Friday, May 01, 2009

Our Spiritual Heritage

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
May 2009

Our Spiritual Heritage

The Episcopal Church, with its roots in the Church of England, is profoundly enriched by the long history of deep spirituality found in Britain and Ireland. We most often experience the legacy of that spirituality in the elegant language of the Book of Common Prayer as well as in our beautiful – and theologically rich – hymns. Our church calendar also gives us the opportunity to get acquainted with some of the spiritual masters produced by the British Isles who have much to say to us today.

In May the Church honors three of these important figures: Dame Julian of Norwich (May 8), Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19) and the Venerable Bede (May 25).

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the spirituality of Julian of Norwich, who was born probably in 1342. In May of 1373 she experienced a series of visions of our Lord’s Passion. Claiming that these vivid “showings” gave her a sense of peace and joy, she spent the rest of her life as an anchoress (essentially a recluse) reflecting on what her visions meant and writing about them in her book, known to us as Showings or Revelation(s) of Divine Love.

In her vision Julian vividly sees the evil and pain of sin in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. Although for Julian this is a very frightening image, it passes quickly and she comes to realize that the power of God ‘s love – especially as experienced in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – is more than a match for the sin of the world. Julian writes, “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our Good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say: ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is going to be all right; it is going to be all right; everything is going to be all right.’” In our time when the world is filled with so much pain and anxiety, Julian’s message is as timely as ever: God’s love is more powerful than sin and in the end all will be well.

Dunstan, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 959, is not nearly as well-known as Julian of Norwich. He is, however, an important figure in his own right mostly because as abbot he reformed practices at the famous monastery at Glastonbury, making it a center both of serious spiritual practice as well as of learning. As Archbishop of Canterbury he attempted to extend the same kind of reforms across the entire English Church, with limited success.

In 973, Dunstan composed the Coronation Oath for English kings which contains worthy ideals for any Christian leader. Dunstan included these promises in the oath: “Three things I promise in Christ’s name to the Christian people subject to me: First that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment. Second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of persons. Third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments, so that God, who is kind and merciful, may vouchsafe his mercy to me and to you.”

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) has been described as “the foremost and most influential scholar from Anglo-Saxon England.” As a priest and monk Bede devoted himself to a wide variety of scholarly pursuits, writing books about Latin, natural phenomena and a large number of biblical commentaries. Today he is almost exclusively remembered for his greatest work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People – the most important source of information we have about life in early England from the invasion of Julius Caesar to Bede’s own day.

Bede is particularly important as an early model of the Anglican priest-scholar, a person eager to understand the world but at the same time deeply grounded in the Christian faith. Bede captures the hopes of the priest-scholar at the conclusion of his Ecclesiastical History when he writes, “I pray you, noble Jesu, that as you have graciously granted me joyfully to imbibe the words of your knowledge, so you will also of your bounty grant me to come at length to yourself, the fount of all wisdom, and to dwell in your presence for ever.”

As Episcopalians, let us give thanks for the rich spiritual heritage found in our prayer book, our hymns and in the holy men and women of our tradition.