raiser of consciousness, raiser of conscience — acts as translator, bearer, loving facilitator to Mary, so that she can understand something of the sheer profundity of this message. So she can process it. That it is accessible to her — something to which she can respond.

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

How poignant. How beautiful. How vulnerable. How humble.

And as we come to this table, this Altar, to give ourselves to God, the maker, lover, and keeper of all things, visible and invisible, the God who said, “let there be light” and there were angels, bearing the Light of Light, may we be so enlightened, so guarded, so ruled, and so guided into all truth — may we be emboldened like Mary with the words of Gabriel, the strength of God so that in the real and mystical presence of our Lord through his Body and Blood as spiritual food for us and for our salvation, we too, like Mary and all of creation, praise and magnify him forever, that we can serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song, and that we might sing with Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Go to HOMILY III.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Martin Thornton’s sacramental view of the natural world

This is an extended passage from Martin Thornton’s first book: Rural Synthesis: The Religious Basis for Rural Culture. The book was published in 1948. In this passage, you will note how he builds upon the Church’s understanding of Christology (the nature of Christ and the Incarnation) toward an application to how we understand the natural world Christologically. To my mind, this is utterly fascinating stuff. Enjoy:

Now the orthodox Christian conception of the Incarnate Christ is that He is both perfectly and distinctly God and perfectly and distinctly Man, and that He is One Person. The full significance of this fact is beyond the range of human understanding, and the exact relationship between the human and Divine natures can never be finally ascertained by finite human intelligence, but we can acquire some perception of vital significance by a process of elimination; if we cannot directly explain what this relationship is, we can glimpse much of its meaning by definitely asserting what it is not. The orthodox doctrine as contained in the Chalcedonian Definition has in fact by largely formulated by the rejection of the Christological heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Looking back from the Definition, so to speak, the form of these four errors becomes quite obvious and simple; we can deny that Jesus Christ is perfectly and distinctly God — the heresy of Arius, or we can deny that He is perfectly and distinctly Man — the heresy of Apollinarius. Then we can accept that He is both a human Person and and Divine Person conjoined, that He is in fact two Persons, two Christs, one human and another Divine; this is the error of Nestorius, which was followed by its direct opposite in the heresy of Eutyches, or Monophysitism, which regards Christ as One Person and One Nature, a mixture of both human and Divine, neither of which can be perfect, distinct, and complete.

Now it is plain that all that can be perceived as sacramental is subject to the equivalent four errors: the denial of one or other of the two parts of the sacrament; the failure to relate the two parts together; and the failure to distinguish between them….

The application of the same principles to The Sacramental Land will give us, therefore, similar errors pertaining to the approach to agriculture and rural economy…. Within the unity of The Land we have an ‘outward and visible sign’ consisting of the physical soil, the visible and material world of nature which springs from and is sustained by it: plants, trees, hedges, farms, and buildings; everything, in fact, that we can see within the ‘countryside’. From these surroundings evolves an invisible spirit, a Numinous atmosphere, which results from the uses made of nature by man in communion with God.

Thus, the erroneous approach to The Land, equivalent to Arianism in Christology, would consist of denying the existence of any such spirit; it would regard the soil as a material mechanism rather than a living organism, overemphasize the scientific in agriculture, and suggest that fertility was not a vital force to be cultivated by skillful farming but a material substances to be mined. ‘Land-robbing’ would be justified; and such conception of ‘land-sense’ or ‘rural prophecy’ would be categorically rejected, any sort of skill of vocation in agricultural work would be unnecessary, and the sole qualifications for successful farming would be an academic knowledge and physical strength.

Similarly, Apollinarianism, the opposite Christological heresy, finds expression in rural economy with the attitude of extreme sentimentality, the quest for The Land’s ‘pure spirit’ and the refusal to recognize its practical and material side. It is the approach which converts the countryside into the ‘man-eating orchid’ of Eric Gill, and looks upon the farm-worker as some spiritual idealist possessed of some strange philosophy which scorns such needless things as decent wages and hygienic living conditions. In agriculture, ‘rural Apollinarianism’ shows up in an exaggerated belief in the ‘natural order’, scorning all mechanical and scientific knowledge through refusing to recognize that the soil, whatever it may be besides, has physical and material properties which can be visibly examined and chemically analyzed. It is precisely the same error which misinterprets the idea of ‘faith-healing’, thereby refusing the benefits of medical science.

Nestorianism, or Dualism in philosophy and psycho-physical parallelism in psychology, is reproduced in the tendency to divide The Land into two unrelated values, the practical and the aesthetic. It is the error giving rise to the idea that agriculture is but a useful, practical industry, carried on amid surroundings which for some obscure reason happen to be beautiful and in need of passive protection; the divorcement, that is, of the beautiful visible sign from the spirit which creates it, or the failure to conceive The Land as one cultural whole, wherein beauty and utility go hand in hand.

Finally, both the rural and theological equivalent to Monophysitism in Christology may be expressed by the same single word, namely Pantheism. This is the belief that God and the natural world are one or in agriculture that fertility is God. We find this particular heresy recurring to some extend in all erroneous approach to the rural environment and always leading, by devious routs, to the same unhealthy conclusion: the adoration of nature.

Now we can carry this process of adaptation a stage further: The Person of Christ is the basis of the Christina religion, all its dogma flows from the fact of the Incarnation, and this doctrine, as we have seen, does not oppose the eschatological by the ethic, nor faith by moral practice, but rather tends to co-relate them in correct perspective. This correct ratio, however, does not necessarily grant equal value to the opposing factors, for we can truly say that the eschatological kingdom of God which is to come is a greater human goal than social Utopia in the temporal world; and that good works cannot create faith but flow from it and are therefore subsidiary to it. The Christian faith, embodied in the Church and sacraments, may be regarded as the extension of the Incarnation of the Son, and similarly the perpetual power of fertility may be regarded as the extension of the original creation of the Father.

(from Rural Synthesis: The Religious Basis for Rural Culture, 1948, pp. 70-74)