From what I can tell, Alastair Sterne is one cautious spiritual practitioner. His response to Douglas Todd’s sixth assertion about ‘Liberal Christianity’ is a bold attempt to fence the ‘classical Christian’ spiritual practices in for ‘baptized’ Christians, suggesting that the classical Christian spiritual practices must begin with the rite of Christian initiation before anything worthwhile can be done. While Sterne is not so much of a conservative as to insist that only spiritual practices within the church are valid — he stops at Christ — Sterne’s border-drawing must be read as a response to Todd’s putative liberalism:
Liberal Christians don’t go for things like speaking in tongues, known as glossolalia. And they are shy about pleading for God to directly do something for them, as if God were a magician or puppet master. They view prayer as a way to develop rapport with the divine. Open to learning from Eastern spiritual practices, liberal Christians are also rediscovering their own tradition’s overlooked paths to contemplation and the inner life. They’re following Barbara Brown Taylor, John O’Donohue and Jay McDaniel and meditating, going on pilgrimages (like Spain’s El Camino), lighting sacred candles, walking labyrinths, chanting and sharing sacred meals.
Sterne’s major issue here is that developing ‘rapport with the divine’ falls short of full Christian initiation. Moreover, putatively liberal practices of contemplation may produce three problems: self-reflective navel-gazing, gnostic elitism (or as University of Washington professor Mike Williams would put it, ‘what used to be called gnosticism’), and syncretism. Finally, in terms of a ‘sacred meal,’ Sterne narrows classical Christian practice to only the Eucharist. Unfortunately, glossolalia is left unaddressed, which is unfortunate, because plenty of people I know who claim to be evangelical Anglicans speak in tongues.
Sterne should be commended for his attempt to keep the ancient Christian spiritual practices strictly sacramental. The only problem is that after Sterne’s entire post, I am at a loss as to understand precisely what I can do as a classical Christian within Sterne’s strict boundaries. Sure, Sterne may be giving me a catholic nod by acknowledging, say, the Real Presence in the Eucharist and baptismal regeneration. Yet these attempts to fence the classical Christian table feel oddly un-catholic to me, particularly as a catholic approach would embrace the proliferation of devotional practices. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops argue, ‘it is not possible for us to fill up all of our day with participation in the liturgy.’ Enter devotional practices — personal prayers to God, prayers in solidarity with the saints, prayers that give a special solidarity with Mary — to the rescue. (Remember also that after a harrowing Congregational of the Doctrine of the Faith’s investigation into Peter Phan’s integration of ‘Asian negative theology’ into Catholic practice, Phan was exonerated. So much for catholic anti-syncretism!)
I bring up Catholic devotional practices, especially Marian veneration, because the table that Sterne et al. deny that they have set up an exclusively evangelical Protestant one. Indeed, what I am about to say about devotions to Mary and the saints would only be controversial for evangelical Protestants, while a variety of Roman Catholic,
magisterial Protestant (see the corrective notice at bottom), Coptic, Armenian, and Slavic traditions wouldn’t blink an eye. After all, that the Blessed Virgin is the theotokos (God-bearer) who brings us closer to Christ because she bore his human and divine natures within her very body (as defined in the Third Ecumenical Council) is as much a cardinal point of conciliar, ecumenical, orthodox, and (dare I say it!) classical Christianity as the Triunity of the Godhead (as defined in the First and Second Ecumenical Councils) and the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures (as defined in the Fourth Ecumenical Council). Indeed, both our resident Lutheran here on A Christian Thing and I have made arguments to our resident Catholic convert that if Mary is all he wants (she is not), then he can comfortably remain a Protestant. To require that our readers do their homework, I will not recapitulate our posts here.
Instead, I want to talk about Marian devotions in such a way that refocuses Sterne’s protest while making Todd’s account of liberal spiritual practices sound oddly classically orthodox.
Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar asserts in his book on Prayer that a Christian may pray in solitude, but that that Christian is never praying alone. I say assert because, as Karen Kilby will tell you, von Balthasar never argues — he only asserts! It so happens that von Balthasar’s assertion is corroborated by the creed, in which ‘classical Christians’ confess to faith in ‘the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.’ What von Balthasar means by his assertion is that what makes a prayer Christian is that it is always done in solidarity with the entire Body of Christ, as well as all the saints and angels, so that even when a Christian prays alone, he, she, or xe (we are, after all, writing in Vancouver) is always praying in mystical communion with the saints.
Given this ecclesial context, Sterne’s attempt to fence the church with the liturgy is understandable. It is also unnecessary.
That’s because, given this new focus of prayerful solidarity, Sterne’s three objections to Todd don’t carry very much weight. After all, prayerful solidarity is prayer with the other, which precludes navel-gazing. That this is in solidarity also prevents elitism. That a catholic approach is not exactly worried about syncretism for some hypothetical pure Christianity’s sake, as I showed earlier via Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism, negates the third.
Instead, going on with a sort of Balthasarian approach, Sterne’s strict sacramental fencing somewhat puts the cart before the horse. Todd’s establishment of ‘rapport with the divine’ can be reinterpreted via von Balthsar’s insistence that a theological aesthetic — the glory of the Lord — is the beauty that draws people into participation with the Godhead. Yes, baptism is the rite of Christian initiation, and yes, the Eucharist is the focal point of a Christian’s participation in the life of God, but this does not prevent God from establishing rapport with us via unexpected pockets of beauty, including in the contemplative practices like labyrinth walking and communal acts like sacred meals that make visible restfulness and solidarity in a noisy, atomizing world. Indeed, this is why when twentieth-century mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote her books on mysticism, she insisted that she was writing to a public audience because the contemplative practices were for the life of the world and world peace could arguably be achieved if more members of the public were drawn into these acts.
Here is where the Blessed Virgin comes into play.
As an Anglo-Catholic friend pointed out to me from the get-go of this blog series, if there’s any classical contemplative practice that both Sterne and Todd have omitted from their list of ancient Christian practices, it is devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a bit of a pity that both have omitted this item, particularly as Todd states that Roman Catholics are among the ranks of liberal Christians. That’s because if they would have both included Marian devotions, there would be no debate between the two of them. And that’s because Mary teaches us how to practice contemplative prayer.
This requires a bit of a know-how into how Marian veneration is actually practiced. Given the state of Roman Catholic and Protestant ecumenical dialogue, only the ignorami who cling to their anti-Catholic chick tracts would assert that those who invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin are, in Todd’s words, ”pleading for [Mary] to do something for them, as if [Mary] were a magician or puppet master.’ No, as von Balthasar himself states at the beginning of Prayer, the words of the Hail Mary — ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus’ — are uttered in Scripture by the lips of the angel Gabriel and the elderly Elizabeth. The practice of Marian devotions like the Angelus and the Rosary are requests to Mary that we might contemplate God and the world together with her as she ‘ponders all these things in her heart,’ as St. Luke puts it. Having contemplated the mysteries of God in turning the world upside down by his incarnation as a humble child born of a simple peasant virgin, we echo Mary’s words to the angel, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ That is to say, the Word of God spoken to us does not give us a programmatic agenda for what Christians are to do in the world; instead, as St. Peter’s Fireside’s motto itself emphasizes, we, in solidarity with the Blessed Virgin, join God in what he is already doing in the world, turning our eyes to contemplate the world together with the Blessed Virgin.
In Marian devotions, the Anglican dictum lex orandi, lex credendi is fulfilled. Typically referring (as Sterne would) to the liturgical practices in the Book of Common Prayer, this phrase — ‘the law of prayer, the law of belief’ — is amplified by praying in solidarity with the Blessed Virgin, who in turn shows us the world in solidarity with us. In this way, Marian prayer is prophetic — the Blessed Virgin may have spoken in tongues at Pentecost, but even before Pentecost, she prophesied in the power of the Spirit that this world with its colonial powers exploiting the poor and the vulnerable would be turned upside down, that the proud would be scattered in the thoughts of their heart, that the hungry would be fed, and that the people of God would be shown mercy. Now that’s glossalalia! (It’s probably also why there’s a tradition of the pope making observations about the state of the world and then praying the Angelus with a crowd gathered outside his window.)
There is a word, then, for the posture that Mary takes in prayer that both putatively ‘liberal’ and ‘classical’ Christians would affirm. Todd might call it stillness, centeredness, and quiet. Sterne might call it liturgical, obedient, and Christ-centered. But as the Blessed Virgin prays and contemplates, the word that comes to mind is humility. The posture of quiet, contemplative prayer is a humble one — in the words of Henri Nouwen, a prayer with open hands, not clenched fists, ready to receive from God the full extent of divine love.
And at the end of the day, that is what the Mother of God prays for us, whether we are ‘liberal’ or ‘classical.’ We must join her.
We look forward to Mike Chase’s analysis of the psychology of hypocrisy next up on the St. Peter’s Fireside blog.
CORRECTION: Thanks to the careful reading of Jon Reimer, a church historian who is destined to become our generation’s authority on all things in ecclesiastical history (but especially St. Augustine), I am retracting my assertion that the magisterial Protestants would find Marian devotions unproblematic. As Reimer points out, Luther and Calvin may have retained a strong Marian devotion, but they also theologically undercut her cult. Moreover, as Eamon Duffy shows in The Stripping of the Altars, the English Reformation produced a heavy iconoclasm that wiped out a flourishing set of Catholic devotional practices in Tudor England. As a transition, this is what they got to say instead: ‘Ayle mary gretely in goddis fauour the lorde is with the blessed arte thou aboue women for the blessed frutes sake of thy wombe. Amen. Lede us not (lorde) into temptacion but delyuer us from the euel sprite. Amen.’ Reimer’s observations coincide with my previous posts about the rise of the state and the policing of religion (see here, here, and here). As I’ve said in this post, all theology is done in solidarity, especially prayer, and I thank Reimer, with whom I have not only studied but prayed, for being a brother. However, I would maintain that contemporary ecumenical dialogues have made Marian devotions for Protestants increasingly viable.