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

Saturday, 18 October 2014


Acknowledgments to Anglican Anastomosis for the analysis of ecclesiology, especially the 2x2 table, in a recent post: it caused some things to crystallise in my mind on reviewing my own history.

The recent passing of the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley has prompted me to some reflection. I was raised in the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, and baptised in his Martyrs' Memorial Church, a large auditorium style church with a huge projecting balcony: it is a piece of late 1960s architecture worth some attention, I think. Around the lower concourse of the church are busts of Protestant martyrs, mostly from the English and Scottish Reformations.

Most people have a mistaken impression of the man. He was bombastic, yes, but this seemed a very boyish trait when one met him, not at all intimidating; his fault was, if anything, rather a child's love of being the centre of attention. Close up, many people found him extremely personable. Some haters became his lifelong friends on meeting him. There was a rather odd situation in my own family that illustrates how he polarised feeling. My father experienced a conversion at seventeen years old, not within the Free Presbyterian Church, but the next Sunday on getting ready to go out to his normal liberal Presbyterian Sunday morning service, he heard what he describes as an audible voice saying "What are you going back there for?" He climbed into his car and drove instead the ten miles to Belfast and the Ravenhill Road church where the Rev. Paisley preached, and became a part of that church. My father's family - my grandfather and various others on the paternal side of my family - slowly drifted to follow him. My late grandmother's side, however (she had recently passed away) had no interest and remained staunchly Methodist. To say they had no interest is not quite true. The appearance of "the Troublemaker" on television was greeted by roaring insults from my great-uncle Phil, and a more cool but withering sarcasm from my great-aunt Betty. This didn't seem to put my parents out: Auntie Betty and Uncle Phil were the only people in the world from whom this response was not demurred to despite us being Free Presbyterian: and strange to say, all mention of disputed territory was naturally and quite comfortably avoided by everyone. I think it helped that Auntie Betty's understated and cool irony was the outer foil to a heart of kindness that made her greatly beloved of us all.

I do not even try to take a part in giving broad opinions on my native Northern Ireland. I do not have a grand view. I grew up there, among the lovely grey beeches of Helen's Bay, looking out to the bleak and bitter Antrim shore; it is in me, but I cannot judge it. It is too much of a tangle to see through it all clearly. It amuses me greatly when foreigners sum it up in a few utterly misguided sentences, about the benefits of the peace process, or the wonderful later transformation of the Rev. Paisley into peacemaker, or any such natural but profoundly mistaken stuff. Those who hail from the Province will understand very well when I say that no peacemaker will ever be forgiven; its loyalties are too much in its blood to be forsaken, its freedom is too perfect an ideal to be compromised. There is always something that is plausibly more just to be done than what one needs to do to achieve peace. Every peace process creates another slow simmering injustice. And just to add to the confusion, its people can be the most gentle-kind, its womenfolk the most feminine, of all the peoples of Europe.

To return to Free Presbyterianism, this too like Northern Ireland is extremely complex, richer by far than any other evangelical or fundamentalist denominations I have come across. It has three main strands, I think - (1) Scottish Presbyterianism or a puritan form of Calvinism; (2) Revivalism, with evangelical mission and a charismatic tendency; (3) Pietism and a Wesleyan form of personal devotion. It would, of course, be incomplete not to add a fourth influence: anti-Popery, taking an extreme form of anti-ritualism to the point of being suspicious of even a bare and unadorned cross on top of a church, never mind inside it. Now this combination was present, was, I think, largely due to the personality and breadth of the Moderator of its General Presbytery. It may seem like a contradictory set of theologies and praxis: but it does not seem so from the inside. The church is there to foster one's devotional life, in daily ex tempore prayer and Bible reading; one's Sunday morning worship is a strictly ordered affair, with a clearly Calvinist doctrine of God's grace going before man's action, and a exhortation to depend utterly upon God's grace; one's Sunday evening is a fiery Gospel sermon exhorting repentance and faith to escape God's wrath; the special Convention begins and ends with the invocation of the Spirit to break, mould, fall afresh upon us. Children's books with pictures of Jesus are winked at, but otherwise there is no pictorial or iconic element to religion or devotion whatsoever. Baptism and Holy Communion are celebrated with the barest form of ritual possible with a theological rationale of following a divine command. The order for Communion comprises a brief devotion on the Cross that could be inspired by St. Bernard or St. Margaret Mary Alacoque - interestingly, and all unawares, they cultivate a deeply medieval devotion to the Blood of Jesus as that which washes away sins, although there a resolute rejection of the doctrine of the Real Presence - followed by the words of institution, a prayer before the reception of each kind, and then a closing hymn and prayer.

I read occasionally, particularly on traditionalist media, about how aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, or the Novus Ordo rite has seen a Protestantising of the Church. But I think one needs to distinguish. There are, it has been said, two forms of Protestantism: either the liberal type, which ends up looking like the church of Matthew Arnold, or the Bible-believing type, which insists on a particular interpretation of the Bible - said to be its literal truth - as the "rule of faith and doctrine". I'll let this pass as a characterisation of the two poles to which Protestantism gravitates, although this account fails to mention the special cases of Anglicans and Lutherans, or the weighty influence of Tradition in Biblical Protestantism through a wholehearted acceptance of the Creed and early Councils. Neither of these two forms of Protestantism seems to me to be exemplified in the things that the traditionalists condemn about the modern Catholic Church and its liturgy - for example, the idea of the Mass as a participation of the people with God in each other, or something like that. No doubt, there were what one might call Protestant theological positions at work in the reframing of some of the Novus Ordo Eucharistic prayers. But the end result is not anything remotely like a Protestant Communion; and I think I speak from experience, having been brought up in an explicitly Zwinglian belief.

I remember, very clearly, the utter quiet of the monthly Communion, held after Morning Worship. I have never encountered a more profound silence in a space full of people. The hymns were explicitly about spiritual communion, or resting in Christ: for example, "I heard the voice of Jesus say", or "Just as I am" which has a series of astonishingly apposite stanzas for communion, like:

Just as I am - and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
- O Lamb of God, I come!

Now the irony is that modern liturgical scholars tend to question the notion that the primitive Eucharist was seen as a recapitulation of Christ's propitiatory sacrifice; rather, they claim that the sacrificial language of the rites refers primarily to the sacrifice of the people, who - having been washed clean by baptism and renewed by confession - were now prepared and holy to be united to Christ in the heavenly banquet in which he is the slain but Ever-Living Lamb upon the altar before God's throne. The middle ages saw the flowering of the (not incorrect, I believe, with certain caveats) theology of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice; and yet here in Free Presbyterianism was a bunch of people doing their best to channel sixteenth century no-Popery, cultivating at their rite of Communion the most medieval spirituality of Communion one could express. (By the by, this is evidence that Protestantism is fairly and squarely a Latin and Western Church phenomenon.) Sometimes people would weep, whether at sins repented or for the joy of the Cross, I do not know; probably both.  The whole demeanour and spirit with which our minister the Rev. McDermott celebrated at Communion proclaimed - whatever he might have stated as his theology - that here was mysterium tremendum, so that even our childish silliness and temptation to tomfoolery, bored to tears after an hour of church and a thirty-five minute sermon, was stilled and awed.

This is not an experience that I find repeated at many celebrations of the Eucharist; the cause of the lamented lack of reverence has not been Protestantisation at all, in my experience. Perhaps the modern Catholic Eucharist is more like a liberal Protestant celebration, but even though my experience of this is much less than the Biblical Protestant variety, I am not sure that this is true. I am afraid that what one finds often enough, is quite simply a lack of reverence, because (1) Mass is the only thing people attend at Church; there is no regular Office of Prayer, or other liturgical or devotional practice within the Church itself which acts as the foothills to the Mountain of God, no first step of ascent that would give the summit a sense of awe, (2) the words of condemnation for those who receive unworthily are utterly absent from the Novus Ordo, throughout the entire triennial liturgical cycle of lessons (these awful words, I think, contributed very greatly to the sense of seriousness in my childhood experience of Communion) and so people come without examination of conscience and repentance, (3) sometimes the songs are dire and are simply ridiculous, badly sung, and of course there is no tradition of congregational hymn singing to make it sound at least heartfelt, and (4) the proliferation of people running around the sanctuary doing things makes the priest's get-up look like a silly dress, as the other people are wearing normal clothes; it doesn't help that some priests, no doubt conscious of the dissonance, try to correct it by wearing trendier vestments which pulls the whole thing closer to self-parody. What one is left with, in the worst cases, are the very thing that the Bad Old Days was supposed to have fostered. These are: clericalism, because the laity feel that unless they play the priest they are not participating quite so much, when in fact as lay-people they have a priestly offering all their own to make; superstition, because the Body of Christ is received clumsily and without faith, discernment and participation of spirit, as if it were a spiritual talisman; and a mixture of cosy-huddle Christianity and authoritarianism, because in all this there is no possible reason not to go home and make it all up yourself, except (regarding authoritarianism) the position of the priest or bishop as an authority figure who decides what ghastly experiment will be conducted next week at Mass and (regarding the cosy-huddle) the wish to feel good by getting together with a bunch of people who share the same sentiments for an hour.

What if the Protestant world re-discovers Tradition - in the liturgy, in the doctrine of the Fathers, in prayer? Absurd as the claim might seem, there are clear signs that there is a steady erosion of walls erected against Tradition in the Reformed churches, and I think that one day there might be a dam burst. If some of them were, say, to ally themselves with a traditionalist group to receive episcopal ordination, they would step back inside the Apostolic succession and threefold order. I do not think this is as ridiculous as it sounds; knowing Bible Protestantism as I do, it has a strong streak of anti-modernity that is a lot closer to They Have Uncrowned Him than to a wishy-washy Catholicism that talks about seeing good in everything. If this happens, things on the Catholic side having merrily progressed the way they are going, this could prove a prophetic word:

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Ninefold Quire (Part 3)

(Warning: a long post written to amuse myself. Please, before boring yourself to tears, read Chesterton's gloss on Byron as a form of preemptive strike in my defence, from Heretics. "There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.")

Following on from Quaeritur: When Were the Angels Created (Part 1) and Denys, Thomas Gallus and Angels (Part 2), the task I set myself has proved rather difficult. The challenge was to create a visible and symbolic representation of the ninefold quire of angels. The idea was not to present the hierarchical order as tutelary deities of classes and groups of visible creatures, but rather to find a visible order that would give expression to their spiritual and celestial activity. The symbols need to follow the function of each hierarchy as set out in Part 2, but also to be in keeping with the canonical and inspired symbolism of the angelic orders, and the traditional imagery associated with them, as given in this table below.

      (1)    Seraphim 
Is. 6: have six wings (two covering face & feet and with two they fly)
Proclaim Tersanctus and “the whole earth is full of His glory”
Unknown number

      (2)    Cherubim
Guardians of tree of life (Gen. 3)
Hover over the Ark of the Covenant (the mercy-seat or throne)
Four in number; have six wings
Face of lion, ox, eagle and man – four faces each in Ezek. 28, four beasts with different faces Rev. 4)
Proclaim Tersanctus and God as Lord of time (Rev. 4: 6-8)

      (3)    Thrones
ophanim or wheels (Dan. 7), a beryl wheel within a wheel, rims covered in hundreds of eyes; follow the Cherubim, whose spirit is in the ophanim
St. Paul (Col. 1:16)
      (4)    Dominions (Lordships)   
St. Paul (Eph. 1:21, Col. 1:16)
Rulers of nations
Imagery: sceptred, orbs of light in their sceptre or sword pommels

      (5)    Virtues (Strongholds)
The δυνάμεις (dunameis) of Eph. 1:21
      (6)    Powers (Authorities)
The ἐξουσίαι (exousiai) of Eph. 3:10, closely associated with the Principalities (see below)

      (7)    Principalities (Rulers)
Associated with powers in Eph. 3:10, ἀρχαὶ (archai) or originators
Crowned and sceptred

      (8)    Archangels
There are said to be seven in rabbinic tradition and the Book of Enoch referenced in Jude (four are mentioned in works claimed as canonical – (1) Michael, (2) Gabriel, (3) Raphael in Tobit and (4) Uriel in 2 Esdras and the Book of Enoch), with the first three forming an upper rank, and Uriel and the others in a second rank
The names of the others are in the Kabbalah where they are associated with days of the week and are guardians of peoples and events surrounding them
Michael is said to be guardian of Israel and casts Satan from heaven; Gabriel brings the Annunciation

      (9)    Angels
Myriad kinds with myriad functions (in fact each one is a species all by itself), but one of these functions is as guardians of souls and children (Matt. 18:10)

When I first thought of matching up this hierarchy to the visible creation, the obvious place to turn to is Genesis 1. It is a commonplace that the first three days of creation correspond with days four to six: oh, I thought, then let's subdivide days four to six into two to make a three by three table for the three angelic triads above, and see how the two tables overlay each other. Here is the resulting ninefold creation table.

      (1)    Light

Division: light from darkness, day from night
      (2)    Firmament

Division: waters above from waters below
      (3)   Dry Land and Seed-Bearing Plants
Division: between land and sea

      (4)    Sun, Moon and Stars

      (5)    Fowls of the Air
      (6)    Beasts and Creeping Things

      (7)    Times, Seasons, Days, Months and Years

      (8)    Sea Creatures

      (9)    Man – Male and Female

For reasons that I will come to, some seemed to fit reasonably well (e.g. (1) Seraphim = Light) but others not so well (e.g. (8) Archangels = Sea Creatures).

So I had to think again about my sub-divisions, and then I finally realised that good old Charles Williams of Inklings fame had the key. For Charles Williams in that wonderful supernatural thriller The Place of the Lion, the animals are the visible form of the Virtues. And this makes perfect sense as the Virtues are the middlemost of the nine orders of angels, for the virile and courageous virtues or contrariwise his vices are associated with the middle part of man, with the chest; but the virtues (and vices) are also associated with certain animals. Courage is associated with the lion, for example; and one may be greedy as a pig. Look up the Vespers Hymn of the Breviary for Friday, Feria Sexta, and you will find that the wild animals of the Sixth Day of creation are associated with the passions of man, and he is commanded to subdue them under his kingly rule. And what is a passion ordered and trained but a manly virtue? (For a depiction of the feral vices cf. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene Book 1, Canto IV in which the Redcross Knight visits the House of Pride. A priceless poem: one shouldn't be put off by the length, it is more worth it than War and Peace, and C.S. Lewis was very right when he said that to read it was to grow in psychological health.) The Virtues should therefore be symbolised by the animal kingdom, but also - as briefly noted above - for the further reason that in being housed in the middle part of man, his chest, they are midway between the contemplative head and the active loins and limbs - and we can see that in our angelic hierarchy the Virtues form the middle order of the middle triad, and mediate courage and purposeful will between the upper contemplative half and the lower active half of the celestial orders. So I simply had to move (6) into the same box as (5), so that the Virtues are now symbolised by the Beasts. This left a vacancy in (6), but that was no big difficulty as (3), representing the Third Day of creation, was overloaded anyway. I simply moved the Seed-Bearing Plants into the vacant box (6). The birds were moved into box (8) along with the fish, to represent the Archangels (my rationale for this is given a bit further on, below). After a further minor adjustment (splitting the heavenly bodies into two classes to make up the symbols for (4) Dominions and (7) Principalities, what we get from this rearrangement is the following table.

      (1)   Division: light from darkness, day from night
Light - Seraphim

      (2)   Division: waters above from waters below
Firmament - Cherubim

      (3)   Division: between land and sea

Dry Land - Thrones

      (4)   Stars - Dominions

      (5)   Beasts - Virtues
      (6)   Seed-Bearing Plants - Powers

      (7)   Sun, Moon and other luminaries - Principalities

      (8)   Fowls of the Air and Sea Creatures - Archangels

      (9)   Man - Angels

Now for the explanatory detail:

(1) Seraphim are best symbolised by light, (or perhaps even the darkness before the light was made - as in Henry Vaughan's "there is in God a deep but dazzling darkness"), as they are in closest to God and are fired immediately by Him into life. They are unable to look upon God for awe and cannot themselves gaze upon Him (with two wings they cover their faces), but by the fiery light of glory that God kindles in them the next order, the Cherubim, see. They do not rest from praise (with two wings they cover their feet), like light which is forever emanating from its source. But they are swift (with two wings they fly) and eloquent in proclaiming the Tersanctus, the devastating purity of their Origin. They are not numbered, for they are so much at one with God that their number seems irrelevant: and Light seems an apposite symbol for the unnumbered Seraphim, for its beams are Many, yet it remains at unity with its source.

(2) The firmament is filled with light: likewise the Cherubim are enlightened by the divine Light poured through the seraphim, and the Cherubim are therefre best symbolised by the firmament. There is a biblical justification for this identification - the Cherubim, in the Temple, were embroidered upon the Veil which represented the Firmament. With the creation of the firmament, the primal liquid chaos is separated and a place prepared for the world. Thus it is fitting that the number of the Cherubim is four, the number of Creation and the four corners of the earth, and fitting that the faces of the Cherubim are the great Archetypes - Man, Ox, Eagle and Lion - that will enclose all other lesser types. (Note that the cherubim's faces are represented by these Archetypal forms, but they themselves are winged as befitting their symbol, air. What then do these faces mean? If the cherubim are the supra-rational "unknowing" knowledge of love, perhaps they are faces of the love that "moves the sun and the other stars", in its transcendent (aquiline), sacrificial (taurine), powerful (leonine) and upright and kingly (human) qualities.) With the creation of the firmament one does not yet have the creation of distinct visible things - and the firmament is therefore a fitting type of the Cherubim who are the unknowing of love. The firmament represents the medium (Cherubim) that is filled with the light of God (Seraphim) before any discrete knowledge of the divine in created things. The light and heat of the fiery seraphim - which would not otherwise be transmitted to us - is received by the airy cherubim and becomes available to all the rest of creation.

(3) The Thrones are symbolised by the utter receptivity of the mineral world, with its complete passivity to the divine Law: the dry land, emerging from the primeval disorder of the waters beneath the Firmament, is the mineral and inorganic creation that remains forever charged with intense and incredible energy. The billions of atoms are the multitudinous eyes of the Thrones, that look back toward their Maker from every infinitesimal point of his creation; the wheels within wheels are their unwearied and inexhaustible power (Ezekiel seems to describe the ophanim quite literally as a dynamo); and they are filled with the spirit of the Cherubim which is love for their Creator, and they follow that love whithersoever it leads in an inviolable obedience to His command. The inorganic creation sets the law for all the rest: and so is a fitting symbol for the Thrones whose obedience to God's rule sets the frame and constraint within which all the lower orders of creation must necessarily act. According to Gallus the Thrones are the ecstasy of the mind filled with God; which fits quite well, I think, with the notion of the dry land rising out of the chaos of the waters below into the firmament and into the light of day. There is a correlation between the ecstasy of the mind (Thrones) tutored in meaning by the fire of grace (Seraphim) and the experience of love (Cherubim), and the mineral creation brought into being out of disordered motion by the reception of the inner radiancy of light (symbolising the Serpahim) in the field of energy (symbolised by the Cherubim).

Interlude: We now have the four elements of the world, which further special creation will elaborate: the primal matter of heaven and earth (Water) over which the Spirit hovered in the beginning, Fire (Seraphim), Air (Cherubim) and Earth (Thrones).

(4) The stars I have taken as symbols of the Dominions, who rule the nations and all the lower orders of angels with benevolence and without coercion. What better symbol than the Twelve Signs, and all the lesser signs seen in the night heavens, to represent such a rule? The stars (Dominions) do not determine our fate or destiny, but benevolently give to us and to our homeland that character that may be moulded by the will. The Dominions receive the inexorable rule of the Thrones, but transform it into something less terrible and more malleable: just as the benign influence of the Zodiacal signs translate the "army of unalterable law" into a blessed heritage of the heavens within our soul. Note also that some alternatives to Dionysius' hierarchical order places the Aeons, the Lords of Time, in place of the Dominions: but the Signs of Heaven have this aspect too, for they rule over the disposition of the Ages of the World also.

(5) The central order of the nine, the Virtues, I have already discussed above the preceding table. Suffice to say that they allow the benevolent and unforced rule of the Dominions to be converted into good and firm purpose. Charles Williams identifies about six or seven of his Nine Virtues in The Place of the Lion but leaves one to guess the rest. There was an article on the Internet called "Balancing the Angelicals", that I printed off once but which has since disappeared from the web, and which filled in Williams' blanks convincingly. I now seem to have lost my paper copy also. But from memory, Williams holds that the central Virtue of his nine imagined Virtues is the Eagle, which keeps the others in their proper place, and represents dispassionate appraisal or philosophy; the other eight Virtues come in pairs and balance each other. For example the Lion of Courage is balanced by the Lamb of Innocence, the Unicorn of Swiftness by the Horse of Steadiness, the Ox of Strength by the Butterfly of Beauty, and Serpent of Wisdom by the... but here I can't remember... was it the Lamb that balanced the Serpent and then there was something else to balance the Lion? I need to read the book again and find the misplaced article which is buried somewhere in my mess. Ultimately the role of the Virtues (or the soul schooled and trained by them) is to direct the will upwards, to the free and willing giving of oneself to God - to bring us back to Gallus again. And this is symbolised nicely by the animals, which symbolise the moral schooling of the dispositions given the stars (or Dominions) so that we can enter into the freedom of the nature given to us by God.

(6) The harmonious rule of the Powers is represented by organic life, the Seed-Bearing Plants and all things that grow. The principle of organic life orders the inorganic life of the cosmos in a harmony, so that it flourishes, lives, gives fruit and sustains: and in like manner the Powers order all the functions of the cosmos - including the virile purpose of the Virtues - so that they work together for good. And just as what is needed from a rule that is ordered towards harmony is that it remains almost invisible and does not arrogate power to itself, so also the Powers seem to function almost in silence (just like the slow growth of swelling fruit) between the louder and more resplendent Virtues and Principalities. But their nourishing and sustaining role is indispensable, nonetheless. Plants spring up in all kinds of strange places; they are eaten and then grow again from the seed that falls into the ground and dies: an apt image indeed of the work of the Powers, in their gentle rule, for unity and growth comes almost unseen, and springs up again and again despite being ever consumed in destruction and disharmony. Like some other orders of angels, however, some of these are fallen (cf. St. Paul), and use their gift of bringing a false harmony to give an unhealthy and unholy complacency to peoples and orders who lack a balance of the Virtues. As a result of true harmony wrought by the unfallen Powers, however, the desire is turned toward God, strengthened by the manly Virtues.

(7) The Principalities, who translate the Powers' harmony into the social order, are typified by the lower heavenly luminaries, the seven lowest spheres in the Ptolemaic astronomical system: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Some of the Principalities at least have fallen (cf. Daniel 10:13 and how the fallen Principality, the Prince of the Kingdom of Persia, withstood Michael the Archangel). Their role is to order the exercise of power: they are the ἀρχαὶ, the archai, the originators of authority among nations, but do not exercise it themselves directly - and the planets seem like a good fit because they are so international and ubiquitous in their influence (think of the names of the days of the week in either the Latin or the Norse versions, and I believe the Sanskrit). They - together, regulated into harmonious working by the harmonious Powers - order the cities of men so that their polity is just and leads their citizen to the polity of the heavenly City. And the planets are a good image of this because their combined working upon the earth produces all the metals for manufacture (silver, mercury, copper, gold, iron, tin, and lead), psychological dispositions and artistic skill (the mercantile, the amorous, the jovial, the poetic and medicinal art of Apollo), for the proper execution, building and rule of a Commonwealth. Oh, I know that someone is going say that the planetary deities are bad because they have been worshipped as gods e.g Zeus in Athens etc., but this idolatry could have occurred for two reasons. (a) Because some at least of the Principalities are fallen, and have fallen down to the Archangelic function (the governance of specific peoples rather than ordering rule as such) from their proper function. Being too eager to exercise their power in their pride, they have seized the rule over peoples and nations (the function of the Archangels: hence the strife between a Prince and the Archangel Michael, who overcomes a natural superior because he is in grace): the fallen Principalities destroy the harmony of the Powers by offering their individual Princely gifts of rule to a people in return for idolatry, who then bring a host of woes upon themselves and their overweening empires. The idea, here, is that some peoples with the aid of Principalities become mighty because of the patronage of a higher spiritual power than their neighbours, but that this is ultimately destructive of their own internal order because it becomes unbalanced. (b) The Principalities themselves are not all fallen, but their image and function is corrupted by fallen angels who seduce peoples to worship them under the guise of heavenly Princes, and who then usurp the spiritual direction of these peoples. In other words the fallen angels win an unholy cultus by imitating the Principalities. The propensity of the Principalities to seduce is due to their association with the faculty of imagination, which properly and harmoniously ordered leads up to God and gives discernment of good and evil (see Dionysius and Gallus on the Principalities again), but it is also the faculty most easily led astray.

C.S. Lewis's planetary intelligences in That Hideous Strength have obviously been a source for my ideas for the Principalities, and Lewis is also to blame for the idea that some spiritual forces may be benign - not necessarily fallen - but the knowledge of them is dangerous for us because we may be seduced by their glory.

(8) There is quite a lot of information about the Archangels in the table above: they exercise rule over peoples and their affairs - trade and so on - and Michael was supposed to be the special guardian of the people of Israel. They are supposedly seven, and there is quite a bit about them in the Book of Enoch which has canonical status among the rather interesting Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is quoted in the Epistle of Jude, so one can hardly blame them for that tradition. For our purposes, they crystallise the more general rule of the Principalities to particular peoples - they seem to be associated with particular Principalities directly, as for example Michael who is martial, and Uriel ("light of God") who is said to be associated with the Sun. I have taken their symbol to be the Birds (in the book of Revelation the archangels are depicted as flying in mid-heaven), ruling over the Fish who are the nations (remember that symbolised by the sea and its shoals of fish). Fittingly for the Archangels, birds are associated with augury. For as interpreters of the revelation of God Archangels explain and interpret the messages of God's Angels and lead one to the heavenward guidance of the Principalities (who are, for Gallus, sanctified imagination.) Thus the Archangels are the discernment of the signs given by God (by the hand of Angels) by the intellect stepped in faith, ordered by the holy imagination (Principalities) which synthesises all one's emotions and bodily life into the desire for God.

(9) Last of all, the order ruled by the Archangels is the Angels, who bring the messages of God to individuals rather than people. Accordingly, they are myriad, and so are their manifestations. But here they are represented by Man as the form of their most recognisable visitation to us. The Angels bring God's message to us in its most simple, accommodated and human form; the Archangels interpret and point that message upwards to the One from whom it comes, God. Thus the Archangel Gabriel sums up all the Angelic agency and visitation of the Old Testament in the Annunciation, and points the Virgin Mary towards the power of God descending upon her from on High. Man is the next rung on the ladder of creation below the Angels (cf. Psalm 8 "thou madest him a little lower than the angels..."), but also (and mysteriously, due to the Incarnation), Man is also on a rung above the very seraphim (" crown him with glory and worship"). Thus, when we reach the bottom of the angelic hierarchy, we find that we are standing at the top: by descending from God to humanity we have also ascended to the heavens, to the very apex of Jacob's Ladder, to the right hand of the Father. "Great is the mystery of godliness", "which things the angels desire to look into..."

I confess to a strong but unconscious shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien's creation myth of the Silmarillion over my whole conception: but then I suspect that Tolkien's myth of the music of Eru Illuvatar drew upon the idea of angels as the Form of creation, created on the First Day before all else was made. This post has become ridiculously long, and I feel a need to write a postscript on fallen angels. There will be a Part Four.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Denys, Thomas Gallus and Angels (Part 2)

The context for this post is linked here - Quaeritur: When Were the Angels Created? (Part 1)

Most angelology in the Church has drawn heavily on the writings of the anonymous sixth century (Syrian?) author of the Celestial Hierarchies, known as Dionysius the Areopagite (the Athenian convert of St. Paul), a pen-name giving almost Pauline and Apostolic authority to his work in the early Middle Ages. His three triads of the angelic hierarchy - comprising nine orders altogether - each order passing on transformative knowledge of the divine to the order beneath, are listed below.

The First Triad
(1) Seraphim
(2) Cherubim
(3) Thrones

The Second Triad
(4) Dominions
(5) Virtues
(6) Powers

The Third Triad
(7) Principalities
(8) Archangels
(9) Angels

These orders are derived from the piecing together of various bits of prophetic Scripture and St. Paul: the hermeneutic is of course disputed, but his immense influence on the late Fathers, the Victorines, and the Dominican and Franciscan giants meant that his schema was generally accepted. A few observations: we tend to think of angels (generically) as humanoid in appearance, but in Dionysius' conception of the angelic orders only the lowest two orders appear to us in human form. By the time the Archangel Gabriel reaches the Blessed Virgin at her weaving, the knowledge, love and power that was pronounced in the "Ave" has been translated and transmitted successively through eight orders of angels*. One might note that the orders become (like divine revelation) progressively accommodated to us or "humanised", so that the lowest order of angels present themselves at times in a form that may be mistaken completely by us for regular human contact. There is no such danger of mistaken identity with the seraphim, visions of whom are accompanied by awe and terror (cf. the opening vision of the Prophecy of Isaiah).

On top of this bare list of the hierarchical order, Dionysius presents an economy of activity, a mutually interdependent function for each of the nine orders respectively, but also a uniting function for the three orders in each of the three triads. Thus the table can be altered to take account of this: and roughly speaking, the first triad is concerned only with the direct worship of God, and pass on knowledge to the lower orders (one might say incidentally, and as a by-product) because they are kindled with divine fire and wisdom from the light of His face, while the second triad transform this knowledge into ordering, ruling and supervision of the lower orders. The final triad are then sent (they are the order most properly called by the name angel, ἄγγελος or messenger) to communicate the divine word of command - remembering always that telling God's message is the same thing as heralding its enactment, as there is no distinction between the Word and the Act of God in the divine fiat. So with these preliminaries out of the way we can start to fill in some of the Dionysian detail. I have given the names of the hierarchies, "meanings" in inverted commas, and then the conceived functions of each order in the schema below.

The First Triad "directly grounded in God and receiving primal theophanies" - Contemplation, Union
(1) Seraphim "fire-makers" - Love
(2) Cherubim "fullness of knowledge" - Vision of God
(3) Thrones "bearers of God" - Transcendence of Imitation

The Second Triad "harmonious orders of authoritative power" - Rule, Order
(4) Dominions "free rule without tyranny" - Benevolent Dominion
(5) Virtues "courage and energy" - Virile Purpose
(6) Powers "authoritative order" - Rule of Harmony

The Third Triad "concerned with revelation" - Revealing, Guidance
(7) Principalities "guidance towards order" - Divine Leading
(8) Archangels "interpreters of divine enlightenments" - Discernment of Truth
(9) Angels "messengers" - Communication of God's Word

If one notes carefully, each of the middle orders in the three triads have a mediating function within the triad itself. The knowledge (Cherubim) that is gained through love (Seraphim) is then productive of emulation (Thrones). Courage of purpose (Virtues) translates generous lordship (Dominions) into harmonious rule (Powers). And discernment (Archangels) of the meaning of the divine guidance (Principalities) is necessary for the communication of God's command (Angels). Likewise, there is a mediating role for the lowest member of the First Triad with respect to the highest member of the Second (for the Thrones who bear the image of God's likeness transmit that likeness to the Dominions who then exercise that image in their rule), as also for the lowest member of the Second Triad with respect to the highest member of the Third (the harmony engendered by the Powers allows the Principalities to give rightly ordered guidance to all created things).

Along comes Thomas Gallus in the early thirteenth century, originally a canon of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, to flesh out Denys in his magnum opus commentary, the Explanatio, and in the Glosses on the Angelic Hierarchy. Thomas's interpretation is largely to present the inner or psychological aspect of the angelic hierarchy, its role within an individual's mental, contemplative, and moral life: the angels are conceived as a path to God with the ultimate consummation, the seraphim, as the spark of divine love communicated to the soul. The rational intellect is left behind or subsumed even before we get to the cherubim in Gallus's scheme: the cherubim, traditionally associated with knowledge of God, are taken by him to be the knowledge of union with God that comes through the death of the intellect, and complete receptivity to Him. What is left for the seraphim, one might ask, if the cherubim have such an exalted role? They are the scorching fire, a spark from God Himself set alight in the soul, not only beyond mental knowledge but also beyond experience, if that makes sense: the seraphic aspect of the soul is conceived not so much as a natural power turned towards God as a divine smiting and kindling of the soul above its proper nature.

A caution here: one would make a mistake if one thought that Gallus is taking the angelic orders as "symbols" of a psychological structure. Rather, Gallus conceives of them as living beings who constitute the psychological structure of our soul. An image will help to make this clear, and also to bring in Christology. Jacob's ladder - recall the dream in which Jacob sees angels going up and down a ladder to God the Father - has been understood by tradition to be Christ the Mediator. Upon the ladder of his nature, both God and Man, joining heaven to earth by a stair, the angels go up and down both receiving messages from above and passing them on below. Thus the Incarnate Deity is the home and sphere of action of the angelic hierarchy: and in us who are the co-heirs in Christ is the same celestial dance enacted. Right from the lowest and humblest message from God, given in the simplest way and most accommodated to our senses, right up to the most hidden and searing communication of divine light to the soul at its origin, giving it a divine life beyond its natural power, the messengers of God are playing to and fro in a relay of His loving intent.

Here then is Gallus's filling in of Dionysius:

The First Triad: Immediate Proximity to God
(1) Seraphim - burning and light of love ; fire of love
(2) Cherubim - the death of the intellect ; union through unknowing
(3) Thrones - receptivity to the divine light ; ecstasy of mind open to divine light

The Second Triad: Complete Conformity to God
(4) Dominions - freedom of will ; sober use of the mind extended to rays of divine intellect
(5) Virtues - right action leading to virtue ; resolution to follow virtue
(6) Powers - discernment ; desire for the highest good

The Third Triad: Divine Revelations to the World
(7) Principalities - attention to good and flight from evil ; guide to the divine light
(8) Archangels - right use of knowledge ; discernment of love and judgment
(9) Angels - balance of love and knowledge ; communication of knowledge and love

Thomas Gallus, one can see, follows Dionysius pretty closely, but his angelic functions bring out some latent features in the hierarchy nicely. As one progresses down through the orders there are certain consistent accretions and developments. If one thinks of the angelic hosts as communicators of truth in our soul, for example, the progression in our minds is from the unknowing of love to intellectual and moral truth to the symbols that carry truth - the truth becomes less of an immediate experience in the lower orders, and more of a proposition for mind and will to be conformed to. If one goes back to Dionysius, one can see what Gallus is translating into psychology: the means of communication of truth by each order are progressively more visible and tangible, and by the time one reaches the angels one hears the message in the symbols of human speech from one in human form. This progression of descent through the hierarchical orders - from the unspeakable to the tangible - gives me my approach for the next post on this topic.

My follow-up post on this topic will be a bit less serious. I would like to translate the psychological hierarchy of Gallus into a visible one, i.e. into the symbols of the visible creation. Given that the angels' sphere of activity is Christ, the Word made Flesh, and given that Christ is the fulfillment of all creation including the visible things, I would like to try to place each of the angelic activities in relation to the hierarchy of the visible created order. In order for this not be specious, it must simultaneously be (a) psychologically convincing, (b) follow the lines of the tradition I have laid out above, (c) be consonant with the traditional images of the angelic orders (e.g. the Thrones are said to be "full of eyes", so the visible symbol will need to have a point of contact with this image). So I don't hold out much hope for a complete success. If any reader wishes to post their own ideas to help with this, please do.

Part 3 is now posted here.

* If the divine command is normally transmitted to us through the nine orders, then why wasn't Gabriel's message sent by means of an angel rather than by an archangel? I have thought of an answer to that - I don't know if it is right - which will appear in the next installment...

Monday, 7 July 2014

Quaeritur: When Were Angels Created? (Part 1)

When were the angels created? It was a question of some moment for the rabbinic interpreters, and for the Church Fathers - I seem to remember a lengthy disquisition in The City of God on the topic. I had some new light on the question recently in Dr. Barker's Temple Theology (2004). The rabbinic interpreters were very insistent that the angels were not created on the first day, but there is (possibly) good reason to believe that an older tradition held that they were.

If each part of the Temple was a pattern of Creation, then the Holy of Holies was the First Day, over which the firmament of the veil was stretched out. Within was the Unity, beyond time and matter, and it was also the abode of the angels - as the ideas or laws or even the elemental forces of creation. The clues are there in the songs and hymns of creation, in the Song of the Three Hebrew Children, and in Psalm 148: the angels are mentioned with the heavens, before all other beings, before even the "waters above the heavens" which were separated from the "waters below" on the Second Day in the creation of the firmament, and before creation of the stars.

There is also (and the rabbinic commentators agree on this) an idea of timelessness about the first day. In the particularly pregnant ordering of Genesis 1, the "evening and the morning were the first day". Considering that the light was created on the first day, that means that the primal darkness was God's first work, the hovering Spirit's nest. In that Holy Place the angels were hatched out from God's decree and order and in some sense are the Form of the divine pattern.

One is tempted to ask - did Jeremiah meet Plato after all?

I have often found a philosophical difficulty with talking about things, even qualities of things. Perhaps this is my own difficulty, and does not really exist. But the problem is this: that things, objects, seem to dissolve before analysis, and are crying out for some idea like Plato's Forms to guarantee their permanence as ideas. The content of the ideas sometimes bears little relation to the phenomena of the things themselves: lions are not especially brave, we are told by the expert observers. Nevertheless, the complex ideas related to these Archetypes have a relentless power and permanence over not just an individual but a collective imagination.

I do not for a minute believe that this fact can be explained away by reductive explanations of human consciousness. Metaphysics needs Forms, although perhaps they should be called angels by Christians, Jews and Moslems. I have been reading bits of the Victorines of the twelfth century, especially Thomas Gallus, who provides a detailed analysis of the moral life and the virtues, where each of the nine angelic hierarchies is a rung of the ladder of man's being as it aspires toward God, culminating in the highest two orders: the cherubim (representing for Gallus the knowledge of love, attained through contemplation) and seraphim (the divinely communicated spark of Love itself, kindling the soul beyond all knowledge and telling). I am amusing myself at the moment by trying to cross-reference Gallus with Dionysius and other sources and to come up with a angel hierarchy of external, visible creation. The game is that each of the nine orders must follow Gallus' outline, but their idea must be manifested in some way to our senses. Coming soon...

Here is a link to Part 2, and also to Part 3.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Black Virgin

I am off to gentle Norfolk today, staying over until the Ordinariate pilgrimage to Walsingham on Saturday. The following is from one of G.K. Chesterton's greatest poems, The Black Virgin: one feels shattered after reading it all, as if one had an exhilarating and painful ride down a set of rapids.

The second stanza:

Burn deep in Bethlehem in the golden shadows,

Ride above Rome upon the horns of stone,
From low Lancastrian or South Saxon shelters
Watch through dark years the dower that was shine own:
Ghost of our land, White Lady of Walsinghame,
Shall they not live that call upon thy name
If an old song on a wild wind be blowing
Crying of the holy country whence they came?

But my favourite line, and the key to the whole poem I think, is the third line of the sixth stanza, "Something not evil but grotesque and groping". It is a line that reconciles one to all the weird and outlandish and childlike manifestations of the devotion one may see in any little niche in any corner of the world. There are no demons lurking; just a strange energy of crude but Holy Life that is striving towards Form, the child's wisdom that is beyond the wisdom of the wise.

There runs a dark thread through the tapestries

That time has woven with all the tints of time
Something not evil but grotesque and groping,
Something not clear; not final; not sublime;
Quaint as dim pattern of primal plant or tree
Or fish, the legless elfins of the sea,
Yet rare as this shine image in ebony
Being most strange in its simplicity.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Little maiden Mary

The Temple Studies Symposia (I have mentioned this lot before) was held in the College of King's Chapel, London today, this time on the Old Testament Temple vestments and especially the veil that hung before the Holy of Holies. It was all good, but Dr. Margaret Barker's lecture was the highlight: how lightly that lady wears her astonishing learning.

I can't share all that was said, but something I would like to communicate is a fascinating little piece of tradition about a little maid called Mary... But first a quick detour to set up the anecdote.

The veil was most likely woven with a linen warp (the vertical threads that hold the cloth together) and dyed wool provided the three colours, crimson, Tyrian purple and blue, as well as the white of the linen. There were cherubim embroidered over it: no-one knows in what pattern. Josephus and Philo both agree on the interpretation of the veil and its colours. Linen, spun from flax which grows out of the earth, represents Earth; blue the Air; and crimson Fire. The purple represents Water, which seems odd, although bear in mind that no-one is quite sure (even though they know the sea-snail that produced the dye) what the colour was - it depends how many times one dips the wool etc. Thus the four elements are represented in the colours, making the veil an image of the stuff of Creation, and marking off the Holy Place or the Tabernacle (which images God's creation of the world as a dwelling for Himself) from the Holy of Holies. The veil is therefore matter covering the invisible God, who dwells within in the Holy of Holies - remember Christ's words, the kingdom of God is in the midst? Temple talk, apparently. The High Priest is in a sense deified - there is good evidence that he was ritually worshipped as personifying God on occasion - and becomes representative of God to the people when he enters the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and comes out vested in the same colours as the veil (representing matter) but also with interwoven gold thread: he carries the divine within the matter of his vestment. Note that the book of Hebrews, thick with Temple imagery, speaks of Christ, the High Priest, who carries out from the Holy of Holies Incarnate Deity (pure gold within the elements of Creation) from behind the veil that shuts God off from our sight.

The veil being so huge (40 cubits by 20 cubits) and heavy fabric, it was whoppingly heavy when it was washed in the laver. Imagine a large of curtain (say, seven by seven feet) soaking wet, and then multiply the surface area by 25 or so... It took 300 priests for wash-day. For other soiling involving ritual impurity, the veil was cut into strips for Temple lamp wicks, and a new one woven. Because of its immense size it couldn't be woven all of a piece, but was made of 72 woven strips each about a hand's breadth.

Who did the weaving? There is some tantalising evidence in Baruch, for example, who mentions that the young maidens who wove the veil were commanded to destroy it on the approach of the Babylonian army to Jerusalem. This tends to back up the New Testament apocrypha (Gospel of St. James), which contains an account of the weaving of the Temple veil by Mary as one of the little maidens. Now this is fascinating indeed - together with the traditions that (1) Mary was devoted to the life of the Temple by her parents Joachin and Anna when she was a mere three-year-old and remained there until her betrothal and (2) that Mary was a consecrated virgin whose projected marriage to Joseph was a Jewish legal form for those in that state of life. A picture emerges of the little looms of these consecrated virgins of a tender age, weaving the long strips of cloth for the veil. And it is known that Herod the Great was carrying out major refurbishment of the Temple around that time. But the tradition has something more to add - that Mary wove strips of purple and of scarlet: the Water and the Fire of the Spirit.

The veil - Christ's flesh, from behind which his Divinity emerges into this world in the Incarnation - is woven by the little maid Mary. She weaves upon the warp of Earth the weft of Water and the Spirit.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Many Dimensions

I read Charles Williams' Many Dimensions (1931) on a recent holiday: Williams was a lesser-known member of the Inklings group (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien et al); but I think that along with Owen Barfield his thought is more fecund, more seminal than the two more famous members of the group. Many Dimensions is about the Stone of Suleiman, a stone that supposedly sat in the crown of King Solomon, upon which the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton, was written, and by which Solomon knew the hidden virtue of all things and ruled over them. In one of the best passages in the book, the heroine, Chloe, has a rather terrifying vision of Solomon enthroned, crowned and ruling with the Stone.

The story is apparently drawing on Islamic or Jewish oral traditions about Solomon, because it mentions a number of stories that are not in the Book of Kings - for example, that Solomon was replaced on the throne by Asmodeus for a few years (apparently a demon king mentioned in the Talmud) among other legends I had never heard before. But the story centres around the Stone itself, by which one can travel in time and space. At least, that it how it seems, but as the plot eventually makes clear, the Stone actually contains all time and space: by using the Stone one enters into the Stone, in which all created things are contained. For the Stone is Prime Matter, that which was made in the beginning and then differentiated into all the individual things of Creation. Another property of the Stone is that when one attempts to divide it, one can (because it is matter), but because it is Prime Matter the fragments chipped from it are utterly identical with the original Stone. And more than this, they are not just identical in size and appearance, with the Divine Name written upon them, they are also essentially One Stone although many. Entry into (by use of) the Stone or one of its Types will give one access to all the Types.

Williams writes here, as ever, with infuriatingly turgid prose, and has unconvincing or poorly-drawn characters and events strewn through the story. But the longer one reads, the more one is drawn into his metaphysics, and the spiritual advancement or debasement of his characters in their willed progress to either glory or damnation. And the longer one reads, the more one wonders whether the story that Williams wanted to write could have been written in a better way. It is part of the effect of the story that the events are so awkward and the characters unimpressively sketched: the spiritual truths that he somehow manages to communicate take on a vivid and masterful life of their own, shining through his art. There is something rather like an Orthodox icon about the apparent crudity and stiffness of his representations and their power to pierce deeply: they seem to speak profoundly to one because of, and not in spite of, these very features.

Williams is doubtless writing from a profoundly sacramental theory of Creation, and even if his heroes are agnostic or initially unaware of the sacramental nature of reality, their practice of truth or compassion draws them inevitably towards this truth. The Stone could quite obviously be taken as a metaphor of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: it isn't what Williams meant to suggest (as the Stone is consistently represented as Prime Matter), although I strongly suspect that there was a drawing upon the Eucharistic doctrine in his imagination. But the parallels between the two (Williams imaginative vision of Solomon's Stone and the Eucharist) set me thinking about an idea that I have tried to communicate or express rather unsuccessfully several times.

One hears it said that the Eucharist is a microcosm of Christian life: its liturgical summit. It gathers up all the elements of Christian and human living (eating the fruits of Creation, song, poetry, ritual washings, sacrifice) and offers them all to God in union with the "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction" of the His Son Jesus Christ. But I wonder if this isn't the wrong way round; or perhaps only half the story. The other way of expressing it is that the Eucharist contains (like Williams' Stone of Solomon) all else within it. Within the consecrated elements the whole of Creation is in fact contained; together with the whole Eucharistic act of the priestly people, the entire Cosmos, God's ordering of Heaven and Earth, is complete. The Eucharist is therefore not (or not only) a microcosm of our daily life brought to a summit in the offering to God atop the mountain of the liturgy, it is (also) the Macrocosm, the completeness of the Age to Come, all that there is and will be made present and perfect in Christ. When we leave the church doors we are not (in metaphysical terms) going back to the "bigger picture", we are in fact going back to a small and rather limited participation in God's total act of kenosis and regathering of all things that has taken place that Sunday morning at church.

In the little dark sad concrete hut one goes back to, with its cramped scientists, its grasping and neuroses and its malicious politics, its narrow practice and distortion of the Real, one is not returning from "religion" to "real life". One is leaving real life behind: at least unless one is gifted with the courage that it takes to behave normally in the place that is called the world.

And by the way, if you read Charles Williams Many Dimensions, there is a thud of a shock in the last few pages. It is the best kind of literary shock: one that seems inevitable and forseeable once it is sprung. Even though one has already been prepared for it by the entire book, one still shuts out from one's mind the possibility that the author will have the audacity to follow the truth of his plot to its conclusion.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Then Comes The Light

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), was a physician and poet, and avowed imitator of George Herbert; opinions differ on who was the greater poet and indeed the deeper. Vaughan added this piece, Vain Wits and Eyes, to the dedication in his 1655 edition of Silex Scintillans, a work that marked his conversion to a "serious and devout life", as William Law would have it, following sickness and the expectation of his own death. The "fire" of the poem is Vaughan's inspiration; the "tears" are the reader's answer.

The reference in the poem must surely be St. John the Divine's message to the lukewarm Laodiceans in the Apocalypse 3:14-22. "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see."

VAIN wits and eyes
Leave, and be wise :
Abuse not, shun not holy fire,
But with true tears wash off your mire.
Tears and these flames will soon grow kind,
And mix an eye-salve for the blind.
Tears cleanse and supple without fail,
And fire will purge your callous veil,
Then comes the light! which when you spy,
And see your nakedness thereby,
Praise Him, Who dealt His gifts so free
In tears to you, in fire to me.

Something I like in Vaughan here is his self-assurance that his poetic inspiration is holy and powerful. The piece would not survive if one wasn't sure that he means what he is saying; but nor would it survive if one had any doubt about his God-given purpose - to put his finger on one's sins, and say: Repent. If I had to judge, I would say that in Vaughan the poet meets the prophet more closely than in Herbert. Herbert feels more like a gentle Sage, winning one along the straight and narrow; Vaughan points, and frightens.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Sgraffito and St. Agatha

Sgraffito was a word I came across first on Monday past, on a visit to Portsmouth to see Nelson's Victory. It was in an Ordinariate place of worship after a morning Mass that I met the term, whilst being shown around by its very welcoming parish priest, Fr. John Maunder. St Agatha's, a typically unassuming red-brick Victorian church on the outside, among its other graces and glories - its roof beams; its row of small Roman windows high above the nave, reminiscent of a paleo-Christian basilica in Rome; its series of votive altars in the aisles, from the humble to the magnificent - has an apse adorned with sgraffito. If you are as ignorant as I was, may I inform you that this is an art similar to fresco, except that one uses coloured plaster for the technique rather than painting the plaster when it is wet. The impression it makes is more muted and sober than fresco, and it appears to lend itself to a more stylised treatment of its subject. An analogy that comes to mind is unglazed ceramic is to porcelain as sgraffito is to fresco; but in a building like St Agatha's it is more appropriate.

The workmanship, by a disciple of William Morris, you can see for yourself in this shot:

And in its setting within the apse in the photo below:

This is a unique church in the Ordinariate in that it was originally Anglican, but fell on hard times with the bombing and destruction of the homes close to Portsmouth's historic docks, following hard on the Great Depression and the Great War. The worshippers were part of the Traditional Anglican Communion until the Ordinariate was erected, and as such they have an English Missal rather than a modern Roman Rite churchmanship. It is true, and I mean to write about this soon, but significant variations in churchmanship do exist in the Ordinariate - unsurprisingly, if one considers the fact that there are big variations in style and ritual within Anglo-Catholicism.

Along the south aisle, St. Agatha the Virgin and Martyr stands beside her altar, crowned, and clothed in this photograph in blood red for the patronal festival.

Apparently they have a new website coming soon, but there are more pictures here. The next big event taking place there is the Solemn High Mass on Saturday 27th September at 11 a.m., for Our Lady of Walsingham's feast.

Warren’s Sarum Missal in English