Sunday, July 12, 2015

“Thy Friend and thy Father’s Friend forget not.”

The Poet Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894 was best known for her poem “Goblin Market”, along with a number of romantic and devotional poems including the Christmas Carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” as well as children’s poems.  Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and later Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris formed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood that sought to return to the simpler and more direct style of painting before Raphael.   Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” reflects the Pre-Raphaelite return to nature inspired by the theories of John Ruskin.  The Poem, “Thy Friend and thy Father’s Friend forget not” is part of a large body of her devotional poems, and the title is drawn from the Book of Proverbs.
Do not forsake your friend and your father's friend, and do not go to your brother's house in the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away” (Proverbs 27:10).  

“Thy Friend and thy Father’s Friend forget not.”

Friends, I commend to you the narrow way:
   Not because I, please God, will walk therein,
   But rather for the Love Feast[i] of that day,
The exceeding prize which whoso will may win.
   Earth is half spent and rotting at the core,
   Here hollow death’s heads mock us with a grin,
Here heartiest laughter leaves us tired and sore.
   Men heap up pleasures and enlarge desire,
   Outlive desire, and famished evermore
Consume themselves within the undying fire.
   Yet not for this God made us: not for this
   Christ sought us far and near to draw us nigher,
Sought us and found and paid our penalties.
   If one could answer “Nay” to God’s command,
   Who shall say “Nay” when Christ pleads all He is
For us, and holds us with a wounded Hand?1

                Thematically the poem divides into four sections; the first, the human predicament and the goal; second fallen creation and fallen creatures; third, God’s design for humankind; and fourth, the irresistible offer of grace.

Section One:

Friends, I commend to you the narrow way:
   Not because I, please God, will walk therein,
   But rather for the Love Feast of that day,
The exceeding prize which whoso will, may win.

            The author calls us friends and commends to us the narrow way, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14), but she immediately admits her inability to walk therein.  Having read a great deal of her poetry I would say that her incapacity to walk in the narrow way is not from a lack of desire, but from a keen sense that save for the grace of God she knows that there is no good in her. 

            Christina Rossetti, by virtue of her devout Anglicanism, was a true Benedictine at heart. In his Rule, St. Benedict says, “Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This then is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love.”[ii]

As a devout Anglican and Anglo-Catholic she would be very familiar with the penitentiality and mood of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  Collects such as the Collect for the Second Sunday of Lent make our absolute dependence on grace very clear, “Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP 1662). 

With her we acknowledge that we see the narrow way, recognize its worth, yet recognise that apart from grace we cannot walk in it.  With grace we discover and confess that there are things we have done, and things we have left undone, that have not only created pain for ourselves and others, but have also grieved the heart of our loving Heavenly Father.  We come as penitents before the throne of grace trusting in the merits of Christ Jesus our Lord, Who is Himself our Righteousness when we have none of our own.

We who have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb are invited to the Love Feast, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure"- for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.  And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are the true words of God” (Revelation 19:7-9).  To sit at table with Him Whom we adore in the Heavenly Kingdom is the exceeding prize that we, forgetting what lies behind, strain forward to win (Phil. 3:12-16).

Section Two:

            We live in a world that has been corrupted by the Fall of Humankind, and the

   Earth is half spent and rotting at the core,
   Here hollow death’s heads mock us with a grin,
Here heartiest laughter leaves us tired and sore.
   Men heap up pleasures and enlarge desire,
   Outlive desire, and famished evermore
Consume themselves within the undying fire.

                The dangers of this half spent earth rotting at the core are evident in the temptation and fall theme in Goblin Market where the luscious fruits offered by the Goblins lead to addiction and death.  St. Benedict warns us, “We must be on our guard, therefore, against evil desires, for death lies close by the gate of pleasure.”[iii] That is not meant to be an idle warning.

Christina Rossetti herself was torn by the offer of love and ultimately rejected her suitor Charles Cayley. Glenn Everett, Associate Professor of English, University of Tennessee at Martin tells us that “From the early '60s on she was in love with Charles Cayley, but according to her brother William, refused to marry him because "she enquired into his creed and found he was not a Christian." Milk-and-water Anglicanism was not to her taste” (The Victorian Web: The Life of Christina Rossetti).    

What is it the separates “milk and water Anglicans, from true Christians? The 16th Century Anglican Divine, Richard Hooker points to the difference between the visible Church and the mystical Church:

“The visible Church of Jesus Christ is therefore one, in outward profession of those things, which supernaturally appertain to the very essence of Christianity, and are necessarily required in every particular Christian…
Our naming of Jesus as Lord is not enough to prove us Christians unless we embrace the faith he proclaimed…
We are speaking now of the marks of the visible Church and they are One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. All those who make this external profession are Christians, even if they be impious and excommunicable…
The mystical Church cannot contain such evildoers, but the visible church does. Jesus uses the parable of the net or the wheat and tares. God has always had such a mixed visible Church.[iv]

There is a choice between the cruel but hard option of separating oneself from the half spent and rotting earth, or being consumed by the internal undying fire,  “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'  For everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:47-49).  It should be noted that Christina distrusted pleasure and desire, even desire for things that were permissible, at one point giving up chess because she enjoyed winning so much (Everett).

            St. Benedict goes on to say, “The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires; rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: I have come not do to my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38).

Similarly we read, ‘Consent merits punishment; constraint wins a crown.’”[v] For contemporary Christians being confronted by the dangers of wilful pleasure is like walking into a bush of stinging nettles.

Section Three:

   Yet not for this God made us: not for this
   Christ sought us far and near to draw us nigher,
Sought us and found and paid our penalties.

There is a strong penitentiality in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer that is reflected in Christina Rossetti’s spirituality and a number of her poems are penitential in nature, yet she is clearly aware that God did not make us in order to have us consume ourselves with undying fire.  Twice she repeats, “not for this . . . not for this.”  No Christ went to the farthest extremes to rescue his lost sheep.  The psalmist says, “Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit.” and, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Psalm 49:7-9, 15 RSV).

An Anglican understanding of the work of Christ comes in part from St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. “There is an apocryphal story told by St. Anselm in a sermon at Bec:  Justice and mercy were arguing in heaven as they looked down upon the fallen world in the year 1 B.C.  Justice insisted that it should be destroyed, for how else should his position be maintained?  Mercy replied that, in that case, how could his position stand?  They were joined by the divine Logos who, embracing them, said “leave it to me and I will satisfy you both.”[vi] The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, quoting from Holy Scripture, testifies that Christ “sought us and found and paid our penalties.”

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour
     Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him:

COME unto me all that travail and are
heavy laden, and I will refresh you. S.
Matth. 11. 28.

So God loved the world, that he gave his
only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe
in him should not perish, but have everlasting
life. S. John 3. 16.

Hear also what St. Paul saith:
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men
to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the
world to save sinners. 1 Tim. 1. 15.

Hear also what St. John saith:
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with
the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is
the propitiation for our sins. 1 S. John 2. 1.

Section Four:

   If one could answer “Nay” to God’s command,
   Who shall say “Nay” when Christ pleads all He is
For us, and holds us with a wounded Hand?

                There is in the poems of Christina Rossetti the ardent response of a loving heart to the pleading of the Christ who died for her.  There is for Christina Rossetti no passive hearing of the offer of Christ.  In another poem she writes:


Lord Jesus Christ, grown faint upon the Cross,
   A sorrow beyond sorrow in Thy look,
      The unutterable craving for my soul;
         Thy love for me sufficed
To load upon Thee and make good my loss
   In the darkened heaven and earth that shook:--
      In face of earth and heaven, take Thou my whole
          Heart, O Lord Jesus Christ.2

            Nothing less than the Love Feast, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will do, that is the exceeding prize she seeks to win.  The gate of heaven is in the suffering and wounds of Christ. “O bone Jesu, exaudi me. Intra tua vulnera absconde me. Ne permittas me separari a te” (The Anima Christi), “O good Jesu, hear me, In your wounds hide me.  Do not permit be to be separated from Thee”.

            The Cross is not the end goal, but rather it is the gate of life.  She prays,

O my King and my heart’s own choice,
   Stretch Thy Hand to Thy fluttering dove;
Teach me, call to me with Thy Voice,
      Wrap me up in Thy Love.3


1. Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, ed. R. W. Crump & Betty S. Flowers, (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p.410-411
2.  Ibid, p. 436
3.  Ibid. p. 415

[i] Eucharist
[ii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72, “The Good Zeal of Monks”
[iii] RB Chapter 7, “On Humility”
[iv] Michael B. Russell, Kindle, Hooker’s Blueprint, 31.4, 3.1.5, 3.1.7
[v] Ibid, RB
[vi] (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality,  (Cambridge: Cowley Press) p. 163).  

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gregory Palamas Sermon on Pentecost

Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessalonica, was a monk of Mount Athos in Greece … and later became Archbishop of Thessalonica. He was a preeminent theologian and a proponent of hesychastic theology.[i] [For “hesychastic theology” seen note at end.]

Sermon on Pentecost[ii]
The Holy Spirit is not just sent, but Himself sends the Son, who is sent by the Father. He is therefore shown to be the same as the Father and the Son in nature, power, operation and honour. By the good pleasure of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, the only-begotten Son of God, on account of the boundless ocean of divine love for mankind, bowed the heavens and came down (Psalm 18:9). He appeared on earth after our fashion, lived among us, and did and taught great, wonderful and sublime things truly worthy of God, which led those who obeyed Him towards deification and salvation.

            After willingly suffering for our salvation, being buried and rising on the third day, He ascended into heaven and sat down on the right hand of the Father, whence He co-operated in the decent of the divine Spirit upon His disciples by sending down together with the Father the power from on high, as Both had promised (Luke 24:49). Having sat down in the heavens, He seems to call to us from there, “If anyone wants to approach this glory, become a partaker of the kingdom of heaven, be called a son of God, and find eternal life, inexpressible honour, pure joy and never-ending riches, let him heed My commandments and imitate as far as he can My own way of life. Let him follow My actions and teachings when I came to the world in the flesh to establish saving laws and offer Myself as a pattern.”

Truly the Saviour confirmed the gospel teaching by his deeds and miracles, and fulfilled it through His sufferings. He proved how beneficial it was for salvation by His resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and now by the descent of the divine Spirit upon His disciples, the event we celebrate today. After rising from the dead and appearing to His disciples, He said as He was taken up into heaven, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). “For ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and you shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The Hesychiast Teaching of Gregory Palamas

Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. Addressing the question of how it is possible for humans to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God, he drew a distinction between knowing God in his essence (in Greek, ουσία) and knowing God in his energies (in Greek, ενέργειαι). He maintained the Orthodox doctrine that it remains impossible to know God in his essence (God in himself), but possible to know God in his energies (to know what God does, and who he is in relation to the creation and to man), as God reveals himself to humanity. In doing so, he made reference to the Cappadocian Fathers and other early Christian writers.

Gregory further asserted that when the Apostles Peter, James and John witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor, that they were in fact seeing the uncreated light of God; and that it is possible for others to be granted to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer, although not in any automatic or mechanistic fashion.

He continually stressed the Biblical vision of the human person as a united whole, both body and soul. Thus, he argued that the physical side of hesychastic prayer was an integral part of the contemplative monastic way, and that the claim by some of the monks of seeing the uncreated light was indeed legitimate. Like St. Simeon the New Theologian, he also laid great stress in his spiritual teaching on the vision of the divine light.[iii]

Biblical Background:

The Hesychiast emphasis on being transformed by the beholding of the Light is clearly seen in the 2nd Epistle of Peter, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”[iv]

[i] Orthodox Wiki
[ii] The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, (Kindle) , “Pentecost.”
[iii] Orthodox Wiki
[iv] 2 Peter 1:3-4