The sonorous cadences, the elegant repetitions and antitheses, of Cranmer’s prose may strike some as cold; we recall the Puritans’ complaints at the Savoy Conference: ‘A brief transient touch and away, is not enough to warm the heart aright.’ (Samuel) Johnson, however, did not need his heart warmed, but rather his racing mind calmed. For him, and for many who have felt themselves at the mercy of chaotic forces from within or without, the style of the prayer book has healing powers. It provides equitable balance when we ourselves have none.
-Alan Jacobs in The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography
Our pastor has a secret weapon. On a weekly basis, he consults a treasure trove of biblical commentary material directly from the Fathers of the Early Church, via the wonders of his Logos Bible Software. The ability of this technology to search such a large body of written material for relevant commentary is quite amazing. More amazing, is the way in which much of what he finds is devoid of the stark contrasts between theology and pastoral exhortation that is often the case in modern biblical scholarship. Many of these Church Fathers were pastoral theologians in the best sense of the term…poetic, comprehensible, intelligent, and full of colorful insight. Equally concerned with faithfulness toward the text and faithfulness toward their flocks, free from the dualisms between the existential and transcendent. At the same time, challenging and (sometimes) downright strange. Beautiful.
Pastor Eric turned to me today in our shared office space and exclaimed something like, “Basil the Great, what a genius. A pastor and theologian without separation, connecting his study to the direct concerns of his flock! Listen to this…” He went on to quote this passage from a letter/sermon that Basil wrote to a colleague who had lost his son.
Be perfectly assured of this, that though the reasons for what is ordained by God are beyond us, yet always what is arranged for us by him who is wise and who loves us is to be accepted, be it ever so grievous to endure. He himself knows how he is appointing what is best for each and why the terms of life that he fixes for us are unequal. There exists some reason incomprehensible to us why some are sooner carried far away from us, and some are left a longer while behind to bear the burdens of this painful life. So we should always adore his lovingkindness and not express discontent, remembering those great and famous words of the great athlete Job, when he had seen ten children at one table, in one short moment, crushed to death, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” As the Lord thought good so it came to pass. Let us adopt those marvelous words. At the hands of the righteous Judge, those who demonstrate similar good deeds shall receive a similar reward. We have not lost the boy; we have restored him to the Lender. His life is not destroyed; it is changed for the better. He whom we love is not hidden in the ground; he is received into heaven. Let us wait a little while, and we shall be once more with him. The time of our separation is not long, for in this life we are all like travelers on a journey, hurrying on to the same shelter. While one has reached his rest, another arrives, another hurries on, but one and the same end awaits them all. He has outstripped us on the way, but we shall all travel the same road, and the same hostel awaits us all. -St. Basil the Great
The loss of a beloved family member has also colored the reality of my immediate family over the course of the last two months. Basil’s reflections rushed forward to meet me, in a similar circumstance, centuries after they were written. This kind of congruence over time is one of the absolute beauties of our Christian faith. The eternal Church is in communion with the eternal present of God through Christ and His Spirit. Our core congruence over time is simply astounding, outlasting emperors and kingdoms. Our solidarity with this congruence is perhaps one of our best hidden apologetics. Our solidarity with those who walked before us is certainly one of our best hidden comforts.
In the midst of this passage Basil reflects on the example of Job. An Old Testament saint whom Pastor Eric will be preaching about this Sunday, just as Basil did approximately 1700 years ago. A saint who, in every age, has pointed the Christian toward the Christ of Hebrews chapters 1 and 2. Which is the true test of any saint.
Since I am coming to that holy room,Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,I shall be made thy music; as I comeI tune the instrument here at the door…I joy, that in these straits I see my west;For, though their currents yield return to none,What shall my west hurt me? As west and eastIn all flat maps (and I am one) are one,So death doth touch the resurrection…
We think that Paradise and Calvary,Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;By these his thorns, give me his other crown;And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,Be this my text, my sermon to mine own…
XVII. Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris. Now, this bell tolling softly far another, says to me: Thou must die.
The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all…
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…
If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
My God, my God, is this one of thy ways of drawing light out of darkness, to make him for whom this bell tolls, now in this dimness of his sight, to become a superintendent, an overseer, a bishop, to as many as hear his voice in this bell, and to give us a confirmation in this action? Is this one of thy ways, to raise strength out of weakness, to make him who cannot rise from his bed, nor stir in his bed, come home to me, and in this sound give me the strength of healthy and vigorous instructions? O my God, my God, what thunder is not a well-tuned cymbal, what hoarseness, what harshness, is not a clear organ, if thou be pleased to set thy voice to it? And what organ is not well played on if thy hand be upon it? Thy voice, thy hand, is in this sound, and in this one sound I hear this whole concert. I hear thy Jacob call unto his sons and say, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days: he says, That which I am now, you must be then. I hear thy Moses telling me, and all within the compass of this sound, This is the blessing wherewith I bless you before my death; this, that before your death, you would consider your own in mine. I hear thy prophet saying to Hezekiah, Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live: he makes use of his family, and calls this a setting of his house in order, to compose us to the meditation of death. I hear thy apostle saying, I think it meet to put you in remembrance, knowing that shortly I must go out of this tabernacle: this is the publishing of his will, and this bell is our legacy, the applying of his present condition to our use. I hear that which makes all sounds music, and all music perfect; I hear thy Son himself saying, Let not your hearts be troubled;
But, O my God, my God, since heaven is glory and joy, why do not glorious and joyful things lead us, induce us to heaven?…
Why hast thou changed thine old way, and carried us by the ways of discipline and mortification, by the ways of mourning and lamentation, by the ways of miserable ends and miserable anticipations…
O ETERNAL and most gracious God, who hast been pleased to speak to us, not only in the voice of nature, who speaks in our hearts, and of thy word, which speaks to our ears, but in the
speech of speechless creatures, in Balaam’s ass, in the speech of unbelieving men, in the confession of Pilate, in the speech of the devil himself, in the recognition and attestation of thy Son, I humbly accept thy voice in the sound of this sad and funeral bell. And first, I bless thy glorious name, that in this sound and voice I can hear thy instructions, in another man’s to consider mine own condition; and to know, that this bell which tolls for another, before it come to ring out, may take me in too. As death is the wages of sin it is due to me; as death is the end of sickness it belongs to me; and though so disobedient a servant as I may be afraid to die, yet to so merciful a master as thou I cannot be afraid to come; and therefore into thy hands, O my God, I commend my spirit, a surrender which I know thou wilt accept, whether I live or die…
…even in this dissolution, that though the body be going the way of all flesh, yet that soul is going the way of all saints. When thy Son cried out upon the cross, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? he spake not so much in his own person, as in the person of the church, and of his afflicted members, who in deep distresses might fear thy forsaking. This patient, O most blessed God, is one of them; in his behalf, and in his name, hear thy Son crying to thee, My God, (Ps. 31:5 ; 139) my God, why hast thou forsaken me? and forsake him not; but with thy left hand lay his body in the grave (if that be thy determination upon him), and with thy right hand receive his soul into thy kingdom, and unite him and us in one communion of saints. Amen.
from Death’s Duel
There now hangs that sacred body upon the cross, rebaptized in his own tears, and sweat, and embalmed in his own blood alive. There are those bowels of compassion which are so conspicuous, so manifested, as that you may see them through his wounds. There those glorious eyes grew faint in their sight, so as the sun, ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too. And then that Son of God, who was never from us, and yet had now come a new way unto us in assuming our nature, delivers that soul (which was never out of his Father’s hands) by a new way, a voluntary emission of it into his Father’s hands; for though to this God our Lord belonged these issues of death, so that considered in his own contract, he must necessarily die, yet at no breach or battery which they had made upon his sacred body issued his soul; but emisit, he gave up the ghost; and as God breathed a soul into the first Adam, so this second Adam breathed his soul into God, into the hands of God.
There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.
And soonest our best men with thee do go…One short sleep past, we wake eternallyAnd death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Abide with us, O Lord,
for it is toward evening and the day is far spent;
abide with us, and with Thy whole Church.
Abide with us in the evening of the day, in the evening of life,
in the evening of the world.
Abide with us in Thy grace and mercy, in holy Word and Sacrament,
in Thy comfort and Thy blessing.
Abide with us in the night of distress and fear,
in the night of doubt and temptation, in the night of bitter death,
when these shall overtake us.
Abide with us and with all Thy faithful ones, O Lord, in time and in eternity.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
— from The Lutheran Manual of Prayer
“One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (pg. 322)
I live in a city sorrow built
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk
“Basically what it means is that there’s no way out of sorrow, Christ is sorrow. To be desired by him is a sorrowful thing. It’s a sorrowful thing that we are the way we are, and that God had to send Christ, his only son, to provide redemption for us, because of what we are. That’s a sad thing. But it’s a sadder thing still to reject that and to not accept it and to alienate yourself from God. Either way, it’s a sorrow.”
-David Eugene Edwards (Wovenhand)
in a recent interview with PopMatters
“There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins.”
“Believe me, religions are on the wrong track the moment they moralize and fulminate commandments. God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Our fellow men will suffice, aided by ourselves. You were speaking of the Last Judgment. Allow me to laugh respectfully. I shall wait for it resolutely, for I have know what is worse, the judgment of men. For them, no extenuating circumstances; even the good intention is ascribed to crime. Have you at least heard of the spitting-cell, which a nation recently thought up to prove itself the greatest on earth? A walled-in box in which the prisoner can stand without moving. The solid door that locks him in his shell stops at chin level. Hence only his face is visible, and every passing jailer spits copiously on it. The prisoner, wedged into his cell, cannot wipe his face, though he is allowed, it is true, to close his eyes. Well, that, mon cher, is a human invention. They didn’t need God for that little masterpiece.
What of it? Well, God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence, and I am inclined to see religion rather as a huge laundering venture – as it was once but briefly, for exactly three years, and it wasn’t called religion. Since then, soap has been lacking, our faces are dirty, and we wipe one another’s noses. All dunces, all punished, let’s all spit on one another and – hurry! to the little ease! Each tries to spit first, that’s all. I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.”
-Albert Camus in The Fall
“Sorrow is knowledge, those that know the most must mourn the deepest, the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.”
“A man ought not to have a God who is just a product of his thought, nor should he be satisfied with that, because if the thought vanished, God too would vanish.”
“The light of the Creator is not something which can be controlled either objectively or subjectively by the creature. In face of all the attempted interpretations by optimists, pessimists and sceptics, it shines out in its own manner and strength.”
– Karl Barth, CD III.1, 369.
“Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith.”
…the best instrument for the music of loss, which is the best of all music, is a woman’s voice.
-Rick Moody (in On Celestial Music pg. 71)
An Armenian woman (Nelly Gasparyan) singing “Lord have mercy” in an abandoned cathedral in eastern Turkey.
John Tavener setting of “The Jesus Prayer” written for Bjork
A third edition of the prayer book I have been compiling for our congregation has been published. This edition spans each week between Ascension Sunday on May 17th and the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost on July 30th. You can purchase a hard copy for yourself here or download a PDF copy for your tablet, phone, or computer here. Just click on the file that says Prayer Book: May-July 2015.
The book contains weekly Scripture readings, Psalms, and a prayer litany for each week up until July 30th, as well as brief introductions to Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. The readings follow the reading cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that include the sermon passage for each week. Every Sunday our local congregation will be rallying around the Psalm of the week and the themes present in these readings. It is my prayer that this book is a easy way to access formative Christian practices and encourage formative common worship that engages Holy Scripture and the historic language of the Church. You will find artwork to match the themes of each week’s readings.
The Lord, having put on human nature, and having suffered for him who suffered, having been bound for him who was bound, and having been buried for him who was buried, is risen from the dead, and loudly proclaims this message:
Who will contend against me? Let him stand before me. It is I who delivered the condemned. It is I who gave life to the dead. It is I who raised up the buried. Who will argue with me? It is I, says Christ, who destroyed death. It is I who triumphed over the enemy, and having trod down Hades, and bound the Strong Man, and have snatched mankind up to the heights of heaven. It is I, says Christ. So then, come here all you families of men, weighed down by your sins and recieve pardon for your misdeeds. For I am your pardon. I am the Passover which brings salvation. I am the Lamb slain for you. I am your life. I am your resurrection. I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your King. It is I who brings you up to the heights of heaven. It is I who will give you the resurrection there. I will show you the Eternal Father. I will raise you up with my own right hand.
– Melito, Bishop of Sardis (d. 180 A.D.)
A podcast conversation about Lent and T.S. Eliot with my friend, Greg Richards. Greg is the Director of Vital University Ministries and the Elisha Leadership Initiative in San Antonio, Texas. He is currently overseeing ministries at five university campuses in San Antonio and surrounding areas. Subscribe to his podcast in ITunes.
The season of Lent provides an opportunity to be honest about pain…and to put it in perspective. At its best Lent is a communal and individual return to the waters of baptism, not a “self-help” fashioning of a better “me” or another chance to reinstate a list of failed New Year’s resolutions.
It is less about giving things up and more about self-denial. It is a refusal to turn a blind eye in favor of confronting the devastation around us. Convinced of our inability to fix things we kneel before the grace of God and are (in time) lifted up to participate in the healing.
I was recently reminded of the ways in which these Lenten themes are reflected in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. This year marks fifty years since his death. As a response, I have recently returned to his seminal collection that are together called “The Four Quartets.” These poems were written in the context of WWII and provide a jarring reflection on life during times of violence: mortality, prayer, the grace of God, and the nature of time.
My favorite poem contained in the collection is “Little Gidding.” I am particularly taken by the way in which Eliot understands prayer as a collapse of time and as a remedy to the limited nature of human perspective; common themes in many of Eliot’s writings. Fitting themes to ponder during this Lenten season.
To enter the space which prayer inhabits is to enter “God time.” A space where intellect and understanding yield to the mystery of it all and the wonder that all could be well, and the thought that all will be well when time and space collapse.
Eliot projects a keen sense that past, present, and future are somehow all present. One is invited to participate in this space through prayer, a foretaste of the “timelessness” that is to come, a ‘timelessness” this is already present in the form and presence of the ascended Christ. In some sense, to pray, is to step outside of time and space. This is one of the reasons that prayer is such an important part of Lent. Reflecting on “God time” helps us step outside of “our time” and its violence, hopelessness, and lack of cosmic perspective. For the Christian, it is a reminder that the cross swallows up time, “…trampling down death by death.”
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
As a reminder of this perspective, Eliot repeatedly references this phrase that is originally attributed to Julian of Norwich. Knowledge of this kind can only be known through death and love. It cannot be “attained” or summoned, but is known through, “…the purification of the motive, In the ground of our beseeching.” Ultimately, it is the, “…drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling…,” that will lead us through our own experiences of Cross and Resurrection, and back to the Garden. A thought worthy of reflection during this season.
A Few Resources Related to T.S.Eliot and “The Four Quartets”
T.S. Eliot Reads his Four Quartets
QU4RTETS – A Recent Visual and Musical Art Project Reflecting on “The Four Quartets”
Engaging Eliot: Four Quartets in Word, Color and Sound
A Discussion and Presentation of QU4RTETS Art Project at Duke University Chapel
*Skip to 1:03:10 to hear the Jeremy Begbie musical piece interspersed with readings from “The Four Quartets”