Tag Archives: Hooker

Catholic imagination in Holy Week

For Holy Week, two thoughts on what we call today Catholic imagination, or what is also called a sacramental or eucharistic worldview. The first comes from Saint Augustine (Doctor of the Church, d. 430 AD), in an exploration of the ascetical meaning of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel (emphasis added):

Here we have the very heart of the earthly city. Its God (or gods) is he or they who will help the city to victory after victory and to a reign of earthy peace; and this city worships, not because it has any love for service, but because its passion is for domination. This, in fact, is the difference between good men and bad men, that the former make use of the world in order to enjoy God, whereas the latter would like to make use of God in order to enjoy the world. (City of God, XIV.7)

“Make use of the world in order to enjoy God.” This is another way of expressing a core insight from Saint Thomas Aquinas: that we can only know God through creatures, through our sensory perception of them. To think otherwise risks denying the immense particularity of the Cross: the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, nailed to the hard wood, dying.

With profound humility and reverence, this Holy Week we are invited to ask: What did that wood, those nails, feel like? From the beginning, the Church has taught that its very material—that Cross at that time in history—discloses profound, even incomprehensible mystery. In our corporate prayer, may we ask God to reveal His love for us still more through our meditation and contemplation in this week of Palm Sunday and the Holy Triduum. By God’s grace may we be able to “make use” of the wrenching scriptural drama this week, to “enjoy God”—that is, embrace, absorb, find eucharistic joy within and with others.

The second meditation comes from Richard Hooker (Anglican theologian, d. 1600), in an exploration of what it means to speak of a “personal presence of Christ”:

Impossible it is that God should withdraw his presence from any thing, because the very substance [i.e., being] of God is infinite. He filleth heaven and heart, although he take up no room in either, because his substance is immaterial, pure, and of us in this world so incomprehensible, that albeit no part of us be ever absent from him who is present whole unto every particular thing, yet his presence with us we no way discern farther than only that God is present, which partly by reason and more perfectly by faith we know to be firm and certain. (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, V.51.iii)

Hooker is emphasizing that it is against the nature of Reality itself for creatures and material things to be unable to reveal, or point to, or disclose, the presence of God. The true fulfillment, or perfection, of all creatures is our triune God. Particular creatures and material things might not reveal God at a given moment in any significant way, to be sure. Our sinfulness can, and often does, impede our ability to find God in the ordinary and even the difficult. Also God’s Providence may be at a given moment to be seemingly “far away from us,” just as the Gospels tell us that Jesus often separated Himself from the disciples to go off and pray.

But the point is that nothing created—human or otherwise—is by definition and nature inanimate of God’s presence. This is the doctrine of Creation, emphasized throughout the traditions of the Church. A major factor in spiritual growth in a community and in a person is opening ourselves, day after day, to that fact and its possibilities for prayer. This Holy Week, with all our senses may we approach the Cross that recapitulates all material creation, and reform our likeness still more into the ever-flowing Love of Jesus, our Savior.

Theology as Food

When a person looks sickly, perhaps with an obviously pale complexion, and shows a distinct lack of energy — obviously not his or her normal “self” — some reasonable responses would begin with questions that look at the ill health in terms of medical care. Perhaps the person has a virus, or needs surgery? Others might wonder about psychological trauma, and thus some sort of psychological counseling. Maybe they weren’t raised right, or endured some sort of psychological abuse.

Yet is it also not the case that so often, such a person is likely not eating a balanced diet of good, nutritious food? Plain common sense tells us this is often true: not always, but certainly not rarely. The signs can be unmistakable. We see a diet that is the result of bad habits: that might mean junk food, or one trendy “diet” after another, or too often a pattern of eating “take out”, with never a home-cooked meal.

What is this person eating? — we ask of the sickly body.

Anglicanism in the West is just this sort of sickly body. By any measure, it is simply not doing well: numbers, morale, ability to positively contribute to the wider Body of Christ, holy Church. Perhaps, as I have written, it is owing to a mass “identity crisis“. How can we interact with others when we don’t have a firm sense of who we are? Yet this identity crisis (which I believe is real, but also perhaps nothing new) may be not a leading indicator, but a lagging indicator — a symptom, not the underlying cause. For if indeed Anglicanism were sickly, would it not follow that it couldn’t sensibly articulate its own identity? After all, sickness impacts the capacity for rational self-reflection. And it impacts the ability to hear what others are saying, even as they are trying to be of aid.

Perhaps we then feel an urge to “tell” the sickly person who he or she is (or write bemoaning essays that seem to think that screaming will send the person back to health). But is that the best approach? We must be honest: to a person who is laid up in bed with something incapacitating, any kind of attempt to explain who they are “supposed to be” is not exactly pastoral. Maybe it is not wrong, but it is not likely to work. First things first: we have a person, sickly. Our actions must serve a process that nurses the sick back to health.

So, the question, asked in a pastoral way: what has Anglicanism been eating?

Is asking, “what has Anglicanism been eating?” appropriate? Of course by this analogy, I refer to theology. In current Anglican practice, particularly in parishes, what has been the theological diet? Have Anglicans been consuming and digesting a stable, balanced diet of nutritious food? Has our theological sustenance been made of real food, home-cooked and filling — or has it been ready-made? Have Anglicans been skipping square meals, in favor of artificial, mass-produced substitute? Have we bought our theological ingredients from local markets where we might know the farmers, or from “big box” mega-stores that stock products stuffed with preservatives and chemical additives, its “farmers” actually corporate executives? Or do we (gasp) import all our food?

Am I stretching this analogy too far?

Michael Pollan, Omnivore's DilemmaSometimes, we need to be reminded what the actual model for “good food” truly is. For this, we usefully look to the past. In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan defines “good food” as that which your great-great grandmother would recognize as “good food”. This does not mean that the definition can’t change or alter — far from it, for life involves change. It does mean that change with respect to “food” will be incremental. Change will come, but slowly enough for there to be unmistakable continuity across the generations.

If we were to import Pollan’s idea into theology, then what we are talking about is ressourcement, the seeking of our most profound resources. To keep Pollan’s idea, “good theology”  would mean that which our great grandmothers would have recognized as “good.” Perhaps such a definition might help to affirm what kind of theology actually belongs to our tradition. Because it was the stuff of their life. What worked for them — what fed them — should have at least a family resemblance to what feeds us. To see the model for “good theology” in something of the past (again, not to constrict the present, but to inform it) is to honor reality: we do not invent the Church. Rather, we are baptized into — even, “thrown into” — something we did not create, but instead creates us.

But Pollan is no theologian. His definition, if it is to work within theology as a strategy of ressourcement, must bear some amendment. With all due respect to the late great grandmothers out there (perhaps more than some were faithful Anglicans who would teach us a thing or two), we have to stretch what we mean by “great grandmother” to make sense within a context of historical theology. We have to look further back in our past.

One of our “great grandmothers” is the Caroline Age: roughly, 1594 – 1729. That is, the Caroline Age, broadly defined, is from Hooker’s On The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. During this period, the Book of Common Prayer came to be, and came to be used and defended. Somehow, perhaps despite the intentions of its compilers, it “fit” within the English theological diet. While plenty was new, enough of the Prayer Book was still recognizable to 17th century English men and women as “good food.” And it is good food still today because we still use the Prayer Book.

But our ancestry is deeper still. Another “great (great) grandmother” is the Fourteenth Century: with the glorious theologies of Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and, Richard Rolle and The Cloud of Unknowing. During this period, the English mix of doctrinal, pastoral, ascetical and homely came to be, and came to find an authentic and legitimate character all its own. That this era was good food is also shown by the fact that its writers are still studied today.

While there may be other “great grandmothers,” such as the Methodist movement and the Tractarian movement, the 14th and 17th century “great grandmothers” take pride of place as our most profound great grandmothers, because represent the first and second flowerings of the English School of Catholic spirituality. Its rootstock is in Anselm, the School of St Victor, Aquinas, and the Cistercian fathers. The English School’s deepest roots are in Benedict and Augustine, the Celtic Church and the New Testament Church. To these we look as one would look to great grandmother.

What would it mean to ask whether our theology is recognizable by these great grandparents? Would Hilton, Julian, and Kempe detect a family resemblance between their theologies and our own today? Would the Carolines? (Would, for that matter, Anselm and Benedict?)

These questions lead us to this: to ensure that our food would be recognizable to them as their food means that we have to study the English School. Else, how can we know whether our food is recognizable to theirs? Many Anglicans already do study one of these theologians. Some devotionally read more than a couple. Therefore the proposal here is nothing outlandish. But do Anglicans consult both great grandmothers? If we do not, let us begin now, else how can we know whether our food today is legitimately “good food”? Let us consult our most profound great grandmothers and find out.

 


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