Tag Archives: theosis

On Marian Imagination

Doctrine and dogma have consequences for our prayer life, that is, our relationship with God, and how that relationship is concentrated and focused into acts of prayer—normatively the threefold Regula, including private prayers myriad in variety.

What, then, is the consequence on our prayer of the Assumption of Mary? There are many, for Our Lady is a true panoply of grace. Yet fundamental to our understanding of Mary’s importance to our prayerful living is one that has to with what I have previously called the “Marian mode of perception.”

Because it is not just the “idea” of Mary, or her merits narrowly, that have been assumed into Heaven—but in fact her body—then despite how difficult that notion may be to get our heads around, what it must mean is that it is Mary as a totality, as a unity of body-mind-soul, who is in heaven as the Queen of Heaven as Lady of all the Angels.

The consequence, then, is this: it is Mary’s whole way of being that Christians aspire to achieve by the grace of God. This is the deepest meaning of “Mary, pray for us”: we ask her to be in relationship with us so that we may grow more like her, she who lives in the most perfect unity with Jesus, entirely through His grace, which filled her being from her conception immaculately—that is to say, vocationally. Being more like her, we are more like Jesus—this is but “sanctification” in Marian terms. (For more on the many meanings of “Pray for us,” see this homily.)

The more we are like Mary, the more our own souls might be overshadowed, our own spirit enlightened, that, in the words of Jeremy Taylor, we might conceive the holy Jesus in our heart, and may bear him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be a perfect man in Christ Jesus. Hence Mary is crucial for our understanding of Theosis.

Perhaps, then, what is often spoken of as “Catholic imagination,” sometimes called “sacramental worldview,”or more technically “analogical imagination”—perception of reality based upon countless profound analogies between ultimate divinity and creatures/creation, all anchored in Christ, our sole Mediator (i.e., the fundamental root, the cantus firmus, of all analogies)—might be more pastorally called “Marian imagination.”

Marian imagination seeks and serves Christ in all persons. Our exemplar in being a baptized Christian, Mary was the first person able to name divine reality as “Jesus,” the first person able to ask what it means to perceive the world as Jesus perceived, and the first person able to reconcile explicitly all things to, and by, Him—to see Christ as the telos of human beings fully alive. Marian imagination—Marian “awe,” Marian “heart”—is empowered by angelic injunction to live completely toward, and for, the Cross: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35) becomes the actual corporate reality of the first Christians at Pentecost: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). We grow into this “Marian imagination,” just as Mary grew into full realization of who her son was—indeed, the episode of Jesus at age twelve at the Temple is crucial for safeguarding the fact that we, like Blessed Mary, grow into mature Christian sensibility.

Marian imagination sees all things as potential mediators of Christ’s love, the Holy Spirit revealing unity between creatures and God. It is a Marian imagination, then, that can recognize sacramentality whether in the sacred or the mundane, which is then lifted to the sacred. It is through Marian imagination that we lift our hearts to God, during Mass and everywhere else. “The core of Christian living in its fullness is an habitual awareness of Being, a constant but unforced anticipation of the divine disclosure.” (Martin Thornton, Prayer, p. 95.) And when sin separates us from God—from contemplative harmony with Him and His creation within our conditions of time and space—we can “flee” to Mary as oasis, knowing and finding consolation in the fact that we can never love Mary more than Jesus does.

And Marian imagination requires the daily and habitual oblation of prayer, of emptying ourselves in praise and thanksgiving to Holy God, transcendent and incarnate and immanent, which for the Church is summarized by the threefold Regula, where Divine Office culminates in the Mass and lives out in Devotion. Can we doubt that Acts 2:42, the biblical basis for the Regula, is simply the method the first Christians, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit themselves, were driven to use to begin to emulate Our Lady, who lived fully to be united with Jesus? Because Mary’s life, owing to the Annunciation, is trinitarian prayer itself.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

What does ‘Remnant’ mean?

When we look at businesses or organizations as a whole, there tends to be a core group within the whole who constitute the “heart.” Not necessarily the ones who put in the longest hours or do the most taxing work, yet something irreplaceable and necessary rides on the shoulders of these core people: their vision, their behavior, their commitment. And through their work, the whole organization, all the way out to its margins, benefits and shares in, even can take on the character of, that core.

The Chicago Blackhawks of 2015 are a pertinent example. There is a spectrum that constitutes everything meant by “the Blackhawks.” Certainly much rides upon the shoulders of the players themselves, whom we can easily see as “the core.” Yet important also are the trainers, team management, all of the ticket-holders and fans, all the way to the kids who wear Patrick Kane jerseys at their neighborhood ice rink. All are part of the same “team” yet with different roles to play according to their gifts and vocation. Seen in this way, the “team” in the narrow sense becomes something of a wider “family.”

This manner of thinking can be applied to the Church, and particularly the Parish, with intriguing ramifications. The theological term used by the Church is “Remnant.” We find this in Saint Paul: “At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5-6). In the Authorized Version (popularly but inaccurately called the “KJV”), the term also occurs in The Revelation to John (12:17): “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

To what does “woman” refer? Marian scholar Hilda Graef writes, “The early patristic tradition unanimously regards this woman as a symbol of the Church” (Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Chap. 1). Later patristic, medieval and modern tradition grew to see the “woman” as a composite symbol of both the Church and Blessed Mary. Writes Graef: “Mary is not merely the individual mother of Jesus, she is also the ‘daughter of Sion,’ the representative of the People of God.” This means that Mary is representative of the Remnant as seen in Elisha, Amos, Micah, First Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, Ezra, and Deutero-Isaiah. Furthermore, Remnant is directly implied by the stories of Noah (Gen 7:23), Abraham (Gen 18:12-32), Jacob (Gen 32:9), and Joseph (Gen 45:7). In each of these instances we see the common theme in two parts: 1. a person or small group of people chosen by God as His instrument and 2. upon whom the salvation of the whole world depends.

These are in fact complementary emphases. For without the core people who are chosen (elected) by God, who continue in the example of Blessed Mary and reform into ever-greater likeness of Jesus, what are the Saints but curious, even bizarre, people? Likewise, absent the participation of the wider community according to their gifts and talents, what claim can the Church possibly make to being “Catholic,” a term which means “universal” and “according to the whole”? And without the whole, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7) is empty sentiment.

Now, just as the Blackhawks players must, in fact, play, the Remnant must do their work in relationship to the whole. This work is the perpetuation of Christ comprehensively and completely. A classic description of the Church is that it is the extension of the Incarnation of Christ. This in fact is a Remnant way of describing the Church: people who are to be the extension of Him. The preaching, teaching, healing, leading—all of what Jesus did—we can sum up as His Prayer, which was always in perfect adoration of the Father Almighty. By perpetuating His prayer, we perpetuate Him, by His grace—and actual people are called by God to do this. These people we call the “faithful Remnant” and together with their community, “the Remnant Parish”—all exercising their gifts and talents given by God for the common good.

It is a severe distortion to imagine that only the Remnant is going to heaven, a mistake some are tempted to make. Our Lord did not command his Apostles to baptize the nations so that, upon baptism, they would perish in eternal damnation. Rather, His command was for the salvation of the whole world. The faithful Remnant Parish is not pessimistically withdrawn from the world; Remnant is the opposite of retreat. Remnant means engagement, as Jesus himself was the Suffering Servant giving himself to all of humanity.

Our terms are that we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” from our Baptismal Covenant. Likewise, the faithful Remnant and Remnant Parish pray as a family on behalf of those members of society who do not sense any calling whatsoever to attend church, and even are actively antagonistic towards Christianity. Such a parish prays in part because others cannot or will not—Remnant prayer is “substitutionary prayer,” so to speak. This is particularly evident liturgically during the Prayers of the People: “Let us pray for the Church and for the whole world,” “For all people in their daily life and work” (Forms IV and VI). The Remnant Parish is distinct because called by God, yet is intimately and sacramentally connected with, and responding to, the concerns, challenges, problems and evils of the world through the compassion of Christ.

What emerges in relief are five, possibly startling, points for further pastoral, devout experimentation:

  • The Remnant are “the bearers of the community’s future existence” (Fr Leslie Hoppe, OFM, The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 827). Canonical and local Saints teach us about who we the Church will become.
  • In the Remnant is an infectious holiness demonstrated through purity in worship, loyalty in faith, and complete abandonment to God and His Providence. Remnant prayer is the prayerful center of the Parish and is its central activity.
  • The Remnant serves the whole of the Parish. As Fr Thornton wrote, “It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; in fact the complete Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to the environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savors the whole” (The Heart of the Parish, IV). The primary condition is that a parish “believes, practices, and teaches the full Catholic faith and supports and promotes authentic Catholic culture,” in the words of Fr Fraser. True catholicity implies locality.
  • The norm of parochial Prayer is the threefold Regula performed daily by the members of the faithful Remnant, elected by God to pray vicariously on behalf of all, and joined by the whole community as they are able, which typically means in the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Remnant prayer truly pervades all.
  • Part and parcel of Remnant reality in the parish is Catholic imagination. To wit: “It is not, however, merely the human part of the created order that receives redemption and makes its true self-offering to God by joining ‘with the angels and archangels’ in the heavenly worship. The whole material realm in involved, for man is ‘nature’s priest.’ . . . Not only man, but the universe, will be transfigured and glorified, and in this transfiguration the great mystery of the Resurrection of the Body will be brought about” (20th-century Anglican divine Eric Mascall, in Christ, the Christian, and the Church, XIII and IX). Parochial activity overflows into all of life and involves the whole material realm.

What, in sum, does Remnant mean? Remnant doctrine emphasizes that God does His saving work through His Body. He works through the diverse gifts and graces He has given particular members to exercise for the benefit of all (see 1 Cor 12). As a whole, we are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Remnant doctrine synthesizes fundamental Church’s theology (e.g., Incarnation, Baptism and all the Sacraments, the Church, Election/Vocation, People of God, Theosis) and emphasizes both corporate and individual aspects of our shared call to follow the example of Blessed Mary and all the Saints in obedient life dedicated to Jesus, extending and perpetuating the Catholic faith within Christ’s Church with infectious holiness and through vicarious, trinitarian prayer (Regula). Remnant doctrine teaches that the one Body of Christ shares in each other’s God-given gifts and graces, and is so doing we share in the prayer life of those particular souls, lay and ordained, who are elected by God to the full life of Christian prayer on this earth.

In short, Remnant means being Blessed Mary’s children. The Mother and Bearer of God—Theotokos—Saint Mary is also, we must proclaim, the Mother of the Remnant. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: On Martin Thornton and the Eucharist

Homily delivered on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

Now, it was not quite parallel to that moment that Saint Augustine described in his book, Confessions, when it was a little boy in a garden who pointed to a Bible and said to Augustine, “tolle lege,” that is, “take and read.” This was Augustine’s famous conversation moment, when he read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” — have a God-centered life, and to throw off his selfish ways.

But if one looks back at one’s life, and discerns moments when a change of direction in life occurs, for me this would certainly be one of them. What am I talking about?

It was almost four years ago that I was celebrating my 36th birthday. I had just completed my first year of seminary courses at Catholic Theological Union, and I wouldn’t start courses at Nashotah House until the coming fall. That morning, Hannah asked me, “it is your birthday, so what do you want to do?” I said, “let’s go to a book store. Let’s go to Half-Price Books.” This is a used book store chain, with a number of outlets around the country and several in the Chicago suburbs. “Ok, so we’ll go to Countryside,” she said. “No,” I said. “The one in Niles on Touhy Ave near that leaning tower thing up there.” “There’s a Half-Price in Niles?” she asked. “Yep,” I said. “And it is bigger than the one in Countryside, so let’s go there.” She agreed, and, because the girls were listening in, I added, “and after that we can go get some ice cream at Oberweiss,” to which there were cheers and happy sounds.

We drove to Niles, arrived at the bookstore, and being a student of theology, I made a bee-line for the theology section of the bookstore. Thumbing through the books, at one moment I came upon a book the title of which immediately grabbed me. It was English Spirituality, by Martin Thornton. Immediately I noticed that this book described my own experience of St Paul’s Parish. It wasn’t in direct ways, as this book was really pastoral theology — that is, intended for clergy and lay catechists as a help of their particular ministries. But it was in the feel of the words and ideas, the pacing, the sensibility. It just felt like here. And as I later came to affirm, it felt clearly Anglican. Clearly Catholic and of Catholic imagination. Clearly Benedictine — by my lights, it is the writing of Martin Thornton, along with John Macquarrie, where the best and most useful examples of Catholic Anglican imagination patiently lie, waiting for the Church to wake up and recognize it.

Why does all this matter on this particular day? In addition to being the Feast of Corpus Christi in this particular year, June 22nd is also the day when in 1986, that is 28 years ago, when Martin died in Crewkerne, England, in the English county of Somerset which is in the south-west corner of England.

He was 71 years old. He was survived by his wife, Monica and their daughter Magdalen, both of whom are still alive and very active. Martin Thornton’s gravestone describes him very simply: a farmer, a priest, and an author. As a farmer, he was one of the early adopters in England of sustainable agricultural practices, this would be during World War II. As a priest, both in parishes as well as being the Canon Chancellor at Truro Cathedral also in southwest England, he specialized in spiritual direction, which is the application of theology to the life of prayer, usually through one on one meetings between the spiritual director and the client, that is to say, the person seeking direction. And as an author, he wrote thirteen books, the first in 1948 and the last in 1986.

He had a number of areas of focus in his writing. The first is the prayer life at its core — the threefold regula of Office-Mass-Devotion, the beating heart of our baptismal life; that is, our behavior, what we do. Another is spiritual direction. Martin strongly held that spiritual direction is one of the historic strengths of Anglican Christianity before and after the 16th century yet has been neglected over the last 150 years. Another focus was the realities and needs of ordinary Christian men and women, boys and girls. He felt their needs had become overlooked by serious works of theology: what does it mean to be a parishioner, he explored. Another focus was the theological endeavor itself — how do we do theology today given our social realities? — he particularly focused on what is known as “ascetical theology,” which are the words and concepts that the Church uses to articulate our experience of theosis, of the journey both joyous and difficult of becoming better disciples and being reformed into greater likeness of Jesus Christ. In these and other areas, Martin Thornton was a genuinely orthodox and Catholic Anglican: someone thoroughly immersed in English and Anglican history, theology, and practice, and because of that, a true innovator and forward-thinker. As he wrote, the “reinterpretation of the Gospel to every age is itself an integral part of orthodoxy.”

Do we hear these words? The “reinterpretation of the Gospel to every age is itself an integral part of orthodoxy.” To be orthodox is not to simply rehearse a laundry list of correct doctrines as some sort of litmus test — do you check off the correct boxes on the test? Nor is it to simply reinvent the Christian faith according to the whims and trends of contemporary society. If it feels right, let’s affirm it! No, we believe in the living God, not a god of museum history, or a god who has been wrong for 2000 years, but the active and loving God of history, and of this present moment, and of this present circumstance and of these social conditions.

And, appropriate for this Feast day, we believe in the living bread that came down from heaven. The living bread come down to redeem us and feed us. Martin Thornton taught on the Eucharist and this is part of his teaching. Yes, the living bread comes down to redeem us, but also, you might say in the “other direction,” our world is taken up into the heavenly realm. The bread and the wine, both work of human hands — the kneading and baking of the bread, the fermenting and bottling of the wine — are received by us from God, are directly of the goodness of the Lord, the God of all creation — these are taken into God. This bread is taken into God, and hence breadhood itself, the very nature of bread. This wine is taken into God, and hence winehood itself, the very nature of wine.

The nature of bread and the nature of wine are that they are created by God! If their nature is given by Christ their fullest natures in the Eucharist, then through the Eucharist, all of creation is taken up into God. The very nature of creation — creaturelihood, you might say — is taken up into the heavenly realm.

Our food, then, is of the heavenly realm. And this is of significance not only for our own personal salvation, but just as importantly, for all of creation. All of God’s creatures. The Eucharist is the greatest intercessory prayer there is. The Prayers of the People are very important in their particularity and specificity. But the ultimate Prayer of the People is the Eucharist. Because through each Eucharist, through each taking up of creation into God, into the heavenly realm, all of creation grows more and more like Christ. This Eucharist, right here, right now, is the best thing that can be done for the entire universe, the cosmos of planets, stars, nebulas, galaxies and the rest, the best thing we can do for society.

This is something of what Martin Thornton teaches about the Eucharist. This is what he would have us consider. His teaching was never that this must be intellectually understood as one understands that 2 plus 1 equals three. His teaching is that this theology — this profound theology of the Eucharist that redeems creation, redeems reality — that this theology is to be prayed with; is to be contemplated; is to be thought about is to be at the center of our own lives, and at the center of our community gathered around this altar, and those communities gathered around altars everywhere on Earth. To pray with this, to contemplate it, to wonder about it, to question it and even interrogate it, and to celebrate it, for the Eucharist is an incredible gift of love from God.

The Lord opened the doors of Heaven: and rained down manna also upon them to eat:
He gave them bread from heaven: So men did eat angels’ food, alleluia!