The Mystery of Catholicity
Lecturer: Bishop Frank Griswold
Tuesday, 29th April 2008 at 6.15 PM
We remember this man of the Spirit not only for who he was in his own day, but for his continuing influence. For example, I was interested to hear recently from a distinguished professor of liturgics in the United States that he considers Charles Gore's book, The Body of Christ, to be a classical and enduring exposition of the Eucharist and assigns it to be read by his students.
As the advance word about this evening's lecture notes, Charles Gore was
"a leading high Churchman, who sought, with prophetic clarity, to bring Catholic principles to bear on social problems. He was a prolific author who explored orthodox Christian teaching in the light of contemporary questions." Because Charles Gore served as canon of Westminster Abbey before becoming bishop, successively, of Worcester, Birmingham and Oxford, it is most fitting that we gather here in his honor. And I very much hope that what I have to say will be faithful to his spirit.
Charles Gore saw himself as the proponent of what he called a "liberal catholicism," a catholicism which at once was orthodox and yet open to advances in science and the challenges of historical criticism. Therefore, it is altogether appropriate that in this lecture honoring his memory we turn our attention to the subject of catholicity: catholicity understood not as a possession, but as a spiritual force or energy which seeks expression in the life of the church and her members. I have titled this address The Mystery of Catholicity, and by mystery I mean a truth too large for us to understand fully, or to contain within a particular definition.
The word "catholic" is sometimes understood as meaning "universal." Such an understanding, however, does not do full justice to the term. Kenneth Leech observes that Kat'holou from which we derive the word "catholic," carries with it notions of wholeness and fullness. In other words, that which is catholic is expressive of the fullness of God, fullness we, as Christians, come to know in person of Jesus Christ.
The liberal catholicism associated with Bishop Gore is usually identified with a particular tradition within Anglicanism. What I am interested in here, however, is not one theological perspective but rather the all-embracing catholicity of God, who fills the universe with his unfathomable fullness.
First of all, let us recognize that catholicity is not something the church on earth fully possesses. Catholicity is an eschatological reality situated in the mind and imagination of God. As Father Benson, the founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, observed: "No age suffices to present to our view the church of God and her completeness."
"For in [Christ]," as we are told in the letter to the Colossians, "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." (Col.1:19-20) Catholicity, God's own fullness, carries with it the power to reconcile, to break down walls of division, to open things to further discovery and development.
Catholicity is preeminently the work of the Holy Spirit. In the 16th chapter of John's Gospel Jesus says to his disciples, and therefore to us, "I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…he will take what is mine and declare it to you." (John 16:12-15)
Here Jesus, from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace, (John 1:16) acknowledges that the full weight and glory of divine self-disclosure is more than we can bear. We are not ready for God's catholicity in its full force and, therefore, we have to be led gently into its vast expansiveness. Along the way, we encounter our reluctance to be drawn into such fullness and what it may require of us.
Here, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot's observation, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." To this I would add. "Humankind cannot bear very much catholicity," inasmuch as catholicity is an expression of the fullness of God which exceeds all that we can ask or imagine.
St. John of the Cross speaks of the human encounter with divine mystery as finding ourselves on "isulas extrañas," that is strange islands where we have never been before.
Catholicity, as I observed, is an eschatological reality existing in the mind and imagination of God. Moving toward this reality stretches and expands our limited and frequently self-serving notions of God and God's ways. Moving toward it involves coming to an awareness of the prejudgments and biases: which exist within ourselves, within our particular households of faith and within our nations and our global community. Moving toward catholicity involves the overturning of the idols of our own certitude as we stand defenseless before the mystery of God's fullness.
Yes, we may be reluctant to be drawn into God's fullness, much as we may not welcome the idea of finding ourselves on strange islands where we have never been before. I would propose that what is required in order to enter more fully into the mystery of God's fullness is repentance. And what do I mean by repentance in this context?
A wonderfully helpful understanding of repentance is provided for us by the American writer Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota. She recounts a conversation with one of the Benedictine monks who is a member of the community of which she is an oblate. She writes: "Repentance means 'not primarily a sense of regret,' but 'a renunciation of narrow and sectarian human views which are not large enough for God's mystery.' It means recognizing that we have not always seen grace where it exists in the world and agreeing 'to turn away from a stubborn and obdurate position that cannot accept what is new and different and therefore cannot entertain God's mysterious ways.'
"The word entertain," she continues, "is used advisedly here as the monk goes on to speak of hospitality 'the classic sign of [our] acceptance of God's mystery is welcoming and making room' for the stranger, the other, the surprising, the unlooked for and the unwanted."
William Temple understood repentance in very much the same way. He says: "To repent is to adopt God's viewpoint in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God."
I find these words from Archbishop Temple deeply compelling. The notion of the joy of repentance is a sharp contrast to the more familiar view of it – which is typically a thumping of the breast in recognition of the fact that one is a miserable sinner.
Archbishop Temple's observation that the point of repentance is to be in fellowship with God moves us then to ask the question: how is this fellowship to be sustained and deepened? How does God's catholicity, God's fullness, find a home within us? Or, to put it differently, how can we come into more intimate companionship with the Risen Christ, the One in whom the fullness of God dwells, the One from whose fullness we receive grace upon grace? Let us explore several of the ways through which we are drawn into this mystery by turning our attention to scripture, the sacraments, and the practice of prayer.
Scripture is a privileged place of encounter with the risen Christ, the "Lion of the tribe of Judah," as he is named in the book of Revelation, who bounds so frequently and unexpectedly into our lives. The vitality of scripture, its "living-ness" is made clear in the letter to the Hebrews in which we are told, "Indeed the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
Notice how the manifold manifestations of God's word, including scripture, are described in this passage. God's word is living, active, sharp, piercing. It can also find its way into the depths of the human heart. And here it is important for us to remember that in scripture the heart is not simply the seat of emotion. The heart is the core and center of the human person.
The saints clearly understood that the word of God is alive. St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of Holy Scripture as the "wine cellar of the Holy Spirit." He also, echoing St. Augustine of Hippo, describes the scriptures as "a vast sea in which a lamb can paddle and an elephant can swim."
Or again, St. Ephraim of Edessa, of his own encounter with scripture says, "I read the opening verses of the book and was filled with joy, for its verses and lines spread out their arms to welcome me. The first rushed out and kissed me and led me on to the next." Here we have scripture described as opening its arms and drawing us in and leading us, verse by verse, into the depth of its riches.
And we might ask: from where does the vitality, the "living-ness" of scripture come? It is the fruit of Christ's resurrection. The words of scripture become words of life in virtue of the Spirit of the risen Christ present within them.
Here let us turn to the encounter between Christ and his two dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus, as recounted in the 24th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. There we read: "Beginning with Moses and the prophets [Christ] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures." Those same disciples were later able to say "were not our hearts burning within us…while he was opening the scriptures to us?"
After this, in Jerusalem, Christ appears to his followers where Luke tells us he "opened their minds to understand the scriptures." These passages underscore the fact that the risen Christ is truly present in the midst of his disciples through the words of scripture. Christ is the Word at the heart of the word. The risen and living Christ is the Lord of scripture.
As Anglicans we freely acknowledge the authority of scripture and declare in our formularies that scripture "contains all things necessary for salvation." At the same time, we recognize that there are different ways of reading scripture. The fathers of the church were well aware of this and made the distinction between a literal reading and a spiritual reading. In so doing, they acknowledged that biblical inspiration does not guarantee historical accuracy. Myth as well as historical fact can be the medium of divine address, as Bishop Gore was not shy in declaring.
As well, biblical criticism has its place in our approach to scripture, though the critical reading should not be seen as undermining the possibility of a spiritual reading of the same text. For example, the Song of Mary can be viewed not as a spontaneous outpouring of the Virgin's praise but a deliberate composition based upon the Song of Hannah as recorded in the first book of Samuel. A critic might also ask who was present with Mary and Elizabeth to record Mary's song. Such considerations, however, do not preclude our taking the Song of Mary to ourselves on its own terms and making the our Lady's cry of humble gratitude and availability to God's purposes our own.
We must also acknowledge that God's activity is not confined to the pages of the Bible and that the Holy Spirit continues to draw from the fullness of Christ and unfold God's truth in the midst of our lives in the age in which we live. In addition to the words of scripture, we are called to read the scripture of our lives which is made up of the events and circumstances which shape and form us. Again, Bernard of Clairvaux counsels us to read both the book of scripture and the book of experience, recognizing that the events of our lives are often the medium of God's address to us. The world itself and the turnings of our days give us news of God.
Here I am put in mind of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. "God's utterance of Himself in Himself is God the Word, outside Himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God. Therefore its end, its purpose, its purport, its meaning, is God, and its life or work to name and praise him."
Or here again, in the words of Charles Gore: "The Holy Spirit is ever active in human life and in the world, gradually molding human nature to the divine will."
I note here that dabar the Hebrew for "word" carries with it notions of event, of occurrence. A word is not simply spoken. A word happens, as in the case of the Incarnation when the Word became flesh.
When we find our hearts burning within us and we are pierced by the words of scripture something very profound occurs. The scriptural word summons and calls forth from deep within us "the implanted word," a term that appears in the letter of James and suggests to me that dimension of Christ's presence planted deep within us in virtue of our creation.
When there is a convergence of the words of scripture, the implanted word and the circumstances of our lives, we experience what I can only call the word of God to me in this present moment. I have experienced such moments of illumination and conviction and I venture you have as well. The challenges, the decisions, the burdens, the opportunities that press upon us become the means whereby Christ addresses us.
A word or passage of scripture which once seemed remote is suddenly brought to life and results in a living word: a word of life that can challenge, convict, confirm, console, illumine, transform, heal, liberate. In such moments Christ is truly present to us in scripture through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Scripture, then, is sacramental. It conveys the real presence of Christ through its words just as the Eucharist conveys the real presence of Christ through the elements of bread and wine.
Holy Scripture indwelt by the Spirit of the risen Christ has the power to break us open and shatter us. It is a fearsome thing to be encountered by the fullness of the One in whom the fullness of God is to be found.
Such also is the power of liturgy and our sacramental celebrations. They too possess a force which can confute our efforts to domesticate and contain them. Annie Dillard in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk gives us some words of warning. She says: "The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offence, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."
Her words might give you pause some sunny and peaceful Sunday morning when you arrive at the church door ready to be lulled by the all too familiar liturgy. Where, you might ask, is your crash helmet? After all, are you not invoking the power of the One we are told in scripture is a "consuming fire."
The sacraments are gestures of Christ whereby God's catholicity proclaimed in scripture is made active and immediate through the signs and symbols which constitute our liturgical and sacramental life. In the same manner as scripture, the sacraments draw us into the mystery of God's catholicity. They are mediations of God's fullness, of God's reality in ways that we can bear. They are instances of compassion on the part of the One who knows that the unveiled brilliance of his glory is too much for us.
"You have shown yourself to me, O Christ, face to face. I have met you in your sacraments," cries St. Ambrose in eager expectation of the encounter with the One in whom God's fullness dwells.
Such an expectant approach to the sacraments is particularly important in the case of liturgical ministers. Those of us who are responsible for sacramental celebrations can become so preoccupied with the details of the ritual, or so overly familiar with the elements of the liturgy, that we become performers rather than participants in the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, which is at the heart of all liturgical celebration.
Many years ago whilst serving as a curate I approached the altar early one weekday morning and discovered that there was only one person in the congregation. It was a splendid woman of some great age who was a frequent communicant. As I turned to begin the Liturgy she exclaimed: "Oh Father, you don't have to say Mass just for me! Please don't go to all that trouble." I was somewhat dumfounded and reassured her that I wasn't simply carrying out a professional responsibility. I told her I needed the bread of life and the cup of salvation just as much as she did. And so we proceeded with the celebration.
I have never forgotten another experience that I had as a young priest which speaks to this same point. Shortly after my ordination a wise and seasoned monk warned me and a group of other newly ordained priests about the danger of becoming what he called "technicians of the sacred" and victims of "l'église mécanique," the mechanical church. It is good for us to remember as we plan the Easter Vigil, for example, that we are not ourselves in charge of the resurrection.
Jesus was not reluctant to use the things of everyday life: human touch, water, bread, wine, word and even spittle to heal and impart new life to those who crossed his path in the gospels. The risen Christ can use absolutely anything in creation to make himself present in our lives. The formal sacraments of the church, therefore, sensitize us to the fact that everything is potentially sacramental and has the power to reveal some instance or dimension of God's fullness: a fullness we encounter in Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Our ability to recognize and receive the One from whose fullness we receive grace upon grace as he meets us "face to face" in word and sacrament and the unfolding of our lives is dependent upon our stance before the mystery of God's catholicity. This brings me to the subject of prayer: prayer understood as a condition of availability – availability to the One whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, as we are told in the 55th Chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah.
When we think about prayer the first thing to keep about which we need to be clear is that prayer is not primarily our activity, our work, or primarily a discipline. Rather, prayer is God's activity in us. Prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul makes this clear in the 8th Chapter of the Letter to the Romans where he tells us: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."
What a great relief it is to be told that we do not know how to pray as we ought. I say this because frequently we become discouraged in our efforts to pray. We hear the voice of accusation within ourselves saying things such as: "You are not praying properly. Your prayer is inadequate. Your prayer is superficial. Your prayer is invalid."
At such times it is important to recognize that our preoccupation with the quality and effectiveness of our prayer can be the work of the evil one masquerading as an angel of light. We need to remember that we pray always out of our weakness, and that it is the Spirit who can use even our sighs and wordless yearnings to draw us into companionship with Christ.
As the risen Christ said to St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore even our inability to pray to our own satisfaction can be an invitation to pass beyond self-judgment and to yield our poverty in prayer to the Spirit who prays continually within us.
Furthermore, Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, Abba, Father."
Therefore, our ability to utter Jesus' own intimate word of prayer, "Abba, Father," indeed, to pray at all, depends on the Holy Spirit giving voice to our own human spirit. And, as the Spirit prays within us the same Spirit draws us into intimate union with Christ. For as Dame Julian of Norwich, one of the great mystics of the 15th century tells us, prayer "oneth us" to God.
Prayer unites us with Christ by transforming our consciousness. Or, echoing St. Paul, working in us the mind of Christ. Prayer forms Christ in us. Prayer conforms us to the image of God's Son. Our prayer is therefore attentiveness to the Spirit who prays within us. It is our collaboration with the Spirit of Christ which makes it possible for us to pray "Abba, Father."
Here I am put in mind of a verse in Psalm 27 in which the psalmist addresses God saying, "You speak in my heart and say, 'Seek my face.' To which the psalmist then replies: "Your face, Lord, will I seek." What this verse tells me is that the Spirit, in various ways, is constantly saying, "Seek my face, seek my face," and drawing us more and more deeply into the mystery of God's fullness thereby revealing to us who we, in grace and truth, are called to be.
"The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech. The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake." These are the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish teacher of prayer.
Prayer, therefore, is not so much about being given answers and information as it is about Christ's risen life and God's profligate and unbounded love, the preeminent manifestation of his fullness – which is the communion of the Holy Spirit – finding a home in us. Prayer is our participation in the mystery of God's own nature through adoption and grace.
Because prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit conforming us to the image of Christ it involves a sometimes painful purification of our desires, including our desire to be proficient and successful in our prayer.
A contemporary Latin American theologian has described one of the results of authentic prayer and availability to the Spirit as "the overturning of idols." These idols might be our images of God, our images of the church, or of ourselves. Indeed, our images of ourselves may be very different from the way God sees us.
I think here of my own life and of the idols that have been overturned along the way. Before I was ordained I had a very clear image of the priest I wanted to be: devout, faithful, self-sacrificing, sure and confident in my grasp of theology. I also had very clear ideas about what the church ought to be in terms of its priorities, its witness and its liturgical life.
What I did not realize at the time was that many of my images of priestly life and of the church were more the product of my imagination and my need for security and order than they were the work of the Holy Spirit, who – as Jesus tells us – blows freely where the Spirit chooses.
I have now been a priest for 45 years and a bishop for 23 years. Over these years various idols of ordained life and images of the Church have been overturned. This has happened over and over again and will doubtless continue into the future. My earlier narrow and self-serving understanding of the Church has been replaced by an enlarged vision. I have become more able to see the Church not as something fixed and static but as a "spiritual house" constantly under construction, as we are told in the first letter of Peter. I have become more able to see that the Church, the risen body of Christ, of which we are limbs through baptism, is continually growing toward maturity, as we are told in the letter to the Ephesians. The completeness of the spiritual house, therefore. requires all the living stones with their various shapes and sizes, just as the body needs all of its limbs, with and not in spite of their differences, in order to be whole and mature.
At the same time, I am obliged to acknowledge that being caught up in an ongoing divine construction project, and being part of a body on its way to maturity is not something I have always welcomed. With various rationalizations and equivocations, I have often sought to elude the insistent grasp of the risen Christ. George Herbert understood this reluctance. "Do not by hanging down break from the hand, which as it riseth raiseth thee," he counsels. Christ pulls us, sometimes kicking and screaming, out of ourselves into his own risen and constantly unfolding reality.
Again and again I have found myself being pulled out of my own self-constructions into the mysterious and unfamiliar force field of resurrection. And this has not been through my own efforts. This is not something I have done on my own. Rather, this is what happens when we pray with hearts open and available to the Spirit who prays within us and continually invites us to seek the face, the fullness, of the One in whom "we live and move and have our being."
Perhaps it has been your experience, as it has been mine, that there are times when particular patterns of prayer or practice that have been fruitful and life giving seem to collapse and leave us in a place of dryness and desolation. At such times we may seek to be more fervent in our devotions and blame ourselves for what seems to be God's absence.
What may in fact be happening at such times is that God is leading us beyond the consolations we have known in the past into a new place of deeper intimacy and encounter that can only be entered into through our willingness to be patient and to endure, trusting in God's mercy alone.
Here I am put in mind of the dark night of the soul, so eloquently described by St. John of the Cross. During such a "dark night" we may feel that our prayer is useless and without fruit. And yet, God may be working secretly within us. The hidden activity of the Spirit produces its own fruit. Our very willingness to surrender our poverty in prayer to the immeasurable riches of God's grace and mercy opens the way for God to shape and mold us, not according to our own hopes and aspirations, but according to God's loving desire and purpose for us.
Therefore, what a consolation it is that, without our being aware of it, the fruit of the Spirit can grow within us: the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul describes as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Above all, the Spirit praying within us expands our hearts and transfigures them with Christ's own compassion thereby rendering them merciful and able to embrace all things.
Many centuries ago St. Isaac of Syria was asked: what is a merciful heart? This was his reply: "It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation – for men and women, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every creature. When a person with a heart such as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears. An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray with tears even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God."
The heart St. Isaac describes is a catholic heart, a heart broken open by the living word of Christ and nourished by the sacraments. It is a heart, a consciousness, which is the fruit of the Spirit praying deep within us with sighs too deep for words. It is a heart transfigured by grace upon grace. Such a heart can embrace everything, everything: paradox, contradiction, fear, hatred, even evil itself as Christ did on the cross when he cried out, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."
Such a heart, because it is one with the heart of Christ: can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. (1 Corinthians. 13:7) Such a heart eagerly grants forgiveness and overflows with compassion, not out of its own meager store but out of the fullness of God's rich and generous mercy. It is an expanded heart able to receive and respond to the needs of those on the edges of society: the orphan, the widow and those who have no helper, as scripture describes the vulnerable and the needy. It is a heart ready to engage with social and political structures in order that they may serve the good of all. It is a heart that looks upon creation and the environment with the loving care of St. Francis, who called the heavens and the earth – and all that is in them – his brother and his sister.
Catholicity, as I have said, is an eschatological reality. Catholicity exists in the mind and imagination of God. A catholic heart is not something we already possess. However, we are not as those without hope because, in the person of the risen Christ, God's fullness, God's catholicity, is being worked within us through the wild unpredictability of the Holy Spirit. May we, therefore, be ever available to that same Spirit who makes Christ known to us in word and sacrament and the unfolding of our lives such that we are drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of God's fullness.
"We must be strong at the spiritual center of our being before we can be free in exterior action," declares Charles Gore. May we indeed be given, in these challenging and demanding days, spiritual strength for exterior action: action that proclaims and shows forth – in spite of our limitations and inadequacies – the catholicity of God's all-embracing compassion, and the fierce fullness of God's reconciling love. And may we cry out with the knowing confidence of St. Paul: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."