Friday, December 4, 2009

Advent Homily - Fr Damian Feeney

Let me tell you about Mick Bamber. He’s a former Pentecostal Preacher, who attended my last church in the evenings. He is also a retired builder who oversaw the construction of the new parish extension which was completed in my predecessor’s time. One evening, having heard this passage from Matthew, he came up to me and remarked upon the irony now to be found in this passage. Any builder would know, he said, that Jesus was not in the construction business; houses are actually built on sand these days, not simply built on rock – otherwise they become less, rather than more stable. It’s a perplexing thought for a preacher, until we realise that dwellings were constructed in a very different way from the Wimpey Homes of today.

First of all, houses were only built in summer – during a time when the clay was rock solid itself. When a builder, faced with the agony of digging through the clay to the bedrock below, paused gloomily to consider his lot, he may well have been tempted to cut corners. Although he knew he had to get through to the bedrock, he would be tempted to cut corners, and build the house quickly before the rain came. Having done so, he would wait anxiously, praying that the rains would not be quite so harsh this year.

It was a huge gamble, because (like as not) the winter rains would come, turning the rock-like clay into the consistency of sticky toffee pudding, and the walls (made themselves of clay) would do likewise, and burst, rather than relying on the bedrock to channel the water away.

So – part of building on the rock is avoiding the temptation to cut corners, recognising that there are tried and trusted methods of being faithful to the Lord, to his commandment to love, and each of them require our application and our endeavour. To dig down to the foundations sounds like (and often is) unglamorous work, but part of living within the catholic tradition means building – quite literally – upon the experiences and stories of others in the church who have taken care to dig all the way down.

Our ‘digging down’ consists in being methodical in all we do. If we don’t possess that virtue, we should work to acquire it. Part of the life of the parish priest consists in doing well the things we find unbearably tedious – indeed, we should try to cultivate a liking for them. Such an attitude is indicative of a disciple digging to find the bedrock. To be whimsical and casual about important things – to be cavalier with diaries, commitments, duties – indicates the opposite.

Do the unglamorous. Get to the bed rock. Keep at it, time and time again – then when the storms of priestly life hit you – and they will – there’s a chance you’ll hold fast

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vestments Fair 2010

Further details from the Facebook event page here.

Peace & Justice - Fr Damian Feeney

This homily was given by Fr Damian Feeney at a Votive Mass for Peace & Justice.

I’m told by one who should know that the American Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said that the reason he was a pacifist was because it was the only thing which stopped him from kicking the whatsits out of certain people. (I’m paraphrasing slightly. Hauerwas is a Texan, with all the colourful language that this implies). As we ponder what it might mean to be people of peace, it’s an interesting starting point. Are we, as human beings, so conditioned to violence – whether through survival instincts or for other reasons – that to live non-violently is to go against the grain of the nature of the species?

Tonight Jesus tells us – among other things – of the importance of being peacemakers: and if we are such we will be blessed, and be called children of God. It’s not something we can claim in isolation, however: alongside this we must also be poor in spirit, mourners for the state of our being, meek, hungering for righteousness to the point of being persecuted, merciful and pure in heart, if we would live as people who are truly citizens of the kingdom.

Anyone familiar with the politically incorrect film ‘Miss Congeniality’ (Sandra Bullock in an unlikely tale as an FBI Agent who must infiltrate a Beauty Contest in order to protect the other entrants from a fiendish plot) will be aware of the mantra so often trotted out on such occasions – the desire of each contestant for world peace. The Beatitudes teach us that unless we are prepared to lay everything down and labour of peace and justice to the fullest extent of our context and capability, then such words are too precious to be otherwise devalued. Not all of us can bring about world peace – but we might start with the longings of our own hearts. A couple of days after 9/11, a colleague of mine went into a thoroughly vandalised Comprehensive School in Blackburn to do an assembly. Tearing up his script, he reminded them that there was no use being shocked about 9/11 if we live lives which cause damage and violence to the places where we live and work. It’s all a question of scale and context, but the sin is fundamentally the same.
Given our own context, we are called to live as citizens of heaven here and now – to work for peace, to labour of justice. This is true whether we are engaged in the work of the United Nations, or whether we are dealing with a disagreement in this community. The standard of the Beatitudes stands before us in either case.

Finally, tonight, rejoicing in the H1N1 de-regulation which means we can once again exchange the peace with one another, we should be mindful that in this action we are not only reconciled to one another and to God, but to and with all people. If this is not so, we should leave our gift at the altar and deal with whatever stands in our path. As Gerald Schlabach puts it, this Mass is
‘…an offer of life, a promise of hospitality to strangers, a sharing of peace, a tasting of God’s generosity, a breaking that opens space for healing.’

May this sharing of this Mass open our eyes to the generous and non-violent love of God, and to the need for God’s eucharistic people to live and labour for a eucharistic peace.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Requiems for Bp Kemp & Fr Cowdrey

St Stephen's House will celebrate the lives of two of her oldest and most distinguished alumni in the coming days. Requiems will be offered for both John Cowdrey, priest, who trained at the House from 1950-2 and was on the staff from 1952-6, and for Eric Waldram Kemp, sometime Bishop of Chichester and Chairman of House Council, who was at the House from 1936-9. Details of the services are below - all are welcome to attend.

Friday 4th December at 8.00 a.m.
Mass for John Cowdrey, priest.

Friday 12th December at 12.00 p.m.
Solemn Mass with absolution at the bier for Eric Waldram Kemp, bishop.

Both will be offered in the church of St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road.

Advent Homily - Fr Damian Feeney

During Advent a homily is given at each Mass. Texts, where available, will be published here in the coming days.

Why does the Father hide things from the learned and the clever, to be revealed instead to mere children? There is a strong sense in the Kingdom that roles are being reversed. It is to the ‘mere children’ that the sacred mysteries are being entrusted, not the learned and the clever. Making sense of that in a place like Oxford is an interesting conundrum; but the fact remains that twice in this morning’s gospel Jesus alludes to role reversal. The kingdom given to mere children; the truths which kings and prophets longed to see and hear, and did not, given to the ordinary, the poor. They do not deserve these things, any more than we deserve to be the recipients of them – they, and we, are the fortunate receivers of grace, because it pleases God. And notice that all this gives Jesus pleasure in the saying – he is ‘filled with joy.’

Luke carries as one of his overwhelming concerns this business of reversal. Jesus comes to disturb our security and complacency with the supreme challenge of his Good News. Are you powerful, rich, comfortable? Then you may expect to be brought down low. Are you poor, outcast, struggling? You will be raised up, restored, honoured and made whole. These are themes we first discover in the fiery theology of the Magnificat, early on in Luke’s Gospel, but it recurs again and again as a leitmotif.

Just over a week ago, on the Sunday before Advent, we asked God to ‘stir us up’ – more specifically, to ‘stir up the wills of your faithful people. Let’s be careful what we pray for, because we might get it. God may indeed stir up our wills, that we may not only sing Magnificat but want it as well – and delight, with Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, as he sees the comfortable order turned upside down, subverted by the sacrificial love of the kingdom of God, the kingdom for which we hope and long through this great gift of Advent, and which is brought closer still in this Mass.

RIP John Cowdrey, priest

St Stephen's House mourns the loss of the Revd H E John Cowdrey DD (SSH 1950-2; Tutor 1952-6; Chaplain 1954-6; sometime member of the House Council), Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, 1956-91.

Jesu mercy; Mary pray.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Every other year the staff and students of St Stephen's House celebrate the rites and ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter at the College. 2010 is one such year and, for the first time, the House is inviting members of the public to join us as we celebrate the saving acts of God through the most dramatic liturgies of the Church's year. The ceremonies will be carried out in the stunning surroundings of G F Bodley's church of St John the Evangelist, built for the Cowley Fathers, and will be accompanied by plainchant, polyphony and hymns, as well as the liturgical tradition which the House proudly stands for.

Further information can be found on Facebook by clicking here or by emailling the College Secretary, Mrs Susan Keeling, at We look forward to welcoming you.

Eric Waldram Kemp, Bishop, 1915-2009

St Stephen's House mourns the loss of Eric Waldram Kemp who served as Bishop of Chichester from 1974-2001. He trained at the House from 1936-1939 and later chaired the House Council. In 2008 a lecture room at St Stephen's House was named after him in recognition of his outstanding service and contribution to the life of the Church and as one of the most celebrated students of the House. His autobiography, published in 2006, was edited by Canon Jeremy Haselock (SSH 1980-83).
Jesu mercy, Mary pray.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chadwick's life of Augustine - Canon Robin Ward

The Principal, Canon Robin Ward, reviews Augustine of Hippo: A Life by the late Henry Chadwick, in the Church Times.

This book is a welcome dis­covery: it is a draft version of the introduc­tion to Augustine published by Henry Chadwick in the Oxford Past Masters series in 1986, and still available from that press as Augustine: A very short introduction. Found among his papers after his death, this recension is more expansive.

As Professor Peter Brown of Princeton tells us in his masterly preface, it brings to the fore the narrative artistry of Henry Chad­­­wick, which the terser version published originally necessarily somewhat obscures.

It was Peter Brown who estab­lished both his own academic reputation and the transformation of patristics into late-antique studies with his own magisterial biography of Augustine in 1967. In an era of declining empire, religious un­certainty, political strife, and psy­chological introspection, what better to hold up as mirror to the age than the sinuous, rigorous, all too self-aware intellect of the Bishop of Hippo?

Henry Chadwick’s own engage­ment with Augustine was to culminate in his limpid translation of The Confessions, but this earlier work demon­strates very clearly his confident command of the vast primary and secondary literature, and — more pertinently, perhaps, in capturing the particular quality of this Life — his empathy with Augustine as a churchman.

The book is particularly effective in giving a feel for Augustine as a bishop: Catholic in a Donatist strong­hold; erudite in a rustic setting; ascetic amid the binge-drinking martyr cults of Numidia. Chadwick is astute in noticing Augustine’s pastoral aptitude for effective mixed-ability instruction: he calls the little On Catechizing Simple People “absorbing and delightful”, and we are pleased to be reminded why this is so.

The big themes of Augustine’s work all find their place here: the narrative of the soul’s conversion to God; the possibility of authentic Christian culture; the harm of schism in the Church; the City of God and the captivity of the pilgrim people of God in Babylon below; the corruption of nature; and the election of grace. In particular, the treatment of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity and its momentous consequences for the Church in East and West is more extensive here than in the 1986 text.

As for the Confessions, Augustine’s “supreme masterpiece”, Chadwick places them here rather more emphatically within the context of a rhetoric of beauty: Augustine’s unsurpassed mastery of style is in itself no snare to faith seeking truth, but is an endorsement of our search for God, who is himself “supreme loveliness”.

Who will want to have this book? The specialist and would-be special­ist will still turn to the longer bio­graphical treatments by Brown and Lancel, and those seeking enlighten­ment on more specific themes will resort to classic studies such as that of R. A. Markus, and the best of new scholarship such as that of Hugh Houghton on Augustine’s use of the Bible.

But for a brief Life that amplifies the intellectual themes familiar to us from Chadwick’s 1986 work, and so has the opportunity to set them in the richer, more evocative setting of a society at once failing and being renewed, this is unsurpassed.

This posthumous publication reminds us once more what a learned, humane, and sympathetic scholar Henry Chadwick was.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review of the Ashmolean - Fr Andrew Davison

In the Church Times, Fr Andrew Davison reviews the newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford.

The University of Oxford’s Ash­molean Museum predates its own founding. The collection grew out of a “cabinet of curiosities” assembled in Lambeth earlier in the 17th century. Half a million accessions later, and the charm of the museum is still in the quirkiness of this hoard of objects.

As an example, take its late-medieval alabaster relief of the an­nunciation. For once, the dove of the Holy Spirit comes complete with his own slipstream. Out of the mouth of God the Father he flies, heading for Mary over the head of a timid Gabriel.

Surprises such as this are what makes the Ashmolean Museum — for all that it also contains works by some of the greatest names in art history. Mary turns up else­where dressed as a shepherdess or carved into a pilgrim’s keepsake scal­lop shell. The museum is full of such fascinating, appealing objects.

The Ashmolean opened to the public once more on 7 November, trans­formed by Rick Mather Archi­tects. The collection has outgrown its building once before. This time, the site was expanded, not relocated. The cost was £61 million and closure for a year. The benefit is a building that is equal in beauty to the art it houses.

Push through the columns of Cockerell’s neo-classical façade, and you come upon an atrium spanning five storeys of airy modernism. Along the right-hand side, a staircase as­cends from floor to floor, tracing enchanting curves as it does. At the summit are a rooftop restaurant and a terrace surrounded by Oxford neo-gothic.

Alongside all of this, the small part of the museum that has not been made over — the sculpture hall in particular — now looks old-fashioned in comparison.

The museum is now far too large to see in one visit. There is twice as much exhibition space as before. Different departments have seized on the luxury of new space in different ways. In Western art, the emphasis was on getting paintings out of storage and finding room to display new acquisitions. On the other hand, the department of antiquities had a different strategy. In the words of the curator, the aim there was to display “better rather than more”. The walls and cabinets are less densely packed than before, allowing the artefacts to breathe.

Just as important as the layout of objects is what we are told about them. The neat handwritten labels have gone. In their place come printed labels for each exhibit, and a large illustrated board to introduce the theme of each gallery. Visitors with any degree of specialist know­ledge will not find much that they did not know already. No matter: today they can pull up the online catalogue with their iPhones.

The new labels reveal the deplor­able state of religious knowledge in contemporary Britain. Every last an­nunciation needs an explanation. Even the crucifixion needs clarifica­tion. There is a story of a student on a tour of the National Gallery. It may be apocryphal, but it illustrates a point. “Why”, she protested after a few galleries filled with the Madonna and Child, “are these women always hold­ing a baby boy and never a girl? It’s discrimination and it stinks.”

Even the layout of the building now serves educational purposes. It re­sembles an archaeological dig: we ascend towards the present day through layers of history. More than before, the theme of each gallery serves to tell a story or make a point, but this is not over-laboured. The influence of one culture on another is a recurring theme, but, beyond that, galleries are still defined by time and location. The exceptions are on the lower ground floor. There we find a series of thematic galleries. They ex­plore sub­jects such as writing, money, and the depiction of the human image.

The Government is ever more insistent that universities must prove their benefit to the wider community. Not so long ago, academics had only to show that their research was ground-breaking. Today, they have to demonstrate ground-breaking re­search, and also that they present it from time to time to members of the Rotary Club or Women’s Institute. “Impact” it is called, and it is at the top of the agenda for funding bodies. Church groups will no doubt be welcomed into the Ashmolean with open arms.

Youth groups and confirmation classes should stream there in droves. More than ever, the Ashmolean holds untold possibilities for teaching. Christian objects, in particular, are everywhere. Alongside the supersonic dove already mentioned, and the shepherdess Virgin, there are plenty of other props for use in teaching visits.

The collection of ancient Christian gold-glass from the catacombs of Rome is unparalleled in the world. It was recently bought from Pusey House, although it has been on dis­play at the museum for some time. Or there is a medal issued by Henry VIII. On it he proclaims himself to be “of the Church, on earth and under Christ, the supreme head”. The front asserts this in Latin. On the back it is repeated in Greek and Hebrew, just to make the point.

The feel of the new museum as a whole invites comparison with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although it is on a far smaller scale, there is the same juxtaposition of the ancient, medieval, and modern, and of painting and sculpture, tex­tiles, musical instruments, and ce-ramics.

Taking the objects and the archi­tecture together, the oldest public museum in the world is now without a doubt the greatest university mu­seum in the world. The collection is almost upstaged by the new building, and by that staircase in particular — almost, but not quite. In the end, the objects steal the show. They are by turns curious, beautiful, and infor­mative.

The museum continues to fulfil the wishes of Elias Ashmole, that is, to allow “the inspection of Particulars, especially those as are extraordinary in their Fabrick”.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christ the King - Lucy Gardner

Tutor in Christian Doctrine, Lucy Gardner, preached at the Solemn Mass of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King. The picture above is of the Volto Santo in the Cathedral at Lucca, Italy.

Our house at the moment is busy with “Warhammer 40k”. John has just spent a large amount of money on a beginner’s set and Dorothy has treated herself to a smaller box as well. Now, as some of you will know, “Warhammer” is a fantasy war game, in which the fearless armies of rival empires, alongside rabble bands of pirates and mercenaries, battle it out against each other for power, dominion and survival. “Warhammer 40k” is the futuristic version, set in the 41st millennium – so plenty of opportunity for fantasy.

Shopping for this game and learning something of how to play it have set me thinking about two things which seem to be very much “of this world” as we know it. They are: buying and selling, and the struggle for power.

In “Warhammer” the noise and chaos of battle are artificially reduced to an orderly procession of turns. Goodies and baddies do have different characteristics, different tricks and different options, but ultimately they are constrained to behave according to a fundamental rhythm of moving, attacking, defending and wounding. In real life, of course, the struggle for power is much less tidy. What rules and conventions of engagement there are will be repeatedly broken, and the identification of goodies and baddies seems always less certain.

How often are we let down by our friends and families, by politicians, colleagues and even Church leaders and fellow Christians? How often are we let down by those we thought were “on our side” adopting apparently underhand tactics? How often do those we thought were bad turn out to have good motives, or to have used fair means? And how often do we let ourselves down as we realise our fight for the good turns out to hurt others and ourselves? Even when we are trying to establish the rules of engagement in these encounters we can often find we have resorted to the will for power. In the real world, somehow all of us are compromised, as we struggle for what we believe is right, as we struggle to keep hold of what we think should be ours, as we struggle to assert ourselves and our views, and as we struggle to find the right way to conduct our struggles over and against each other.

So much for the struggle for power. The business of buying and selling, on the other hand, seems at first glance to present itself as one way of perhaps avoiding these struggles. Surely fair prices can be agreed, a system of exchange can be created, the promise of a means for acquiring what we want is held out to us, perhaps even by giving what we don’t really want or need, without doing damage to each other. But even if any of this is sometimes true, there are certainly limits to the acceptable realm for this manner of exchange – just think of the phrase “to sell your soul”; here money – or its surrogate – has overreached its legitimate authority. On further reflection, it seems that money can become, indeed probably always was, part of the struggle for power. On further reflection, we realise that we can’t always buy what we want, and that we can’t – or shouldn’t – put a price on the things we value most, and that, unlike in fantasy war games, there does not seem to be a fair and level distribution of power or money in this world, a fact which seems to produce and feed the feelings of rivalry and the experience of opposition which are played out in both the struggle for power and in the processes of buying and selling.

But is it really true that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? And is it really true that money is itself evil? We human beings always seem to hope for something else, for something better: we long for good monarchs, fair judges, just teachers, honest dealers, wise benefactors. Our imaginations and fantasies are full of quests for them, just as our real life politics seems to be always in search of them.

It is of course the joyful message of the Christian faith that these great longings are not groundless, that these deep desires are not foolish and that they will not be left forever unfulfilled: they are met in the One whom we celebrate today, and everyday: Christ the King. His Kingdom, he tells us as he told Pilate, is not “from this world”; it does not belong to or rise up from the struggle for power, nor does it belong to the realm of buying and selling. Christ’s Kingship is not “from the world”; if it were, his followers would rise up and struggle for him, to prevent him from being handed over; if it were, he would engage with the devil on the devil’s terms, he would look to secure his Kingship by means of some barter or other.

But Christ refuses to grasp or defend his kingdom by the exercise of worldly powers. In him we see an alternative way for power to behave and an alternative system of exchange. Christ’s Kingship, his power, as Daniel and John were both given to see for us, does not belong to “this world”; it belongs “in heaven”; it comes from his Father, the Ancient of Days, who is in heaven. It is absolute and it does not corrupt him. Christ does not have to struggle with the Father or the Spirit for his power, nor does he have to buy it or sell anything for it; he does not have to barter for it; he does not have to give something in exchange for it.

And when it comes to the cosmic struggle with the devil, Christ shows us another means of engagement. His is absolute power, the eternal gift of the Father. Christ’s Kingship is not built on the struggle for power, nor on the ability to buy loyalty and good will, it is built on, in, by and through the power of the Father, which the Father gives to and yet still shares with the Son and the Spirit. Christ’s power, his Kingship, brings with it, you see, the wonderful power of giving and sharing. The Father’s gift to the Son is not given on the condition of a return, and yet it does elicit a return, for in response the Son chooses to keep giving: he gives himself over to the Father’s will; he gives himself into human form; he gives himself into human hands, again and again and again; he gives himself over to the demonic powers, he gives himself over to death, rather than resisting them on their terms, and in so doing he gives back to the Father everything that the Father has given him.

This Kingship then brings with it an economy so different from ours that the word “economy” itself seems tired and unsuited to the purpose. This King refuses resistance and holds out giving instead; this King brooks no compromise, and offers full sharing in its place. To follow this King is to join in his giving himself to the Father and to others, in the power of the Spirit. The lives of his followers should follow the pattern of his. For, unless we join him in this, unless we give ourselves to him and in his service, we shall remain forever subject to the demons of the struggle for power and the enslavement enacted in buying and selling, even within the churches.

But finally, what of the buying of souls? We have learnt, not least following Christ, that we should not buy and sell people. We really should not buy and sell souls – to do so would indeed be “to sell our souls”. And yet, I wonder, might I buy a soul? Sometimes I am tempted to want to. I don’t mean, “what if I could buy someone?” but, “what if I could buy for myself a new soul, a pristine, unused one, not one stolen from or intended for someone else, but nevertheless a fresh start for me?” What if I could buy a new me? Is this not also a deep desire within us?

Well, fond wish though that may be, there probably are no spare souls lying around as candidates, and in any case the very act of buying one would seem to contaminate the whole project from the start. And yet, strange as it may seem, John’s vision reminds us that even this desire is met in Christ. I do not need to buy myself a new soul, because I have already been “bought”; my soul has been given a fresh start, washed clean, transformed, freed from my sins by Christ’s blood.

At Baptism we become united to Christ in such a way that it becomes him who lives in us. Our souls are refreshed with the gift of powerful, living water. This terrible King’s equally terrible gift to us is nothing other than himself. The rest of our lives are to be spent learning to live in his Kingship, refusing the compromising struggle for power for its own sake and for our own advancement, in favour of the advancement of God’s good power for the good of all in the world, and exchanging the sapping economy of give and take, for the wonderful life-giving economy of give and share, sharing all God’s bounteous gifts to the world, most chiefly God’s gift of God’s self in Christ’s gift of himself to the Father and to the world, in the power of the Spirit.

Christ the King will live forever; may all those whom he loves do so with him.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Healing Mass - Fr Damian Feeney

The Vice-Principal, Fr Damian Feeney, gave this homily at a Healing Mass organized by one of the pastoral groups in the College as part of their ongoing formation.

Healing is central to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Throughout the gospels there are countless healing stories. Some of these relate to physical healings – people who are physically sick or disabled, who experience physical healing and liberation. Other healings relate to a person’s inner state, including deliverance from unhealthy mental or spiritual conditions, or even – more rarely – genuine possession. Still further healings are less obvious – the healing of people caught in sin, the reconciliation which Jesus brings about between people who are at odds, the tranquillity which comes from acceptance. These healings are all marvellous signs from Jesus of God’s love, power and grace. And we should remember that the healing which Christ offers extends way beyond what he is prepared to do for those who open himself up to his grace without reservation or condition. This is the Christ who heals communities – how else did Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness finally come together and say that enough was enough? This is the Christ who pours his balm on Soham and Dunblane, on Hungerford and Aberfan, through his grace, and through his solidarity with suffering as he sheds his blood on the cross. This is the Christ who breaks down barriers, such as the Berlin Wall, Apartheid in South Africa, and who we pray can bring the people of Zimbabwe back from the brink of despair. In the renewed understandings and imperatives concerning climate change and ecology, it is Christ whose grace and impetus seeks to heal and renew this tiny bit of the created order in the vastness of his glorious creation. With my heart I believe all those things, as surely as I believe in Christ’s capacity to heal me from my sin, my disfigurement, and all the things which hold me back from truly loving him.

When we come to God for healing, we are inviting him to be part of a process. That means a number of things. First of all, the healing we desire may not in fact be the healing we need. There is a story of a lady who heard that a healing service was planned in her parish, and she went and told the priest that she wouldn’t be coming as she didn’t believe in, or trust healing services. She then complained of a blinding headache which she’d had for a couple of days. The priest told her that nevertheless, at ten past eight he would offer intercessions for her healing. The next morning the Priest rang his parishioner to find out how she was. She said ‘I’m so glad I didn’t go to that nonsense last night. At ten past eight the telephone rang. It was my son – you didn’t know I had a son? Well – I don’t talk about him. He cleared off a few years ago and we had a row, and we haven’t been in touch at all since. Well, last night he rang – and said how sorry he was that he had fallen out – and to tell me about the grandchild I never knew I had, and to invite me to come and stay. Just as well that I didn’t fall for the healing thing. Anyway, your prayers didn’t work – I’ve still got the headache!

If we have expectations, it is as well to abandon them – and abandon them to God. When we ask God for healing, we are inviting the one who truly knows – and knows better than us – what we need. Very often the true cause or causes of illness and disease are not really clear to us, especially if they are tied to painful memories of things which have happened to us in the past. Healing might be a realisation that our pain is tied to one thing or another, and the grace and strength to do something about it. Healing might be true abandonment and acceptance of the way we are, recognising that God is still able to work in us far more than we can ask, expect, or think. Healing can be serenity for the stressed, peace for the broken hearted, comfort for the afflicted, mercy and forgiveness for those whose lives are blighted with wrongdoing.

There are numbers of ways in which God’s healing can be brought to bear, because it is something that God longs for. If that were not so, would Jesus have spent so much time healing others? The means of healing which are offered in this service are simple, biblical and have formed part of the tradition of the church since the days of Christ himself. Tonight in this Mass we are offered forgiveness If you want help guiding your prayers then that can also be offered as you seek God’s healing in your life. Maybe there is someone you would like especially to bring to God tonight – someone in need of healing - but can’t find quite the words you need and would like to be guided in your prayers. There will be two prayer stations available at the end of the Mass, where your will be assisted in your prayers by others if you so wish. In addition, all of us have the opportunity tonight to experience the ministry of the Laying on of hands and Anointing. This simply means that, according to ancient custom, hands are laid on the head whilst prayer is offered, and our heads and hands are anointed with oil according to ancient custom. Such signs, like those of the Mass, are real, available, and speak to us of the boundless grace of God. Thus tonight the church in this place seeks to enable the healing which Jesus came to bring among his people tonight. My prayer for you all, and for myself, so in need of his healing grace, is that tonight we will be open to this grace as never before, and that we will feel the fruits of Christ’s presence among us. He came to earth to heal creation, to heal the world, to heal his people. May he visit us tonight, and may we know his healing touch in our hearts, minds, souls, and lives.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Second before Advent - Dr John Jarick

Dr John Jarick, tutor in Old Testament at St Stephen's House, preached this sermon at Pusey House, Oxford.

A few years ago, in a series of art galleries around the world, there was a touring exhibition of the work of the Japanese artist On Kawara. The exhibition included two sets of books, entitled One Million Years (Past) and One Million Years (Future). I saw the display early in its tour, when it was at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, and I was struck, so to speak, by those particular volumes. Let me try to describe them to you.

Imagine, if you will, the set of digits that make up the figure 2001, and that accordingly symbolize one year, the first of our present millennium. Now imagine that figure followed by 2002, and then 2003, and then 2004, and so on. Let’s have these figures arranged in sequence across a large page, large enough for us to have ten years side by side, from 2001 to 2010. Then, underneath that line of figures which collectively represent a decade, let’s have another line that represents a further decade by means of the figures from 2011 to 2020, and then another line and so on until we have ten such lines of ten years each, at which point let’s leave one blank line — as a kind of paragraph spacing — in order that the century of dates that we’ve listed from 2001 to 2100 might be clearly delineated. After that visually-useful blank line we can move on through the years of the next century, and so on for the full length of the page, in all fifty lines of figures set out in five paragraphs of ten lines each, and all in ten columns. In that way, we have neatly listed on one page all the years from 2001 to 2500, a full five centuries of year-dates.

Good. But let’s not stop there. Let’s follow that page with one that sets out in the same neat arrangement all the prospective years from 2501 to 3000. In fact, let’s have those two pages facing each other in a double-page spread, and we can have an entire millennium of years spread out before us. And let’s carry on in the same way, with the potential years set out page after page, half-millennium after half-millennium, until we’ve reached one million years into the future, spread out over two thousand pages. If you can imagine all that, then you have imagined On Kawara’s work, One Million Years (Future), and you can similarly conceptualize his companion work, One Million Years (Past), which applies the same process to year-dates of the past, working its way back through the centuries to just two millennia short of the year One Million BC.

Well, it’s a thought-provoking experience to see such a list of years, even to imagine them. The artist out of whose initial imagination those books arose, On Kawara, has long been fascinated by the notion of the inexorable passing of time, and one wonders how much time it must have taken him to produce those pages and pages of time-symbols. But as you contemplate the seemingly endless columns of year-dates, you realize that in those terms your own life consists of only a few lines; that whole empires rose and fell within a single page; that all of recorded human history spans no more than a dozen or so pages. As the art critic Richard Dorment put it, “Suddenly, you have a tiny glimpse of the awesome expanse of time, a sense of your own brief flicker of life across a medium in which 20,000 years is but one chapter”.

Now some people might find that sort of contemplation rather unsettling. We perhaps prefer to think of ourselves as bestriding our times somewhat more majestically than a wide-angle lens might reveal to be the case. And for that matter it’s not always psychologically helpful for us to dwell on just how infinitesimal we might be in the grand scheme of things. But there are times when stepping out of the immediate time-frame in which we are caught up, and contemplating matters from what might be called a higher perspective, is very worthwhile indeed, and from time to time the Church in its wisdom invites us to step for a moment into a different kind of time-frame.

I’m referring to the fact that today’s Old Testament reading is taken from the book of Daniel, a book that has much to say about time, and yet its time-talk can seem almost incomprehensible to us. The creators of the book of Daniel sought to step out of their immediate time-frame, with their experiences of anguish and oppression, and to envision a broader sweep of virtually cosmic history. They tried to look beyond the moments of time in which they were buffeted and frustrated, to cast their eyes over the parapets towards what they call variously “the appointed time of the end” or “the decreed end” or simply “the time of the end”. On occasions they get caught up in speculation about supposedly precise lengths of time, speaking at one place of a period of “2,300 evenings and mornings”, or at another place of a period of “70 weeks”, or at yet another of a period of “1,290 days”, although they immediately change their minds about the last figure and recalibrate it as “1,335 days” instead, all of which has provided seemingly fertile ground for naïve souls ever since to keep trying to calculate and recalculate “the time of the end” from the figures in the book of Daniel (combined, of course, with selected figures from the book of Revelation). But the overall time-talk of Daniel, stated near the beginning and again near the end of the catalogue of visions, is thoroughly imprecise and enigmatic: How long shall the evil empire stand? “For a time, times, and half a time.” How long shall it be until the end of the wonders partly spoken of in today’s reading? “For a time, times, and half a time.”

Right, so that’s clear, then. The compilers of the book of Daniel didn’t know, any more than you or I do, the time of the end. They couldn’t even be sure how long they were to be caught up in the particular epoch of time in which they found themselves. They knew that they were living in a time of incessant warfare, a time when the latest set of imperial authorities that were constantly angling for control of the land of Judah had abolished the normal worship services at the temple in Jerusalem and had erected an offensive pagan statue at that very site. In the thick of that experience, it must have seemed to some that the clouds would never lift. But for others, our Daniel scribes among them, the eye of faith and hope, though it cannot know the precise timings even when it yearns to know them, does see something of a bigger time-scale than the moment-by-moment drudgery and anguish that can so easily get on top of us when the world seems hell-bent on a godless path. And for one glorious moment, those scribes broke right out of all our normally-understood time-frames when they proclaimed:

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” [Daniel 12:1-3]
Now that’s what I call an earth-shattering vision. It steps right outside of the box of general Old Testament thinking, and puts forward for the first time the idea of resurrection, an idea that earlier parts of the Hebrew scriptures hadn’t dared to canvas but an idea whose time had come. Pharisees and Sadducees might disagree about it later, but no one could ignore it any longer. It was Daniel chapter 12 verse 2 that established the concept of resurrection within biblical religion, both Jewish and Christian, and in hearing it read here today we too step for a moment outside of our normal time coordinates.

Just for a moment, though. The Church doesn’t want us to get caught up in fruitless end-time speculation, and so it devotes only three minutes every three years to reading from the book of Daniel in Sunday worship, about a minute today and about two minutes next Sunday. Then we’ll close Daniel for another three years — the same amount of time, incidentally, that it took the exhibition of the work of On Kawara to move from gallery to gallery on its three-year circuit of the world.

We don’t know how many three-year cycles will pass before the end comes. Perhaps it will be infinitely more than the million years that Kawara has set down on paper in the pages of his work One Million Years (Future), or perhaps it will be appreciably less than that. “The End” in any grand sense certainly seems to have been considerably longer than Daniel’s contemporaries could have imagined that “a time, times, and half a time” could last, just as there have been far more “times of anguish” for Daniel’s people and for the world in general than they could have predicted. But yet the final words of the book of Daniel are surely words that we can still take to heart so many years after they were written and no matter how many years may yet remain: “Happy are those who persevere.... You shall rise for your reward at the end of days.”

At that time, according to today’s reading, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky”. May we too be wise, and in due time we too will shine brightly.

Friday, November 6, 2009

All Souls - Ian Boxall

Today is a difficult day for many. The Feast of All Souls invites us to call to mind precious loved ones who are no longer with us, some long gone, others only very recently departed. And that can be a difficult thing. All Souls can be a day which opens up those still raw wounds of loss, as well as evoking feelings of gratitude for those who have been so influential in our lives. It reminds us that the process of bereavement is not at all straightforward or predictable, nor necessarily something short-lived. But lest we are in danger of reducing All Souls Day to an occasion for family reminiscence and grief, however real that that may be, we need to remind ourselves that today’s celebration is worked out on a far bigger canvas. What we are acknowledging today, above all, is that there are countless millions of the departed who are no longer remembered by name, still less by face, and yet whom the Church gathers up in prayer on this particular day. Millions who have gone before, whose faith is known to God alone, and who we assist through our prayers and our sacrifices and especially through our celebration of Mass.

A few months after my father died, a friend recommended that I read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a book Lewis wrote as he struggled to come to terms with the death of his wife Joy. It is not a book which works for every bereaved person, but it worked for me. At one point relatively early in his book, Lewis makes the following observation about his memory of his wife:

I have no photograph of her that’s any good. I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination. Yet the odd face of some stranger seen in a crowd this morning may come before me in vivid perfection the moment I close my eyes tonight (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed [London: Faber and Faber, 1966], p. 15).

What is most shocking to Lewis is his inability to remember his wife’s face, that most recognizable facet of the human person. She has slipped away from him bodily, and now she appears in danger of slipping away visually. What we are doing tonight, however, is rooted in the conviction that our dead do not slip away. We are acknowledging that God remembers, that God does not let go, and that even if the faithful departed are far from our minds and we struggle to recall their faces, their personalities, even their names, God remembers them. God sees them. God holds them.

Yet to many in our society, our commemoration this evening is a meaningless exercise, or worse than that a massive delusion. This is where our first reading from the Book of Wisdom is so helpfully contemporary in its freshness and its insights, and particularly as we ponder the faithful departed in that interim state of discipline, purification and transformation.

The opening chapters of the Book of Wisdom juxtapose for us two irreconcilable world views. On the one hand, there is the view espoused by those the author of Wisdom calls ‘the ungodly’. For them, life is not only short and sorrowful, but utterly meaningless. These are the people who say: ‘For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been’ (Wisdom 2:2). In such a world-view, physical death means the destruction of the body and the dissolution of the spirit. Worse than that, it means that any memory of our existence will eventually be erased from this earth: ‘Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun …’ (Wisdom 2:4). So what this world has to offer is all that there is, and it has to be grasped at (2:6) rather than received as a gift, with no concern for its consequences, because there is no final judgement.

On the other hand, there is the world-view of ‘the righteous one’, who faces ridicule and worse for his misguided beliefs. In this alternative description of reality, death does not mean the ultimate disintegration of our personhood, still less the forgetting of our name or our deeds. Nor is death the punishment it might appear to be to others. Rather, even in death, and beyond death, reality is sustained by the one whose remembering alone matters: ‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace’ (Wisdom 3:1-3, italics mine).

So today, on this Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, we remember; but more importantly, we celebrate the fact that God remembers, and holds the souls of the righteous in his hands. Or to put it another way, we celebrate the fact that God loves, and that the divine bonds of love are far stronger than those human bonds of love which cause us to remember our loved ones. Which brings us to our gospel for today. Our gospel passage is part of Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life, which follows on from the feeding of the five thousand. At the end of that miracle, Jesus had commanded his disciples to gather up all the fragments of uneaten bread and fish, ‘so that nothing may be lost’ (John 6:12). Those scraps which might otherwise be trampled underfoot, or left on the ground to rot, are carefully and purposefully preserved. So now, as Jesus interprets that feeding miracle in his sermon, he recalls that gathering up of the fragments. ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’ (John 6:39).

Of course, it is possible to place a minimalist interpretation on our gospel. Those whom the Father has given the Son, we might argue, are a very select group. Yet there is a strand running throughout John which urges a more optimistic reading. It is rooted in that fundamental conviction that God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should have eternal life. It is possible to reject this gift, to prefer the security of the darkness to the vulnerability of the light. But the divine yearning for the gathering up of the fragments remains. God desires to gather. God desires to hold the souls of the righteous in his hand. But that is only the next stage in the journey. Ultimately, God to desires to raise us up on the last day. That is what we are praying for tonight.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

All Saints - Fr Damian Feeney

This sermon was preached at Worcester College, Oxford, on the feast of All Saints 2009 by the Vice-Principal, Fr Damian Feeney.

First of all, thank you for the kind invitation to be with you this evening as we celebrate the Communion of Saints. Part of the difficulty with this feast is that it’s actually quite difficult to define, as it were, the terms of the engagement. On one level, today is about those who have attained to the beatific vision in Heaven: those whose self-emptying enables Christ’s presence to increase, while ego decreases; and whose lives are lives of many dimensions, lived to the full, since they are lives lived in full consciousness of God’s grace, mercy and glory.

Throughout the church’s year we learn of the qualities and stories of specific saints throughout the church’s year, seeing those lives as reflections of the glory of Christ himself; and then tonight we consider the Saints en masse, in what Eric Milner-White referred to as the multitude which none can number – a glorious image which resonates within Isaiah’s vision of new heavens, a new earth - words later on re-stated in the book of Revelation.

Within that multitude we celebrate not only those whose sanctity is well known to the church on earth, but also those whose saintliness is known to God alone, or who, whilst lacking the formal processes of canonization, have been saintly people in local communities, familiar contexts, perhaps in our own personal stories. So we are drawn to a more general reflection upon the nature of holiness itself – of what it means to be holy, both in the contexts of history and in the confusions of the present day.

All these lives – the well known, the un-remembered, the half-acknowledged – are lives lived out in response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. Many good, holy and faithful men and women came before Christ, and in their way point to him, but they were lives lived in messianic hope rather than a sense of response to Christ’s witness. Isaac Watts, who penned the memorable words for tonight’s anthem, reminds us of the truth that saints point to Jesus;

We ask them whence their victory came,
They, with one united breath,
Ascribe the conquest to the Lamb,
Their triumph to his death.

That’s all well and good, and saints form a considerable part of the connection between Jesus’ story and ours; we are sustained by stories of saintly living, whether they be distant or closer to home, because they are stories shaped by Jesus’ story; we cheerfully acknowledge that, human nature being what it is, the fact and detail about a saint’s life can become obscured over time by legend and embroidery in much the same way that we treat the cult of celebrity today. Maybe we don’t mind that too much, since it’s part of our essential recognition of the saint – and therefore a sign of love – to treat them in this way.

Perhaps we should also pause at this point to acknowledge that the doings and dealings of the saints are not always popular: holiness can, in some forms, be a downright irritant. I think it was Clive James who once observed ‘You can always tell a person who lives for others by the looks on the faces of the others.’

If that’s true, then the appeal of the saint is far from unconditional. Sanctity is attractive to some, unappealing to others. To some the way of the saint stands in the way of freedom rather than pointing to it. Newman’s portrayal of the demons in The Dream of Gerontius paints the saint as antithetical to the notion of independent thinking and intellectual freedom for which an august College such as this self-evidently stands. Newman penned these words for the demon’s mouths:

The mind bold and independent,
The purpose free,
So we are told, must not think to have the ascendant
What's a saint? One whose breath doth the air taint before his death;
A bundle of bones, which fools adore...when life is o'er;

These are words which still resonate, given the recent visit of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux to this country and city. Here relics were accorded the kind of attention normally only given to those at the height of celebrity – an estimated 300,000 visitors across the country – and, according to one pilgrim interviewed by the Times Online, (and clearly anxious to plug in to the prevailing zeitgeist,) ‘She’s got the X Factor.’

To others, she was indeed a bundle of bones, adored by fools. In contemporary Britain, this is the theme which will not go away. That which is holy to some is mistrusted in a new and overt way by others in a way which would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. It is a debate being conducted freely, in newspapers and on the internet, on radio and television, on the shelves of Blackwells and (no doubt) in common rooms.

The task of defining sanctity today is therefore, as ever, a challenging one. On one level, the counter cultural nature of sanctity means that it is what it has always been – an appeal to the divine, defying opposing tides and currents, to risking unpopularity, or worse. It’s well known that there were more Martyrs created in the last century than in any other before it – we at St. Stephen’s House were reminded of this last week as we commemorated those who lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 – an historical event which receives relatively little attention when compared to the Holocaust or to Stalinist Purges, but where over one million Christians lost their lives.

We should remember, too, that Martyrs, in many instances, died not only at the hands of those who wished to kill Christianity, but also at the hands of fellow Christians in conflict and disagreement. Oxford is full of examples of the holy who chose their historical period less wisely, whether you gravitate to Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, or Nichols, Yaxley, Belson and Pritchard. All of them encountered an understanding that matters of faith and belief were important – that they, alongside of the political trends of the day, were the things which shaped lives, and were sufficiently important to need to silence those who pointed in another direction. Today’s church is operating in a very different context, where apathy and open ridicule are more likely to be the response.

One indispensible trait in the genuinely holy is a disturbing, prophetic edge which can lead to uncomfortable encounter. To try to follow Christ at all is an invitation out of places of comfort into wilderness places: the saints are those who, in word and action, showed an integration of living and believing in which no part of their lives were immune from God, where nothing was held back, where the free response sought to equal the measure of God’s generous gift in Christ. Their words, lives, deeds and writings beckon humanity out of the darkness of soulless, inanimate living into the fullness of life which is the very glory of God.

Saints are good for all of us, whether we are of faith or not. For the faithful, they point to the very root of our being, who is God himself. For the seeker after truth, they remind us that in a celebrity – ridden world of narcissism and veneer they represent the humility which lies at the heart of all compassionate human dialogue. Their calling is, of course, the calling of all Christian people – God’s desire that we should be numbered among them, living signs of the reality of His presence, activity and love in his world. May their lives, their witnesses, and their prayers surround our steps as we journey on, until Christ is all in all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

All Saints - Fr Andrew Davison

This homily was given by Fr Andrew Davison at both Fairacres Convent and St Stephen's House on this year's Solemnity of All Saints.

I begin this sermon, uncharacteristically, with reference to an electronica remix of a speech by Winston Churchill. I have an MTh student to thank for this particular piece of music, of a kind so far outside my listening habits that I really have no idea how to begin to describe it.

It works with Churchill’s 1941 speech to the allied delegates. ‘Every stain of [Hitler’s] insipid, corroding fingers’ intones the prime minister against what I take to be a drum and bass background ‘will be sponged and purged’. What a perfect beginning, I thought, for the sermon I want to preach on All Saints’ Day.

Except that Churchill did not talk about Hitler’s insipid fingers. He did not say ‘insipid’ but rather ‘infected’. All the same, he could have said ‘insipid fingers’. That would have been startling, but true. It would also have served my purposes better. It is not the infection of evil that I take as my theme today, but rather that evil is insipid and goodness is the opposite. Evil is insubstantial and goodness is solid.

Today we celebrate the saints. We celebrate holiness, and with holiness we celebrate fullness of being and solidity of personhood.

God is good, and God is real. To share God’s goodness is to share his reality. Quite simply, to be holy is to be more real. This is not a statement that would go down well in Oxford’s philosophy faculty, but it is true. To be holy is to be more real. It is theme that has been explored in quite a bit of Christian art and literature.

Take, for instance, The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. In that book, goodness is so real, and evil is so insipid, that when the residents of hell take a day-trip to heaven the grass there cuts their feet. Even the grass of heaven is weightier than those who have chosen to make themselves evil.

As another example, think of the ring wraiths in The Lord of the Rings. After years of evil they are hardly there any more, just shadows beneath their cloaks. That is more, the ring wraiths are almost indistinguishable. Evil is dull. It blunts the edge of God-given individuality.

The evil of the ring wraiths has reduced them to the level of the same. Goodness does exactly the opposite. Goodness makes thing more what they are, not less, more individual, not less.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the saints, whom we celebrate today. There is no more diverse and characterful collection of people than the company of saints. The saints are individual, different, interesting.

Fra Angelico knew a thing or two about sanctity. He is a saint himself, or at least a blessed. He made the point about the characterfulness of holiness clear in his paintings. You will find at the top of [this post] a reproduction of part of one of his paintings. The original is in the National Gallery in London. It shows the saints around Christ enthroned in glory. What I love about this picture is that the saints are so individual, so characterful, so full of particularity. They abound with being, reality and character. This is exactly right.

The great Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen wrote only one opera. It was about a saint, St Francis of Assisi. It wasn’t like many operas people had heard before. Messiaen was tackled about this. There is disappointingly little sin in your work, Monsieur Messiaen. His reply: ‘sin isn’t interesting, dirt isn’t interesting. I prefer flowers. I left out sin.' [Sin isn't interesting. I prefer flowers The Guardian 29 August 2008].

Sin isn’t interesting. This is an important point. We protest against violence in film or on television. We object to obscenity in broadcasting. Rightly so. But it is just as problematic that evil is glamorised in films and on television. The truth is entirely the opposite. There is nothing glamorous about evil. As Messiaen said, ‘sin is boring’. Goodness is interesting. [Weil, Simon Gravity and Grace, pp. 62-3].

Moving on, as our reading from Wisdom put it just now, only to the foolish do God’s holy ones seem to have died. Really, ‘their hope is full of immortality’. Whilst evil saps life; goodness confirms it. Holiness, we might say, is healthy. Sanctity conquers death.I once had exactly this conversation with the wife of a student at Merton. I was working on my DPhil and I got involved with leading an Alpha course. It seemed this thing might involve rather an idiosyncratic take on the Christian Faith. I thought it would be wise if I got in on the team that organised it. It’s amazing how much you can do by opening questions after the video with the line ‘well what do you think? Did that make any sense at all?’

One Alpha session fell on the Feast of St Alban and I made some comment about St Alban praying for us. ‘How on earth can he pray for us?’, the other Alpha leader asked, ‘he’s dead!’

Perhaps impertinently – she was a consultant anaesthetist – I replied ‘you are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God … [God] is God not of the dead, but of the living’. Only to the foolish to the saints seem to have died. They are full of life because they are full of goodness – they are full of the life of Christ, which can withstand death. The saints have a fullness of being which death cannot touch.

In that holiness, in that tangible reality, God is with us. Some time ago, in first century Palestine, God was with us, walking the earth. In the life of the world to come, ‘the home of God’ will be among mortals, as we are promised in our second reading. Now, in between, God is present with us in the Blessed Sacrament and he is present with us by his Holy Spirit. Nowhere is the presence of the Holy Spirit more obvious than in the holiness of the saints. In them we encounter the presence of God with us; we encounter in the reality of their holiness the reality of God.

Evil is dull and same-ish. Goodness is interesting and full of individuality. The evil men and women of history were insipid – even if Winston Churchill didn’t quite say it. Evil, though it blights our world, is insubstantial. Goodness, however, is solid. Goodness is joyful. It is so real that it hits you in the face. To this the saints bear witness.

My favourite saint put it rather well ‘the goodness of the good is stronger than evil in its wickedness’ [Virtuosius est bonum in bonitate quam in malitia maulm. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles III.7.6].

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (vii) - Canon Robin Ward

This is the final part of Canon Ward's 2009 Assumptiontide Lecture at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham:

Eadmer in his first treatise On the Excellence of the Virgin Mary remains close to the doctrine of his mentor: not yet able to account for an immaculist position in terms which did justice to the strict necessity for the Incarnation, he is satisfied with the Anselmian precept that the Virgin should shine with a purity which was only exceeded by God’s own. However, by the time he comes to write specifically about the conception of the Virgin in the 1120s, he is determined to press the argument from congruity beyond Anselm’s argument for a purification of Mary by divine action in the womb to a full exemption from original sin. In doing so he employs the striking and somewhat esoteric analogy of the chestnut: just as the chestnut is conceived and grown amid spines which do it no harm, so God is able in preparing a temple for his dwelling to ensure that though this body be conceived among the spines of sin, it would be completely unharmed by their sharp points. Eadmer concludes by stating of God: Potuit plane et voluit; si igitur voluit, fecit [Eadmer of Canterbury, Tractatus de conceptione Sanctae Mariae, PL 159, cc. 305-6], a remarkable anticipation by two centuries of the Scotist formula Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit. It was this treatise which when ascribed by mistake to Anselm enjoyed a wide and authoritative circulation during the immaculist debates of the high middle ages, and was prescribed in portions under Anselm’s name for liturgical recitation by the Council of Basle when it made observance of the feast of the Virgin’s conception mandatory in 1438 [Southern, Anselm, p. 436]. Eadmer with great intellectual acumen chose to defend the inchoate Marian instinct of his nation with the subtle dialectic of the new theology, and was amply rewarded for his ingenuity.

Anselm is no Bernard as a Marian theologian: in his character as a monk he was content to work within the customary strictures and restraints of the Benedictine life he had weighed gravely as his vocation as a young man and then accepted under the measured tutelage of Herluin the founder of Bec, and Lanfranc his intellectual mentor. Because he instigated no reform of the religious life as a counterpoint to the novel sensibility of his affective devotion, Anselm neither sought nor achieved the dissemination of his own religious ethos which Bernard inspired with the Cistercian movement. His influence was confined to a small circle of admiring disciples: his fellow monks at Bec and Canterbury; the noble women such as the Conqueror’s daughter Adelaide and Mathilda of Tuscany who possessed the leisure, the literacy and the consciousness of their own interior life to cultivate the spirituality of compunction which the Prayers and Meditations seek to evoke. Of his corpus of writings, the most original and incisive of any since Augustine, only three prayers address the Virgin, and of them only the last by his own admission satisfies the quest of his faith for a true understanding. Why then is this body of work so significant?

We must not suppose that Anselm anticipates a sort of Anglican reserve about Marian doctrine and devotion: we know from the records of his conversation that he and his brethren had an entirely contemporary taste for the newly popular collections of miracles of the Virgin, and he invoked her himself in time of peril with freedom and confidence. Even if his own doctrine of the atonement and original sin led him to reject the celebration of the Virgin’s conception, he is entirely faithful to the Augustinian inheritance of the Latin West in refusing to countenance any mention of actual sin in relation to Mary, and those most close to him, Anselm of Bury and Eadmer of Canterbury, build confidently on his foundations to endorse not only the old English liturgical tradition but the most controversial tenet of the new Marianism itself, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. What makes Anselm’s prayers to the Virgin so remarkable and so innovative in the development of Latin ascetic theology is their intimate confidence in Marian advocacy and mediation: antithesis and paradox call him back time and again to the Christological context of salvation history, but for the pilgrim sinner in via, the Lady whose undisputed pureness is the shame of the penitent, is the same Lady whose suckling of the eternal Word gives her a paramountcy of intercessory power which applies without fail to the sinner the work of her divine Son. We see in this confident, affective, individualist piety a spirit at work which culminates in the theme of Marian servitude and the cultus of the hearts of Jesus and Mary which is so remarkable feature of the revival of Catholic spirituality in Europe in the aftermath of the Council of Trent. And may we not also see, even as Anselm writes and prays in his cell at Bec and at Canterbury, a similar spirit moving Richeldis to build a house for the Mother of God here, in the land appointed to be her dowry?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (vi) - Canon Robin Ward

The liturgical celebration of the conception of the Virgin Mary was politically as well as theologically sensitive at the time when Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury. The event of Mary’s conception receives legendary attention in the Protevangelium, which is thought to be of second century origin, and there is some evidence for liturgical commemoration in the East from the end of the seventh century and shortly afterwards in Ireland. However, it is in eleventh century England that the feast of the Virgin’s conception first appears as a well established observance on the 8th December [Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique 7.1, cc. 989-993]. Following the conquest, Archbishop Lanfranc, Anselm’s predecessor both at Canterbury and as abbot of Bec and his teacher in youth, embarked on a reform to suppress certain perceived peculiarities which had emerged in the English church regarding liturgical observances and the marriage of the clergy, and the feast of the conception of the Virgin was among those lost. The English fought back with some guile and persistence to rescue their rich liturgical inheritance of saints and commemorations, and by the second decade of the twelfth century much had been done to restore the salient features of this pre-conquest insular cultus. This was most notable in the great monastic centres such as Westminster, Ramsey and Bury: indeed, Anselm’s own nephew and namesake was instrumental in restoring the feast of the Virgin’s conception when he became abbot of Bury [Richard Southern, Anselm of Canterbury, A Portrait in a Landscape, p. 434].

Two literary sources in particular stand out: the first is a letter dating from about 1085 describing how Elsi, the abbot of Ramsey, was rescued from a storm at sea by the Virgin on condition he promote the feast of her conception [J P Migne, Patrologia Latina 159, cc. 323-6]; the second is the treatise De Conceptione Beatae Mariae by Eadmer of Canterbury, monk, hagiographer of the old English saints and author of the Vita Anselmi. The names Elsi and Eadmer betray the English origin of the principal protagonists here and indicate the limited ambition behind the conduct of the controversy: this is an attempt by the conquered to justify the immemorial usages of their churches. Eadmer was both an assiduous compiler of all that pertained to the pre-conquest saints of Canterbury and a querulous critic of the exclusion of his countrymen from ecclesiastical office in favour of foreigners. However, what began as a rearguard action to defend the local English tradition of Marian piety soon became part of an international theological controversy about the Virgin’s exemption from original sin, a controversy which the attachment of Anselm’s name as author to both the letter and the treatise momentously transformed. This was because S. Bernard, mellifluous doctor of the Virgin’s privileges even as he was, specifically denied that Mary was preserved from original sin at her conception when he heard that the canons of Lyons had introduced the celebration of the festival into their church in 1138 [Bernard of Clairvaux, Ad Canonicos Lugdunenses Ep. 174, PL 182, c. 332]. What had begun as an exercise in English ecclesiastical antiquarianism now became a fissure within the new Marianism which was to persist throughout the scholastic period and in which the name of Anselm quoted as an authority was to carry great weight even into the nineteenth century.

Anselm himself appears not to have accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception insofar as it had a concrete formulation in his day, and he treats it only incidentally. In Cur Deus Homo he states clearly: the Virgin of whom he was taken was conceived ‘amid iniquities’ and her mother ‘conceived’ her ‘in sin’, and she was born with original sin since she sinned in Adam ‘in whom all have sinned’ [Cur Deus Homo 16, in Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works, p. 337]. However, in De Virginali conceptu et de peccato originali, he describes the virgin as having been cleansed by faith before conceiving her divine Son, and also states that although it is true that the Son of God was born of a spotless Virgin, this was not out of necessity, as if a just offspring could not be generated by this method of propagation from a sinful parent, but because it was fitting that the conception of this man should be of a pure mother [De Virginali conceptu 18, in Anselm, Major Works, p. 376]. This argument from fittingness subsequently becomes one of the principal tools used by Eadmer and those who succeed him in defence of the full doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to justify their position. Anselm understood original sin as an absence of original justice in consequence of Adam’s disobedience, which meant that human free will has an impeded capacity to choose the good and a propensity to choose evil which exists in potentiality from conception but does not actually come into effect until the age of reason. This account of the doctrine is more patient of an immaculist interpretation of the Virgin’s privilege at conception than the Augustinian emphasis on the transmission of original sin by the concupiscent process of procreation.