You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

English Catholic Spirituality: An Introduction

They say sometimes that you can win a battle but lose the war. It is also possible for you to win the war but lose history. Just ask Oliver Cromwell.

During the period after Cromwell’s great victory in the seventeenth century English Civil War, the English nation was transformed in myriad ways, none more visceral than in religion. The Book of Common Prayer was banished as a relic of the “papistry” it was meant to replace. For a time, other written prayers were allowed, yet even they were eventually deemed too close to papism for comfort. Eventually, ministers were instructed that they could only conduct worship with good, wholesome, biblical prayers that they offered extemporaneously. And so, many clergymen who had dutifully prayed the Office from the Book of Common Prayer all their lives started to lead their congregations through whole sections of Morning and Evening Prayer “off the top of their heads.”

English Catholic spirituality has a long history and a deep well to draw from. It cannot easily be dispensed with or ignored.

Of course, having said that, it is important to note that the clergymen I just referenced were not Catholic. We might call them Anglican, though they themselves would not have known that word. They might have been willing to refer to themselves as “Reformed Catholic,” though that term was more in vogue after the Restoration than before. They certainly would have called themselves Christians and ministers of the Church of England (perhaps even priests, though they would have understood this distinction in a way that would differ from how generations of later Anglo-Catholics would see it). Oddly enough, one moniker they would have been comfortable with is one that I always found deeply uncomfortable when I was an Anglican: Protestant.

Regardless of what they called themselves, though, they would have rejected strongly any insinuation that they were in any way associated with the unreformed Church of Rome. Yet the move they made to retain and conserve their history and theology through the memorizing of liturgical prayers is a deeply Catholic move. The Puritans who objected to the Book of Common Prayer on the grounds that it was too Catholic were not entirely wrong.

As an Ordinariate Catholic, I am blessed to worship each day with some of those same words that those men memorized, words that have been cherished by generations of Anglicans, but I get to do so from within the heart of the Catholic Church, influenced by and interacting with centuries of the great traditions of both the Latin West and the Byzantine East. In the Ordinariates, we have been entrusted with an “Anglican patrimony” for the purposes not only of preserving it but sharing it, as both Anglicanorum Coetibus and its accompanying complementary norms make clear.

Yet there remain legitimate and interesting theological questions about what that patrimony consists of and what that means for the larger Church. Certainly the patrimony includes the celebration of the Mass according to Divine Worship The Missal. But is it more than that? The Anglican tradition has a different pastoral approach than exists in much of the Catholic Church today. How does that fit into the patrimony? There is also a long tradition of ascetical theology in Anglicanism. Much of it is compatible with the faith articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or can easily be adapted. Does this too now have a home in the Catholic Church?

This series that I begin today, “English Catholic Spirituality,” will be an effort to explore some of these questions, but it will not answer them definitively. Anglicanorum Coetibus is barely ten years old, and the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in which I serve is a mere seven. In the history of the Church, that is barely a blip. It will likely take many years to work all of these questions out. My goal is much more modest. I want to participate in an ongoing theological conversation. I want to think out loud and to invite others to participate.

A Word About Nomenclature

The title “English Catholic Spirituality” may raise questions for some people. I am choosing not to use the term Anglican. In referring instead to English spirituality, I am invoking in part that classic work by the Anglican theologian Martin Thornton who also chose not to use the word Anglican in his title because he saw the ascetical tradition he was describing as much bigger than that. It would be confusing and unfair to actual Anglicans for me to try to repurpose their name. My hope though is that Anglicans–particularly those of a Catholic mindset–will see in what I am doing something that resonates with their own experience.

I have added, of course, to Thornton’s title the term Catholic. This word can be its own sticky wicket. Undoubtedly, some Anglicans will protest that I should only use this word if I intend to add the word Roman as well, but this is unreasonable. I am overjoyed to be able to call myself a Roman Catholic, but there are twenty-four churches in full communion with the Holy Father who have every right to call themselves Catholic and only one of them is Roman. I use the word Catholic in the same way that Anglicanorum Coetibus does, with reference back to the documents of Vatican II, particularly Lumen Gentium:

The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff.

This single Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines. Since these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”

I describe as Catholic those things which are substantiated in the faith and sacramental life found in those churches that are in communion with the Holy See, but this does not exclude the possibility that there are elements of a true, good, and holy catholicity found in other ecclesial settings. Indeed, the entire concept of the Ordinariates would be impossible if this were not so.

A Few Caveats

This series needs to be understood for what it is not as much as for what it is:

This is not official

I am in no way speaking for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, nor do my opinions carry any weight beyond just being my opinions. Moreover, I claim no great expertise. I am a priest who lives and breathes this stuff and who has done a lot of reading over the years, but that is the extent of my qualifications.

This is a blog, not a textbook

Nothing here is peer reviewed. I will not be offering footnotes. I do think that there are books to be written on this subject, but that is not what I am doing here. The purpose is to engage and get conversation going. Do not treat any of this like it’s gospel. And like any good, thinking person should, I reserve the right to change my mind.

This is not apologetics

There is an important place for apologetics and for debating the unique claims of the Catholic Church over and against that of other groups, but this is not it. I realize there are some folks who live to pick fights on the internet. That is not what I am trying to do here. Which is not to say that I do not welcome challenge. In fact, I would be happy if this sparks some good-natured, spirited debates. But the second it devolves into “my guys are better than your guys,” I am going to shut it down. If that is what you are looking for, I suggest going to one of the thousands of other spots on the web that are specifically designed for such exchanges.

All of that being said, I am looking forward to where this new series will go. If there are specific things you hope I might tackle, please let me know.