You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Western Christianity’ category.
It has been a couple of weeks since my long-awaited [used] copy of Taliessin Through Logres – The Region Of the Summer Stars – Arthurian Torso arrived from the used bookstore in Michigan from which I ordered it. It was a surprisingly good copy, well worth what I paid for it. The edition is, I believe, pretty well known; Eerdman’s published it in 1974 and I could have picked it up for $7.95 at that time. It’s odd, but I remember seeing it in a Christian bookstore forty years ago, and shuffling through the pages. I was familiar with CS Lewis and I had heard that Charles Williams was a friend of his. Having puzzled my way through Many Mansions, I had already had a taste of Williams and wanted more. The dense and deeply self-referential poetry of Williams’ Arthuriad completely defeated my casual perusal and I put the book back on the shelf.
Not too many copies of the Eerdman’s volume were published. Maybe my recently acquired book was the same one I held in my hands forty years ago. Stranger things have been known to happen.
My eye was caught by a phrase that began an essay “The Coming Of The King” in the explanatory work by Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, which was included in the volume I purchased:
By the twelfth century the outline of the new metaphysical civilization in Europe was taking shape
and I knew that my reading of Williams was going to be different from that of a Western Christian. For me, the twelfth century marks an ending, not a beginning. The “new metaphysical civilization” that arose after the sundering of Latin Christendom is for me already a seminal apostasy, a long fading rather than a new quickening. The ruthless imposition of continental feudalism over the conciliar Anglo-Saxon polity, the suppression of the variegated local liturgies in favor of the Roman rite, to choose only two examples, speak to me more of
Union is breached; the imams stand in Sophia
Good Is God, the muzzein
calls, but lost is the light on the hills of Caucasia
glory of the Emperor, glory of substantial Being.
As I begin to attempt to dovetail Williams’ mythology of Camelot-as-the City with my own dreams of the pre-schism eucharistic Commonwealth [however vaguely or however imprecisely that Commonwealth may have existed or not in history], I find three great burning ideas stand out to me.
- The Arthurian corpus, I believe, is Charles Williams’ great clearinghouse for all of his literary and theological output. The themes that Williams touches upon in all of his writings; The Web of Exchange, Co-inherence, The Vision of the City, the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Denial of Images, are all present here and elevated from concept to archetype, or at least as far as Williams’ poetic abilities are able to carry them.
- Charles Williams was not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican. This is important. Forged in Tudor politics during an uncertain time, Anglicanism as a faith has had a more elliptical orbit than other Christian bodies. There have been times during its career when Anglicanism has wobbled close enough to Orthodoxy for the broad majority to thrive within something of a celestial “temperate zone”. I don’t want to go to far into this, but it appears to me that Charles Williams’ and CS Lewis’ time was just about optimal.
- Williams had the keen intuition to use the pre-Schism figure of Arthur [and the barely-historical figure of Taliessin] to anchor his romance of Christendom. The period of time between Theodosius and Alfred the Great is an interesting time. I always thought of pre-literate man as somewhat childlike, and high Roman culture was always more unstable in Britain than anywhere else in the Western Empire. The fall, when it finally came, was almost total, and there was enough “wiggle room” for the collective mythopoetic imagination to begin to accrete material around a minor Brythonic warlord with a shallow gloss of Romanitas, much as an oyster around a grain of sand, until the pearl of legend emerged.
Lent has started, and my belly is rumbling. Even though the freshness of the Fast has yet to fade and the initial enthusiasm is still riding high, I know that before long the drab meals, the prostrations, and the abstention from electronic entertainment will begin to take its toll on my good nature. My family, unfortunately, will be the first to pay the price. Sooner or later, the Great Fast will bring me face to face with an undeniable fact about myself that I try energetically to deny the rest of the year; that I am a sinner, someone who puts his own comfort and convenience ahead of even the most legitimate of claims others have on me.
By the time the fourth week in Lent rolls around, my bruised and battered self-righteousness may be ready to pray this lovely prayer, and mean it:
“I have outdone the Publican in my transgressions,
yet I do not emulate him in his repentance;
I have not gained the virtue of the Pharisee,
yet I surpass his self-conceit.
O Christ my God, in Thy supreme humility
Thou hast upon the Cross destroyed the devil’s arrogance;
make me a stranger to the past sins of the Publican
and to the great foolishness of the Pharisee;
establish in my soul the good that each of them possessed,
and save me.”
The Orthodox Church is a good place for sinners. There are a lot of us here. As a former Evangelical, it has been quite costly to jettison the concept of the “regenerate Church”. The field of Protestantism is full of formerly “pure churches” where the hands currently on the rudder are steering their barques in a direction that I don’t believe the original pilots would have wanted them to take. It is hard anyway to keep a church in pristine form longer than one or two generations, and it would take a heart of diamantine hardness and abstraction to look down at your newborn child and see only an unregenerate heathen, cordwood for the fires of Hell. I think this may indeed be the genesis of that peculiar informal Protestant doctrine of the “age of accountability” , which if it were true, would make abortion something of a mercy rather than a misfortune.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church in the United States is a wonderful place to indulge a spiritual elitism that would be the envy of the most fastidious supralapsarian Neo-Calvinist or the most prophetically endowed Third Wave Pentecostal. Our parishes are for the most part small, the regular attendees at Liturgy are mostly pious and those who attend Vespers and Orthros even more so. Ehrmergerd! All of this and we’re in The One True Church as well? Talk about dropping the bacterium of Phariseeism into a Petri dish full of yummy sugar water…
Thank God as Holy Week approaches, more and more of the marginal members of the parish start showing up; that rough looking guy with the flashy wife and the tattoos on his knuckles, the couple who own the nightclub, the Coptic girl who’s married to a Muslim and wears a hijab, the husbands and wives of parishoners who you see so seldom that it is hard to remember who goes with whom. Its hard to talk with them at coffee hour, but they remind you that the Church is indeed for everyone. James Joyce made the remark about the Catholic Church – “Here comes everyone!” With a change in geography, the same could be said of the Orthodox Church. I wonder if I lived in a traditional Orthodox society whether I’d see these ‘marginal’ types more often. Would I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, or would I see them as part of the mission field?
JRR Tolkien, in one of his letters to his son, recommended that he embrace the catholicity of the Church as a spiritual discipline :
“Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
PS – Sorry about the super-heroes.
I admit I’m in kind of a quandary.
The pastor at the the Assemblies of God church my wife attends spent 45 minutes last Sunday pleading with God for a “community wide revival”. Now, although I was baptized in a church that isn’t known as a hotbed of revival, I spent around thirty years of my life between 1973 and about 1996 in and out of different revival-oriented churches. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that the church into which I was baptized was not a church to be taken seriously by serious Christians, and in 1973, I considered myself a serious Christian. You see, I had a serious “come to Jesus” moment. After several years in the late sixties, early seventies drug-and-rock-and-roll culture, something of a revival broke out among people my age. It was called The Jesus Movement, and I don’t want to think about the influence it had on American Protestantism because dwelling on that depresses me profoundly. Suffice it to say that in 1968, Protestantism was a pursuit for grown-ups and for those young people who aspired to that label. Fast forward forty years and the most important thing in Protestant Christianity is that it be relevant, i.e. amenable to a group of people who, as CS Lewis said of Susan Pevensie, want ” to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as [possible] and then stop there as long as [one] can.” Boomer fingerprints are all over early 21st century Protestant Christianity, and you can barely see inside for all the smudges.
The church into which I was baptized was a Constantinian church, that is to say, a state church or an ethnic church. It was old-school. A Christian was someone who was born into the ethnic group and who had been baptized into its fellowship as an infant. The Assemblies of God church I found refuge in in 1973 was what I guess you would call a Revival church. Father Stephen Freeman, on his excellent blog Glory To God For All Things, does a very good job of explaining the difference. You become a member of a Revival church by “getting saved” and undergoing baptism as an adult. It was implied that something was defective if you had only the first level of Christianity. It was implied that the only thing baptism accomplished for you as an infant was to make you wet. I remember the Assemblies of God pastor and many of the more eminent layfolk considering people in my native church valid objects of evangelism. I did too, and it led to some embarrassing incidents where I displayed too much zeal and too little discernment. There are a lot of very pious people in the Assemblies of God. I could tell the difference even when I was very young. A Congregational minister in whose choir I sang because my mother earned a stipend as their choir leader often allowed his Assemblies of God-ordained sister to preach when he was absent. The difference was between night and day. It took a while, and a lot of growing up, before I could appreciate the serious Christians in my ancestral church.
The “Jesus Revolution” started in earnest in my neck of the woods in the early 70s. A lot of the ne’er-do-wells I hung around with at the time put down the hash pipes, picked up Bibles and headed for the churches, especially the more progressive, cooler ones that embraced coffee houses with lots of espresso and folk-rock bands as a means of attracting truculent, “hard to reach” young people. The idea was that we would funnel from the coffee houses into the churches, eventually. What a surprise to find that the coffee houses digested the churches and now it is very, very difficult to find a church that still acts like the churches of my parents’ generation, what with introits, Kyries, responsive readings, and all of that panoplia. Indeed, it is hard to find a church that will admit to being a church at all – we are overwhelmed with Worship Centers, Family Life Centers, Gathering Places, Deliverance Ministries, etc, and sometimes you have to dig pretty hard to find out what brand of Christianity is subscribed to.
Now, I did not leave Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism because I was “disillusioned” with Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism. Evangelicalism fulfilled its purpose in my life. It introduced me to Jesus Christ, which 20 years as a member in good standing in my ancestral Reformed church did not do. This bothers me, because it was not that I didn’t have ample opportunity to meen Jesus in the Reformed church. It was that I wasn’t paying any attention. When I finally started paying attention, it was the Pentecostals who benefitted. It was the miracle stories, really, I guess. The Pentecostal God was the kind of God I assumed from my glancing knowledge of the Scriptures. But once Evangelicalism introduces you to Jesus, there isn’t a whole lot further it can take you. It’s a design flaw, really. Everything about Evangelicalism is designed to get you to Jesus as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Whether you stay with Him is pretty much entirely up to you.
I left Evangelicalism in its Pentecostal variety because I encountered the Orthodox Church, and I was convinced of her claim to be the apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the Holy Apostles. That meant that the original design was much more like my ancestral Reformed church than it was like any of the Revivalist churches I spent time in afterwards. People are born into it and find their spiritual subsistence there. Pastors of revivalist churches often scratch their heads when I explain this to them, because nobody in the Orthodox Church is “born again” according to their lights. Except the converts from Evangelicalism, who by those rights should be the ‘best’ Christians in the Orthodox Church, but who usually aren’t.
But once again, I wonder what Orthodox spiritual renewal looks like. I know the Orthodox Church went through some very decadent times, when the faith of the faithful was reduced to a handful of superstitions and family customs. Apart from this historical understanding, the stories of St. Cosmas of Aitolos and St. Nektarios of Corinth make little sense at all. I mentioned to my parish priest that the career of St. Cosmas of Aitolos reminded me a great deal of that of John Wesley, his contemporary. Now the Orthodox Church does not do “revivals” or “renewals”, like you see so often in the history of Western Christendom, but SS Cosmas and Nektarios were instrumental in “reOrthodoxing the Orthodox”; like Wesley, they founded churches, schools, and orphanges, rekindled parish life. Father replied, “Wesley, sadly, provoked a schism. St. Cosmas created unity.” That started me thinking. In every major Protestant awakening, from the first flutterings of Pietism and Puritanism in the 17th century to the Emergent movement in the 21st, the price of increased spirituality always came to be paid in the coin of schism, with one group of Christians labeling their predecessors as lacking in zeal and not really worthy of the term. Maybe monasticism takes the place of this in the Catholic and Orthodox Church.
I know what my wife’s pastor is saying. The darkness of this age is getting so thick it is nearly palpable. At a time when we need to love each other or perish, we cannot abide the sight of one another. Jesus has gone from being the Savior of penitents and the Lord of the Church to a nosegay for our culture and an issuer of seals of approval for our political positions, left or right.
But I don’t want another revival. Please, Lord, don’t send another revival. We won’t survive another revival.
Send the Holy Spirit, but Lord, to be honest, I haven’t been Orthodox long enough to know what this would mean for my wife’s pastor’s community, for my county, for my city, right now.
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say the Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north… Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes — he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga — perhaps too much dice, you know — coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”
Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness
It was as dark as the Dark Ages got, then, in Britain. Classical civilization, what was left of it, hugged the shores of the Mediterranean during the Indian Summer of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom. Like the blood in the arteries of a severely wounded accident victim, it refused to circulate to the extremities. It was at this time, a century or so after the departure of the legions and a century yet before the arrival of the Roman mission, that a holy man was born. He had the sad misfortune to be born in a very hardscrabble time, in a very hardscrabble place. People didn’t have much time or inclination to record their doings, indeed, it would be hard to imagine that the people who lived at this time would have thought their struggle for survival worthy of recording.
So what survived were stories, stories vivid enough to be remembered. Stories such as the one about the wandering Briton princeling who was travelling far from home when he came upon a maiden bathing in a stream and was overcome by lust. He forced himself on her, and she conceived. It was a brutal age, and it appears the leaven of the Gospel had little power to soften men’s passions among these jettisoned folk, and none among the pagan Saxons already coursing far inland. She carried the child for nine months, refusing on one occasion to allow a local ruler to terminate her pregnancy. She gave birth in a women’s monastery, and her child was raised there.
This child, grown to be a man, began to preach the gospel in his corner of the world. The reputation of his sanctity spread, and he began to become known as y Sant, or simply, the saint. It is unusual that the saint would come to be called the Illuminator of Wales, as his country was not known by that name at that time. Most likely, his country was still known by her Roman name: Britannia, and her people spoke Latin after their fashion as well as their native British, now Welsh. Like a formerly prosperous family fallen on hard times, they must have cherished these small remnants of Roman civilization, and maybe, just maybe, Christianity was one of these remnants. It is by no means certain that the saint’s countrymen were all Christian. It had been the legal religion of the Empire for only a scant 20 years before the legions departed, and there were many pagans for the saint to convert.
The full flower of his manhood is punctuated with many stories. The saint was preaching to a crowd of people, and the crowd grew to such a proportion that those on the fringes were unable to hear his preaching. He prayed, and the earth rose under his feet, forming a hillock so that all could hear his words. Some farmers nearby were complaining that there wasn’t enough water for their crops, so he prayed, pushed his staff into the ground, and a fountain of water sprayed up to provide the farmers what they needed. The monks at this time must have been quite lax, although it is remarkable that there were any monks at all. Brittania was the other side of the world from Christian monasticism’s center of gravity in Egypt and Palestine, but monks there were, and many followed the saint. He founded many monasteries and guided his monks with a rigorous discipline. They were forbidden the use of draught animals, and had to pull their plows themselves. In addition, they were enjoined to forswear beer and wine, and drink only water, a real test of faith in a day before chlorine tablets.
Not that Brittania was hermetically sealed from the rest of the Christian world. Perhaps because Pelagius himself was a Briton, the saint found it necessary to refute him in several local councils. It is a shame that his arguments against Pelagius have not survived, and Augustine’s did. It would have been informative to compare the two. Towards the end of his life, the saint found it necessary to travel to the center of the remaining Empire, to Palestine, and receive the bishopric of his country from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Whether the saint took the land road or the sea road, it must have been a long and arduous journey, and the good patriarch must have felt like the Archbishop of Canterbury appointing the rector of the parish on St. Helena. The saint returned to his native Brittania, founded one last monastery in the extreme west of his land, and died there on this day, March 1, supposedly in 589. His last words to his disciples were
Be steadfast, brothers, and do the little things.
The saint’s country changed dramatically after his death. The pagan Saxon marauders pushed the Britons father and farther north and west until they were bottled up onto the extremities of the island, but they never found the Dark Ages to be all that dark. They had another name for it: Oes y Seintiau – The Age Of Saints. They named their country Cymru, the land of the people, and their tongue became Cymraeg. The ungracious Saxons named them the Wealas, the foreigners, but admitted that they were great warriors and greater poets and singers. Little by little, first the Saxons and later the Normans dragged this people of the retreat into the even longer and more tragic general retreat of the West into feudal Catholicism, Calvinism, secularism, and unbelief
This is Dewi Sant, Saint David, patron of Wales in the undivided Church. Interestingly, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican all honor him, and his last church is now a great cathedral. The Welsh still love him, and his day is their national day.
He is also my patron, and I would like to share a story of a miracle I believe was wrought by his intercession. When my family and I moved to Atlanta late in 2007, the area been suffering a severe drought for many years. The drought was so absolute that people were not allowed to wash their cars or water their lawns. I hadn’t been Orthodox longer than a few months, but I noticed that St. David had worked many miracles that were related to water. I besought his intercession on our behalf and rested the matter with him. On his day, March 1, 2008, Atlanta experienced a freakish snowfall of several inches that effectively broke the drought. The commentator on the radio noted that this was the best way to drop so much precipitation on a drought-hardened ground. Five years later, even though water levels have yet to return to normal, at least the lawns are being watered and the cars washed.
Dewi Sant, gweddia ni
Saint David of Wales, pray for us
Brendan And The Secret Of Kells –
I don’t believe this little jewel got much exposure here in the United States. Even after it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2009, it still only made it to about 100 screens. It’s a shame, because it is breathtaking.
What I liked about the film, apart from the brilliant animation, was the seamless interweaving of Brendan’s Christianity and the pagan natural world that surrounds him. Brendan is the orphaned nephew of an abbot, who continually warns him about the danger of the Wild Woods. Naturally, Brendan escapes the first chance he gets, and he befriends Aisling, a nature spirit.
He is not afraid of her.
Brendan needs Aisling’s help to subdue a dragon spirit and obtain an eyepiece that will allow him to finish the magnificent Book of Kells. Despite all the respect paid to pre-Patrician paganism in this film, I noticed that Aisling was terrified of the dragon spirit, and it fell to Brendan, the Christian, to subdue it.
Oh yes, Pangur Ban, the first among all the cats of Eire, plays an important supporting role as well.
Feliz fiesta guadalupeña a todos nuestros hermanos mexicanos. Que la pasen bien feliz en compania con todos sus queridos familiares y amigos. Que Dios nos bendiga a todos y que Nuestra Señora la purisima Teotocos nos envuelva a todos en las faldas de sus intercesiones.