The Prayer Book Platonist

Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Michaelmas greetings!

Some fine work from danielmitsui.com.

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The Lost Way to the Good: new book coming soon from Angelico Press

The West has lost its way. But which way was it? And can any Western way really be worth following any more?

 
Disoriented by postmodern relativism and critical theory, many seek refuge in the old certainties of religious or political traditions, from Tridentine Catholicism to Enlightenment Liberalism. But these paths are only recent forks off a wider, older road: a way which belongs as much to the East as to the West, and can unite Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and more in pursuit of the truly common Good.


This Way is the nondualistic philosophy of Eastern or “theurgic” Platonism. Claiming Indian and Egyptian roots, it entered mediaeval European universities through the works of Dionysius the Areopagite. Overshadowed in the West, it continued to thrive in Eastern Christian and Sufi spiritual teachings that spread along the Silk Road, giving a basis for creative dialogue with Taoists and Buddhists. 


Thomas Plant will guide you on a spiritual and metaphysical journey with Dionysius from Athens to Kyoto and the True Pure Land Buddhism of Shinran Shonin. Find out where the West deviated from the track, and how even radically different religious traditions can unite to resist the divisive forces of Western secular modernity. 


Fr Thomas Plant is Chaplain of Rikkyo University, Tokyo, and Fellow of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism, where he leads the Muslim-Christian research project, Metaphysics Across Borders. Since writing his doctoral thesis on the comparative philosophy of Dionysius and Shinran, he has been involved in longstanding active interfaith dialogue with Shin Buddhist clergy and academics in the UK and Japan. Plant has been a contributor to Living Church, The Mallard, The Eastern Buddhist, Faith and Worship and Third Way. He lives in Ikebukuro with his wife and daughters, and enjoys practising Aikido and playing the shakuhachi flute. 

片方の目をえぐり出しなさい…

brown human eye
Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

罪の原因は何でしょうか?そして治療わ何?
私たちは人間として外の原因をよく責めるでしょう。例えば、お金が石油や武器やセックスなどのことに「誘惑される」と言いますが、最近の日曜日の朗読によると、私たちの罪は外からじゃなくて、自分の心の中から出ることです。口に入れるものじゃなくて口から出るものそして汚い手じゃなくて汚い心は罪の原因だとイエスが言われました。学食の扉の上に書いてある古代ローマの弁護士キケロの言葉の通り「Appetitus rationi oboediant」、つまり「欲望は理性に従うように。」その逆にもし心が欲望の奴隷になれば、罪が生まれてしまうのです。

キリストが貧乏に生まれた:聖ビンセント・ド・ポール

誰も貧乏になりたくないでしょう?だと皆が思いますが、実際に、貧乏になろうとする人が存在しますよ。今日、九月二十七日の記念する聖人はその「貧乏になりたい」という人でした。16世紀のフランス人、聖ビンセント・ド・ポールのことです。

これを書きました:
「貧しい人が行儀(ぎょうぎ)が悪いかもしれないですが、姿や知能で判断しないで。信仰の光の中で考えれば、貧しい人は貧乏で生まれることを選んだ神のみ子の代わりになっているのです。
「苦しみの中で、主イエスは人間の姿を失ったところになってしまって、『異邦人には愚かなもの、ユダヤ人にはつまずかせるもの』なのに、貧しい人に説教するために降ったと明らかにしました。イエスは『貧しい人に福音を告げ知らせるために、主が私を遣わされた』と言いました。我らも同じ魂を守って、キリストの動作を真似して、貧しい人を世話して、慰めて、手伝って、支援するはずです。
「キリストが貧乏に生まれることを選んだので、貧しい弟子達を選びました。自分を貧しい人の僕としました。神様が貧しい人が大好きなので、貧しい人を助ける人も大好きです。…
「貧しい人にことを大事にするのは、他のことより私たちの役目です。貧しい人を役に立つことを神様に祈りとして捧げて。貧しい人に一生懸命(いっしょうけんめい)に仕えてください。彼ら私たちの主だからです。」

このお金と物を大事にする時代では、聖ビンセント・ド・ポールの言葉は聞きにくいですが、彼が創立した教団の修道士とシスターがまだ貧しくなって、貧しい人に仕えることを続いています。例えば、日本では、聖パウロ女子修道会がこの大事な仕事を進んでいます。

私たちは修道院ではなくても、聖ビンセントの言葉と模範を考えると、どうやってこの短い人生の間、貧しい人に仕えることができると考えれば、と思います。

学者と主教:ランセロット・アンドリユーズの記念日

毎年9月25日に、聖公会は16世紀のイギリス人の主教様ランセロット・アンドリユーズを記念します。私が司祭になった前、ロンドンのMerchant Taylors’という学校で教えたのですが、アンドリューズはその学校の有名な卒業者でした。子供のとき、ラテン語、ギリシャ語、そしてヘブライ語も勉強して、その学校に卒業してから、ケンブリッジ大学に入門しました。立派な学者だったので、ペンブルック・カレッジのマスター、つまり校長になりました。ジェームズ王1世のおかげで、1603年に主教に叙任されました。ジェームズ王は新しい聖書の翻訳を求めていまして、アンドリューズを翻訳委員会に招待しました。結果は、1611に出版した「King James Bible」という聖書でした。今でも、世界中の一番使用されている英訳聖書です。アンドリューズは王様の宮殿でよく説教しに誘えられました。その説教とお祈りの選集が出版されて、イギリスで有名になりあました。今でも人気があります。
アンドリューズの思想は東の正教会の教父に影響されて、聖餐式のことをすごく大事にしました。ジェームズ王の前で、あるクリスマス日に、このように説教しました:
「聖餐式の中のキリストと、飼い葉桶の中のキリストとそんなに変わらないです。飼い葉桶は聖体のパン、つまり外面の徴に似ています。誰かが外からそのパンを見れば、あまり価値がないと思いますが、内容は尊いものです。キリストが中に寝ていた飼い葉桶(かいばおけ)もその通り。ただ弱くて、貧しい(まずしい)ものですが、その中に、キリストが見つけられます。動物の飼い葉桶(かいばおけ)の中に天使のパンを見つけたと同じように、聖餐式のパンはキリストを代表しながら、キリスト自身も私たちに与えるものです。… キリストの体をいただいたところ私たちは、できるだけ天使の完全に近くて、できるだけ神に栄光を与えられるようになって、できるだけ全世界との平和を感じて、良い志を悟るようになります。」
アンドリューズ主教は必ず、自力に頼(たよ)らなくて、神に与えられた恩恵に信頼した人間でした。だから、主教様として信徒達に愛されて、学者として王様に尊敬されたアンドリューズは、今でも記念されています。世界中の色々な教会の中では、アンドリューズを表す像やステンドグラスでもが見られます。しかし、アンドリューズ主教様は自分自身で有名になることにあまり興味がありませんでした。毎晩、こいうふうに祈りました:
「今寝て、休ませて頂きますが、主よ、あなたのお陰意外に、無事で生きることができません。真理の主よ、主が私を救ったので、主のみ手に私の魂をお渡しいたします。」
私たちも、主のみ手に自分の信仰、才能、魂を渡せるようになるように祈ります。

Childish Wisdom

Contrary to popular opinion, you do not have to be nice to be a saint. The argumentative St Athanasius, after whom the Athanasian Creed in our Prayer Books is named, was not very nice. As far as I can see, the only reason why the most recent Anglican church calendars half reduced the celebration of S Jerome, one of the greatest biblical scholars and translators in history, to the status of a mere commemoration, is also because he was not very nice. In fact, if you will forgive me a slightly unseasonal reference, even Saint Nicholas, the patron Saint of children who taught Father Christmas everything he knows, was not always very nice, either. in AD 325, at the Council of Nicea, which sounds “nicer” by name than it really was, jolly old Saint Nick punched the heretic Arius in the face for suggesting that our Lord Jesus Christ was not fully divine. 

If you want to get an idea of what a not very nice modern-day saint might look like, you could try the HBO series, the Young Pope, though I will warn parents that this programme really is not suitable for children! Although he is played by the British actor Jude Law, the eponymous Young Pope is the Catholic Church’s first American pontiff, and he presents a rather strange and ambivalent character. The Cardinals elected him because he was young and they thought he would be a push-over, someone they could easily manipulate. No one was quite sure about his political and religious views. But when he came to power, they received quite a shock. His views, it turned out, were marginally to the right of Cardinal Lefebvre, and he was not afraid of implementing them, even when this made him act in ways that one could certainly not call nice: for instance, sending a wicked but old and arthritic cardinal off to an exciting new post in Alaska. He describes himself as vindictive and unforgiving. And yet, it seems that he is capable from time to time of miracles, the greatest of which I’m not going to tell you, just in case you haven’t seen the series yourself yet. Suffice it to say that he is not easy to love: but actually, I think this is a far more authentic and credible depiction of sainthood any sentimental hagiography.

Learn not to love?

“Pour out so that you may be filled. Learn not to love in order that you may love. Turn away, so that you may be turned towards.”

Sermon on Isaiah 50:4-9; James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18; Mark 8:27-38

Any guesses as to who these words came from? It all sounds rather paradoxical, maybe even a bit to Zen, no? The middle bit is particularly tricky, isn’t it: learn not to love? Something like the quote attributed to the Buddha, “he who has 100 loves has 100 sufferings?” Well, to give you a clue, it is in fact a Christian spiritual teacher I’m quoting here. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was Meister Eckhart, because it sounds like the sort of paradoxical thing that he might say, and I do quote him quite often. But it’s not. Nor is it one of the Eastern fathers.

And the answer is… St Augustine.

I know, in some circles Saint Augustine is blamed for all sorts of things, and particularly for his take on original sin, but I will persist in insisting that he is one of the greatest spiritual teachers of the Western Church, and well worth reading. Believe it or not, he can be very enjoyable to read, especially his famous Confessions, which is easily available, and doesn’t need higher degrees in theology to understand: I recommend it if you haven’t read it already, especially the accounts that he gives of his spiritual experience which drew him to the Christian faith.

But to come back to the quote at hand – pour out so that you may be filled, learn not to love in order that you may love, turn away so that you may be turned towards – I think S Augustine is really talking here about what Jesus calls being poor in spirit, taking up your cross, and so becoming like Christ, who, in the words of the ancient Christological him ii Philippians 2, “emptied himself and took the form of a slave.”

To quote Augustine’s Easter forefather S Athanasius, in Christ, God became human, so that we humans might become God: that is to say, as far as possible, to become one with God. And since Christ bears the fullest imprint of the divine nature, to become one with God we must become like Christ: that is to say, like the divine word who poured himself out, emptying himself all of his glory to become born a tiny baby, a nothing in the eyes of the world; who poured out even his Incarnate human nature, by the ignominy of execution on the Cross, the Lord of Creation a criminal among criminals; who poured out his divinity by descending to hell, and so reaching to the depths of utter absence of divinity, reality embracing nonbeing, absolute nothingness. And yet it is in that pouring out, that emptying, that becoming nothing, that Our Lord manifested the fullness of the Resurrection and eternal life. To take part in the Body of Christ is to be poured out, so that you may be filled.

But what about that difficult middle sentence? Learn not to love? Surely Christ is all love, all compassion? Well, yes, but that rather depends on what you love, and how you love it. Now there’s nothing parishioners hate more than when the clergy use Jesus is commands to take up your cross as a way of asking for more money, so that’s not what I’m going to do. It is, after all, not money that is the root of all evil, but the love of money, and by extension, the love of material things for their own sake rather than for the sake of the gospel. Neither James nor Our Lord command us to despise material things, but they do call us not to heed them. If we pay more attention to the man in the Rolex watch then the woman in stinking rags who wanders into our church, then this is a clear sign that we love the wrong things, or perhaps better, we love things wrongly. We have become trapped by them, or as the Elder Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamasov puts it rather more forcibly, enslaved by them:

“which of the two is more capable of upholding and serving a great idea: the isolated rich man or one who is liberated from the tyranny of things?”

How clearly these words speak to us in an age which flaunts its addiction to material things, especially to the glowing rectangles which we carry in our pockets and tap away at to isolate ourselves from one another when we’re sitting on the train. All of these things can be put to good use: the question is whether we use them for our own glory, the glory of having the latest and the best things or having more than everybody else, or whether we use them for the glory of God. Because if it is the former, then we need to learn to unlove these things, so that we learn the love which gives us all things in the first place and which we call God.

This, I think, is where the pub or dinner party critic of the church comes unstuck, when they point that’s the fine buildings and works of art that the church owns, and say it should all be sold and given to the poor, not thinking for a moment that perhaps their luxury holidays, designer goods and expensive cars could be faced with the same accusation. I’d say that it is absolutely right to honour God in the church by offering him the finest and most beautiful things that human ingenuity can devise, whether it is richly ornamented vestments and gold candlesticks and stained glass windows, or the very best music that we can offer, especially since anyone, however rich or poor, can come in and enjoy it all. There can be no higher use of material things than to return them in thanksgiving to the one who gives us all. It is to learn to love things as gifts rather than as possessions:

If the loss of external things causes me pain, then this is a clear sign that I love external things and thus, in truth I love suffering and despair.

Meister Eckhart

We must learn to unlove external things in order that we may love Love Himself, the divine word of love who dwells unutterably beyond us, and yet more intimately within us than we dare to imagine.

And this is why, finally, we must turn away, so that we may be turned towards. As we say at our Baptism, we turn away from the world, the flesh, and the Devil. In the ancient liturgies of the Church, those about to be baptised words literally turned away from the West door towards the mystical East, where the altar stands, where the body and blood of Christ are made present before us, and where the Sun of Righteousness dawns. Spiritually speaking, yes, we turn away from the things of this world which, as it were, exercise a gravitational pull our souls away from God and down towards Hell and nonbeing. We turn away from the external things and instead we turn within, so that in truly knowing ourselves, we might know the One in whose Image we are made. And yet here is a great paradox. For it is precisely in turning away from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and towards their luminous Source, that we come to turn towards them, and to see them in the light of the love that will transform them, and make them lovable in turn: the world, the flesh, and yes, even the Devil, cannot escape the loving, transfiguring luminescence of God.

This, I think, is something of the meaning of James’s discourse on faith and works. As Meister Eckhart puts it,

“insofar as it is something external that prompts you to act, to that extent your works are dead, and even if it is God who prompts you to act from outside, then such works too are dead.”

Like material riches, the external riches of the Law are to be loved not for themselves, and not for the pride of possessing them, but for the virtue of their internal assimilation, which comes only from self-emptying and illumination by God. Self-emptying, rather than mere obedience to externals, is the Christ-like faith which emptied and filled the hearts of S James, S Paul, and all the great mystics and martyrs. Without it, all our works are dead.

If we want the God who creates from nothing to make anything of us, then we must become nothing. To take up the Cross is to empty the self that we might receive, to pour out that we might be filled, to silence and to still our desires that we may truly love, to turn away from the world that we may become vehicles and instruments of its redemption, to turn from the Devil and to offer him our back. The salvation of the world does not begin with the redistribution of external goods and the rearrangement of the social order: it begins with the inward turn and the emptying of our hearts.

Taking up the Cross is an act far more radical than giving away all our money and every material thing that we own, though for some Christians it does include both of those things.

It is the absolute and unconditional gift of self – body, soul, heart, will, imagination – that we may become one with the One who is giver, gift and the very act of giving, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.

Ascend downwards, descend upwards

They say it’s best not to start with an apology, but perhaps the gnomic titles of my sermons demand if not apologies, then at least a word of explanation. I wish that I could boast that the phrase “ascend downwards, and descend upwards” was my own, but in fact it comes from the pen of the 17th century Anglican priest and Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, in a sermon he preached to the House of Commons at Westminster in 1647. Perhaps as I read a brief extract, you might imagine the faces of modern parliamentarians if it were preached to them:

The “divine purposes … they wrapped up in everlasting darkness, and covered in a deep abyss… The way to obtain a good assurance indeed of our title to heaven, is not to clamber up to it, by a ladder of our own ungrounded persuasions; but to dig as low as hell by humility and self-denial in our own hearts … we must send downward, and descend upward, if we would indeed come to heaven.”

Ralph Cudworth

Cudworth could assume in his time that the parliamentarians of England would agree with him that the good is to be found in the heights of heaven and the depths of the soul. Now some modern parliamentarians may privately agree with this, but it is not a matter many would nowadays see fit to discuss in the public square. With invisible and eternal gods relegated to the realm of a private conscience, all that is left for the public servants to do, is to argue about the best way to carve up and distribute visible, material goods. The social and environmental results of this approach have not, I think it is safe to say, been entirely encouraging.

I’ll be in that out, the Gospel teaches us to pay attention to the matters of this world, to visit the orphans and widows, as it were. It cools has to be doers as well as heares of the Word. But – and this is desperately important – we must be serious and heroes first, before we can be speakers and duos. We must be contemplatives before we can be activists. Miss the first step, and the results will be disastrous.

So, in what does this contemplation consist? How are our ears to be opened that our tongue may be released? Well, James tells us. We must look upwards to the unchanging reality of the Father of Lights from whom all perfection comes; yet a passage to the light is through entering into the depths of my soul is where the Word is already and always implanted in the darkness. We must ascend downward and descend upward.

You may know that there is quite a lot of Plato’s philosophy in John and Paul, but Christian Platonists ranging from Origen of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa in the East, through to St Augustine, Meister Eckhart, the Cambridge Platonists and the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the West, have long found great spiritual value in today’s passage of James. I recently came across some words of the 20th century Anglican spiritual director Evelyn Underhill which I thought really resonated here:

“You know how Plato spoke of this life as a cave in which men were imprisoned and could only judge reality by seeing the shadow cast by light outside. But for Christians the cave has become a great shrine in which we are taught and moulded for the purpose of our creation – a sacrificial life in union with God.”

Evelyn Underhill

Doesn’t this so succinctly capsulate the Christian life of prayer and action, contemplation and service? For Plato, arguably, the cave of this world, even the cave of our bodies, was a kind of prison, shutting our souls off from the light. But for Christians, this can’t be quite right. The word of God, the mind and wisdom of God, the light of gods, decay in the flesh and dwelt among us: by the same spirit with which he was conceived in the virgins empty room, still he dwells within the emptiness of our souls, as long as we do not clutter them up with devices and desires.

Contemplation is our spiritual training to see everything in this world as a manifestation of the mind of God and of his glory. It is to learn to see through the imperfect things around us the perfect blueprint in the realm of the father of lights whether is not a variation or shadow or decay. It is to learn to see water gushing in the desert. It is to learn to make our dumbness speak with the greatest eloquence, our ears hear the most profoundly moving symphony in the mutest of matter.

The alternative is to see this world, and all its creatures, including other people, as just so much stuff, as resources to be used. This is the worldview of secular modernity. This is the result of the application of merely human justice. Fruits yields are bitterness, envy, resentment and division. If you don’t believe me, just scroll through Twitter one of these days. Or better, don’t! – because it’s full of the voices of people who (and some of them are professing Christians) are not willing to wait for what Isaiah calls “the retribution of God” and his salvation, but think that they can force it for themselves, by sheer will. Elder Zosima, in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, has some sobering words for keyboard warriors:

“If the wickedness of people arouses indignation and insurmountable grief in you, to the point that you desire to revenge yourself upon the wicked, fear that feeling most of all.”

Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

It’s something I certainly feel from time to time: and it’s a sure sign that I’ve been neglecting my life of prayer.

Imagine the alternative. We set aside time each day for contemplation of the implanted word which anchors us to the Father of Lights. We bask in the dappled light of the words of scripture, Prayer Book and Bible out for morning and evening prayer each day. We had some minutes of silent contemplation to that, perhaps using a prayer rope or rosary. We make an honest confession before we go to sleep, and pray God to empty the detritus from the cave of our hearts. When there is a boulder that needs an extra push, we go to a priest for formal absolution.

In this way, we prepare ourselves, we make clear the way for the living Word to be born in us as we receive the blessed sacrament of the altar. No empty ritual, no social habit, but illumination from within. Descending into our souls, we ascend to heaven. Ascending to heaven, we descend to the needs of the world.

And then – in God’s time, which may or may not be in sync with our own – we act.

Be afraid.

Immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Mark 6:45-52

Today’s supplementary texts: 2 Kings 2:1-15; Ephesians 4:1-7,11-16

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his disciples, as he walks over the water and calms the waves. But of course, they are afraid. They were afraid of the sea, and we can understand that well in Japan. How much more afraid should they be of someone who can tame the sea. As afraid as Moses when God spoke those same words, “I am,” from the flaming bush, or when God “passed him by” on Mount Sinai. As afraid as Elisha, when Elijah was lifted up by the wind of God. “The power that yields to no power of nature,” as Kant put it, is truly terrifying.

Yet fear of God, said Solomon, is the beginning of Wisdom. God is a vast ocean of love so wide that we can never see beyond the horizon, and so deep that we can never reach the seabed. And while love offers comfort, certainly it is a fearful thing. The unknowability of its depths is what makes Love so terrifying. Did the Buddha not say, he who has a thousand loves has a thousand sufferings? Yes, and we Christians embrace all thousand of them, we swim among them, even at risk of drowning; because we, like Saint Augustine, know that our hearts are restless until they their rest in God. When we fear God, we are at rest, because we need fear nothing in this world.

難民の日曜日

かつて、フランス人の哲学者サルトルは「L’infer, c’est les autres」、つまり「地獄は他人だ。」と言いました。しかし、私はそうではなく、イギリスの作家で『ナルニア国物語』の著者、C.S.Lewisが言い表す、「地獄は自分で作る牢獄であり、その鍵はドアの中にある。」という考え方のほうがずっと好きです。そうです、地獄とは自分の心を牢獄にしてしまうことにほかなりません。私たちを地獄に閉じ込めるのは神様ではなく、私たち自身なのです。そしてその一方で、私たち自身の心の中に牢獄の扉の鍵があります。その鍵は自分自身と他人との関係そのものであり、私たちの周囲にいる他人は「地獄」ではなくて、むしろ天国への鍵なのです。

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