Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The LORD appeared to Joe Schmoe at the bus stop on a frigid February afternoon

I'm preparing to write an exegesis paper on Genesis 18:1-15, along with the rest of my Old Testament class; it's due Monday. And it's gotten me wondering about how (or whether) we ever talk about our own personal encounters with God. I mean, look at this sentence:

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. (Gen. 18:1)

Do you have sentences like that from your own life? Here are a few of mine:

The LORD appeared to Josh in a dream when he was eleven years old.

The LORD appeared to Christy and Josh in the second of Josh’s two apartments on 19th Avenue, as they sat on his bed reading a book at the end of a long, enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.

The LORD appeared to Josh in the parking lot of McLendon’s hardware store as he was about to buckle his daughter Sarah into her car seat.

I won't tell all these stories now; a couple of them have been told before in other contexts. If you'd like to ask me about one in particular, maybe I'll fill you in on the details.

We talk a lot about evangelism ... and we talk ... and we talk. Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California preached a good sermon here at VTS today about our endless, insane efforts at evangelism, despite which the Episcopal Church shrinks significantly every year.

I'm convinced that this has something to do with us NOT telling our stories, either because we're shy, or because we don't want to offend anybody, or because we don't want to make ourselves vulnerable, or because we honestly are not aware of God acting in our lives.

Abraham's encounter with the LORD was that three strangers came out of the desert, and then something amazing happened. I bet most of our stories also start in a similarly ordinary way.

So here's a good way to start. What are your own stories? If your life were to be told in sacred Scripture, with what sentence might you begin one of the stories of the LORD appearing to you? Overcome your shyness enough just to share the first sentence. Then consider how you might tell the rest of the story.

Occupy as an act of prophecy

Yesterday I heard the Occupy movement described as an act of prophecy. I think this makes a lot of sense. The biblical prophets did not typically lay out a list of demands, nor did anyone expect them to. They merely cried out, "Repent!" In some cases (Jonah, for instance, although his story is fictional), people listened.

Now, prophecy should never be confused with mere fortune-telling. Prophets are those who speak God's truth to the powers-that-be, whether anyone wants to hear them or not. If you Google "Occupy" and "Prophecy" together, you'll find all sorts of stuff about the "End Times," the Mayan calendar, etc. That's not what I'm talking about. When prophets are really on the ball, yes, they might well predict a coming disaster. But that's not their primary purpose. Their purpose is to help the people avert disaster. A prophet is one who wakes up the sleeping driver, not one who wrestles the wheel out of the driver's hands.

Prophecy is a lens through which to look at a broken world. When we hear a prophet speak, we are called to act. It may well lead to positive change in society, but it's not up to the Occupy protesters to fix the situation. Indeed, the movement's very existence is an emotional outburst that stems from the feeling that they can't possibly fix the situation. But they can drag the situation into the spotlight and unmask it for all to see ... and that's exactly what's happening.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Join the Conspiracy!

Advent: It's not Christmas. Not yet. The gifts haven't been purchased. The $450 billion dollars is not yet spent.

And it's time to join the conspiracy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent judgment

Russian icon of the Prophet Amos (from Wikipedia)
Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals - they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. - Amos 2:6-8 (NRSV)

Advent always begins with judgment ... and we are always found wanting. Not much has changed in the 2,700 years since the Prophet Amos lived in Judah.

Yet how else can anything new begin, but with an assessment of the way things are right now? An alcoholic receives an intervention: this is a judgment. An overweight person steps on the scale and decides to begin dieting and exercising: this is a judgment. A child is sent to her room for being rude: this is a judgment. 

Thousands of people pitch tents on Wall Street and throughout the streets of America, not to get a jump on a new movie or on Black Friday sales, but to attempt to force a change in the way America's financial systems work -- or, rather, don't work. This, too, is a judgment.

In this way, Advent is like Lent. We give an honest look and judge ourselves, and then we begin to make a change. We hear two particularly common pieces of advice in Advent: (1) Stay awake. (2) Slow down. These come from two logical judgments: (1) We've been asleep. (2) We're going too fast. Perhaps we've fallen asleep at the wheel. If so, the time has definitely come to follow this advice.

Most Americans have a very negative view of judgment. Yet how else can change ever begin? Today, take an honest look at yourself, not in the interest of self-help, but in the interest of helping others. How have you been asleep at the wheel? What blocks you from thinking of others before you think of yourself, especially the strangers in your life? How can you help them this Advent?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent begins ... with the Hope for Africa Children's Choir

Last year I kept a daily Advent blog that included links to YouTube videos, one for each day of Advent. I won't be doing that this year for two reasons: (1) I couldn't possibly come up with 24 new songs (and besides, it's all here in the archives of my blog if you really want to review it), and (2) being a seminarian, I can't promise I'll have time among exams to actually do it justice. But I do want to set a goal of posting something each day of Advent. It's a discipline for me to slow down to that degree.

This morning I attended Holy Eucharist at Christ Church in Alexandria. It's a very lively parish, but the big highlight for me was a visit from the Hope for Africa Children's Choir. This group of Ugandan children, ages 9-15, is touring the U.S. while the kids are on their summer break (that is, October through January or so). They were amazing. Their harmonies were impeccable, their drumming was delicious, and their style was everything I could wish for from an African choir -- think Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but much younger. And not only did their music fit well with the First Sunday in Advent, but it was also perfect for World AIDS Day on December 1. They also performed after the service in the adult forum, and in more than one song, they sang candidly about AIDS, calling it "the mother of all evil." Some of the kids are HIV-positive, and all of them have lost loved ones to the disease. They smiled and charmed the pants off us, but it wasn't the kind of charm one could laugh about, because they were singing about tragedy. Their music was full of a joy so deep it made me want to laugh and cry all at once.

I so wish this group had a CD out. I understand there's one in the works. I did find a couple clips of them on YouTube, but nothing of very good quality, and certainly nothing that comes close to capturing their spirit.

After church and the forum, I waited for a bus to take me back home for lunch with my family. I resisted the automatic urge to put on headphones, especially since I still had the Ugandan kids' music in my head and didn't want to lose it quite yet. It was 65 degrees and sunny -- the perfect day, and unusual for late November. I thought, "Now, this is a great way to start a new church year."

In the afternoon, Sarah and I hunted for and finally found four blue Advent candles. At Holy Cross this morning, Sarah and Christy had made a styrofoam wreath with a few greens on it. I added our new candles, and we lit the first one over dinner tonight.

This Advent, I want to stay awake. Just like Mary Poppins urged, but without the irony.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

the emerging: suites for advent

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation
Thanksgiving is upon us. I’m looking forward to the break, although I’ll certainly have my share of reading and writing to do for school during this time.

And then, on Sunday … Advent begins! I’m one of those who prefers to mark this season with dark blue instead of purple, but blue Advent candles are not easy to find, especially tapers. Any leads around Alexandria?

Many people treat Advent as a penitential season, and this isn’t wrong. But it’s not Lent, either. Instead of focusing on our sins, we’re anticipating the birth of someone who is eternally arriving.

I first compiled these Advent musical suites in 2007 and have revised them from year to year. They are mixed into suites by theme, based on the Church’s ancient tradition of  “O” Antiphons. Right-click the blue header to download the mp3 of that suite. And please: if you like something you discover here, go buy it! 

R.E.M. - It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)
Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
George Michael - Praying for Time
Mary Poppins - Stay Awake/ Sufjan Stevens - Year of the Sheep
Peter Hallock - Let My Prayer Come Up as the Incense
Godspell - Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord
Sufjan Stevens - O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1)
Peter Hallock - O Sapientia
Sixpence None the Richer - Sister, Mother
Martina McBride - Love's the Only House
Sting - Love Is the Seventh Wave

Peter Hallock - O Adonai
Sixpence None the Richer - Anything/The Waiting Room
Hooters - All You Zombies
Coldplay – Us Against the World
Sufjan Stevens - O Come, O Come Emmanuel (2)

Peter Hallock - O Radix Jesse
Toad the Wet Sprocket - Pray Your Gods
Aimee Mann - Save Me
U2 - I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Herbert Howells - A Spotless Rose
Seal - Love's Divine

Peter Hallock - O Clavis David
Mr. Mister – Kyrie
Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
Bad Religion – Sorrow
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah

Peter Hallock - O Oriens
The Beatles - Here Comes the Sun
Sixpence None the Richer - Waiting on the Sun
The Polyphonic Spree - Light and Day
Sufjan Stevens - O Come, O Come Emmanuel (3)

Peter Hallock - O Rex Gentium
J.L. Hosler - You Heavens Above
Simon & Garfunkel - Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream
John Mayer - Waiting on the World to Change
John Denver & Robin - When the River Meets the Sea
Goo Goo Dolls - Better Days

Peter Hallock - O Emmanuel
Joan Osborne - One of Us
Isaac Everett - Expectation

Sting - Gabriel's Message
Conductus - Ave Virgo Virginum
Franz Biebl - Ave Maria
J.S. Bach - Magnificat in D, BWV 243, I: Magnificat
St. Mark's Cathedral Choir - O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Isaac Everett – Incarnation

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pseudo-Dionysius: A Scholastic and a Mystic Find Common Ground

by Josh Hosler 

Dr. Gray
Virginia Theological Seminary
CH-502: Church History
16 November 2011

Euclid’s first postulate is that two points determine a line segment (Keeton). He could not prove this statement, but by assuming it to be true, the ancient Greek mathematician could deduce a theorem stating that two different lines may intersect at no more than one point (ibid.). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) endeavored to approach the knowledge of God this logically and precisely, answering theological questions in a method rather like Euclid’s geometric proofs. In his Summa Theologiae (written 1265-1274 and never completed), Thomas stated that truths revealed by God are the postulates that allow humans to develop theological theorems. These theorems are not self-evident, but careful consideration of divine postulates can demonstrate them. While the theorems are ultimately impossible to prove, they do represent the best humankind can achieve by use of God-given reason. Thomas’s divine postulates come from Holy Scripture and from the traditional teachings of the Church, all of which he understood to be truths revealed by God directly to human beings. By connecting these sacred postulates one to another and building on them in a fashion consistent with Greek logic and the scholastic method he had inherited from recent generations, Thomas sought to codify the entire realm of theology.

One century after Thomas, an anonymous English priest wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, a manual for contemplative prayer that Christians use to this day to guide their meditation practices. To a mind attuned to precise definitions and carefully proven arguments, The Cloud of Unknowing might seem hopelessly vague, employing poetic language and even seeming to call into question the value of intellectual reasoning. The anonymous author frequently quoted from the works of a number of mystical masters, including Thomas Gallus, Guigo II, and Hugh of Balma, while Thomas Aquinas preferred to quote logical thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine. But both theologians quoted frequently from the Bible and from another common source: Pseudo-Dionysius, a theologian and mystic who lived around the year 500. While Thomas Aquinas and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote in very different styles and with sharply divergent goals, their common reliance on Pseudo-Dionysius is a key to harmonizing some of their overarching theological points.

The Cloud of Unknowing is a primer on Christian meditation, but it is also a collection of what the author perceived to be the central teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius. The author is most of the way through the book before he comes right out and says so, in his sole reference to his primary source:

And now whoever cares to examine the works of [Pseudo-Dionysius], he will find that his words clearly corroborate all that I have said or am going to say, from the beginning of this treatise to the end. But I have no mind to cite him to support my views on any other things than this, at this moment, or any other doctor either. For at one time men believed that it was humility to say nothing out of their own heads, unless they corroborated it by scripture and the sayings of the fathers. But now this practice indicates nothing except cleverness and a display of erudition. You do not need it and so I am not going to do it. (Walsh, 256)

The author’s blatant refusal to cite his sources stands in stark contrast to Thomas’s clever, erudite  Summa Theologiae, which is full of citations and whose logic might well fall apart without them. But The Cloud of Unknowing is not geared toward logic or scholasticism: its aim is to connect the ordinary Christian directly with God through contemplative prayer. The author does this by speaking of God as residing in a “cloud of unknowing,” a mystical space we can approach but never fully apprehend. He stresses that the only way to approach this mystical God is to put aside every earthly distraction in order to focus exclusively on the divine. He who pursues this practice must imagine that he is placing between himself and all the created order a second cloud called a “cloud of forgetting”: “For though it is very profitable on some occasions to think of the state and activities of certain creatures in particular, nevertheless in this exercise it profits little or nothing … Insofar as there is anything in your mind except God alone … you are further from God” (ibid., 129). Later he clarifies the only instinct worthy of a contemplative’s time: “It is love alone that can reach God in this life, and not knowing” (ibid., 139).

Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, really wanted to know. He wrote: “Man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth [divine revelation]. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation” (Summa, Ia q. 1 a. 1). From this argument, it sounds as if Thomas holds that some form of knowledge, not merely love, is a crucial agent in humans’ salvation. But the knowledge Thomas found so indispensable is not the kind reasoned out by humans, gathered through their five senses; rather, it is the kind given directly by God. What might this divine knowledge be but a simple, wordless understanding of divine love? If this is the case, Thomas and the Cloud author are actually in agreement. It was in their proposed use of a Christian’s time and energy that the two theologians strongly disagreed.

Even the most dedicated scholastic cannot spend all his time thinking, nor can the earnest mystic spend all his time in silent contemplation. How should a Christian spend the rest of his time? Both Thomas and Cloud agree that virtuous acts are a primary goal of the Christian life, and both count on Pseudo-Dionysius to prove it. Thomas gets there in the process of asking whether sacred doctrine is the same as wisdom (Summa, Ia, q. 1, a. 6). His ideal Christian is habitually geared toward virtue: “Whoever has the habit of virtue judges rightly of what concerns that virtue by his very inclination towards it.” So acting virtuously spurs one on to further virtue and further discovery of the true nature of God, not merely by reading, but also by experiencing. Here Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, who in turn refers to first-century bishop Hierotheus the Thesmothete: “Not only did he [Hierotheus] learn of these matters [Jesus’ signs of divinity] … but he also experienced these divine things. Further … by his sympathy to these matters he found completion in an untaught and mystical union with and belief of them” (ibid.). So Thomas understood that, so to speak, “believing is seeing”: by living a Christian life and acting virtuously, one’s understanding of God naturally deepens, and God grants to such a holy person more occurrences of divine revelation.

In Cloud, persistence in prayer is the key to understanding God, and this naturally leads to a virtuous life. The author writes that there are two kinds of Christian life—active and contemplative—and that the contemplative way is qualitatively better (Cloud, 136 ff.).  To illustrate his point (ibid., 153 ff.), he uses the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) in which Jesus honors Mary’s attentiveness to his teaching and chides Martha for being so busy and anxious. We might imagine that Thomas Aquinas could stand in for Martha in this story, pursuing, as he did, a life of never-ending scholasticism and intellectualism. Cloud states:

In this, then, one can quickly understand the way of this working, and realize clearly that it is far removed from any fancy or false imagination of subtle opinion; for all these are brought about not by that devout and humble, simple, impulse of love, but by a proud, speculative and over-imaginative reasoning. These proud and elaborate speculations must always be pushed down and heavily trodden under foot, if this exercise is to be truly understood in purity of spirit. (126-27)

While Cloud has no time for those who would think their way into virtue, both this author and Thomas agree that God looks with favor on good works; they disagree on the most productive way for a Christian to exercise this virtue. But if the two are at odds on such a crucial point as this, does anything remain to unite them? Indeed, something does, and once again, Pseudo-Dionysius is a helpful reference.

The Cloud author insists on his student placing everything—even good things—into the “cloud of forgetting,” in order to focus on God alone. He imagines that his student might ask, “What about good things? May I not think about them?” The rather complex reply subdivides both the active life and the contemplative life, placing them on a hierarchy in which the true contemplative must rise above absolutely everything, even the urge to meditate on Jesus’ suffering, or on the many gifts God has given us (135 ff.). While he is quick to admit that the world is full of good things that come from a very good God, the author’s goal is to help his reader rise above everything that is not God. This must include all of God’s works and even the urge to meditate on them:

When you ask me what this thought is that presses so hard upon you in this exercise, offering to help you in this work, I answer that it is a well-defined and clear sight of your natural intelligence imprinted upon your reason within your soul. And when you ask me whether it is good or evil, I say that it must of necessity be always good in its nature, because it is a ray of God’s likeness (135).

Such an urge can be used for evil, however, when it is “swollen with pride, and with the curiosity which comes from the subtle speculation and learning, such as theologians have, which makes them want to be known not as humble clerics and masters of divinity or devotion, but proud scholars of the devil and masters of vanity and falsehood” (136). The Cloud author may well have viewed Thomas Aquinas in exactly this way. And if Thomas’s thirst for knowledge had led him to build a box large enough to entrap God, no mystic could hope to find common ground with him. But this was not Thomas’s aim. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

In the opening discussion of the Summa, [Thomas] quickly led the reader to a conclusion which was that of the pseudonymous Dionysius the Areopagite long before, and which had become much more familiar among the theologians of Byzantium: ‘It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God.’ (413)

Like the author of Cloud, Thomas set himself on a lifelong quest to discover what is good. From the beginning of the Summa Theologiae he asserts that God is good, because that which is desirable is good, and all things desire their own perfection, which is represented by God (Ia, q. 6 a. 1). Here again he quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes in The Divine Names: “The good is that from which all subsist and are … for they are protected and held fast in its almighty power—and that into which all are returned according to the proper limit of each being” (Jones, 136). If God is perfection and God is the original cause of all things, and if we and all other creatures strive for perfection, then God must be good. And while Thomas calls poetry “the least of all the sciences” (Ia, q. 1 a. 9), he does not scorn it; rather, he insists that poetic metaphor is essential in helping us understand God. We are not able to understand God fully, but “God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.”

Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius to prove this point, too, from Celestial Hierarchy: “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils” (ibid.). In other words, a truth cloaked in metaphor is no less true. Some people who lack the capacity for the vigorous use of reason—perhaps some contemplatives Thomas knew?—may be better taught the same truth by a metaphor. And if poetry is less noble than science, as Thomas assumes, at least poetry is an appropriate vehicle for truth because it meets us where we are: in our human state of limitedness. Yet again, he references Pseudo-Dionysius to point out that “it is more fitting that divine truths should be expounded under the figure of less noble than of nobler bodies” (ibid.). Here Thomas is relying extensively on The Cloud of Unknowing’s primary source to prove God’s goodness logically and to point out the very limitations of his life’s work.

Had these two authors been contemporaries, we can imagine they might have looked down their noses at each other. It would not be difficult to find many other occurrences in the ensuing centuries of active and contemplative theologians rubbing each other the wrong way. But in their common reliance on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, we can see that there is an underlying logic to The Cloud of Unknowing, and that Thomas, in his own way, was something of a mystic. For Thomas Aquinas, the mysteries of God are a means to an end. In The Cloud of Unknowing, they are the end itself.

Works Cited

Fathers of the English Dominican Province, translators. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. 1920.

Jones, John D., Ph.D., translator. Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite: The Divine Names and Mystical Theology. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980.

Keeton, Thomas, ed. ThinkQuest. 1996. Oracle Education Foundation. 14 November 2011,

MacCulloch. Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009.

Walsh, James, S.J., ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York, 1981.