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For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Myths About Little Gidding

Apropos a book I have just read about Nicholas Ferrar who retired from Court, high politics and business with his wider family to set up a household for prayer in an out-of-the-way farm, here are some myths about Little Gidding that need to be dismissed. (And perhaps there is a note of warning in what follows for those of us who are thinking of a similar kind of structure to live out the so-called Benedict Option.)

(1) It was a rich family buying a nice farm where they could afford to live with servants and carry on hobbies and pray together.

They were financially straightened. Only one of Nicholas's letters goes into financial detail, an exasperated response to his wastrel younger brother who lived in London. His brother was asking yet again for more money, with protestations of deep repentance for having wasted the last installment. Nicholas tells him that his mother's legacy of £180 per annum is already providing him with £40 per year, that they are hundreds of pounds in debt, and face ruin without some unexpected providence. He also details that they have only two or three servants left (the household was probably around 30 people), have cut back drastically on daily food - his nieces Mary and Anna are weighing theirs out - and that his mother can just about afford the clothes on her back. It seems to me like the letter of a man trying hard to keep his temper, who says: right, you are asking for money, let me tell you just how much we are living on here in our opulence.

(2) Nicholas retired to Little Gidding because of the collapse of the Virginia Company through the loss of James I's favour, and his elder brother's financial ruin, which left his worldly and political hopes bereft.

He received offers of a powerful Privy Council post after the Virginia Company had its charter withdrawn, as well as an offer of at least one other diplomatic post, and when his friends found out that he had received deacon's orders and was retiring to Gidding they thought they would help him out by offering him lucrative livings if he would take priest's orders. He refused all offers. There is every reason to suppose from his letters that he had conceived the plan to retire to a life of prayer years before, and the fall of the Virginia Company was the signal that he had been waiting for to leave his London life.

(3) Life there was peace and harmony, secluded and cloistered.

Three things that I read dispel this idea. (i) They were scarcely a day without a caller, because the house - although in a remote village in Huntingdonshire - was only three miles' distance from the great North Road from London to Edinburgh. Many of these callers were strangers, turned up unannounced, and included a large number of the idle curious. (ii) Nicholas's sister-in-law Bathsheba (wife of his elder brother John) was not at all happy at Little Gidding, and perhaps deserves some sympathy although she certainly managed to make John's life a misery for much of the time, and cause considerable upset. (iii) Once the little school was up and running, some nobility would send their sons there for tutoring, and there are hints in Nicholas's letters that some of these youngsters needed a firm hand and had perhaps been sent because the kindly discipline and ordered round of life at Little Gidding was felt to be what they needed to give them some self-control and moral fibre.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Jesus Breaks His Silence, or If The Cap Fits, Wear It

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword... A man's foes shall be they of his own household.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

For Loyal Irishmen

An interesting genealogy of the Royal Family from John O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees (1892). A nice touch that it takes us right back to Adam, who was (as it sayth in St Luke his Gospell) the son of God.

Historically, I think there is a fairly good claim that the most ancient lineal descent of our Royal Family runs back through the patriarchal head of the Scottish royal house, Kenneth MacAlpin, to Fergus Mor MacEarca (see no. 90 on the list) who may have been a contemporary of St Patrick, and it is anyone's guess as to where the list prior to Fergus passes over from history into myth.

My own conviction is that Conn of the Hundred Battles (born in the fifth generation after Christ, c.200), has too cool a title to be written out of history; and it is cooler still that when a debauched man called Nero was president of the EU and the legions were building their horrid motorways all over the green English countryside, Ireland was ruled by a man called Fiacha of the White Oxen.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The House of Special Purpose

On account of the date, I was reading tonight about the last days of the Romanovs, and came across a few odd coincidences.

The last imprisonment of the family as Ekaterinburg was at Ipatiev House, designated "The House of Special Purpose" by the Soviets. Ipatiev (the Wonderworker) - Saint Hypatios in English - was a Bishop of Gangra in Galatia, in the north of Asia Minor, martyred in 326 on his way home from the First Council of Nicaea where he had sided with Athanasius against the Arian heresy.

The Romanov dynastic rule began at the monastery of Ipatiev (by Kostroma, close to the Volga) in the seventeenth century when Mikhail, staying there at the time, was chosen as the Tsar by the Russian parliament, the Zemsky Sobor. Mikhail was a nephew of the last Rurik Tsar, Feodor I, a dynasty that had founded Rus in the ninth century; therefore Tsar Nicholas had been heir to 1000 years of royal rule.

The brutal murder of the Romanovs, 405 years after the election of Mikhail at Ipatiev monastery, was in the basement of Ipatiev House. I wonder if anyone has written anything of these curious coincidences; are there any Russian poems or works that draw out the poignancy of this juxtaposition?

And another couple of questions: why doesn't the Orthodox church in Russia recognise the authenticity of the last two Romanov bodies? Is it just a matter of time before further tests are completed, or are there other complicating factors? And is there the remotest interest in Russia or outside it among emigres in re-establishing a Romanov dynasty?

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The Blue Flower

Fr Anthony Chadwick has published the first Summer issue of The Blue Flower, for which I have written an article about William Morris, Romantic medievalism and the Tractarians. The starting point for my piece is Morris's Art and Labour, an essay that I came across in the Queen's University library in Belfast over 15 years ago, and that stuck with me. 

The governing Romantic motif of a return to a golden age or Eden by means of a transformed imagination is a secularised and internalised version of Christian redemption, and the Romantics' turn to the Middle Ages for inspiration is an aesthetic witness to this underlying Christian foundation for their philosophy. The argument in the piece is that the Tractarians - Pusey in particular, with a helping hand from Coleridge - re-Christianised the Romantic philosophy and aesthetic in their ideas of language and symbol.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Is and Ought

Is morality, right and wrong, a consequence of the essentially sacramental nature of reality, of creation? This is an idea that has been slowly coalescing in the back of my head for a long time, but I still don't know how to articulate it properly.

Just say Coleridge is right, and Imagination - an iteration of the divine creative act in us, that unites sense and ratio into sacramental symbol - is constitutive of what things are. In that case, morality and obligation flows from what things mean, what they are as symbols, and it requires an act of imagination. For example, the obligation to love our neighbours as ourselves is rooted in an imaginative grasp of who or what my neighbour is, as an image of God. The commands of the Decalogue begin with the rejection of all images precisely because God made them to reveal Him, in the sense that they are His creative acts (and by derivation, our creative acts). They do not reveal Him as objects that are severed from Him (and from us), standing over against Him as autonomous things; they reveal Him as living acts. Even the sacraments in which we are said to receive His life are acts with a divine meaning, accomplished by the symbols; and whatever hyperbole is applied to the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, Communion is properly eating and drinking. No worship ought to be done to the phenomena of bread and wine but to the noumenal Christ whose saving acts they both reveal and hide.

It was an axiom of Hume's philosophy that you cannot get an "ought" out of an "is". Natural law moral theorists try to overcome this by talking about the telos or goals of our actions, but are then driven to explain their ideas of the overall purpose of human actions to get back to an "ought" that is based in an ultimate right or wrong. But the overall purpose of human acts in the world is surely rooted in what we are, and what the things around us are. And so we are back to the "is" of the symbolic and sacramental nature of creation, to get the "ought" of ethics.

I have been reading bits and pieces of James Jordan's and Peter Leithart's commentary on the Old Testament, and the Pentateuch in particular, on the Biblical Horizons website. What strikes me about his typological readings is the principle that what is being revealed in the obscure Mosaic code of ritual purity and sacrifice is in fact a symbolical and sacramental approach to nature; the Christian's task is to uncover the spirit of the types as pointers to Christ, and then be transformed by that spirit in one's daily acts, encompassing both one's treatment of others and one's behaviour to "nature".

Monday, 28 May 2018

The High Calling

On reading about the Romantic idea of the poet as seer or prophet (an idea that Wordsworth found in Milton), I was struck by the notion of the poetic or prophetic vocation. The idea of a distinct, personal, inescapable calling, when one's inner and sometimes inchoate sense of purpose is awakened and given definitive form and moral certainty by an external event (sometimes an event that might seem trivial to anyone else) - this Romantic or even Augustinian idea of calling or conversion to a purpose has seeped into our ideas of what it is to have a purpose or calling in life in a broader sense. This becomes confusing and potentially misleading for many Christians, whose notions of vocation are influenced by this pervasive idea. They are then waiting for a moment of epiphany to tell them how they should live and serve in God's kingdom, under the impression that without such a Moment they have not yet arrived at a perfect knowledge of God's will for their life.

The problem is not that Christians should be sensible of having a vocation, the "high calling of God in Christ Jesus", but that their ideas of what "calling" is should be dominated by the paradigm of the prophetic calling: by the Temple vision of Isaiah, Ezekiel's vision of the cherubim, or Jeremiah's commission as the one ordained as prophet of the nations. And this is a paradigm of vocation that is reinforced in the New Testament by the notion of calling in Paul's letters, the Damascus road calling of Paul and his subsequent and unshakeable sense of divine mission: "Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel".

The "high calling" of which Paul speaks, however, is not to be found in any particular set of dramatic internal or external events, or the satisfying of any particular emotional or psychological criteria. We have a calling "in Christ Jesus". Christ is not only Prophet, but is also Priest and King. It is instructive to give some thought as to how the idea of Christian calling and purpose is transformed, by thinking about our calling into the priestly and kingly offices of Christ, and on their own terms, rather than through the exclusive lens of the very personal prophetic vocation of a Jeremiah or a Paul.

There is a sense in which all God's people are called into Christ's prophetic office, apart from any special vocation to a prophetic role. The prophet is the one who has been given a word from God, a seer who must communicate the vision of the deep things of God that he has been granted, whose message unveils the judgment of eternity on his epoch and its worldly pre-occupations. A Christian's belief in the Gospel and communication of its message in life and speech is prophetic, for the Gospel of Jesus is God's word to Man, his judgment of the world, a revealing vision of divine things.

Certainly some Christians are specially called, chosen, seized by an eruption of the Holy Ghost into their life, and by which they become the destined bearers of a specific message to their Age, revealing its inevitable future judgment. Although this special calling is hidden from others, it can only be judged by the common prophetic calling of all Christians as witnesses of the truth of the Gospel, and the prophetic word will be greatly resisted when it is needed most and when Christians have succumbed to the spirit of the Age. There are also the deluded and the deluding, false prophets. But much more commonly, there are a large number of sincere and good Christians who imagine that they have a prophetic calling of some kind, a charisma, a vocation to a special mission - whether to an office in the church or whatever - because, under the impression of the Romantic idea of vocation, they have interpreted their life's circumstances and emotions to mean that the lightning of the Spirit has struck them. In the realm of calling to the priestly ministry, I think that this can be a harmful thing.

In talking of the calling to the priesthood, one must be clear that each Christian possesses priesthood as part of the priestly people. The mandate is there in Paul, the first verses of Romans ch. 12 in particular: "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service". I would not hesitate to say that the priesthood of the Church as a whole extends to offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist, and the passage quoted above is echoed in the words of the Roman Canon (quam oblationem... rationabilem). The Eucharist is primarily offered by the Church, the recurring "we" of the ancient Eucharistic prayer, and the role of the ministering priest is internal to that "we". The priest's action represents the people's; it is done for them because it is done with them. The word "ontological" with regard to the priesthood is misleading unless it is understood in relation to the people that the priest represents. A man becomes a priest with, as one of the people, his priesthood being an intrinsic sacramental role within the Church of which he is a baptised member: ministerial priesthood is not a permanent characteristic or essential difference in an individual apart from the people. There is not (I would argue) a straight line to be drawn from the divine High Priesthood of Christ to the presbyter; but one can draw a line to the priesthood of the Church in its offerings, from which the ministerial priesthood is derived. (It is important to note that this is not the same thing as to say that the graces of ordination are derived from the will of the Church rather than from Christ; the special anointing of the Spirit of Christ in Holy Orders is one thing, and the meaning and significance of the priestly role is another.)

The features of a vocation to the ministerial priesthood in the New Testament are threefold, (1) the individual's desire, (2) a series of criteria of fitness (holiness of life, monogamy, and so on), and (3) the responsibility of the Church for the choice: "choose out from among you". Because the priesthood is a role within the Church that a man is adopted into rather than being born into, its ritual and sacramental actions, enabled by the grace of ordination, must be learned and practiced. It is not an innate role. It is in that sense a professional role, in some ways similar to other professions like soldiering or medicine. It is even a bureaucratic or political role in a way in its service to the people through the bishop - the civil servant or politician is similarly appointed to perform a hierarchical role for a civitas or polis. It is internal to a "system" or ordering of the Church's life and therefore involves a certain amount of real-life compromise and diplomacy, and I think that this would hold true even where there was no such thing codified Canon Law, seminary and an absolute minimum of ecclesiastical organisation. This is not necessarily a Bad Thing: there could be no such thing as a Church Militant without order or organisation of some kind. The priestly role is not incompatible with a specific prophetic calling, nor should it ever be separated from the common prophetic office of all Christians in the Gospel. But the priestly and specifically prophetic calling do not necessarily run together and there is a certain tension between them.

How is one to discern a calling to the priesthood? I think, from what I have said above, that it will inevitably attract a certain kind of person, with a preponderance of extroverts, and the choice of men will require prudence on the part of those who are charged with discerning fitness. The additional responsibility of celibacy does complicate things, however, and makes the notion of discernment and vocation much more fraught, almost necessitating in most men a moment of epiphany to make the choice. When the distinct question of a calling to the ministerial priesthood becomes mixed up with a calling to celibacy, becoming a "eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake", the sexual and emotional urges are understandably in the foreground of any decision. I have my own opinion on this, and like many others think that this is not a good thing at all. I suspect that it tends to create a crisis in the man, which is either resolved in some moment of putative spiritual revelation, or sometimes not resolved at all, leaving a deep sense of guilt, destructive cynicism, or both. The discipline of a celibate priesthood therefore enhances the risk (already high) that the vocation to the ministerial priesthood will be confused with the special prophetic calling. Given the kind of life that most priests are forced to live - their time eaten up almost completely with ritual and administrative acts, when there is hovering in the air an expectation that they have specifically prophetic form of vocation - this can surely only create a deep dissonance in individual priests, and a general scepticism towards clergy, and frivolity about the whole notion of prophetic vocation. And when a seer emerges from either within or without their ranks, this scepticism and dissonance in people and priest could well work against acceptance of the prophetic message, and against an understanding of the role of the prophet in the Church and the world.

Christ as King is an office to which most men are called in a quite specific way. A king is the father and ruler of his people, a shepherd who stands over them and protects them. He keeps the peace, is the highest court of appeal, and acts as a symbolical figurehead. The role is hereditary, natural, innate: kingship is something a king is born into because of his intrinsic relation to those who go before and follow after him. Fatherhood is similar to kingship, and is the predominant way in which individual Christian men are called to hold Christ's kingly title. Kingship is also acquired in some sense, at coronation, when a king "marries" his people and vows are exchanged, vows of service on his side and of obedience on theirs. Similarly, a man acquires kingship through marriage, which sets up a new natural relation between a groom and his bride. The kingship of the father and husband is not so much learned technique (although one can learn a great deal about it) as it is a given thing. One is first a father, and one then tries to be a better father; one marries and then one tries to correct one's faults as a husband. Kingship is not the learning of a professional role but the perfection in love of a relation.

There are other specific roles besides fatherhood in which the Christian is called into Christ's kingship - one thinks of the pastoral role of the bishop, the role of a male teacher, the head of a business, large or small, or even a farmer or those who tend the earth. And likewise (as with the priesthood of all believers, and the prophetic power of the faith of all Christians) every Christian is a King, as a part of the "royal nation" that bears rule over Creation through the Cross. But my general point is that kingship as a specific function, or the discharging of a particular role as King, is the most common special vocation in which men will share of the three offices of Christ, that of Prophet, of Priest and of King. And it is the most natural and least "charismatic" in the sense that it does not require any special epiphany. People fall in love, and (one hopes) are happily married and have children. Men don't usually wait for a special revelation from above to do so.

Likewise, to wait for a special revelation for a vocation to the ministerial priesthood, or to encourage it, is I think to mistake the nature of what the priesthood is. Inclination and desire are one half of the process, the choosing by the Church is another - and sometimes it might be healthier if it were almost wholly the latter, when the choosing was done not by distant clergy primarily but by a group of faithful Christians who have had most opportunity to see the person's life and character. Instead of taking a priest off to a special school to become some kind of super-refined being endowed with special powers after years of psychological assessments (and do we really trust human methods and aims so much after seeing what can go wrong?) how about starting with the following premise: that every group of gathered Christians should have a bishop or his vicar a presbyter, aided by a deacon, and that these should be chosen out "from among them" for the role? I am not arguing against the need for special education in clergy, but perhaps the way priests were "apprenticed" before the reforms of Trent and the development of seminaries and houses of study in Protestantism is a better fit in some ways, with both the vocation to the ministerial priesthood and its presentation in the New Testament.