As lockdown looms, Twitter begins to buzz again with clerical outrage. Inevitably, bemused or disgusted onlookers will (in not so many words) echo Tertullian’s refrain, “how these Christians love one another.” But given that we have, at least in theory, only a fixed term of a month to contend with, perhaps we can treat one another better this time.
As a sometime purveyor of clerical invective, I come to this with a grudging mea culpa, and resolve to set out my thoughts briefly – before the storm, as it were – yet, I hope, irenically.
I see a division of two broad camps of outrage, and without wanting to encourage the spraying of uninvited liquids into one another’s tents, it might help to articulate what those are. One camp is outraged at the idea that some Christian leaders (aka: “irresponsible, clericalist, ritualist regressives who think buildings are more important than people”) want to keep the Sunday morning Eucharist going even in lockdown, thereby putting vulnerable people at risk of exposure to the virus. The other is outraged that some Christian leaders (aka: “a liberal Evangelical nexus of pseudo-pastoral, paternalistic quasi-secularists who want to close down all our churches”) don’t understand or don’t beleive in the efficacy of sacraments or share a sacramental worldview.
I have at times perpetuated these stereotypes. Let me try to get beyond it to where I think the division really comes from: basically, I think it’s a matter of metaphysics.
On the one hand, liberals and Evangelicals share with secular atheists a suspicion of superstition which has developed from their firm insistence on the utter transcendence and separation of God from the world. If God acts in the world at all, it is by sheer power of his sovereign will. This naturally tends towards a more receptionist sacramental theology, or to a rejection of the need for the sacraments and an internalisation of their effect: it is the internal life of prayer in faith which channels grace rather than any external rites or objects.
On the other is that worldview of metaphysical continuity between God and creation which one might rightly call sacramental, in which the immanence of God is emphasised along with his transcendence. God’s grace is mediated in things of this world, and his will is one with his nature as absolute goodness. The highest instantiation of God’s grace comes through the sacraments which he, as Word Incarnate, ordained, and through the Church and her rites by which he commanded its perpetuation. The sacraments are therefore efficient in their own right (rite?), objectively so, and are indispensible in the spiritual life of the believer. They are ultimately not ‘external’ to God or mere signs of his grace because they participate in him and enable human participation in him to the highest degree possible in this life.
There are Evangelicals who miss the gathered assembly of the proclamation as much as Catholics miss the Sacrament; Catholics as concerned for the safety of their flock as liberals. Everybody is losing out on something they value. Perhaps now is the time for sympathy rather than point-scoring.
It’s clear which camp I belong to. Nonetheless, it might help us to understand one another’s positions rather than merely to sneer at one another. Can we manage a month without outrage?
The first instalment of a brief series during lockdown on what the Mass is and why it matters.
We’re going into another lockdown. Among other things, this means that for a month, at least, Churches are closed for public worship, and we will not be able to celebrate Mass together. You may be thinking, “so what?” Can’t people just pray at home? Well, of course they can. But there’s more to the Mass than that: so, for these weeks in the run-up to Christmas, I thought we could spend our time thinking about what the Mass is and why it matters.
There’s nothing like starting on a high note, so today, let’s begin with – sin. Yes, the fire and brimstone stuff that people who don’t go to church think people who do go to church are fretting about all the time, but we really shouldn’t worry about too much: in fact, we laugh at the idea, we don’t take it seriously at all. There are nightclubs called “sin,” chocolates called “temptations,” perfume called “taboo”: sin’s just another sales device, something to stoke up the desire to spend more cash. Nothing to worry about; nothing to worry about at all, nothing to see here – it’s not as if we keep mentioning it so casually and laughing away because somewhere inside, as a society and as individuals, we’re actually deeply worried that we might be getting it all wrong, surely not… It’s only the religious nut jobs who worry about it, while we’re all happy, happy, happy, all the time, doing whatever we want. Right?
Wrong. Britain is reportedly one of the least happy countries in the world. It doesn’t look as though throwing off the shackles of religion has really cheered us up all that much. And I think there’s a reason for that.
The Mass begins with confession: in the new rite, we make our confession literally at the beginning, and in the old rite, in the middle, in between the Bible readings and the Eucharistic prayer – but either way, the Mass begins with confession because we come to it with an awareness of – here it comes – our sin. The priest may leave a few silent moments during the confession to invite you to recall anything you wish you had done done or said – but ideally, we should come to Mass already having thought this through, ready to meet Christ in bread and wine in humility and honesty about our failures and about our inability to fix ourselves without help. And that bit is important. Humility does not mean grovelling and beating ourselves up, not even metaphorically, let alone physically. It doesn’t mean getting stuck in a mire of guilt and shame. Actually, it’s the direst opposite. It means recognising what we have done wrong, but also knowing that we cannot sort it out by ourselves, and asking God for his help – the help we receive in the Eucharist, that medicine of the soul, when we ask for it.
But there’s something else, equally important, and the bottom line of Christianity: forgiveness. If we spend our lives pretending we have no sin, pretending we are not guilty about anything, we are lying to ourselves and bottling it all up inside, where it will brew into something potent and nasty – and when it comes out, it hurts us and the people around us. But when we are honest, and confess our sins before God, those of us who believe are convinced that God forgives us, wipes the slate clean, gives us another chance and the help we need to do better and to be better. Whatever you have done, however awful you think it might be, remember that Jesus forgave the people who nailed him to the Cross. What you have done can’t be as bad as that. Turn to him, and let him release you, set you free from the pain that weighs you down.
You don’t have to go to Mass to make your confession: you can speak to God wherever you are, in private, and he will listen. Sometimes he will give you the healing gift of tears. And if something is really weighing on your conscience, you can go to a priest (like me) for one-to-one confession: it’s not generally like you see on TV, in a darkened box, these days, and takes the form of a spiritual conversation where you tell the priest in confidence what you have done, and he pronounces God’s forgiveness and suggests some prayers or readings – many people find this a valuable spiritual discipline. But the most common way to confess is at the Mass.
So that’s why the Mass starts with Confession. In the words, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, we ask God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to pour his compassion on us. It’s not because Christians like to start the day with a good grovel before breakfast. It’s because we try our best to be honest about our mistakes – our sins – and because we trust that we have a Father who loves us all the same, forgives us, and helps us to grow. And that is the first step in a healthy spiritual life.
This week’s Collect from the Book of Common Prayer (Trinity 21) is almost providentially appropriate. So, I invite you to join me in prayer.
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to they faithful people pardon and peace; that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sermon for the Feast of All Saints 2020, preached at the church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross
Ut unum sint: may they be one. Not words from today’s readings, but from the same school of S John from whose Revelation and First Epistle we have just heard, guiding us towards the Gospel, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Words which help us to hear more clearly what both Ss John and Matthew heard spoken by the Divine Word who lived among them, and whom they loved and knew: words from his final prayer, just before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ut unum sint: may they be one.
I’ve nearly finished the first draft of my new book, due for publication next year with Angelico Press (DV). It’s not going to be called the Areopagite Option! Here’s a précis:
Platonism once gave theologians, ascetics and mystics of the Abrahamic faiths a philosophical language which their peers in the non-theistic Eastern spiritual traditions they met along the Silk Road could understand. Since the erosion of the Platonic tradition in Europe, an understanding of the sacredness of the universe once shared by the majority of the world’s intellectual traditions has gradually been displaced by the increasing hegemony of Western materialism’s more atomising and individualistic worldview.
In this new book, the pseudonymous Christian Platonist Dionysius the Areopagite guides us on an intellectual journey eastward from Athens to Syria, down the Silk Road, and all the way to mediaeval Japan, where me meet Shinran Shonin and his school of True Pure Land Buddhism.
There, we discover that despite their radically different religious traditions, Dionysius and Shinran are engaged in a common quest for a truth which goes beyond the modern binaries of the supernatural versus the natural, culture versus nature, mind versus matter, and faith versus works.
Drawing on years of academic study and his personal experience as a convert from atheism via Buddhism in Japan to Christianity, Fr Thomas Plant gives a lively and intimate account of how two very different and distant philosophies challenge the fundamental Western distinction between supposedly objective secularism and “religions,” conveniently divided into readily conquerable islands of opinion. In Dionysius and Shinran, he discovers coworkers in a lost quest for transcendent goodness, who show how different religious traditions can be vital allies in today’s fight against the relativism of our post-truth age.
The Rev’d Dr Thomas Plant is an Anglican priest and Fellow of the Cambridge Centre for Platonism.
If you’re interested in my progress on this, do sign up to my (very sporadic) news email.
Sermon for 9th Sunday after Trinity Preached (in Japanese) at Holy Trinity Church, Fukui City.
It is a dark time in Jesus’ life. He goes home to preach and is rejected, a prophet without honour in his own house, and because of the people’s faithlessness, he works no miracles there. (Mt 13.57f.) He finds out that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, has been executed by the authorities. (Mt 14.12) And so he tries to get to get away, to a lonely place apart. (Mt 14.13) Away from the memory of his headless corpse. Away from the faithless crowds.
But for all their unbelief, however deaf they were to his words, they follow him, in throngs. (Mt 14.13) This time he does not preach, but heals and feeds, miraculously. No great words, no promises of a better world for all: just a one-off act of great compassion (Mt 14.14) for those who were there right then, sick and hungry at that moment, that little island in the great sea of faithlessness.
Perhaps Jesus did not want to speak. Perhaps it was in frustration that he worked this miracle: talking to these people about God’s love had failed, so he showed them, instead. Perhaps he just wanted to get it done quickly, because, as it is written, he dismisses the crowds, sends the disciples off ahead without explanation, so that at last he can and be alone (Mt 14.22-24).
Alone. Alone for what? This is key: Jesus goes away to pray. Only when he has prayed does he walk out onto the water to calm the storm and bring peace to his disciples in distress (Mt 14.28). The root of his work of divine compassion is solitary prayer.
There is a monastery I go to near my parents’ house in Worcestershire, England, called Glasshampton. It is the novice house for Franciscan brothers in the Church of England. Many people do not know that we have monks and nuns, since Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries and stole their wealth to fund his wars at the Reformation. But in the 19th century, there was a revival of the Catholic tradition, and with it, to the religious life. The founded of Glasshampton, Father William, saw these religious houses as vital to the life of the Church. “The Church is weak in mission,” he said, “because the Church is weak in prayer.”
The Church is a boat which often looks like it is sinking. Church leaders often seem to think that they can calm the storm by a frenzy of words and actions. Yet Jesus throughout this episode of darkness hardly speaks at all. No sermons on structural sin and social inequality, no blueprints for hospitals and mills, so the people can heal and feed themselves, just instant acts of compassion born of prayer.
In themselves, Jesus’ miracles are not great acts. What does it mean to feed thousands when millions go hungry? To heal a few when the world is riddled with Coronavirus? To walk on water and calm a storm when the ship of the Church is sinking? Not much. If Jesus founded his Church to solve the social problems of the world, he failed.
If we want to know what these miracles mean, we need to look to Peter, because Peter stands for the Church. He rushes out into the storm to meet Jesus on the water and begins to sink. It is only when he cries, “Lord, save me!” that the wind ceases. It is only when he prostrates before Jesus, worships him as a good Jew should worship God alone, that he sees who Jesus really is: “truly, you are the Son of God” (Mt 14.33).
“The Son of God.” Peter will say those words again, after Jesus has fed the crowds a second time, and asks the disciples, “who do you say I am?” (Mt 16.15) But just before that, the disciples are worried that they do not have enough bread to feed everybody, and Jesus has to tell them explicitly that his miracles and his message are not about that kind of bread at all (Mt 16.11). He is the one who could have turned stones to bread, after all (Mt 4.3)! 愛jわ The bread he gives is the bread of his body, the bread of his teachings, the bread of life, and this bread is eaten by faith, digested not by the stomach, but by prayer.
When we meet Jesus in the storms of the final judgment, do we want to say to us as he said to Peter, “You of little faith? Why did you doubt?” (Mt 14.31) If we want to see him as he really is, God and Son of God, to be transfigured and illumined with his glory, then we must grow in faith through prayer. This curious bread which God has given us to nourish the world is one which we can give only in as much as we receive.
But make no mistake: if the Church’s prayer is strong, then her mission will be strong.
Sermon preached at Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, on the seventh Sunday after Trinity, 26 July 2020. Readings here.
Where is the treasure beyond price, this fine pearl, this token of the Kingdom, which will make people drop everything they have, leave behind all worldly concerns, abandon everything to obtain? This philosopher’s stone worth more than all King Solomon’s gold, which gives the gift of discerning between good and evil? This talisman which protects its bearer from destruction in the pits of hell and grants the gift of eternal life? What is it, and where can it be found?
Mary Magdalene, whose feast the Church celebrated on Wednesday, looked for it where nobody expected. She was the first to find the treasure beyond price hidden in a crucified criminal’s empty tomb.
She had glimpsed the treasure in Jesus before: possessed by demons, she had received Jesus’ healing and absolution. The tradition of the Church used to identify Mary Magdalene with the Mary who was Martha’s sister, and sat still, listening to Jesus and anointing Jesus’ feet, while Martha bustled about and told her off for being lazy. Even though scholars now think that these are two different Marys, their stories are connected by what they found in Jesus: the wisdom they heard and the peace he gave, beyond all understanding.
And isn’t that what Solomon is also just as famous for, as for his gold? The wealth of Solomon is a biblical figure for the wisdom of Solomon. So much so, in fact, that in the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon, sadly omitted from most Protestant bibles but prescribed to be read by the 39 Articles of the Church of England, there is an entire book ascribed to him and called simply, “Wisdom.” It comes just after the Song of Songs, that beautiful love poem between King Solomon and the Shulamite woman so often chosen as a reading at weddings. In the Book of Wisdom, Solomon carries on the theme, personifying Wisdom, or “Sophia” in Greek, as a beautiful woman, and himself as her lover. He declares her “more precious than much fine gold,” “a jewel beyond price,” “an infinite treasure.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord draws often and deeply on this “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament, as we call it, and that is what He is doing here, almost word-for-word: the treasure beyond price is Hagia Sophia, that “holy wisdom” beyond compare.
Wisdom is a fuzzy word, notoriously difficult to define. It clearly means something different form just “intelligence” in our modern sense: you couldn’t measure wisdom with a number, like IQ. Nor does it mean “knowledge,” because people can know a huge amount and still not be particularly wise.
We can define wisdom more closely if we link what the Wisdom of Solomon has to say about it with what we read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. In Wisdom 7, Solomon describes the Wisdom he loves as being like a “spotless mirror of God’s glory, and the reflection (or image) of his goodness.” St Paul writes that God “co-operates for Good” with “those who love Him,” who are “conformed in the image of the Son” and thereby “glorified.” To be wise is to have a soul that mirrors God’s glory, that reflects back the light of his perfect image. To ask God for wisdom is to ask him to polish that mirror so that it reflects without spot or stain, no “dark glass” but clear as the most dazzling diamond in a wedding ring, and just as much a token of love.
The life of prayer is about polishing the mirror of our souls. It takes time, hours spent in silence and devotion, basking in God’s radiant presence. If that sounds self-indulgent, then there are two points to bear in mind.
First, Mary Magdalene went back from the empty tomb to share the treasure with the disciples, earning herself the title of “apostle to the Apostles.” Mirrors reflect outwards. Prayer is not just spiritual sunbathing. If our mirrors are polished, then those rays shine out onto the people around us, in works of love. The difference from before is that now they are God’s works, working with us for the Good, rather than just our own feeble and self-interested endeavours.
Second, even after the disciples left the tomb, Mary Magdalene stayed on, weeping and longing. She knew that the treasure she yearned for with all her heart would be found in her Lord, risen and calling her by name. So I’m not talking about our hearts reflecting formless light, but the image of God specifically as He has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
So where do we find this great treasure? We cannot step into the Tardis to go and join Mary at the foot of the Cross or the empty tomb, so we must seek it here. The Eucharist is our school for discernment of God’s image, that we may reflect it. In the seeds of wheat and grapes, we see Him whose body was planted in the tomb; in the sun and rain which bring the seeds to new birth, the glory of the divine order which sustains all life; in the work of human hands to make bread and wine, the co-operation of God with us towards the greatest Good of life eternal; in the offering of these gifts, the self-offering of the One who gives us life by death to self; in their consumption, the eating and drinking of His most precious body and blood, the internalisation of divine glory, that He may dwell in us and we in Him forever. In this school of Christ, our Master forms us into lovers of Wisdom, no longer divided from Him or one another, but united by the same one light which flickers between us all in the dance of mirrors, communion with Mary Magdalene and all the saints whom He has called.
If the body is a prison, then death is Alcatraz, the final loss of liberty: we strive to technologise and medicate our way through it as much as we do through life. Or, if you think death really does hold no dominion over you, that you have no part in its kingdom: well, take off your masks and sit a bit closer.
But if, like most of us, you’re scared of it, you’d seem to be in good company: for doesn’t even the prophet cry, who can praise God in the pit (Isa 38:18)? We are prisoners of death – and that’s because we have accepted the wages of sin (Rom 6.23), the price of an apple plucked for lust of knowledge.
You may have come to know more of death in these past months than you ever wanted to. We do not want death for those we love; we protest the deaths of those murdered in acts of negligence or brutality; we applaud those who spend their lives saving other people’s. We wear masks, ostensibly less for our own sake than that of others. We resent and resist death, and yet persist in calling Adam’s sin a “happy fault.”
Might we have been better off left ignorant? Well, only if we accept the limits of a certain kind of knowledge: the walls of the fiery prison into which we are all already cast. Our certainty of death, our commitment to the merely natural order as the ultimate bounds of truth, our circumscription of reality by physical mortality – this is what chains our necks from turning just that inch which would let us see the brighter, kindly light beyond the cave, promising to lead us to the knowledge of such good things as pass our understanding.
Only the dead know what is beyond life. And so, to know the fullness of life, we must die. We must leave behind the knowledge of this world for the profound unknowing which alone allows us to “know” the unknowable.
Baptism, death to self, begins the journey. Know ye not (agnoeite, Rom 6.3), asks the Apostle, that you were baptized into Christ’s death? It is not the exercise of our impaired reason, but the glory of the Father (6.4) which shines like the sun to regenerate us, like seeds planted in the likeness of Christ’s death (6.5) – this is what gives us the capacity to know that our slavery to sin is ended (Rom 6.6), and therefore death is no longer our lord (ouketi kurieuei, translated “hath no more dominion,” 6.9). Our new Lord, Christ, leads the Exodus away from where sin still reigns (6.12), binds and defines, into his Kingdom of unbounded, incomprehensible life.
Baptism brings purification from sin and so, in S. Paul’s words, we are justified, made righteous in the sight of the Father. Yet if baptism were the end of our righteousness, Paul would have had no need to write those words at all, and I would have no need to preach to you, already perfect as you are, and exhort you to the further mystery of the Eucharist. We are here because we know only imperfectly, we strain our necks still against the shackles of sin and death to catch a glimpse of that divine glory, of which our souls, though washed in the Blood of the Lamb, still bear only a smeared and murky reflection.
For the perfection of our righteousness, we must climb mountains. Like Moses, we must learn that what we see as dust by day is fire by night; we must enter the cloud to glimpse Him for whom the darkness and the light are both alike (Ps 139:12). And sharing in His divine insight, we find the shackles fall, as we come to see that the light was not only outside our prison after all: for even the fire of the pit has some share in His radiance. Even in the depths, we cannot flee His presence (Ps 139.8).
In today’s Gospel reading, the fire which guided Moses is clad now in the dust of human flesh, both Son of Adam and Son of God. Matthew does not tell us the name of the “mount” of Our Lord’s eponymous sermon, but that doesn’t matter, because His presence there makes it a new Sinai.
Presence is paramount. Our Lord tells us He has come not to destroy the law, but to bring it to perfection (Mt 5:17); he keeps starting, You have heard, and then expounds a Law of Moses; and each time, he takes nothing away from the Law, but rather adds one vital new ingredient: Himself. You have heard, but I tell you… Not only a new Moses, a new recipient of the Law, nor even a new prophet, a new interpreter, Our Lord Himself is the Lawgiver, the Word of God speaking the Mind of God, present now in human form so that His mind may be in us, too (Phil 2:5).
Only by the presence in us of the divine mind could we possibly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20); only by becoming divine might we be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5.48). Without that presence, it would be impossible. Suppose we do not kill. Do we speak unkind words in anger, or to show our peers how unpuritanical and fun we are, unlike those other kinds of Christian over the road? Do we approach the Holy Sacrifice unworthily, without due self-examination, confession, reconciliation? Do we return the Peace with secret hatreds or resentments in our hearts? Of course we do. Only God is perfect.
But don’t think I’m preaching cheap grace. We must not cease striving to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), working with God for our increase in holiness. That is surely what this House is all about. But if we think that we are capable of achieving this by our own intellectual endeavour, our fallen skill, our knowledge, we are mistaken. It is by the gift of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament that we can share in the unbounded unknowing of the Divine mind.
How? The key is in the Collect. Purified by baptism, illumined by the Holy Spirit that we may hear the Word, repent and make a true confession, we come to the perfecting mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood; and in so doing, we pray with the Psalmist (Ps 24) that He, the King of Glory, perfect image of the Father’s light, may enter not only our heads but open wide the gates of our hearts.
It is, in the end, by divine love that we may know beyond knowledge the One who is above all things, who passes understanding, and who grants to the children of Adam the fruit of sanctification (Rom 6:22), eternal sabbath rest from the fears and longings which fetter us here below. Lift up the gates of your heart, open wide the doors, and the prison of your body becomes a Temple for the Lord of Glory to enter in.
So may the dazzling darkness of the Undivided Trinity lead us beyond knowledge into the mind of Christ, in loving communion with his blessed mother and all the saints – that we may know the true value of life, in all its fullness.