The heart of Lutheran spirituality: oratio, meditatio, tentatio

King David in a medieval book of hoursAs I mentioned in my previous post, Gaylin Schmeling in his essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) describes Luther’s phrase “oratio, meditatio, tentatio” (prayer, meditation and affliction) as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality.”

While Luther emphasised this especially for pastors, it applies equally to laypeople: “It is the method of spiritual formation for each individual who daily dies and rises in Baptism.” Luther identifies it as being taught by Psalm 119:

This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.

Really, though, the principle of Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio permeates the entire psalter, as a brief glance at (to pick a couple from recent days) Psalm 90 or Psalm 86 will confirm.

Turning back to Psalm 119, though, Prof Schmeling quotes vv.26-27, 58 as an example of how it teaches oratio (prayer):

  Teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works. […]
I implore your favour with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Luther’s Small Catechism (unusually for such a document) includes forms of prayer for morning and evening that are simple yet rich in meaning, encompassing recollection of baptism, confession of our Trinitarian faith, and the prayer that Christ himself taught us “and through which our prayer is united with His continual intercession.”

To illustrate the principle of meditatio, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119:97-99:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.

To read and meditate on the Scriptures is to encounter Christ himself and all his blessings. As Luther put it:

When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.

Johann Gerhard says that “the Christian will ruminate on the Word or roll it over in his mind as a cow chews on its cud.” And our greatest example of such ruminative meditation is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “kept all those things and pondered them in her heart.”

The most distinctive element of Luther’s triad is tentatio (which he substituted, significantly, for the traditional principle of contemplatio). Again, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119 (vv.71-72):

It is good for me that I was humbled,
so that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

The word Luther used to translate tentatio is Anfechtung. The word can refer specifically to the suffering a Christian experiences because of their faith, but it can also be used in the wider sense of all the afflictions we endure in this life:

In affliction our sinful flesh is crucified with Christ, a part of our daily return to Baptism. The afflictions that the Lord allows to come upon the Christian are not a punishment for their sins, rather they are a chastisement from our loving Father to strengthen our faith, draw us closer to Him, and guide us in life. Here we are refined like gold and silver.

We tend to feel that it’s a sign of God’s favour when things are going well in life. However, for Luther, God is even closer to us in our suffering, and it is in suffering that we learn most fully what God is like:

The cross alone is our theology (Crux sola ist nostra theologia). Tentatio makes beggars out of theologians and theologians out of beggars. Concerning Anfechtung, Luther writes, “This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”

And as Schmeling adds a little later in his essay, once again this drives us back to the psalms. Meditation on the psalms reveals how central Anfechtung is to our life as God’s children:

The Psalms inform our minds, warm our hearts, and direct our wills toward the knowledge of God. As one reads the Psalter he must conclude that Anfechtung has always been the common experience of the believer. This is not something extraordinary that is only happening to him as St. Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Lord has sent this trial or conflict for His good purpose (Psalm 119:71–72). The believer finds his comfort as he meditates on the Psalms perceiving that God has provided endurance and deliverance for His Israel in every age through the means of grace. He prays the Psalms, assured of the redemption of the Lord.

The “mystical union” in Lutheran spirituality

Medieval depiction of the Church as the Bride of ChristGoogling for articles on “Lutheran spirituality” (as you do), I came across the essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) by Gaylin R. Schmeling.

Two themes highlighted in this essay leapt out at me:

  • “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio” (prayer, meditation, affliction), which Prof Schmeling describes as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality”.
  • “The mystical union” between God and the justified sinner (or as Prof Schmeling puts it, “Union and Communion with God through the life-giving Word and the blessed Sacraments”).

In this post, we’ll looking at the second of these themes, the mystical union. In my next post we’ll look at what Prof Schemeling says about the theme of oratio, meditatio, tentatio.

The “mystical union” is not, I have to admit, a phrase I have heard often in my decade as a Lutheran. “Mystical” is not a very “Lutheran”-sounding word, and apparently some have suggested that the concept is a product of Pietism, rather part of “orthodox” Lutheranism. However, Schmeling argues that the mystical union has been feature of Lutheran theology right from the start, finding references to it (if not the phrase itself) in the Lutheran Confessions.

But what is the mystical union? Schmeling quotes Johann Quenstedt (1617-1688):

The mystical union is the real and most intimate conjunction of the substance of the Holy Trinity and the God-man Christ with the substance of believers, effected by God Himself through the Gospel, the Sacraments, and faith, by which, through a special approximation of His essence, and by a gracious operation, He is in them, just as also believers are in Him; that, by a mutual and reciprocal immanence they may partake of His vivifying power and all His mercies, become assured of the grace of God and eternal salvation, and preserve unity in the faith and love with the other members of His mystical body.

The mystical union is, to use an image employed by David Jay Webber, a “bridge” between justification and sanctification: the sinner is justified by grace through faith, is united to God in the mystical union, and begins to live a new life of holiness and love. The three can be distinguished conceptually, but are simultaneous in practice, with each flowing through to produce the next.

The mystical union is not a dissolution or absorption of the human into the divine:

Rather the Lutheran theologians explicate the mystical union using the analogy of the personal union in Christ. As the human and the divine in Christ are united into one person and yet the natures remain distinct, so in the mystical union the Trinity makes its dwelling in man but God and man remain distinct.

Lutheran devotion has commonly used the image of marriage to describe this union as in Gerhardt’s hymn ending: “And there, in garments richly wrought / as Thine own bride, I shall be brought / to stand in joy beside Thee.” In marriage, man and woman are united as one flesh, but without losing their own identities or existence. (Hence the image used for this post, of the Church as the Bride of Christ.)

Nor is this a direct union which bypasses the word and sacraments, or the life of the church. Rather, “this gracious union with God is conveyed and preserved through the means of grace.”

Finally, it’s important to note the direction in which this union operates. It is not a ladder up which we ascend to God through our own efforts or contemplation:

in the mysticism of the Lutheran fathers man does not climb to God through contemplation, but God Himself descends to us in the manger and the cross. Christ unites us with Himself in the Word, He clothes us with Himself in Baptism, and He feeds us with Himself in the Holy Supper so that we have union and communion with the divine.

The concept of the mystical union is important in Lutheran spirituality because, as noted above, it is the bridge that connects our status as forgiven sinners (justification) with our life as Christians, growing in holiness and love (sanctification). It also shows how the Lutheran understanding of our union with God is richer than I had previously appreciated.

The difference between men and fish


Canon Leslie Virgo (src)

I’ve recently picked up a book edited by the Revd Canon Leslie Virgo, the late rector of St Martin of Tours, Chelsfield (a parish not far from my house). In addition to his long parish ministry, Canon Virgo had a wider role as Advisor on Pastoral Care and Counselling for the diocese of Rochester, and the book he edited, First Aid in Pastoral Care, was on this topic.

My main reason for buying this book was to attempt to reconstruct a talk I heard Canon Virgo give a couple of times in the early 2000s, my notes of which I have since lost; this may end up as a blog post in itself if things work out. But for now I wanted to quoted a fascinating passage from Virgo’s opening essay on “The Biblical Basis” for pastoral care, which he sees in terms of the practical outworking of God’s blessing.

Virgo argues that the key difference between humanity and the animals lies in the subtly different blessings that God gave to each, as described poetically in Genesis 1. Virgo quotes Nehama Leibowitz as follows:

Man, as soon as he was created, received a special divine blessing. However, he was not the first creature to be blessed by God, but had been preceded by the fishes. The content of both blessings is similar but a very significant difference can be detected. Compare the blessing accorded the fishes:

And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful and multiply

with the blessing received by man —

And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply.

The fish do not qualify for a special address to them by God. They are merely granted the power to be fruitful and multiply. This is their blessing. Man, however, besides being given the power to be fruitful and multiply, is especially told by God to be fruitful and multiply, and is conscious of his power to do so. What is merely an impersonal fact with regard to the rest of the animal creation is a conscious fact with regard to man. (pp.14f.)

As Canon Virgo observes:

The blessing of the fishes carries the substance that it is God’s presence in life and growth. The blessing of man involves him in a privilege of care in response to the grace of God. Through this response we become most fully human. (p.15)

In other words, the difference between humanity and the animals is that he has not only spoken a blessing for us, but spoken it “unto” us, in a way that both demands a response and creates the capacity for that response. And the nature of that response is found in our conscious involvement in care for other people and for creation, “with and in the God who blesses” (p.16). As Virgo concludes:

All who enter into this perspective of blessing will see themselves as pastoral carers in the broadest possible sense. (p.15)

Graham Greene’s last “priest errant”

Imonsignorquixote‘ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote.

On one level, it’s The Power and the Glory played for laughs – the parallel being evidenced most clearly by this exchange:

“Have another glass of wine, father.”

“In your company I fear if I’m not careful I shall become what I’ve heard called a whisky priest”. (p.82)

Indeed, I laughed out loud on several occasions, which isn’t typical for a Greene novel. But I burst into tears at the end.

Set in post-Franco Spain, it’s the story of a parish priest, Father Quixote, descendant of the great Don Quixote. Father Quixote – having been promoted unexpectedly (and unwillingly) to the rank of monsignor – departs his parish and embarks on a chaotic road trip in his battered old Seat, Rocinante, with the deposed Communist mayor, “Sancho”, for company.

Quixote and Sancho spend most of their trip drinking wine and debating Catholicism and Communism, and it’s hard not to read their dialogue as Greene working through his own issues with faith and the Church. See also, of course: every other Graham Greene novel ever. But the veil between author and creation seems thinner here – perhaps because Greene was in his mid-70s as he wrote. For example:

“I know I’m a poor priest errant, travelling God knows where. I know that there are absurdities in some of my books as there were in the books of chivalry my ancestor collected. That didn’t mean that all chivalry was absurd. Whatever absurdities you can dig out of my books I still have faith…”

“In what?”

“In a historic fact. That Christ died and rose again.”

“The greatest absurdity of all.”

“It’s an absurd world or we wouldn’t be here together.” (pp.77f.)

But in the end, what gives this book its heart (and prevents it from being nothing more than an entertaining but light curiosity of Greene’s later years) is that it is a book about love. This is made abundantly clear in the closing pages (hence my tears), though I’m not going to spoiler it by quoting them. But a hint is given earlier in the novel, as Father Quixote addresses Sancho about the work of the pernickety moral theologian Fr Heribert Jone, whose book of casuistry Quixote had brought with him:

You may laugh at Father Jone and I have laughed with you, God forgive me. But, Sancho, Moral Theology is not the Church. And Father Jone is not among my old books of chivalry. His book is only like a book of military regulations. St Francis de Sales wrote a book of eight hundred pages called The Love of God. The word love doesn’t come into Father Jone’s rules and I think, perhaps I am wrong, that you won’t find the phrase “mortal sin” in St Francis’s book. (p.83)

“Moral Theology is not the Church.” And there, ladies and gentlemen, we have the entire works of Graham Greene summarised for us in a sentence.

Whether the incarnation is self-contradictory?

St Thomas AquinasObjection: It seems that the incarnation of Christ is self-contradictory. For, as John Hick says, to say that Jesus was both man and God is like saying the same shape can be both a square and a circle.

On the contrary, The Apostle Thomas says in John 20, “My Lord and my God!”

I answer that, For two propositions to be contradictory, they must occupy the same logical space, so that a comparison is possible between them. It is true that there is a contradiction between saying that the same shape can be both a square and a circle. However, there is no contradiction in saying that a shape can be both a square and yellow; or between “being yellow” and “its being 4.00 pm on Friday 26 October 2011.” As St Thomas Aquinas painstakingly shows in his doctrine of God, “there is not, and there could not be, any such common territory” between Creator and creature; hence “all possibility of exclusion between them is excluded.”

Reply to Objection: “It is precisely because of, not in spite of, the absoluteness of the difference between Creator and creature that the possibility of that immanence which is the incarnation, an indwelling of the divine and the human in the one person of Christ, is conceivable. [...] [O]nly on a thoroughly idolatrous notion of God, one that reduces God to the standing of a creature, could it be true that, as Hick maintains, there is a contradiction in saying of one and the same person that he is truly human, truly divine.”

Based on Denys Turner’s argument on pp.224ff. of Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. In jotting down my own brief summary of Turner’s argument, it seemed to fall naturally into this format… 

Vanishing (United) Kingdom?

Scottish independence?That the United Kingdom will collapse is a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later, all states do collapse, and ramshackle, asymmetric dynastic amalgamations are more vulnerable than cohesive nation states. Only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ are mysteries of the future. 

So writes Norman Davies in his book Vanished Kingdoms, in a discomfiting (for Unionists), perhaps prophetic (Scottish nationalists will hope), section on the centrifugal forces that have been tearing apart the former United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland over the past century or so. Davies continues:

An exhaustive study of the many pillars on which British power and prestige were built – ranging from the monarchy, the Royal Navy and the Empire to the Protestant Ascendancy, the Industrial Revolution, Parliament and Sterling – indicated that all without exception were in decline; some were already defunct, others seriously diminished or debilitated; it suggests that the last act may come sooner rather than later. (p.679)

Whether Davies (writing in 2011) predicted that it could come as soon as a week next Thursday is doubtful, but over the past few days English complacency about the Scottish referendum on Thursday 18 September has been shaken by polls appearing to show momentum building for supporters of Scottish independence – even if, as yet, no opinion poll shows the Yes side with a lead over the Noes.

But even if (as still remains more likely than not) Scotland votes to remain in the Union, Davies would argue that this would merely be postponing the inevitable. Part of the problem is that New Labour left the process of devolution and decentralisation half-finished: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given varying degrees of autonomy, but attempts at creating regional democracy in England foundered. The result has:

left the political architecture of the United Kingdom in the early twenty-first century inherently unbalanced. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot develop any sense of equality with their over-mighty English partner; and the English have little incentive to address the inbuilt instability. The kingdom is not well prepared for the next turn of the tide; resentments grow, and solidarity is sapped. (p.680)

Maybe a narrow No vote will finally jolt the English into addressing this imbalance, but I remain sceptical: Westminster will be reluctant to diminish its power and importance. And a No vote will increase the centrifugal forces in one respect at least: it is inevitable that Scotland will be given a much greater degree of devolution than it has now – and, as Davies observes, the history of states such as Austria-Hungary shows that “life in autonomous provinces provides a school for separatists.”

Davies also foresees that the departure of Scotland will push the residual UK towards further disintegration:

When Scotland departs, a crestfallen England – frustrated, diminished and shorn of its great-power pretensions – will be left in the company of two far smaller dependencies. Resultant discomforts will grow sharply. (pp.683f.)

Davies predicts what we might call a “Celtic realignment” between Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh, leaving Wales “standing alone with England” – though with even its departure “only … a matter of time” (though this, as it happens, is the part of Davies’ argument about which I’m most sceptical). As Davies concludes:

The Welsh, who once were the original Britons, would end up being the last of the Britons.

Sombre stuff (if you’re English!), and perhaps we’re not quite there yet. But Davies’ sketch of Britain’s future unravelling does bring home how even a No vote will not be the end of the matter – and how the biggest threat to the United Kingdom is not Scottish or Welsh separatism, but English centralism.

“Legitimacy” and wealth

Hugh Dancy, Gwendolen Harleth and Hugh Bonneville in the BBC adaptaion of Daniel DerondaAs we saw in my previous post, a key theme in both Jane Austen’s novels and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is that of the entail: the requirement that entailed real property pass down the male line, even if that leaves widows and female descendants unprovided-for.

The “male line” means, of course, the legitimate male line. In Daniel Deronda, Deronda himself suspects (at least earlier in his life) that he is the illegitimate son of Sir Hugo Mallinger – a position from which he is unable to supplant Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt as heir to the Mallinger estates.

Attitudes towards illegitimacy have, of course, transformed over the past century or so – to the extent that even the word “illegitimacy” has fallen almost completely from use. Usually this is presented as a change in moral attitudes: depending on their point of view, some will hail this as a sign that we have become more liberal and enlightened, while others will decry it as a descent into moral anarchy.

However, “illegitimacy” was (as the word itself demonstrates) a legal category, and it was a series of changes in the law that largely emptied it of meaning. The Legitimacy Act 1926 allowed for children born out of wedlock to be “legitimised” if the parents subsequently married one another; the Family Law Reform Act 1969 allowed “illegitimate” children to inherit property on the death of an intestate parent. As a result, almost all the former legal impediments of “illegitimacy” have been swept aside. (Succession to hereditary titles, including the monarchy, continues to apply only to children born within wedlock.)

Why did these changes occur? I don’t think it is any coincidence that the 1926 Legitimacy Act was passed in the year after the “fee tail” was abolished in English law. Underlying (and preceding) the changes in both law and public attitudes is a change in the nature and distribution of wealth.

As we saw in my previous post, wealth at the beginning of the 19th century remained largely a matter of agricultural land, owned by the hereditary upper class. It had been that way for centuries, and the entail was an intrinsic part of the resulting system of land ownership.

When wealth is held in the form of land (and society is thoroughly patriarchal in organisation), ensuring that ownership remains in the male line is not simply a matter of preference. It is imperative for ensuring that family wealth remains within the family, rather than being divided and dissipated down the generations. And the one thing you can’t do is allow a family’s wealth to be put at risk by the young master of the house fathering a son by a serving maid. Hence marriage and legitimacy play a crucial role in maintaining economic relations within society.

However, as we saw (both from Thomas Piketty’s charts and from the contrasting nature of wealth in Pride & Prejudice and Daniel Deronda), during the 19th century the balance of wealth in Britain shifted from agricultural land to other forms of capital, principally bonds.

Bonds are a much more flexible form of wealth than land. They can be bought from the issuer without having to wait for an aristocratic holder to sell, and they can be subdivided easily for distribution between different heirs. Thus, while a wealthy bondholder may prefer to see his estate go to his (legitimate) male heirs, provision for daughters or for illegitimate offspring can be made without threatening the integrity of the underlying property. So the economic imperative for legitimacy is reduced. It is therefore unsurprising that legitimacy therefore came to be emptied of both its legal meaning and its moral force. It’s equally unsurprising that legitimacy continues to be relevant to forms of “property” that cannot, by their nature, be subdivided – namely, hereditary titles.

Another factor that undoubtedly played a role was the growth in the use of trusts. Trusts enabled wealthy families to protect their riches from dissolute heirs, while allowing greater flexibility to the trustees than was possible under the fee tail. Thus a family trust could achieve the objective of property preservation, without the manifest injustice to women that drives the plots of Austen’s novels and (to a lesser extent, as befits the changed economic circumstances of the 1860s) Daniel Deronda.

So once again, the message is: follow the capital.