A talk to the Sodality on the admission of new members on the Solemnity of the Assumption 2020 (Zoom) by the Superior Fr Richard Peers
“If Anglicanism survives,” writes William Countryman in his book The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition (DLT 1999) it will be by the grace of God communicated through the spirituality of the poets. The poets summon us to turn our attention not to the details of church life but to the reality of God’s presence, to the surprise of grace.” (p189)
In the months since the pandemic began I have spoken to well over a hundred people who have been discerning a vocation to our Sodality. In about a quarter of those conversations it is pretty clear that the Sodality is not for them. The barrier is very often, if not quite always, the importance our Manual places on maintaining the praying of the Office on day’s off and holidays, and a sort of suggestion that we don’t really mean what we say.
For another quarter of the people I meet a continuing process of discernment is needed, longer spent with the Manual, a discernment about existing commitments to other communities and work with or in finding a Spiritual Director.
Every one of these conversations has been a blessing to me. Every one is a cause of thanksgiving for me. God is calling amazing women and men to serve in the sacred priesthood. God is doing great things in the lives of his people.
About half of the conversations have resulted in new members and aspirants to the Sodality. Over thirty admissions at Pentecost, over twenty today on this glorious solemnity of the Assumption. Extraordinary international growth. I can’t tell you the joy this brings me. My hearts faints within me. I will thank you Lord among the peoples, among the nations I will praise you, for your live reaches to the heavens and your truth to the skies. O God, arise above the heavens; may your glory shine on earth.
This international growth is the Holy Spirit adding to the charisms of our community. I have always described those charisms as joy, friendship, parish priesthood and seriousness. Those continue, of course, but the Holy Spirit is clearly calling us to be something for the whole of the Anglican Communion. In your testimonies to me, in conversation, and at the q and a sessions that we have run, I hear over and over again that poetic summons “to the reality of God’s presence, to the surprise of grace”. I am frequently moved to tears as I reflect on the way in which God has and is working in your lives. I normally pray the Te Deum as part of my evening Examen before Compline, giving thanks for the day and the gifts it has brought. Sometimes I can barely say “You are God” before the tears come. Your testimonies, dear sister and brother Sodalists are so powerful.
Please keep telling people your story. There is nothing more attractive than the accounts we give of our deeply attractive God, who has attracted us to Himself.
One of the things that has struck me about your testimonies is the significance of Mary for so many of you, so many of us. I encourage you to be unapologetic in your testimonies of faith and unapologetic in the language we use. Keep talking, as you do, about Jesus, and knowing Jesus, and how Mary has led you to Jesus, how she leads us to Jesus every day. How the Rosary is simply a summary of the gospel, of the good news of salvation. How we are priests of the Magnificat for whom justice is the fruit of knowing Jesus, and of him being born in our hearts. Of how Mary is at the heart of our faith because she was the first believer. Mary is the most Protestant of saints because her sanctity is based entirely on her act of faith, of her saying yes to Jesus.
[Apologies to those who have heard me say some of this before. ] Today, the Assumption, is, contrary to popular opinion, the most Protestant of feasts. And Milton is the first poet I am turning to:
Milton is strangely appropriate for today’s feast – because Protestant-Catholic dualism is so unhelpful, but also because, despite appearing to be the most Catholic, this is, in fact, the most Protestant of feasts.
It is this feast that teaches us the reality of that unfashionable doctrine, the Fall and Original Sin.
Indeed a better name for today’s feast of the Assumption – with all its connotations of aerial flight – might well be the title of Milton’s sequel: Paradise Regained.
My own theological prejudices have been challenged by reading Milton. Paradise Lost far from a world-hating Puritanism is a deeply sensuous, erotic and mystical text.
Listen to one of my favourite passages, where he describes the sexual relationship between Adam and Eve.
Picture, if you will, the naked Eve, half leaning into the naked Adam in Eden, she …
… with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his, under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty, and submissive charms,
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregn[nate]s the clouds
That shed Mayflowers; iv 495 – 501:
Wonderfully giving the lie to the myth that Original Sin is all about sex; this sex is before the Fall.
You will be pleased to know that it is not the erotic possibilities of Milton I want to concentrate on tonight. Rather, I believe we can learn from him about today’s feast and how it applies to the missional puzzle of our time:
How do we communicate the Christian message to our society?
How do we bring people to know Jesus?
There are three elements I want to highlight:
· the Fall
The Fall, our inability to help ourselves as the heart of the problem. Jesus as the solution. Imagination as our inherent ability to participate in the salvation he brings.
Paradise Lost, like today’s feast, is about the Fall. Mary’s journey to heaven, would not be necessary if humanity had not left Eden.
The very last lines of the poem explain this perfectly:
[Adam and Eve] looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
[From] Eden took their solitary way.
For Milton, the Fall, is a happy one, there is excitement in that phrase ‘The world was all before them’. Endless possibility lies ahead; this is the gift of choice, of free will. This is the felix culpa, the happy fault, the fortunate fault.
Full of doubt I stand,
Milton puts it,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done or occasioned, or rejoice
Much more that much more good thereof shall spring –
To God more glory, more good will to men
From God – and over wrath grace shall abound. (xii 472-478)
The first key to preaching the Gospel in our time is to enable people to see that we need saving.
We need a theology that exposes the post-Freudian therapeutic world-view as the empty shell that it is. That demonstrates that counselling alone cannot build the kingdom of God. To show that sin is real, that the current machinations of plague, war and revolt, can hardly come as a surprise: that when we create a person-centred universe, when we remove God from the heart of things we carve out an emptiness that will be filled with horrors.
The liberal dream of permanent progress has been dying for a century. Perhaps the pandemic will be its final end.
I know my own tendency to sin, to selfishness.
Like driving with the steering off-centre and always needing to compensate, our need for a saviour is, literally, our only hope.
Philip Pulman takes the title for His Dark Materials trilogy from Milton (PL ii 916) and portrays the dying God who needs to die. We need not the small deity of therapy but the real God who is hard to see.
Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost had lost his sight and been blind for almost a decade. It is no surprise, then, that the poem is full of references to darkness and clouds.
But what is surprising, is that so many of these references are not to the darkness and cloud as negatives, but as positives, as the way to the real God:
This deep world
Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst
Thick clouds and dark doth Heaven’s all-ruling Sire
Choose to reside, his glory unobscured,
And with the majesty of darkness round
Covers his throne, from whence deep thunders roar. ii 262-268
the Most High
Eternal Father, from his secret cloud
Amidst in thunder uttered thus his voice. x 31-32
The Christian vision, is not that we will come to some rational post-therapuetic wholeness and intellectual knowledge of God. It is that we will pierce the Cloud of Unknowing, we will ascend the mountain and find God in the cloud.
We will come, as Milton puts it, in his brilliant phrase, to
darkness visible (i 63).
God has placed in us, has created us with, the capability to pierce that darkness, to pass through that cloud. This is what Milton knew as he composed his epic poem, that happy fault, which was his own blindness is where he discovered that
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
We have become so enthralled to the false God of measurement and provability; we so worship at the shrine of science and the verifiable, that we have forgotten that what is imagined is not untrue.
When I look at a picture of my beloved, my love is real, the warmth in my heart, the stirring desire to be together, is true. “God has sent his Spirit into our hearts.” (Gal 4:7)
This is not some pipe dream, it is the daily right of every Christian. As real as sexual longing and fulfilment – which is the point of Milton’s sensuous description of our first parents.
Dear friends, my urging to you in your prayer is to take the way of imagination, to stir up in your heart a true longing for Jesus.
Picture him, imagine him with you, speaking to you, above all listening to you, tell him the deepest longings of your heart, the smallest struggles of your day.
Forget the false sophistication that rejects what is so essentially human. In reality even Science relies on leaps of imagination to make progress.
If we are to know God we have to use our imaginations to rediscover an authentic, spiritual sentiment that is serious, sincere and unembarrassed, so that we can cry ‘Abba! Father!’. (Gal 4:7)
The second poet I am going to refer to takes us to a province of the Communion which we are not admitting anyone from today but is nonetheless dear to my heart, the Church in Wales.
I have referred before to some of the essential books we should read and know if we are to articulate a coherent evangelical understanding of Mary from within the Anglican tradition and I refer you to The Joy of All Creation by AM Allchin and his chapter on the Welsh priest-poet Euros Bowen. It is important when we talk of the poetic imagination to emphasise that poetic and imaginative don’t mean ‘not true’. In fact quite the opposite they mean truer than we can express easily.
Bowen describes his poetry as sacramental for precisely this reason. Allchin writes “This use of imagery in his [Bowen’s] poems is thus not thought of by the poet simply as a play of the creative imagination. Rather it is seen as rooted in the very nature of things, in a world which is a world of sacraments and images, where the captivity of God is at every stage sacramental.” (p173) As in much Welsh poetry place is central to a perception of the divine. I will quote just a few lines:
“The robe on the fair one of the bright child-bearing
is like quiet weather on Towyn’s shore,
like incense, again from Dyfed itself,
an evening of splendour on Ynys Lchlyn,
fair swirling waters at Aberglastlyn,
Bilberries trailing their myrrh on the Berwyns.”
As we admit members and aspirants to the Sodality from Canada, the United States, South Africa, England and on Monday from Australia. This is a good reminder to us of the importance of place. And as we get to know each other in the permanent process of formation of community understanding where we are, our places is vital.
Allchin reminds the reader that all annunciations, all visitations of the Spirit point to that first annunciation to Mary. When I hear your testimonies, when you tell people about your annunciations, your visitations of the Spirit you are pointing to the Annunciation, to Mary and the Angel, to that overshadowing of the Spirit which is the central point of salvation.
The poetic imagination opens up in us the childlike spirit that Jesus wishes for us, the ‘beginner’s mind’ that is open to new possibilities and does not close things down. It is a spirit that is much needed if we are to rediscover a patristic way of reading Scripture that sees multiple layers of meaning and richness in the text. I recommend, for this typological reading of Scripture on Mary, the book Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero (Ignatius Press 1999).
This way of reading the Scriptures is evident in another text I recommended in the last newsletter, the ARCIC material on Mary published as Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. In the patristic and traditional reading of Scripture Mary is read as a type of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city. She represents the new Israel, which is all of us, the baptised. There is an excellent essay by Charles Sherlock, and Australian Anglican, among the supporting essays. He draws attention to this communal reading of Mary. In modern times everyone loves treating the Trinity as an image of community and diversity. There are, of course, problems with the social reading of the God-head. Which is precisely why we need Mary. When we invoke her prayers we are invoking the prayers of the whole Church. Mary is a profound challenge to individualism and fragmentation. To us as a community she represents the fact that we are not alone, never alone as Christians, as priests. When I read the requests for prayer in our Facebook page, when I offer a Rosary for those requests it is a blessing not simply to the person or situation prayed for but to me, a reminder that I belong, we belong, to one another, that we have as many people say about the Sodality, and which the very name itself signifies, ‘come home.’
You can find a very good introduction to the ARCIC work in the collection of Roger Greenacre’s work published as Maiden, Mother and Queen: Mary in the Anglican Tradition (Canterbury Press 2013). Fr Roger provides some helpful insights into seeing Mary as important and tracing where this has been shown in our tradition.
That sense in which Mary is a constant reminder of our not-alone-ness, our communion with the saints has been at the heart of the Sodality since we began. It is the root of our commitment to justice. I am constantly grateful for the variety and diversity that is part of our community. And that is a fruit of our faithfulness to the gospel and the catholic faith. Another welsh writer and priest draws this out beautifully in his book Mary: A Gospel Witness to Transfiguration and Liberation by the Archdeacon of Meirionnydd, Andrew Jones. it contains excellent material for use by parish study groups. As Sodalists we will want to use material like this in our parishes and other contexts to help those who might be reticent about the role of Mary in the life of faith.
Here in the UK Mother Ade of our Sodality has been exploring what we mean by novenas. We refer to them in our Manual but have never made very much of them corporately. Mother Ade posted a picture of one of William G Storey’s collections of novenas in our FB group. As a starter for a novena around Mary I would recommend the novena outlined in Carlo Carretto’s Blessed Are You Who Believed (Orbis 1982). The whole book is helpful in developing appropriate language for us to speak about Mary, it is deeply Scriptural, understands the imperative to justice, highlights Mary as the first believer and summarises many of the themes I have been talking about today. Most importantly it highlights the importance of the Rosary.
Every now and again someone approaches me about joining the Sodality but says that they ‘can’t’ pray the Rosary and in fact ‘wont’ pray the Rosary. That is probably an indicator that the Sodality is not for them!
I have been using Carlo Carretto’s novena in preparation for today over the last nine days. In the section for day 9, which I have used today he writes:
“For anyone unacquainted with the spiritual life the rosary can seem a useless and rhetorical form of prayer.
But for the person who is ‘spiritual’, for the person who has advanced along the path of prayer, the rosary is the simplest method of helping to live prayer in a down-to-earth and sustained way.
I would go so far as to say that the person who loves this type of prayer, and who feels at ease in reciting the rosary is a contemplative …” (p.82)
I meet lots of people who say that prayer is difficult. I have many people come to me who have read the mystics and want to be contemplatives. The simplest ways are the best.
As Sodalists we will want to teach the Rosary, to pray the Rosary often. I have often been exhausted by Zoom worship and some of it has been and is dire, but I have loved praying the Rosary together, turning my camera off, muting my microphone, and hearing the gentle rhythms of your voices leading and answering the Rosary.
The variety of your accents, the differences in our intonations from London Ontario to South Dakota, from New Zealand to South Africa, from Cardiff to Darlington, how blessed we are. Thank you.
As you can see I have been referencing what I consider top be essential reading for any Sodalist, indeed any Catholic Anglican on the importance of Mary. She is not an optional extra, a preference, a style or a taste she is at the heart of our faith.
When I spoke with one of our new members, Fr David who will be received on Monday, he reminded me in the words he spoke of how profoundly important she is. He spoke of how in his pastoral work he tries to be, like her, to those he meets a Theotokos. A God-bearer.
I can’t tell you the joy this brings me. My hearts faints within me. I will thank you Lord among the peoples, among the nations I will praise you, for your live reaches to the heavens and your truth to the skies. O God, arise above the heavens; may your glory shine on earth.
“A Collision of Joys” is a phrase from Jeremy Taylor, it is the title of the chapter on Taylor from AM Allchin’s book.
Being a part of this Sodality is a happy collision of joys for me. I hope and pray it is for you and especially for our new members. I am grateful.