Category Archives: Book Review

The Way of St Francis: poverty or littleness?


717520Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St Francis of Assisi reconsidered, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

 

ISBN 9780195182804. Paperback 165 pages.

$52 online, $40 used. In State Library system.

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

 

Being a Franciscan is all about poverty. Right? Kenneth Baxter Wolf’s study of poverty in relationship to Saint Francis challenges our common conception.

Maybe it shouldn’t.

Many of the early Brothers came from the same class as Saint Francis. More to the point, the roll-call of those early Franciscans who became saints includes royalty and nobles. We hear of sainted King Louis IX and his sister the Blessed Princess Isabelle of France. Elizabeth of Hungary was the wife of a king. We visit Assisi and puzzle over the dazzling riches of basilicas and churches dedicated to the poor man of Assisi.

There are ironies here.

Kenneth Baxter Wolf walks us through the early sources and shows that Francis was about a different sort of poverty: a poverty that was more attractive to the wealthy burghers of Assisi than to the involuntary poor. Wolf teaches history at Pomona College in California and is well placed to compare Francis with other medieval saints. His ideas in this book, however, are controversial among fellow-historians.

Dr Wolf says that Saint Francis chose poverty; a strange choice because, firstly, his poverty did not help the poor. What he begged decreased the total possible alms in the area and may therefore have resulted in fewer resources available to the poor.

Secondly, choosing poverty romanticised it to some extent.

Thirdly, to ‘become poor’ was (and is) an aspiration open only to the wealthy, the middle class in particular. The involuntary poor cannot aspire to ‘become poor’!

As Wolf claims: “The point is not that Francis and his friars were never charitable toward the poor. The point is that charitable distribution was clearly ancillary to the Franciscan spiritual program, a program that put much more emphasis on the virtue that followed from acting poor than the virtue that came from relieving the poverty of others. “ [p. 25]

Wolf argues that Francis chose poverty as the concrete way of imitatio Christi, of identifying with Christ. What is crucial is not the poverty, but the imitation of Christ. For St Francis, poverty ‘was simply the most direct means of achieving a personal identification with Jesus, the practitioner of voluntary poverty par excellence.’ (p. 43)

Wolf contrasts St Francis with his near contemporary St Raymond of Piacenza (1140 – 1200), who became poor so that he could live with the poor and alleviate their poverty. From a similar background to Raymond, Francis began his ministry helping lepers, but it soon changed to be largely preaching to the wealthy.

This is one of those points where Professor Wolf may be criticised. The early biographers of St Francis most likely assumed that the ministry to the lepers continued while they described other aspects of his life, not that it disappeared with the descriptions of preaching missions and Chapters.

Why was Saint Francis so popular? Wolf argues he offered the wealthy a way to repent and return to God. Saint Francis used the techniques of entertainers and of merchants, attracting attention with strange antics, and then selling them the benefits of a renewed life with God.

Francis offered a way of being Christian which was ‘about redefining poverty altogether in such a way that only Christians of means could really appreciate it and aspire to it.’ (p. 89)

We read this text as First World Christians. Our nations’ welfare sytems make it difficult for us to really divest ourselves of our wealth. I found it helpful to be reminded by Professor Wolf that Franciscan poverty is not an end but the means to a deeper connection with Christ.

To those of us who live in relative wealth and privilege, the Franciscan call is not that we should live in abject poverty, but that we should repent our privileged view of ourselves and live in humility. Saint Francis appeals to us because he uses the language of commerce, the 13th Century equivalent of capitalism, to draw us in to a counter-cultural, liberating and humble way of living our faith.

 

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Saint, Patron of the Third Order


From the age of Saints, Louis IX of France was genuine in his piety, and is one of the three traditional patrons of the Third Order. We give thanks today for the example of saintliness he left us and for the encouragement he provides.

Enjoy this book review on the life of Saint Louis which is re-posted from 2013.

An Intense Life


GMH coverINSCAPE OF AN INTENSE LIFE IN CHRIST 

Mariani, Paul. Gerard Manley Hopkins: a Life. 

New York City: Viking Adult, 2008

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

The 13th century Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus was one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ heroes. Duns Scotus invented the idea of haecceitas. This ugly Latin word is usually translated by the equally ugly ”isness “, but would be better rendered as “uniqueness.” Haecceitas refers to the quality that makes a thing itself and not anything else. In other words, Scotus was encouraging his readers to gaze at things until they disclosed their unique quality. Gazing, according to Sister Ilia Delio among others, is a characteristic aspect of Franciscan praying. Duns Scotus’ philosophy places him firmly in this Franciscan tradition.

Hopkins pays homage to Duns Scotus in his poem ”Duns Scotus’s Oxford.”   This sonnet deplores the way Oxford has developed and grown since the 1200s.

”… graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping – folk, flocks, and flowers.”

Hopkins has evidently informed this judgement by gazing  at the buildings and trees he so loves until he sees what makes Oxford unique.

”Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river­ rounded.”

Hopkins was expert at gazing. Ilia Delio tells the story of Hopkins gazing at a tree in Ireland for three days until it disclosed its haecceitas. Hopkins felt at home in the natural world of Ireland and Wales. It is this world, gazed at and wondered about, that is “charged with the glory of God.”

Paul Mariani’s biography reveals that Hopkins’ expertise was profound but narrow. His powerful intellect was trained at Oxford in the classics, and he remained absorbed in Latin and Greek even after the Jesuits had thoroughly trained him in theology.

The Jesuits seemed not to know what to do with this strange, intense young man, so they eventually sent him to Ireland on the pretext that he would help other Jesuits establish a Catholic University in Dublin. Even though he was on the Catholic side, Ireland was not a congenial place for an English patriot, especially one who found it difficult to make friends. In practice, his lonely years in Ireland were an almost endless task marking the Latin and Greek exams of all the children matriculating in Ireland.

Depressed and physically ill, he battled on until his death in 1888 aged only 44. He cried out, presumably in the mid-1880s:

“My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter, kind,
Charitable; not live in this tormented mind.
With this tormented mind, tormenting yet.”

Only hours before his death, Father Wheeler heard Hopkins whispering over and over again, “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Mariani’s simple telling of this story leaves us with the impression that Hopkins is finally happy because he knows he will soon be passing from this unhappy life to his glorious reward.

Mariani’s Life is richly textured. The biographer gathers a mass of detail and tells the story of Hopkins’ life chronologically. His sources are so detailed that he often reports verbatim conversations that Hopkins had on a given day, and records what he was thinking and confiding to his journal.

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Hopkins’ story is simple. From the English upper-middle class, Hopkins would have been expected to remain lifelong Anglican were it not for his awkward conversion to Rome. This choice, made at Oxford, determined his direction.

It was a time when young Oxford men agonised over ‘going over’: John Henry Newman, another of his heroes, had done it a generation earlier, and several of Hopkins’ circle either converted or seriously contemplated it. It was a decision to be made, as Hopkins did, with lengthy deliberation and careful disclosure to family and friends. Some never forgave or understood his decision.

His lifelong friendship with the poet Robert Bridges only just lasted this decision time.

Hopkins did well enough at his theological studies and loved the setting of the Jesuit Novitiate at Roehampton, Wales. His daily walks inspired his poetry; he learned Welsh to better minister to Welsh-speakers; and he regaled his fellows with erudite jokes at end of term dinners. He was happy – or at least as happy as he would ever be.

His engagement with the craft of poetry started to flower at Roehampton. Paul Mariani shows how original Hopkins was both in developing the idea of ‘sprung rhythm’ and in paying attention to ‘inscape’. These are both complex ideas, and Mariani helped me understand them better.

Hopkins’ concept of ‘inscape’ is the poetical descendent of Duns Scotus’ haecceitas. Where landscape is exterior, ‘inscape’ is interior. It describes the qualities revealed when you gaze on something in nature or on the action of a person. Poetry is partly about capturing inscape, as a painter, in depicting trees and sky, communicates the qualities of the landscape.

Hopkins deeply understood the contribution Shakespeare had made to poetry and to the English language by adapting iambic pentameter to English poetry in both drama and poems. Hopkins believed that English is not a syllabic language and questioned whether iambs and dactyls and other syllabic patterns were best for English. So he experimented with a line of five beats – still a pentameter – that was independent of the number of syllables: this was sprung rhythm.

Mariani explores at some depth the influence of Duns Scotus on Hopkins. In a book of over 400 pages, I was a little disappointed not to find more about another influence: Ignatius of Loyola. I felt Paul Mariani played down the Jesuits’ influence of Hopkins. However, there is no way that a sensitive man like Hopkins could have completed the 40-day Exercises without being deeply permeated by Ignatian spirituality. Mariani may have thought that David Downes in his study on the Ignatian spirit and Hopkins had sufficiently covered the notion of Hopkins the priest-poet.

While still in simple vows, the Jesuits put Hopkins into a classroom. He taught zealously, and students remembered him as gentle and trustworthy.

They would surely remember his illustration of how Achilles hooked Hector’s bloodied corpse behind his chariot and dragged it beneath the walls of Troy. ”Hopkins lay on his back and had a student drag him around the floor.” (p. 333) His zany pedagogy sometimes connected with his students, but often, his students simply found him over-scrupulous and strange. Teaching was not his vocation.

Meanwhile, Hopkins struggled on with his craft: sprung rhythm and internal rhymes pressed into service to express his insight into the true nature of the world around him. Not that Hopkins was always convinced that being a poet was the heart of his vocation. He stopped writing for some years, disappointed that he was not being published, and unsure of what his superiors really thought of his poetry.

And so to Ireland, and to the lonely room with the desk piled high with papers to mark, and the daily walk and his poetry his only escape.

We might be tempted to conclude that he had lived the life of the archetypical Romantic poet: the genius whose suffering was transmuted into Art. This was the ideal that Byron, Keats, Coleridge and others proposed. Yet I doubt Hopkins would want to be placed with the Romantics. Every day, he might say, he had the privilege of seeing the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’, and though to the observer, his life may seem to carry the shape of the Crucified Lord, Hopkins knew every day the presence of the Risen Lord:

‘EnoughI the Resurrection,//A heart’s clarion!
Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.’

This disciple was not waiting for the after-life to taste the joys of life in the Risen One. He was enchanted by it now.

Bridges and GMH 1863For this lover of Hopkins’ poetry, this life was not only fascinating to read, but it was also good to hold such a beautiful book. The narrative is sustained with clarity over 435 pages, and a handful of illustrations add much it. I found myself often looking back to the photos of Bridges and Hopkins taken in 1863, and used as a pictorial epigraph for Part 1, and then flicking forward to the photos taken in 1888 months before Hopkins’ death in Dublin. These show  Bridges as a mature man with a vital eye looking forward to the future. Hopkins, by contrast, looks exhausted and grim, with his hair receding and his head tilted slightly backwards as though he already looking up in anticipation.

Mariani has captured for me the haecceitas of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet. Mariani’s inscape is an insight into his intense, short life.bridges-and-gmh-1888.png

 

 

 

 

 

Is the Pope Catholic?


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Christopher Lascelles, Pontifex Maximus: A short history of the popes, Crux Publishing 2017.

404 pages

ISBN 9781909979468

E-book $AU 8.99

 

Years ago, while teaching French, I showed my Year 9 students some slides of the Popes’ Palace at Avignon. ‘This,’ I declared, ‘was where the Popes lived when there was more than one Pope.’

Two girls, my best students, were aghast. ‘But the Pope must live in Rome,’ they said. I

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Le Palais des papes, Avignon. Image courtesy tourisme-avignon

knew that these students were Roman Catholics, so I suggested they should check the story out with the nuns that visited the school. Next lesson, they returned with an ‘official’ list of Popes, and were intrigued that this list did show that Clement V, Innocent VI, John XXII and Urban V, all ‘proper’ Popes established their Curia in Avignon.

Rome has good reason to police papal history. The papacy has been a fallible institution, and Rome would prefer an official list that presents the story that God was working through sinful men.

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Christopher Lascelles

Christopher Lascelles’ new book, Pontifex Maximus, is not the story that Rome prefers. Lascelles is the author of A Short History of the World, and in both books, he gives evidence-based history. The style is journalistic and accessible, but it is not flattering to the papacy.

Popes are shown to be quarrelsome, ambitious and self-serving. Some rode at the head of papal armies. Some sponsored their children and nephews into rich positions as Cardinals or Archbishops. Some, like Pius XI (1922-1939), supported Mussolini. Lascelles shows how Pius was even implicated in the rounding up of Jews, naively believing Mussolini was a good Catholic because he had promised favourable treatment for the Church. Once trapped into the deal, he continued to believe that the advantages to the Church outweighed the evils of Italian Fascism.

Lascelles rightly makes the Gospel of Jesus the standard by which he judges Popes. He identifies three only that lived the Gospel and had the opportunity to reform the Church – Gregory I the Great being the prime example. Gregory refused to accept the title of Universal Bishop, and exemplified Christian values as he saved Rome from a series of disasters.

He believes that the new Pope Francis may also serve the Gospel well.

There were times when I felt that Lascelles was unduly critical. For example, he criticises the political power that Innocent III (1198-1216) amassed for himself, without showing the good for the Gospel that he also achieved.

Overall, this is an entertaining and informative run-through of the history of the papacy. I considered myself reasonably well-informed and learned many new things in the reading. Above all, Lascelles makes the story of the papacy interesting.

It is clearly written for a general audience, for readers who would rather not be fobbed off by pious propaganda. I doubt there would be teachers brave enough to set it as a text in Catholic schools or tertiary institutions, but it would be a rich resource for senior students.

In all, to cram so much history into such an accessible book is a praiseworthy achievement.

 

Thirst for God – Ian Robinson’s new book


This is the long version of the review that appeared in the June Anglican Messenger

If Anyone ThirstsIan Robinson, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical Spirituality from the Desert, Melbourne, Morning Star Publishing, 2015, paper, 289 pp. including appendices & bibliography.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Jews and Christians first found out about God in the harsh environment of the desert: God’s generous provision of water and bread, meat and safety, all flowing out in abundance when scarcity was all around, and an unbreakable commitment to God’s people.

We look back to the long 40-year learning about God in the Exodus and to the bedrock of teaching surrounding that motif of Israel’s history: our God is first a desert God.

The Rev. Dr Ian Robinson, currently the Uniting Church’s chaplain to The University of WA, has been journeying through the Australian deserts for decades listening for resonances of our desert God. His latest book, If Anyone Thirsts: Biblical spirituality from the desert, systematically explores the theme of desert in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers. He introduces readers to Desert movements today trying to reclaim the centrality of desert spirituality in their Christian faith.

Dr Robinson claims that we have missed the emphasis on desert spirituality in the life of Jesus and in the centrality of the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), which is an annual renewal of the learnings from the desert. Not only did Jesus retreat to ‘desert places’ to pray, in John 7 – 8 he went up to the Temple for the days of Sukkot and disrupted the high points of the festival to make his claims that he was the manna from heaven, that living water would flow from him, and that he was sent by God to be like Moses and greater than him.

Ian puzzles as to why we Christians have picked up the Jewish Feasts of Passover at Easter, of Weeks at Pentecost, but not Shavuot. He hints that October would be a good time to add a major feast to our calendar to renew our foundations in desert spirituality. Perhaps this feast could take the form of camping out in a desert place, symbolic or real.

There have been a few attempts to develop a specifically Australian Christian spirituality. From the Anglican Community of St Clare, Sister Angela’s Gumnut Spirituality was promising, but probably only in the areas of aesthetics and environmentalism. The Rainbow Spirit elders in an Indigenous context have focused more on finding the parallels between Christian theology and Indigenous Dreaming.

Dr Robinson concludes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that the key is not so much to develop an intellectual framework for desert spirituality, but to do it. In the Diocese of Perth, Anna Killigrew and Peter Harrison at Koora Retreat are themselves putting desert spirituality into practice and inviting others to experience with them God in the desert.

Each chapter of Ian’s book, Exodus, Elijah, Ezra, Jesus, etc. begins with a story engaging our imagination, for this is the huge task of desert spirituality: to reshape our imagination. Our pictures of faith are often northern European (snow upon snow at Bethlehem, rolling green pastures in Galilee!) and so tend to sentimentalise our experience of God. But Australia resonates with Palestine’s deserts, and Ian’s book takes us to the desert and excites us about the sturdy God who finds us there.

If Anyone Thirsts would make an excellent gift for your pastor or for any Christian looking to deepen their faith in the Australian context.

Loving One Another: The Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014


It has just been announced that Australia writer Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker prize for his novel Narrow Road to the Deep North. The chairman of the judging panel, Professor A.C. Grayling called Flanagan’s novel a ‘masterpiece’: high praise indeed.

While the story has universal appeal, it is also deeply Australian, asking – and answering – the profoundest of questions: what does it mean to love one another?

The novel takes us to events of World War II when prisoners of the Japanese were coerced to build a railway through the Thai jungle to Burma. Though explicitly fiction, it describes the events fully and exploits what novels do best: it humanises the characters. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.

Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. This is not love.

Dorrie Evans’ one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire.  This is love of a sort, but not a compelling love.

However on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you, Sir.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else. This caring about mates, however flawed, approaches love.

At the heart of the novel is Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between the ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares in the novel to call it love.

Richard Flanagan has stated in interviews that he wanted The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be a love story. The novel is a multi-layered exploration of what it means to be human, with the central layer being the layer of love, brutal, surprising, passionate and real.

Picture courtesy the Man Booker Prize

Creeping Across the Chasm: Healing the Anglican Church


Jeffrey W, Driver, A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and grief of Anglicanism,
Cascade Books 2014 (paperback 184 pages) (from $AUD 22 online, or available at St John’s Books. Fremantle.)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Published in Anglican Messenger, September 2014

 

I was born an Anglican. My first memories are of Saint Mary’s in Tambellup, now sadly de-consecrated, with its emphasis on Percy Dearmer – necessarily stripped down to suit the bush environment. I thought, of course, that this simple Anglo-Catholicism was the norm. That’s what all Anglicans were like.

At boarding school, I soon realised that the robed choir and six-altar-servers-on-Sunday at Christ Church, Claremont was the norm. Only on the very eve of leaving Perth to study theology in Melbourne I discovered that there were different types of Anglicans, and they were called ‘evangelicals’. In outlining the differences for me the late Canon Brian Albany expressed great sorrow because he knew he was ending my innocence!

Four decades on, my understanding of the Anglican Communion is a little more nuanced than in 1972. I know that there are shades of grey; and I also know that there are grave differences between Anglicans. It is no longer a matter of simply accepting that we have cousins in Sydney or wherever who though a bit different to us are still family. The divergent opinions thrown up first by the ordination of women and then by homosexuality in the short term are irreconcilable.

Jeffrey Driver, Archbishop of Adelaide, sets out in A Polity of Persuasion to ask whether the attempts of the Anglican Communion to heal these rifts have been appropriate and whether they are likely to bring success. He gives helpful summaries highlighting the principles and theology of each of the reports commissioned by the Communion and leading up to the Anglican Covenant.

He uses the 18-year (or more) process to the ordination of women in the Australian Church as a case study illustrating how big changes need a great deal of time; a preparedness to let go of our agendas and expect new outcomes; effort to be made both through the legal processes; but also, and much more importantly, through informal ongoing contacts where trusting relationships can be built and partners can be persuaded of the rightness of a change.

Driver calls this cluster of elements ‘a polity of persuasion’, and his term has been taken up more broadly than in our national Church.

He insists that differences must be addressed. He notes that the Vatican did not accept the first report from ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) because ARCIC’s aim of finding common ground meant that Rome couldn’t see where Anglican belief was clearly articulated.

Archbishop Jeffrey has been a bishop since 2001 involved in the work on the Anglican Covenant. He proposed enabling legislation in 2004 for the ordination of women to the episcopate. I was not surprised to learn of his background in journalism from the way he demystifies complex debates and principles. His snapshot story of the ordination of Seabury to be the first bishop in the American church illustrates not only the flexibility of Anglicanism, but also Driver’s gift for narrative and humour.

A Polity of Persuasion clearly draws on Driver’s Ph.D. thesis, but it is not dry academia. He outlines the history of our differences over the past generation with clarity, always keeping an eye on the principles and personalities involved. He gives good reasons for the church to be patient and to wait on the Holy Spirit. He calls on Anglicans to treat one another non-violently and respectfully.

This book will encourage those who are directly engaged in the work of the Anglican Covenant and in General Synod, and will inform those who stand on the sidelines of this institutional work but still love the Anglican Church and want it to continue to prosper. Reading it burrows out of you any idea that your Anglicanism is the norm and allows time for the Holy Spirit to lead all of us to the new place.

 

Gazing Prayer: Susan Pitchford’s new book shows how.


Susan R. Pitchford tssf, The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the healing of the self, Liturgical Press 2014, (Paperback 168 pages)

Available from $16 approx. online.

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

Gaze: to look with love into the face of another. Gazing requires attention over time; and gazing brings the one who gazes closer to the other whose face is beheld.

Susan Pitchford, as a member of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, is the right person to introduce readers to gazing as “Contemplation and the Healing of the Self”, as she describes gazing in the sub-title of this accessible and helpful book. Pitchford uses Saint Clare of Assisi as her springboard for the idea of gazing as prayer, in particular, Saint Clare’s letter to Saint Agnes of Prague, where St Clare invites Agnes to gaze on Christ as a mirror.

Susan Pitchford first places this idea in her academic field of sociology to understand how a loving gaze can lead to the healing of self by correcting the images we have of ourselves.

We begin the journey by acknowledging that we are gazed at: God looks with love on our face. What God sees there, because God is love, is the self that is made whole, not the wounded and sinful self of which we are so conscious. When we discover this true self, we are set free to pray in true freedom. We then can gaze on the face of God.

Pitchford is conscious that this way of talking about prayer can easily be empty words. A useful chapter describes how different personalities can use their imaginations to engage in gazing: for some, this will be visual or verbal, for others auditory or kinaesthetic. All are ways to behold the face of God, to bring our attention to focus on God present with us. How to gaze with words or scenes from scripture or with clay or music attractively detailed. These practical suggestions are a strength of The Sacred Gaze.

Like Sister Ilia Delio in her books on Franciscan prayer, Susan Pitchford traces a threefold movement of prayer: from attention to gazing to transformative action. As Pitchford writes, ‘If our gazing at Christ doesn’t cause us to turn a compassionate gaze at the world, and motivate us to compassionate action, then we need to check on whether it’s really Christ we’ve been gazing at. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we can be certain at least of this; staying aloof from the needs of the world is not his style.’ (page 138)

The Sacred Gaze begins in Franciscan prayer and sociological insight, but roams widely and useful across much of the literature of contemplative prayer. I enjoyed the insistence with which Pitchford connects this material with ordinary life. It is encouraging that ordinary people like me and you can set out on the journey of the sacred gaze, being held in love, discovering the true self, and acting in freedom with compassion for the world.

A thought for a secular Australia


Hugh Jackson, Australians and the Christian God, Melbourne, VIC: Mosaic Resources 2013

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Review first published in November 2013 issue of Anglican Messenger.

 

Is Australia a Christian nation? Or have we been taken over by secularists? It matters. Not only does it affect the place of the churches in Australian society, it also has an impact, for example, on whether God should be mentioned in the nation’s Constitution.

 

In Australians and the Christian God Hugh Jackson weaves a narrative from detailed historical evidence. He shows that convicts resented the desultory attempts to muster them for compulsory church parades. Only a tiny minority of “respectable” citizens were ever converted to evangelical Christianity in the 19th Century.

 

Dr Jackson sketches the philosophical and social environment of the enlightenment.

 

The influence of the churches on society should have been evident in the legislation in the colonies establishing education but the secular view won out in every state. Instead of education that was thoroughly Christian, most colonial education allowed only for visiting special religious teaching and general religious teaching in the curriculum.

 

There was a minor burst of activity in both Protestant and Catholic Churches in the 1950s. The Billy Graham crusades created excitement, but the figures show that there was no increase in attendance in the years following.

 

Across the 20th Century Jackson notes a distancing from God. The evidence marshalled by Hugh Jackson reflects a nuanced reality. Australians may gather in awe and respect for the sacrifice made by fellow-citizens in war, but their attitude to the God of Nicene Creed is a thudding indifference.

 

Hugh Jackson is a reliable narrator of Australia’s connection to the Christian God. He graduated in theology from Cambridge before spending some years in Anglican ministry. His doctoral work and academic career were in history. He remains a deeply committed Christian and a careful observer of the ecclesiastical scene.

 

Australians and the Christians’ God will be the standard in this area for years to come. I recommend it highly for clergy and all with an interest in the church’s place in Australian society.

 

 

From fire and song to imageless Good – Friar Jacopone da Todi


Evelyn Underhill, Jacopone Da Todi, Poet and Mystic–1228-1306, a Spiritual Biography, London: J.M. Dent 1919

(Reviewed by Ted Witham)

It’s no surprise that in reading Evelyn Underhill on Jacopone that you are reading two mystics at once: the 13th century Franciscan and the 20th Century Anglican, Underhill herself.

While unfolding the life of Jacopone, Underhill shows what a great teacher of mysticism she is. Her understanding of Jacopone’s progress in the spiritual life is penetrating and fascinating, and to draw this portrait, she opens up the literature on mysticism in an accessible way.

Jacopone trained as a lawyer, although it seems that much of his time as a student was spent studying poetry and literature. In particular he was fascinated by the new vernacular poetry being created in the dialects of the Italian peninsula with its roots in the love songs of the jongleurs.

He practised for some years as a celebrity lawyer, enjoying the comforts of the good life. He later threw over all the material trappings of success to become a Franciscan Tertiary, spending perhaps ten years in the rough habit of a Tertiary, probably wandering from town to town spreading the gospel message through songs and poetry.

Jacopone

He felt a particular closeness to the ageing Brother Leo still living at the Portiuncula near Assisi and to the zelanti, the party within the friars who emphasised absolute poverty. Eventually he sought entry to the convent at Todi. The friars there took some time to accept him: they were of the more relaxed party, and were perhaps reluctant to accept a strong personality at the extreme other end of the Franciscan movement. Why did Jacopone choose the Todi friary? Certainly the town of Todi was his home. But it may also have been a genuine reflection of his humility. He chose to submit himself to superiors with views quite different from his own, and he agreed to remain a lay brother and not seek the privileges of clerical office within the Order.

He seemed to want the quiet life. But to break a deadlock in the 1294 Conclave his friend, the hermit Pietro Angelerio, was unexpectedly elected Pope Celestine V. Celestine’s administration was a disaster. It appears that Jacopone, the trained lawyer, travelled to assist the Pope, probably at his court in Naples.

At the same time, tensions within the Franciscan Order grew even greater, and, perhaps thinking that Jacopone’s presence in the papal court would help, the friars appealed to Celestine to sort the Order out. Celestine’s solution was drastic. He invited all the zelanti to leave the Friars Minor altogether and to come directly under his protection. Because it would break their connection with St Francis of Assisi, neither the zelanti nor the moderati wanted this, so Jacopone returned to Todi, disillusioned, and probably saddened to watch his friend’s papacy spiral downwards in chaos until Celestine resigned later that year and returned to being a hermit.

Jacopone spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion in the convent at Todi. His poems and songs reveal how he grew spiritually leaving behind the wild joy of his years as a Tertiary, to learn how to order love and to integrate his being as a Christian, and finally to detach himself from everything except God’s grasp of him.

His reputation for saintliness continued to grow in his lifetime, particularly among Tertiaries. Guilds of Tertiaries gathered to sing Jacopone’s songs, often belting them out like rugby fans singing Abide With Me, but also writing their own sensitive spiritual songs in the vernacular.

Jacopone’s story reveals the interplay between the interior and exterior life: how as a Tertiary, he lived la santa pazia (the holy madness). His wandering life reflected the roller-coaster emotions of the jubilo, the interior stage of the soul’s progress, characterised by “immoderate transports, tears, raptures, despairs” (p. 132). This early stage was an inebriation, which, as Jacopone wandered the beautiful Umbrian countryside, he saw reflected in all Creation and in the Creator. (p. 79)

Jacopone strikingly believed that God does not fit with narrow-mindedness.

Dio non alberga en core stretto
tant’è grande quant’hai affetto,
povertate ha si’ gran petto
che chi alberga deitate.
(Lauda LX)

 God does not dwell in narrow hearts,
the larger the heart the greater the desire for God –
poverty has such a great heart
that Deity dwells there.

Eventually Jacopone realised that he needed to be more ordered in love. He passed from Richard Rolle’s stage of “fire and song”, through the stage of intellectual integration, ‘’mentis sublevatio, in which the illuminated mind beholds things above itself” (Richard of St. Victor, p. 231) to a stage of letting go completely to find “Love beyond all language, imageless Good.”(p. 225)

Jacopone writes of this final spiritual stage:


Possedi posseduta
entanta unione
non c’è divisione
che te da lui retragga.
Tu bevi e se’ bevuta
en transformazione
. (Lauda XCI)

You possess – and you are the possessed,
in such a complete union
there is no division
that can drag you away from him.
You drink – and you are the drink
in this transformation.

The saint discovers that God’s love is as ordinary and amazing as gravity, felt as the soul’s weight, carrying it to its right place; God’s love is “the secret of stability, the rule of the Universe”. (p. 235)

From his time as a travelling Tertiary onwards, when he wrote his early songs and ballads, until his death, Jacopone wrote songs, poems and satirical verse in Umbrian. In particular, the Laude (Praises) deserve to be better known. They resonate well with our modern sensibility being both direct and yet clear in describing complexities of the spiritual journey.

In January 2013, HardPress Publishing produced a good quality reproduction of Evelyn Underhill’s 1919 work available online for about $AUD 31, or the original J.M. Dent Publisher version is available for loan (free) through the Australian Public Library System. For those who read Umbrian, the Laude are available online through the Gutenberg project at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29977.