Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A drama of darkness: Macbeth and Theo-drama

Reading Faith and Theology's wonderfully provocative and reflective 'The Spiritual Vision of Macbeth', I could not help but think of the Gerasene Demoniac:

And when [Jesus] had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.  He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones (Mark 5:2-5).

The opening line of Faith and Theology's reflection on Macbeth asks:

What if nightmares, and not the waking world, were real?

That is the world of the Gerasene Demoniac.  Day after day of nightmares, in which "the truth of human nature were seen not in love but in madness".

But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, 
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep 
In the affliction of these terrible dreams 
That shake us nightly. Better be with the dead, 
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, 
Than on the torture of the mind to lie 
In restless ecstasy (Act 3, Scene 2).

Faith and Theology judges Macbeth against a reading of Thomas' understanding of evil as the privation of the good:

Macbeth is not a Christian play. Christianity understands evil as a privation of the good. Macbeth is about positive evil. Its theme is murder as a manifestation of positive evil. In the play, evil exists. It extends itself. It grows. It devours the good. It has a horrible “generative” quality (as LaCouter nicely puts it in the same review). It is not like ordinary darkness – a privation of light – but like a vacuum that can suck the light out of a room, leaving the human heart blinded and confused.

And yet, for the Gerasene Demoniac, this is all too reasonable, too civilized, too rational.  "He was always howling and bruising himself with stones."  The good of a life was devoured amongst those tombs in the mountains.  By a devouring, growing evil.

Come, you spirits 
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, 
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full 
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; 
Stop up the access and passage to remorse, 
That no compunctious visitings of nature 
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between 
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts, 
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, 
Wherever in your sightless substances 
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night, 
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell (Act 1, Scene 5).

As Thomas tells us:

The Apostle says: "Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against Principalities and Powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places" ... The assault itself is due to the malice of the demons, who through envy endeavor to hinder man's progress; and through pride usurp a semblance of Divine power, by deputing certain ministers to assail man, as the angels of God in their various offices minister to man's salvation ...

Although a demon cannot change the will, yet, as stated above (Question 111, Article 3), he can change the inferior powers of man, in a certain degree: by which powers, though the will cannot be forced, it can nevertheless be inclined (Summa I, 114.1&2). 

Macbeth embodies the overturning of the rejection of the Evil One promised at Baptism:

Dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them?
I renounce them all (BCP 1662, The Ministration of Public Baptism of Infants).

Overturning this rejection we join the Gerasene Demoniac, in a nightmarish world of fears, lies, self-destructiveness, disintegration and darkness.

Our petty jealousies, our lusts, our hatreds, those little acts of malice, our addictions, our greed, they share in that nightmarish world of deceit.  They mar the image of the Triune God within us, they blind us to this image in others.  They embrace the lie, that this world is not God's, that our common life is not shot through with grace, beauty, truth, love.

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so (Act 4, Scene 3).

Grace can be discerned even in the darkness.  The tragedy of Macbeth is the sobering reality that the destructive darkness can be preferred to the healing Light.

Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood (Mark 5:14-17).

Macbeth is a drama of darkness.  As such, it is a sub-text to the Theo-Drama.  For Light enters the "thick night", Grace is poured out on the "damned spot".

A Christian play?  It's a part of the drama, not the full play.  For that we look elsewhere.

... he was delivered to voluntary suffering,
in order to dissolve death,
and break the chains of the devil,
and tread down hell,
and bring the just to the light
(from the Anaphora of Hippolytus).

Monday, 12 October 2015

On being resonant

On Saturday past, Mthr Hannah Cleugh - chaplain of University College, Durham University - was the speaker at this year's Affirming Catholicism Ireland theological seminar in Dublin, 'Called to be resonant'. She gave a vibrant account of the possibilities and potential of catholic Anglicanism - liturgical, sacramental, contemplative - in an era when many within Anglicanism in these Islands have abandoned these gifts for that deemed to be more culturally 'relevant'.  By contrast, she pointed to how a catholic Anglicanism, seeking to be resonant rather than relevant, can bring our secular cultural contemporaries to encounter the Real.

By coincidence, some of my online reading before and after the seminar further illustrated this.

On Friday, this jumped out of a recent Covenant piece by Episcopal priests Fr Jordan Hylden and Fr Keith Voets on unity and diversity, grace and truth in The Episcopal Church:

The large majority of active clergy in our church are older than 55 (65.4% to be precise), with only 16 percent under 44, but traditional worship is much more valued among our cohort than revisionary liturgies. Indeed, both of us — along with Jordan’s spouse and Keith’s fiancĂ© (also Episcopal priests) — are zealous advocates of east-facing Rite I worship, the Daily Office in Cranmer’s English, and traditional Anglican Evensong. This is not surprising, we think, as younger people who attend church find themselves doing so more and more in sharp distinction from their generation. The distinctiveness of something holy, solemn, beautiful, and reverent, in a place and with words in which prayer has long been valid, stands out in a distracted and shallow culture. We at least have found it to be so, and we know that many of our similarly aged friends agree.

On Saturday evening, I came across this by Derek Olsen, on discovering that one of his children has memorised the Magnificat:

The other thing that struck me as she was reading what she wrote is that the text cited was recognizably BCP Rite I as she quoted verbatim the phase “sent empty away.” I wonder if she chose this because it’s simply the way she remembers hearing it, or because she and her best friend are self-consciously antiquarian Anglophiles (no idea where she gets that from…), or if the now non-standard word order makes it stick more firmly in the memory. I suspect the last, although all three are likely in play.

And last night I noticed this by Mthr Julie Gittoes, a CofE priest and theologian, in a Twitter discussion of memories of hymns from childhood:

I was fascinated by unusual words: consubstantial & coeternal sounded mysterious, important & inspiring ...

What does it all mean?  It possibly suggests that while the dominant paradigms within contemporary North Atlantic Anglicanism are the progressive and the evangelical - with a shared 'low' view of the sacramental life, a preference for other formulations in place of the Nicene Creed, and liturgy shaped by concerns other than the practice of Common Prayer - the outlines are evident of a renewed catholic Anglicanism, renewed in confidence and hope in engaging our culture with the mystery of the Real, the Good, the True, the Beautiful.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

"There is light full high"

In the evening, and morning, and at noon-day will I pray ... and he shall hear my voice.

Psalm 55:18.  Psalm 55 is appointed to be said or sung at Evensong on the 10th day of the month in the BCP 1662.

For the end is at noon-day; that is to say, whence there is no going down unto setting. For at noon-day there is light full high, the splendour of wisdom, the fervour of love. In evening and in morning and at noon-day. In evening, the Lord on the Cross; in morning, in Resurrection; at noon-day, in Ascension. I will recount in evening the patience of Him dying, I will tell forth in morning the life of Him rising, I will pray that He hearken at noon-day sitting at the right hand of the Father. 

Augustine on Psalm 55:18.

Friday, 9 October 2015

"Deliver us from evil": the powers of darkness and the Church of Jesus

At the Holy Eucharist on the Friday of the Eighteenth Week after Trinity

Joel 1:13-15, 2:1-2 - Ps. 9:1-7 - Luke 11:15-26

"If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you" [1].

It is impossible to read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke without coming across Jesus casting out demons - exorcisms.

And yet, despite these episodes being impossible to ignore, the response of many in the mainstream Christian traditions is often one of embarrassment, seeking to explain them away.

But the Gospel accounts are stubborn - they stubbornly, again and again, point to the reality of evil, to Jesus confronting the powers of evil, and liberating those possessed by the powers of darkness.

Our too-often sanitised readings of these Gospel accounts miss the power of their insights ...

For they demonstrate the insidious nature of evil, the way it can disorder lives and relationships, impacting on the well-being of body and soul.

This is why the Church's prayer shares none of our embarrassment about those passages from the Gospels, such as today's Gospel reading.

The prayer of the Church stands in profound continuity with Jesus confronting and casting out the powers of darkness.

Day by day we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "deliver us from evil" [2].

In the liturgy of Baptism, after the candidate or their sponsors reject the Evil One, we pray:

"May Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness ..." [3].

In the sacraments of the sick, when hands are laid on the sick person, we pray:

"May Christ bring you wholeness of body, mind and spirit, deliver you from every evil ..." [4].

And at Compline, the office which brings the day to a close, we pray in the words of ancient collect:

"Visit, we beseech thee, O Lord, this place, and drive away all the snares of the enemy ..." [5].

Each of these prayers flow from Jesus' acts of confronting and casting out the powers of evil and darkness.

They are based on the same realism we find in the Gospels.

The realism which recognises that evil is no abstract force 'out there' ...

But a presence with a "sinuous influence" [6], deceiving, disordering, enslaving.

Now, of course, it is possible to reject this realism not just through embarrassment but through an emphasis on the spectacular ...

The sort of thing that Hollywood horror movies focus on.

By contrast, what we see in the Gospel accounts is the banality of evil.

Not the stuff of movie special effects ...

But ordinary, daily lives shadowed and rent asunder by the powers of darkness.

And this is what we still experience.

Evil manifested in daily choices to hurt others, to renounce love, to deny dignity ...

In addictions and destructive behaviours which appear beyond rational control ...

In the lies which are the foundations of abuse, extremism, racism.

C.S. Lewis said:

"Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good,  Time does not heal it.  The spell must be unwound, bit by bit" [7].

Which is what we, the Church, do as we pray.

"Deliver us from evil."

"Visit, we beseech thee, O Lord, this place, and drive away all the snares of the enemy."

This is how we encounter today this ministry of Jesus, so prominent in the Gospel accounts ...

This is how this ministry of Jesus continues to touch our lives, to deliver us from the disordering powers of darkness ...

To restore us - day by day - to light, to love and to communion.


[1] Luke 11:20.

[2] Note how the Catechism in BCP 2004 understands this petition of the Lord's Prayer: "that he will keep us ... from our ghostly enemy".

[3] BCP 2004 Holy Baptism Two, p.363.

[4] BCP 2004 A Celebration of Wholeness and Healing, p.463.

[5] BCP 2004 Compline, p.161.

[6] The phrase is taken from Malcolm Guite's sonnet for Michaelmas.

[7] In The Great Divorce.


It is the custom of catholicity and covenant to end posts dealing with such matters with the traditional prayer to St Michael:

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

"Colour me ..."

On National Poetry Day, Rowan Williams' 'Rublev':

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth

To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why I pray the Rosary

I'm what used to be described as a 'Prayer Book Catholic'.  Old English surplice, not cotta.  Gothic chasuble, not fiddleback.  Richard Hooker, not Alphonsus Liguori. Book of Common Prayer, not Missale Romanum.

The Rosary, then, should not be part of my devotional life. 

But it is.

Despite my dislike of the Baroque, Tridentine spirituality of 'Rosary crusades', my unease with many aspects of popular Marian devotion (especially in Ireland), and how utterly alien I find much of the iconography surrounding the Rosary, I pray the Rosary.

Why?  Because, with Austin Farrer, I have found it to be an aid to prayerfully inhabiting the mysteries of the Creed.

Because, in the words of John Paul II, "the Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer".

As I pray the Hail Mary over each plain wooden bead, I am brought again and again into the mystery of the Incarnation - in joy, light, sorrow, glory.  God the Word fully assuming our humanity, that our humanity may fully share in the life of God.

Here the reserve of the Anglican tradition's reverence for Mary coheres with the Rosary.  This woman is sign of and witness to the flesh and blood reality of the Incarnation.  From her swollen belly, to breast-feeding the infant, to holding the sometimes giggling, sometimes crying toddler, to observing the teenager, to wondering about the man, to holding her son's corpse, to being caught up in his resurrection - she is witness to the Word. 

And I ask her prayers that with her I too may enter into the mystery of God's love and life poured out in flesh and blood for me.  That, with Mary, my love and life may be caught up in that of the Triune God.

Cally Hammond's works on praying the Rosary - her Joyful Christianity, Passionate Christianity and Glorious Christianity - are the most striking and compelling contemporary reflections, and not just from within the Anglican tradition.

Here, in a 2014 paper, she gives a wonderful summary of how devotional life can be enriched through the Rosary:

I started praying the rosary at the age of 20: because I knew that I was not praying 'right'.  I now know that I had been stuck in the same Slough of Despond as many others, looking at the public worship of the Church and trying to use that public type of prayer for private devotion.  It didn't work.

The rosary did work, for me.  I have been praying it ever since; it has been the source of some of my deepest insights into our common faith in Jesus Christ.  I have taught it as a personal devotion to many people, both Roman Catholic and Church of England, Methodists, free church; and sold it to 'Protestants' as a way to pray the life of Jesus.  (Cf the Methodist spiritual writer J. Neville Ward.)

I don't teach teach it as a corporate prayer but as a prayer for individual use.  I tend to avoid the more schmaltzy stuff about Mary.  For Anglicans I pare it back to 'why does become Mary become so important in the Christian tradition so fast?' - answer: because she stands for us; the first of redeemed humankind, the one who have living physical contact, even unity, with Jesus from the first moment of his conception, the icon of obedience to God's will.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A Great Silence

Receiving the great gifts of the various monastic traditions should be one of the joys of the parish.  The Benedictine and Franciscan traditions have, perhaps, the most easily identifiable gifts that can be nurtured in the parish.

But what of the Carthusians, the feast of whose founder - St Bruno - falls today?  How is it possible for the gift of Carthusian silence to received and nurtured in the parish?

Perhaps once a week at a weekday Eucharist, or at weekday Eucharists in Advent and Lent, or a monthly contemplative Eucharist, what the Church of Ireland BCP 2004 terms "The Great Silence" (the silence after the reception of the Holy Eucharist) could be observed after the Carthusian fashion:

After Communion, which is taken as the entire community gathers around the priest and encircles the altar, there comes ten minutes of silent, private prayer of thanksgiving, with everyone, including the celebrant, seated in their stalls.

(From John Skinner Hear Our Silence: A Journey Into Prayer - emphasis added.)