Tuesday, November 24, 2009

imprisoned priests: thomas cramner and john of the cross

i have just finished reading diarmaid mcculloch's huge biography of thomas cranmer. it was one of the most imformative books i've read in a while, and i find it inhabits my dreams. it has also done much to confirm my opinion that i find cranmer a much better writer than theologian, and has broadened my understanding of the complex ways in which what has come to be "the church of england" and "anglicanism" has been formed by the vagarities of english foreign policy.

cranmer famously spend the last several months of his life in prison, first in london and then in oxford. it was in oxford that he was burned for treason and heresy. just before his death, he was "visited" by spanish friars, who allegedly convinced him to recant. then of course he recanted his recanting in his last sermon in the oxford cathedral.

things were a little easier for john of the cross, who was a monk, not a friar, but who was also considered for a while at least a heretic by some of his own order, the carmelites. they were a little gentler in spain than in england, at least at that time, and he was released from his cell, although his life was not easy after that; he remained for all practical purposes still a prisoner.

i am reading john of the cross's poems as a sort of chaser to cranmer, partly because of the spanish connection to cranmer's last days, and partly because today is john's feast.

i am struck by how entirely differently cranmer and john of the cross approach truth. cranmer recognized that he was no poet. s. john was a consumate poet, and must have been aware of the gift, since most of his writings were commentaries on his own poems. what i find ironic is that the truth that has endured in cranmer's writings, the truth we find today, is what is expressed in the poetic nature of his prose. despite his anguished efforts to say exactly one thing at a time, whether about where authority is found in the church, or how we are saved, or what happens in the liturgy, his readers have found, again and again, many meanings, sometimes contradictory, often meanings the archbishop would have rejected angrily.

ultimately, i find both thomas cranmer and s. john of the cross, if not proof, then surely strong corraboration that the only safe way to "do theology" is apophatically. so i'm back to read more of john of the cross. i leave you with his

"i came into the unknown"

"i came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science.

i did not know the door
but when i found the way,
unknowing where i was,
i learned enormous things,
but what i felt i cannot say,
for i remained unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

it was the perfect realm
of holiness and peace.
in deepest solitude
i found the narrow way:
a secret giving such release
that I was stunned and stammering,
rising beyond all science.

i was so far inside,
so dazed and far away
my senses were released
from feelings of my own.
my mind had found a surer way:
a knowledge of unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

and he who does arrive
collapses as in sleep,
for all he knew before
now seems a lowly thing,
and so his knowledge grows so deep
that he remains unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

the higher he ascends
the darker is the wood;
it is the shadowy cloud
that clarified the night,
and so the one who understood
remains always unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

this knowledge by unknowing
is such a soaring force
that scholars argue long
but never leave the ground.
their knowledge always fails the source:
to understand unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

this knowledge is supreme
crossing a blazing height;
though formal reason tries
it crumbles in the dark,
but one who would control the night
by knowledge of unknowing
will rise beyond all science.

and if you wish to hear:
the highest science leads
to an ecstatic feeling
of the most holy being;
and from his mercy comes his deed:
to let us stay unknowing,
rising beyond all science."

Monday, November 9, 2009

6 november: st. illtyd of llanilltud fawr

i have been reading jean leclerq's the love of learning and the desire for god: a study of monastic culture (new york: fordham university press, 1961), and i am struck again by how much of the current antogonism betwen "science" and "religion" originated in the twelfth century as the practices of the schools and the monasteries diverged.

in that context, i am encouraged by the collegiate and monastic community of st. illtyd at llanilltud fawr, where many of the most illustrous of welsh and cornish scholar saints and bishops were trained. illtyd was described by his student samson as "the most learned of all britons in the knowledge of scripture, both the old testament and the new testament, and in every branch of philosophy--poetry and rhetoric, grammar and arithmetic, and he was most sagacious and gifted with the power of telling future events."

the result of the loss of real education has results so obvious they hardly need mentioning: "sciences" whose primary gifts are splintering of societies into groups in which all the "individuals" have guns to solve their problems and the "sovereign nations" have weapons of mass destruction to solve their problems, and "religions" which have produced people who are "spiritual" but not religious.

of course there were problems in wales of the late fifth century. but there was also a comprehensive understanding of the solutions, taught by st. illtyd and his students, which we seem to have lost. might there be a solution not in trying to produce more "renaissance men [and women]" but in educating more of the sort of christians who came from st. illtyd's school? we will not know, of course, unless we make the efforts to return to an understanding of all knowledge as coming from one source, and serving one lord.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

hallowed flames

it was by no means a bonfire. the closest i had to bones of animals, slaughtered for the feast because there is not enough food for them to winterover, was an empty pizza box. i had dived the dumpster for it, and put the five slices of pizza--with olives and artichokes--into bread bags: enough to feast for the octave. i thought of burning the box, but put it back into the dumpster instead.

nor was it a samwain fire. i had seen the misinformation of the history channel, claiming the sinister catholic church had somehow taken over a fine feast it claimed had been celebrated by the celts in ireland 3,000 years ago. bah! there were no celts in ireland 3000 years ago, and the church had been in ireland 300 years, celebrating all saints' day on the sunday after pentecost, when pope gregory iii changed the calendr to make all saints' day fall on the first of november. it was a minor part of what the celtic christians resisted in the practices of rome, but resist they did for about 200 years.

pope gregory's reorganization was part of the western church's structuring of the calendar as a round of eight feats of our lord, with remembrances of mighty acts and the prophecies or explanations of them, at the solstices, equinoxes, and the "cross-quarter days," halfway in between.

christmas, the feast of the nativity of christ jesus, is balanced by the feat of the birth of the last of the great prophets, john the forerunner. caldlemass, the presentation of christ in the temple, halfway to easter, is a proclamation of christ as light, seen more clearly six months later at the feast of the transfiguration. lest we forget the role of the cross in the paschal feast at the spring equinox, we are reminded in the exaltation of the holy cross at the fall equinox.

and the gift of the holy spirit bringing new life to the small gathering on pentecost, when seven-tongued flames of fire danced on their heads, is remembered by my little fire at all hallows day as the gift of the holy spirit to all believers in the truth of the trinity.

halloween has long been one of my favourite holidays, but i did not always understand it this way. i was raised in a pleasant southern baptist church that really had only three big feasts. the one with the clearest liturgical celebration was mothers' day, with a distribution of roses: no matter how we may deny her, the role of the mother will out. christmas was semi-liturgical: there was the pageant. i still remember the smell of the gum arabic of my wise man's brown beard, and the soft rustle of my father's wine coloured silk dressing gown. but we did not sing "once in royal david's city," nor did we hear of the incarnation, john's gospel having been reduced to a single verse, and ahab somehow having become our favourite king.

we slightly celebrated easter, wearing new clothes and getting junk food from the easter bunny. it mostly seemed an embarfassment to our pastor, who felt perhaps that he should condemn such shenanigans but who never quite knew why.

the other holiday, the third great feast, was valentine's day, when we had the sweet heart banquet. i found among my mother's photo's a complete documentation of my sweetheart banquet dates. i had only remembered ramona baswell.

it was a banquet rather than a dance, such as the sinful methodists had, because we did not dance. perhaps it was david's ecstatic dancing that had bumped him from our pantheon to make room for ahab.

over the years i learned more about the feats of the church, but all saints' has remained one of my favourites. my ordination to the priesthood was on all saints' day. i spent most of the night before, hallowe'en, praying with the theotokos, then i went dancing. i remember that one of the songs was "my own personal jesus."

all of this was in the background of my little fire, but there was more to develop in the foreground as the light shone in the darkness.

one of the advantages of being a solitary is that there is no pressure to hurry vigils. in conflated three published vigils, two for "the even of all saints," and one, with bones and witches, for "all hallows eve." my readings and psalms and prayers started with the promises to abraham, and progressed through stories such as daniel in the lions' den and eliphaz's vision in the night and the martyrdom of the maccabess to the war in heaven. i added a mug of coffee in memory of the saints of ethiopia, being particularly grateful for the seven desert monks who took their practices to wales and ireland. i smoked a cigarette in memory of the early native american martyrs, even peter the aleut, who probably didn't smoke.

of course, i didn't want it to end, so when it became too dark to read, i pondered the stars whose numbers that clear night rivaled that of the descendents of abraham.

but it did end, and that most wonderfully, and with another understanding of my little fire. i had put the last of the wood on the fire when two friends walked up, wanting to sing compline. so we did, once more chanting the song of old simeon who waited in the temple to see the saviour of israel:

"lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word,
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou has prepared before the face of all people;
to be a light tolighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people israel."

my friends departed in peace, and i went back to the fire. i had not ceased from wondering, so i came back to where i had begun. the fullsome moon was now high, the moon of the beginning of genesis "for signs and for seasons."

and i knew it was a camp fire. i was on the same journey as abraham, a journey of the children of israel, in stages. i knew that the next morning in the liturgy i would hear of its end in the new jerusalem. i knew i would break my fast with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. but for now i had, in the phrase of one of the hymns from my baptist boyhood, "a foretaste of glory divine." julian had her hazelnut. i had my little campfire. it was enough.