30 May 2009

Francis on the Holy Spirit

Before turning to the Holy Spirit in the thought of Francis, I should note that the role of the Spirit in later Franciscan spirituality and theology is crucially important. According to some early traditions, Francis considered the Holy Spirit to be the true Minister General of the order. The lives of Francis show him being caught up in the Spirit in prayer and ecstasy. Some of the spiritual Franciscans became heretical followers of Joachim of Fiore. These Franciscans taught that a third age of the Spirit was coming when the hierarchical Church and its structures and sacraments would pass away (like the State under communism?). Franciscan theologians like Bonaventure wrote treatises on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In Franciscan spirituality, the role of the Father as overflowing font of goodness and love and source of "every good and perfect gift" (James chapter 1) is obvious enough. The Our Father is a central prayer, even in the writings of Francis himself.

So too, the role of the Son is clear enough. The poor, humble, suffering Christ is the one in whose steps we are to follow. The incarnation is central. So too is the passion, as well as the holy nativity as an example of humility and poverty. So lastly are the example of table fellowship with marginal people and the evangelical counsels and radical demands of the Kingdom.

But it would be a mistake to neglect the role of the Holy Spirit, openness to his/her leading and spontaneity. The Franciscan movement can be seen as a form of thirteenth century charismatic revival, with all the risks this entails. As William Short, OFM, has written, the Franciscan movement is at once radical and obedient. That is one reason why Francis had to insist that the brothers and sisters live as Catholics, so that liberty did not become license and the movement did not disintegrate through heresy and schism. This is a tension that is at the heart of any Christian movement, and indeed of the Church itself.

Many of the references to the Holy Spirit in the writings of Francis himself are nothing particularly distinctive. He blesses or prays in the Name of the Trinity. He cites Pauline and Johannine texts about the Spirit and uses them in ways that are common enough. For example, he cites Paul's teaching about the members of our body being temples of the Holy Spirit to warn against the dangers of fornication.

Other passages are more interesting. Perhaps the most important of these is found in both versions of the exhortation to the brothers and sisters of penance. I will cite the earlier version (also known as the first version of the letter to the faithful):
All those who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with their whole strength and love their neighbors as themselves, who hate their bodies with their vices and sins, who receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produce worthy fruits of penance. O how happy and blessed are these men and women while they do such things and persevere in doing them, because the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon them and make Its home and dwelling place among them, and they are children of the heavenly Father Whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers to Him, when we do the will of the Father who is in heaven. We are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to him through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others.
Three things fascinate me about this passage. First, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the clear paradigm for our union with the Lord. She too, in her Son, is a child of the Father. And in a distinctive way, she is the spouse of the Spirit, who carries Jesus in her heart and body. Francis confirms this in the antiphon he composed for his Office of the Passion:
Holy Virgin Mary,
among the women born into the world,
there is no one like you,
Daughter and servant
of the most high and supreme King
and of the Father in heaven,
Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ,
Spouse of the Holy Spirit...
Second, the Holy Spirit is the principle of our union with the Lord Jesus. We are spouses "when the Holy Spirit joins us to the Lord Jesus Christ." The underlying Trinitarian grammar is found in Romans 8 and parallel passages in Paul. As the Spirit cries "Abba, Father," we are conformed to the image of God's Son and drawn into Christ, so that his prayer becomes our prayer, the groan of the Spirit within us. Francis expresses our being in Christ in a particularly intimate Marian and maternal way: "we are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body..." And this brings me to the third point about the Spirit. I believe that Francis knows that the Spirit, as our spouse, is the One he is talking about when he notes the manner of this spiritual motherhood of ours. We carry Christ in our hearts and bodies "through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience," and we "give birth through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others." It is no accident that Francis slides between being a spouse of Jesus Christ (through the Holy Spirit) and calling Mary the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Similar slippage is seen in Paul, and it sometimes called his binitarianism. Being in Christ and being in the Spirit are convertible terms. The Holy Spirit is the same Spirit that rested on Jesus, and he/she is the one who makes Jesus present in the world and contemporary to every age. Love, or charity, is a name of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 5:5, which Augustine loved to cite against the Pelagians, we are told that the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us. For Francis, this is a birth of the Word in the soul, but without the baggage that comes with it in Eckhart. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, as in Wesley's great hymn, "Love divine all loves excelling," is the one who sanctifies and finishes the new creation, transfiguring it with divine love. For Francis, the soul united to Christ in the Spirit bears fruit in a holy activity. That activity is doing penance and living the Gospel.

Other interesting passages in Francis connect the Holy Spirit to fundamental Franciscan themes of discipleship and humility. For the former, see the prayer that concludes the letter to the entire order: "Inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footsteps of your beloved Son..." For the latter, see Admonition 12: "A servant of God can be known to have the Spirit of the Lord in this way: if, when the Lord performs some good through him, his flesh does not therefore exalt itself, because it is always opposed to every good. Instead he regards himself the more worthless and esteems himself less than others."

I don't think that any of this belongs to us Franciscans. We are not supposed to consider anything our own, not even the spiritual riches of our tradition. And the point has always been to attempt to live the Gospel. Francis wanted to have no other rule than the words of the Holy Gospel. In other words, the point is following Jesus, and Francis is a lens that helps us do that. He may have much to say to those for whom other lenses, traditions, and saints are more fundamental. As I've already noted, much of what he provides is a particularly powerful set of symbols for thinking about the fundamental trinitarian grammar of life in Christ, such as that found in Romans 8. Those who follow in the footprints of Jesus, who do penance and participate in the sacraments, will find themselves spouses, brothers/sisters, and mothers of Jesus. And we will, due to a goodness that ours by gift and not by right, begin to shine with a holy activity that comes from God's infused gift of charity.

Come Holy Spirit, sweet living charity, Lord God. Come, we pray, and fill us with the fire of your love. Unite us now and always to Jesus our brother, that we may exalt his Father and ours, and shine with your holy activity.

20 May 2009

Holy Eucharist: Central to all forms of priesthood

Francis writes in the "Letter to the Entire Order."
Look at your dignity, you brothers who are priests and be holy since He is holy (cf. Lev 19:2). And as the Lord God has honored you above all other persons because of this ministry, so you should love, reverence, and honor Him above all others. It is a great misery and a miserable weakness that when you have Him present with you in this way, you concern yourselves with anything else in this entire world.
Francis' reverence for the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist is well known. As a priest, I find myself embarassed by his statement that the Lord God has honored me "above all other persons." I'm not sure that this should be applied to the ordained priesthood, so much as the royal priesthood in which we all participate in virtue of Holy Baptism. It is through the action of the assembled Body of Christ, working together with the Holy Spirit that indwells us, that the Lord "is present on the altar in the hands of a priest."

And yet we ordained priests ought not avoid the dignity that is ours through holy orders. Like it or not, we play a certain indispensable role in the symbolic economy of the sacrament. First, insofar as we represent the bishop, as successor to the apostles and as Catholic person connected with all other bishops and all other Christians throughout time and space. The Eucharist is not something that we can do for ourselves. It comes from those who are commissioned, set apart, and sent, by the Lord and his Church. It comes as pure and unmerited gift. Second, insofar as we priests represent Christ himself at table--taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing. The other functions of priesthood--in the ordinal, we speak of "pastor, priest, and teacher"--flow from this mystery. The authority of the ordained priesthood, including "binding and loosing" comes from this sacramental role. So too, the ministries of the baptized, in collaboration with their pastors, are grounded in participation in the Eucharistic Assembly.

Many priests are a disgrace, and there have been times when I have been ashamed of myself. But the purpose of contrition is to drive us back into the arms of the Lord. Francis said that he would kiss the hands of even the worst priest in the world, because these hands handle the body and blood of Jesus. I remember when +Dorsey Henderson, Bishop of Upper South Carolina, anointed my hands at my ordination, to bless and heal.

The ordained priesthood is filled with humiliations, both small and large. I think Francis is reminding ordained priests of our central task, one of a very few reserved to us (as representatives of the bishop and therefore the Universal Church). He is reminding us of this, because of the many other roles that priests were asked to play in his day--and still are in ours. I wonder what this passage would say to the priest who finds himself or herself performing the functions of a branch manager or treated as an employee, a member of the "parish staff." A priest is a member of a community, in fact a called and chosen leader within the community, in communion with the bishop and in collaboration with the vestry and other lay leaders.

I am responding, in part, to the issues raised by Fr. John Julian's comments on Derek's post here. My own sense is that frequent communion would renew us all in the fundamental act that brings us together as Church. Hearing the caveats of Christopher and others, I'm willing to back off of any judgmental attitude, but I still think that John Julian is on to something important. The Church is undergoing fundamental changes. The survival of the Church depends on us putting Eucharist first, at least as the norm.

The answer to many of our challenges, I think, is to come back to the Eucharist and the absolutely free gift we find there. Properly understood, the whole rite is the Gospel lived out, including the mystery of the Church. The Eucharistic gift not only saves us; it also orders us into a coherent Body. We priests ought to find both our dignity and our humility here, rather than in worldly terms. In this sacrament, all are made brothers and sisters. One presides; all celebrate. None ought to forget his or her proper dignity within the Body.

Francis continues:

Let the whole world of humankind tremble
the whole world shake
and the heavens exult
when Christ, the Son of the living God,
is present on the altar
in the hands of a priest
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides himself under the little form of bread!

12 May 2009

Living as Catholics

My former colleague Bob Hughes likes to observe that "the Church is part of the Gospel."

I think this is especially important as we consider the meaning of chapter 19 of the early rule.

All the brothers must be Catholics, and live and speak in a Catholic manner. But if any of them has strayed from the Catholic faith and life, in word or deed, and has not amended his ways, he should be completely expelled from our fraternity. And we should regard all clerics and religious as our lord in those things which pertain to the salvation of the soul and who have not deviated from our religion, and, in the Lord, we should respect their order and office and government.
Now, it's true that the early rule also contains an oath of obedience to the pope and his successors. I don't think any Anglican Christian should accept that. But the Catholic intent of Franciscan life has been there from the beginning. Anglican Christianity has always seen itself as a fellowship within the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. And it has continued to accept the validity of the historic episcopate/apostolic succession and the threefold ordained ministry.

To be Catholic means many different things to many different people. But at the heart of it is a commitment to credal orthodoxy and the sacraments and order of the visible church. It also implies a universal mission and a commitment to unity, as an eschatological goal if not a present reality.

These are especially important in a radical renewal movement like the Franciscan one. Other forms of lay penitential movements existed in the thirteenth century. The Franciscans are one of the few that survived, because they cast their lot with the universal Church and not with private, sectarian opinions.

This can lead to frustrating tensions at times. But a commitment to the brothers and sisters God gives us is part and parcel of responding to the Gospel. As I noted on Sunday, in response to 1John 4, the appointed Epistle: You can't love God, whom you don't even see, if you don't love the neighbor you do.

We respect therefore the authority of the Church, which came before us and will be there after us, as a sign of our respect for one another. Even when it is wrong, we love the Church and we will not lightly depart from its teaching. Even in questions of conscience, we will strive to remain faithful to its doctrine, discipline, and worship. There is freedom in the Gospel, but liberty is not license.

Compare the relevant sections of "Comprehension in Generous Catholicity."

07 May 2009

Doing Penance--Metanoia

I should also say, in response to Josh's comment below, that the other title I considered for the blog was poenitentiam agere "doing penance," a term equally central to the Franciscan tradition and one especially dear to the Third Order, which has its roots in the medieval "Brothers and Sisters of Penance."

The roots of this notion are found in such places as the Vulgate of Mark 1:14-15, in which Jesus begins his public ministry:
postquam autem traditus est Iohannes venit Iesus in Galilaeam praedicans evangelium regni Dei et dicens quoniam impletum est tempus et adpropinquavit regnum Dei paenitemini et credite evangelio
After John was handed over, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of the Reign of God and saying "The time has been fulfilled and the Reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel."

The word paenitemini is in Greek metanoeite.

The parallel passages in Matthew, namely Matthew 3:2, which concerns John the Baptist's preaching, and Matthew 4:17, which concerns that of Jesus, use the phrase "paenitentiam (=poentitentiam) agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum," or "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near."

Here too, the Greek is simply metanoeite.

As many studies have pointed out, this word actually has more the sense of a changed mind. When I preach on a text like this, I often gloss it as a complete change of direction, orientation, and values. Let your lives be changed, be converted, turn your lives around.

This of course is what it means to do penance. Penance means forsaking our sins in sorrow and turning to embrace Christ and the Kingdom of God with joy. It is at the heart of the baptismal liturgy. First, we make the triple renunciation of Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the powers that corrupt and destroy the children of God, and all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Then, we turn to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, promise to obey him as our Lord, and put our whole trust in his grace and love. (BCP, p. 302) I think also of Ignatius' meditation on the two standards, or battle flags. Or the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." Or Paul's notion of being in Christ (or putting on Christ) as opposed to being in Adam. Again and again in life, even after baptism, we are forced to choose. And we need the grace of the Holy Spirit, who leads us to the font and who is always, already present in those who have not come to the waters (since he/she has been poured out on all flesh in and through Christ) but who is given to us in power in the sacrament of new birth, in order that we might be be made one with Christ in his dying and rising--and thereby turn.

At the same time, we can't speak of "doing penance" in our culture without an incredibly negative connotations. Insert visions of hair shirts and self flagellation here. My own sense is that the Gospel can be more powerfully presented in positive terms, in terms of what we are turning towards. Hence "living the Gospel," which for sinners like us means a life of ongoing and imperfect conversion.

But putting the note on the positive doesn't mean that we give up a profound sense of sinfulness. Sorrow and guilt are good to the extent that they are an honest response to sin and ultimately productive of change. We need to examine our conscience daily. We need the help of all our brothers and sisters, including clergy, confessors, and spiritual directors, to see our sin. We need to confront Satan, the powers, and sinful desires that draw us away from Christ. We need especially to confront those things that deface and disfigure the image of God in ourselves and our neighbor.

And this precisely is what is so deeply troubling to me and to others about the attempt of Bishop elect Kevin Thew Forrester of Northern Michigan to remove all references to sin from the baptismal rite. He has a very different interpretation of metanoia and the Gospel of salvation than in the central rite of the Book of Common Prayer. It also runs counter to the preaching of Jesus himself, as well as central trajectories of the New Testament interpretation of the saving significance of his life, death, and resurrection.

There is admittedly, as the more mainstream critics of Fr. Forrester have noted, room for a wide variety of approaches to the doctrine of the atonement. But there has to be some positive sense that we can give to the statement "Jesus died for our sins." There needs to be some sense of a vicarious action, in which we ourselves come to participate once for all in Holy Baptism and day by day as the Spirit continues to sanctify us. But the life of doing penance is one of ongoing, often painful conversion.

The purpose of this blog in large measure is to invite all people, including myself, into a deeper conversion. One that will not cordon off some parts of our lives as immune from Gospel influence. We seem to want to give Jesus only parts of ourselves, and in the post-Enlightenment West especially, to want to deny his relevance to the public square. Those who claim him most loudly in public are motivated by a theocratic and reactionary vision that is in fact a false anti-Gospel. Our political and economic decisions, at least as much as our personal lives, should be transformed in light of the Gospel. The one Jesus actually preached.

And we ought never to forget what this is all for. The vision that guides us is a joyful one of all creatures gathered in a new heaven and a new earth, in God's new world where weeping and mourning are no more, where war and torture and degradation are no more. And where all God's creatures live as brothers and sisters.

In the concluding words of Hymn 296:
A new creation comes to life and grows,
As Christ's new body takes on flesh and blood
The universe restored and whole will sing
Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

06 May 2009

Observare does not mean watching

I've chosen to translate "observare" by the word "living," because the English sense of "observe" is now predominately about watching. We do still say things like observe Lent, and this the sense that the Latin word has in the rule. It means to keep or comply with.

Here are some relevant definitions from Lewis and Short

To watch, guard, keep any thing:

To observe, respect, regard, attend to, heed, keep, comply with
a law, precept, recommendation, etc.

To pay attention or respect to; to respect, regard, esteem, honor one

The Gospel is not for spectators. It is Good News that changes us when we hear and respond to it. We become Christ's agents and representatives in the world, called and empowered to proclaim him by word and example.

In the parish I serve, I use a tagline from one of the baptismal vows "seeking and serving Christ in all persons." It's on all our stationery and every bulletin. I use this as shorthand for evangelization, both by sharing the story (by word) and serving our neighbor (by example). In both cases, the seeking is active. Jesus once said that the Son of man came to seek and save the lost. That's you and me.

Keeping, respecting, observing the Gospel means letting our lives be transformed by Jesus, so that all we say and do is a living witness to his love. And that love is for "all persons." No exceptions allowed.

The Eucharistic table where all are sought, served, and fed is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and a sign that another world is possible, not as a substitute for what we now see but as its transfiguration. As we approach the Day of Pentecost, let us remember that it is the Holy Spirit, God's own love poured into our hearts, that makes this transformation possible. Even now, God is at work to make all things new.

This blog and a few words on my perspective

It's been a while since I've had a blog separate from my parish sermon blog, the Blog of the Good Shepherd. I will be using this space to offer brief thoughts about the Gospel, discipleship, and the life of prayer from the perspective of a baptized Christian and Episcopal priest who is committed to following Jesus Christ in the way of Francis of Assisi.

The Latin of the url comes from the Rule of the Franciscan Order (the regula bullata of 1223).

Regula et Vita Minorum Fratrum haec est, scilicet Domini nostri Jesu Christi sanctum Evangelium observare vivendo in obedientia, sine proprio et in castitate.

"The rule and life of the lesser brothers is this, namely to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything that is our own, and in chastity."

My own commitment as a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis is to live the spirit of the evangelical counsels in a way that is consistent with my other vocations as a husband, father, and parish priest. The heart of the matter is evangelium observare, which I have translated as "living the Gospel." Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He suffered and died in the flesh. He rose again in the flesh. Every word and deed of Jesus points us to a new and renewed relationship with God, with our human neighbors, and with all God's creatures. Living the Gospel has to do with accepting everything as God's good gift. By living without anything that is our own, we actually possess everything. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. And we are set free to participate in God's great act of generosity, both in the creation of the world out of nothing and in the gift of God's Son, who became poor for us.

I believe that we are at a crisis point in the life of the world and that simplicity, sharing, and love must prevail if we are going to live up to our baptismal commitments to our brothers and sisters. As the First Letter of John tells us, you can't love God, whom you don't see, if you don't love the brothers and sisters you do. This love is active. It involves transformed social relationships. In the early Church it led to communal ownership of possessions (see Acts 4). Love cannot be an otherworldly abstraction.

One of the things I am very interested in is how we sustain a pluralistic conversation within the Church and where the boundaries of acceptable pluralism lie. I believe that love leads us to a reverence for our neighbor, even the neighbor with whom we passionately disagree. I disagree with the idea that anything goes. Interesting discussion has arisen lately over the consent process in the episcopal election in Northern Michigan. I count myself as one of those generously (and radically) orthodox Anglicans who wants a real conversation within the broad stream of credal orthodoxy but who does think that the apostolic rule of faith provides real limits on what counts as Christian. For a sermon of mine, on this topic, see my article "Touch me and see," at the Episcopal Cafe.

For a recent effort to articulate what is implied by Generous Orthodoxy (I borrow the phrase from Hans Frei), written by my friend Christopher Evans, and endorsed by a number of inclusive minded Episcopalians, including myself, see "Comprehension in Generous Catholicity."

Instructions for endorsing that statement are provided near the bottom, as is the list of current endorsers.