Category Archives: Uncategorized

Sub-Surface Churn Update

I realized this morning that I haven’t posted anything here for over a month. That’s certainly not because nothing is happening… Rather, I’m in full-on Duck Mode. All may look calm on the surface, but underneath the little feet are paddling away like crazy. Here’s a short list of stuff:

  • Just completed a Saturday all day (9 AM to 3:30 PM) Retreat on Inwardly Digest at St. Michael & All Angels in Tucson, AZ, and a Sunday Adult Forum on the same plus preaching at St Philip’s Tuscon at the gracious invitation of my friends Fr. David Hedges and Fr. Robert Hendrickson.
  • I continue to teach my class on Early & Medieval Church at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary. We’re in the 4th century at the moment. I’m having a blast, and it seems like the students are too. At the least, most of them keep coming back to class…
  • This upcoming Sunday I’ll be teaching an Adult Forum at St. Bartholomew’s West Baltimore on Communion Before Baptism. That’s prompting me to think about some of my earlier writings on the topic and to wonder about the utility of collecting these together somehow. I realize that over the years I’ve spent writing and teaching on this stuff, my position has not changed, but the way that I think and teach about it has.
  • On October 15th, I’ll be leading an Adult Forum at St. David’s Roland Park on Inwardly Digest
  • Honey of Souls is in the final stages of typesetting and is collecting endorsements.
  • Some of you may have noticed the appearance of a page on this blog entitled “breviary test 2;” it’s currently inaccessible because it’s still under construction, but it’s almost ready to be seen. That’s part of a project I’m cooking up with Forward Movement.
  • There continues to be progress on other fronts as well including the Anglican Breviary and another Forward Movement collaboration still waiting in the wings…


Breviary Update & A Survey

I’ve been working in fits and starts now for almost a year on new back-end code for the St. Bede’s Breviary. I do believe we’ve turned a corner and are in the final stretch. In fact, I’m hoping to be able to unveil something in time for its patronal feast on May 25th…

In addition to the new code, I’ve been considering some new approaches as well, some suggested readers in the past.

The whole reason I programmed the breviary was because I wanted something that was thoroughly faithful to the prayer book, but also allowed a host of configurations, options, and traditional add-ins. Rite I, Rite II; 8-week psalm cycle, monthly psalm cycle—it could all be accommodated with code manipulation.

I like praying from my Kindle, that’s how I do it every day. However, I know that’s not the standard; many people much prefer to pray from an actual physical book. And, I’ve had any number of people suggest that I do a physical form of the breviary.

The idea of producing a physical form of the breviary is growing on me…

However, that means making choices that I’ve been able to leave up to individuals. What I’m considering is a book where the experience of praying the Office would be just like it is in the computer form: straight text, no clicking, no flipping. The Office in an easy-to-pray format. I would include all the bells and whistles—Marian stuff, hymns, 2 readings at Evening Prayer, etc.—with reminders that people feel free to skip whatever they like.

If I were to do this, it would probably be a book for the year: I.e., “The St. Bede’s Breviary: 2017″ and would contain everything for the four offices for each day of the year.

But there are three things that determine the shape of the Offices in such a way that they cannot be left optional or variable: the language of the Rite (Rite I vs. Rite II), the distribution of the Psalter (8-week vs. monthly), the kalendar (Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2006 [the official Calendar of the Episcopal Church] vs. A Great Cloud of Witnesses [an unofficial supplement available for use] vs. the House Kalendar [my own crazy concoction which is LFF+other stuff])

I simply can’t foresee creating physical formats for all of these choices. That’s simply too much work to do the formatting and editing and all for each of these. So in order to get a general sense of what thoughts are out there, here’s a brief survey on the matter…

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Let me know what you think and we’ll see where it goes from there…

New GrowChristians Piece

I’m continuing my “Secrets of a Pew Whisperer” series over at GrowChristians. The latest post is here: Explaining the Game.

This time, I’m wrestling with one of the complaints I hear—that adults don’t like that their kids interrupt them from worshiping. I’m suggesting that we look at it in a different way… Are they interruptions or teachable moments?

The St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 9

Episode 9 is finally up; it came out on Sunday—the day the psalm being discussed was used.

This one tackles Psalm 32 as the psalm appointed for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. In addition to the usual discussion, there’s a good bit in there on the penitential psalms generally as 32 is the second of the seven.

Hopefully the next episode will be up in a more timely fashion, and hopefully I’ll be able to write more here. It’s certainly not from lack of things to say—more to do with a lot of balls in the air and many deadlines to meet…

The St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 5

Here is Episode 5 of the St. Bede Psalmcast. My reader this week is production assistant Greta, and the image comes from British Library, Harley 3244, f. 38r.

Included in the discussion is a reference to Rudolf Otto; I forgot to mention the book, but it’s this one: The Idea of the Holy

Early Medieval Monastic Education, Continued

This post builds on my previous post on the topic and is most definitely a work in progress… There are probably a number of changes that I need to make ranging from points of fact to broader issues of structure.


Basic grammar was taught through the study of Donatus, the pagan grammarian who instructed the young Jerome. While Donatus might be studied directly, many of the authors of the English church produced grammars of their own, mostly working off Donatus. We have grammars written by Tatwine (around 700), Alcuin, the missionary Boniface (around 716), and other anonymous English authors. Ælfric himself wrote an English-language grammar based on Donatus and an excerpted edition of Priscian that covers topics like the cases and endings of Latin nouns and verbs and the various parts of speech. As with other Christian authors, he frequently provides examples of Latin usage directly from the Psalms and liturgy. For instance, his discussion of adverbs is reinforced by the phrase “But thou, O Lord, have mercy on me and raise me up” which is simultaneously a quotation from the Psalms (VgPs 40:11) and the response to the readings in the Night Office.

As the young oblates learned the grammar of the texts that they were singing in choir, they were instructed in the music they were singing as well. The Cluniac customaries from the time of Ælfric and in the century after lay out the heavy liturgical demands on the oblates:

[They] pronounce the versicles of each psalm at all the canonical hours, intone the antiphons on ferial days, and intone whatever is sung at the morning mass, unless it is a major feast day; at Lauds and Vespers, they sing a responsory and say the versicles; in the summer at Matins they say the single short lesson; they always read in chapter, never in the refectory.[1]

In a time when music notation was still in the process of development, the chief mode of learning was still oral. Monastic customaries from Cluny during the period describe the oblates sitting in the chapter house, learning the chant from a teacher singing it to them. These records also describe the cantor coming by and checking up on the learning process. Each day, he would listen to the oblates to be sure that they had learned the music correctly from their instructor before they sung in the services, and he was the one responsible for disciplining the boys if they made any errors in the singing as well. If learning the psalms was a long and complicated affair, learning all of the music was even moreso; Guido of Arezzo mentions that it took roughly 10 years to master the entire musical corpus of the Mass and Office.

Memorization of the psalter and its music leads naturally into the study of its meaning. As the students gained literacy, they would not only grasp the meaning of the Latin words, but would begin to pick up insights about what the text meant to them and for them. As the marginal interpretive glosses in the Regius Psalter indicate, monastic students usually began their search for meaning through the commentary of Cassiodorus.

Cassiodorus was a fifth century monastic teacher who achieved a synthesis of Classical and Christian edification at his Southern Italian monastery, the Vivarium.  This synthesis is reflected in his commentary. On one hand it draws from traditional Christian readings of the psalms, predominately from St Augustine’s sermons. On the other, he takes care to point out the figures of speech and thought as he sees them, demonstrating that—as he saw it—David prefigured the schoolmasters’ flowers of rhetoric and that sound rhetorical knowledge was an advantage in mining the deeper meanings of Scripture. While Augustine’s On Christian Teaching recommends a knowledge of these techniques, the African saint does not offer it there; what Augustine failed to convey, Cassiodorus provides. Thus, the schemes and tropes of Classical wisdom are important for true monastic literacy because of their primary function in making the meaning of Scripture—and particularly the Psalms—more available.

Once the Psalter was well in hand, other works would be added. Ælfric’s Colloquy would have been part of this late primary education. By describing the world and society about them, the young monks were gaining a facility in describing events and activities for which the Psalms offered no vocabulary. While the psalms speak wonderfully about the soul’s various emotions towards God or about the travails of the Israelites, the vocabulary for negotiating an average medieval day in the monastery was lacking and required this additional supplement.

In addition, the students were now ready for the five core texts of the Anglo-Saxon monastic curriculum: the pseudepigraphal Distiches of Cato, Prosper of Aquitaine’s Epigrams,  Juvencus’s Books of the Four Evangelists, Caelius Sedulius’s Paschal Song, and Arator’s On the Acts of the Apostles.[2]

The proverbs ascribed to Cato are not explicitly Christian, but contain brief wise sayings reminiscent of the biblical book of Proverbs. Prosper’s work was similar, but explicitly Christian. Prosper of Aquitaine was a dedicated student of Augustine, and his epigrams are brief distillations of Augustinian thought in a neatly packaged, easily memorized format.  The glosses written into the surviving editions of these works from the Anglo-Saxon period are largely grammatical—helping to identify what part of speech various words are or clarifying what a clause refers to—showing that these books were still used relatively early in the learning process.

The other three books are poetic paraphrases of New Testament Scripture. Juvencus was a Spanish Christian poet of the fourth century who wrote the earliest surviving paraphrase of the Gospels in Latin epic verse. His treatment is a fairly straightforward harmonization of the four Gospels in metered hexameter verse. Caelius Sedulius likewise composed a Latin epic in hexameters based on the Gospels and the life of Christ, but where Juvencus stays fairly close to his source material, Caelius Sedulius goes farther afield. Sedulius uses miracles and the miraculous power of God as the orienting theme of his work. Of the five books of the Paschal Song, the first describes miracles from the Old Testament that either point to or show the power of Christ before launching into the story of Christ with a particular focus on his miracles in the other four books.

The readings from the Gospels in the Mass and the Night Office are disjointed; they appear in the form of brief several-verse excerpts that are arranged to follow the liturgical year and its cycles, not the narrative stream. As a result, Juvencus was probably a monastic student’s first presentation of the whole story of the Incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. Sedulius, then, would be a student’s first introduction to the interpretation of the Gospels.

Just as Sedulius issued an improved and interpreted edition of what Juvencus wrote, Arator’s epic treatment of Acts is itself an imitation and elaboration of Sedulius. Arator’s central focus is the mystical interpretation of the events of Acts; he weaves allegorical interpretation and moral exhortation in to the fabric of his paraphrase. Again, this text would have been an early example for monastic students on the art of the spiritual reading of the Bible.

Doubtless other Scripture would be studied at this point. The youths of the monastery participated within its liturgical life as soon as they were able, and once they were ordained to the grade of lector were expected to read in the services and refectories. As a result, the young students would begin to be exposed to a variety of Scripture texts as they were able to read them.

A look into further learning comes through a more advanced set of colloquies. Ælfric’s own Colloquy is clearly intended for introductory students gaining basic fluency in Latin. We also possess intermediate and advanced colloquies from one of Ælfric’s students named Ælfric Bata. While the master’s colloquy presents us with a scene of several village boys sitting at the feet of their master learning, Ælfric Bata provides a colorful set of colloquies that walk through the monastic day with a rambunctious set of boys who alternately cheat on their homework, get threatened with beatings by their angry teacher for failing their lessons, and break monastic rules in a variety of ways. Indeed, one dialogue consists almost entirely of Latin words for the different kinds of agricultural manure used as insults traded between master and teacher!

For this point, it becomes more difficult to trace the direction of monastic instruction. We can say for certain that works like Aldhelm’s On Virginity in both its prose and poetic form were studied at centers of learning like Winchester,  but whether monks at smaller houses would have encountered it is another story altogether. The question has to shift from what was read to what was available. When we picture a medieval monastic library in our mind’s eye, we probably think of a building or tower filled with books—like the great library depicted cinematically in Name of the Rose. The reality, though, was far more basic. The library of the average monastery of the time contained no more than fifty books. Instead of a building, or even a set of large rooms, we should picture a modestly sized cupboard. The great libraries of Benedictine Reform England—like Winchester and Ramsey—probably had twice that number. As a result, the state and shape of intermediate to advanced education depended entirely upon situation and placement of the monastery.

Working from surviving booklists  and manuscripts, there seems to have been a core of roughly 20 titles from the Church Fathers that served as the heart of the monastics’ theological education grouped around four central figures: Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Forty Gospel Homilies, Morals from Job, and the Pastoral Care; Isidore of Seville’s On the Church Offices, On the Nature of Things, Etymologies, and Synonyms; Jerome’s Letters and Commentary on Matthew; and Augustine’s City of God, On the Trinity, Narrations on the Psalms, Enchiridion, and selected Letters and Sermons. Additionally John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, Benedict’s Rule, and Rufinius’s translation of Eusebius’s Church History rounded out the list.[3]

It’s only after considering the realities of what the monastics did and didn’t have that the true importance of the homiliaries can be appreciated. By excerpting sermons and homilies from a wide range of orthodox teachers, homiliaries like that of Paul the Deacon played an essential role as a patristic anthology, and exposed the monastics to a breadth of Christian thought and teaching that would have been otherwise

[1] Susan Boynton, “Training for the liturgy as a form of monastic education,” pages 7-20 in Medieval Monastic Education, edited by George Ferzoco and Carolyn Muessig (London: Leicester University Press; 2000), 8.

[2] For a much deeper discussion of these five works and their use in Anglo-Saxon England, see Michael Lapdige, “The Study of Latin Texts in late Anglo-Saxon England,” pages 99-140 in Nicholas Brooks, ed., Latin and the Vernacular Languages in Early Medieval Britain, (Leicester University Press, 1982).

[3] Lapidge’s work on Anglo-Saxon libraries lays out the evidence for these conclusions and should be consulted for a honest appraisal of the state of monastic book collections.


Random Things

  • I have some big, long, deep posts in construction. As you can see, none of them have actually made it to the stage of being published anytime recently.
  • Partly, that’s due to multiple projects going on. Some are proceeding well, others have just dropped in my lap. Others need serious attention. More on this in the next few days including a liturgy resource announcement!
  • I just finished reading a classic work that I’d only skimmed and dipped into before, Pierre Riche’s Education and Culture in the Barbarian West. It’s the standard work to cite if you do anything on early medieval education. I have noticed, a trend, though—it tends to be cited, not quoted. Now I understand why… It’s dense and learned and all, but is able to provide very little in terms of what I’d consider the basic practicalities of early medieval education.
  • I have a piece up at the Cafe right now on the importance of guidance in reading—particularly the Creeds. I know some people like to bash the Cafe because it does have a strong progressive slant, but—as a self-professed moderate who trends conservative on doctrinal issues—I’ve never had an issue putting stuff up there:
  • There’s a great manuscript picture floating around on Twitter (no surprise, I’m @haligweorc…) of two rabbits tying a guy up. It’s a classic role-reversal motif. See it here:Bunnies Being Bad

Note the bunny on the right. The stick-and-circle looking thing hanging from his belt is a sword and buckler. That is, the buckler (a little shield) is hung from the hilt of the sword for daily wear. This was a fairly standard way to carry both basic offensive and defensive gear in one neat package. Based on our sources, this combo was the standard for the English middle and lower classes. begin rant So why is this combo and others like it that we see over and over in manuscript art and that appears in medieval weapon manuals so greatly neglected in historical fiction and fantasy? M and I love watching “Vikings” but it’s hard for me to get through an episode without commenting on weapon and armor choices clearly selected for the sake of visual spectacle rather than accuracy or utility. Fantasy movies are usually even worse. It always baffles me why a genre that seems to revolve so much around armor, weapons, and the people who use them get so much so wrong so often. If I ever get around to writing a fantasy novel you can be certain that at least one guy with an ultra-spiky +25 flaming broadsword of malice will find himself quickly skewered by a guy with a basic spear and shield…

Little Hours and Lay Devotion

A few random thoughts coming together here…

Books of Hours and prymers were the pre-eminent expressions of lay devotion in the pre- and early Reformation period. As I’ve written before, these books had quite a variety of things in them but the key elements tended to be Little Offices—most invariably the Little Hours of the BVM and the Hours of the Dead, frequently one or more of the Little Hours of the Cross, Passion, Holy Spirit, All Saints or Trinity—psalms, litanies, and invocations of the saints.

I want to spend a little bit of time on the Little Hours.

Medieval devotion went in a variety of directions, but there was always at least one strain that looked to monastic models. The first liturgical books in the hands of the laity were psalters. Psalters deserve a number of posts dedicated to them, but for the moment, I’ll go with a quick and dirty overview. A liturgical psalter contained more than psalms. Containing the variable material outside the ordinary of the Daily Office, it contained the psalms, a number of canticles, sometimes hymns, and the additional devotions of the monks used before, after, or between the main offices. This is where we see the Little Offices appearing.

In the early medieval period—so, we’re talking AD 700-900—devotions to particular persons and doctrines began to appear in the continental monasteries. Their form varied, but generally, they were modeled on the regular choir Offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, etc.)  except that they tended to be shorter, use fewer psalms, and have fewer variable elements. These were recited in addition to the regular choir Offfices. As the Benedictine rule became normative throughout the lands under Carolingian sway as interpreted by Benedictine of Aniane and his comrades, and as the Cluniac ideal of the choir-based monk spread concurrently, these offices popped up all over the place. It was through their incorporation into the psalters, that they spread into lay hands and became features of lay devotion.

Completely skipping over lay use of psalters and the transition into books of hours, as we enter the hey-day of books of hours in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we notice some patterns. Out of the many versions of the Little Offices of various sorts, there has been a certain amount of consolidation and simplification. That is, the Little Office of the BVM and the Office for the Dead have moved to a central position, others have receded a bit.

Take the Hours of the Holy Spirit as an example… There are 11th and 12 century Hours of the Little Spirit that are full-fledged offices in their own right.  Thus, the offices outside Matins have an opening, a verse from the Veni Creator Spiritus, a variable psalm with antiphon (reversed at Lauds and Vespers—the psalm coming first), a chapter with a response, and a concluding collect. (Matins is more involved, has 3 readings and responsaries in proper Matins fashion…)

By the 15th century, the variable psalm has dropped and the chapter and response have shortened into something more like a basic verse and response. Thus, the later hours are chiefly, opening, hymn verse, verse/response, and collect. Instead of standing on their own, they were joined to the end of the Hours of the BVM. This becomes a standard pattern. The hymn verses and collects change each hour, but there is no variation from day to day and season to season. As a result, these become eminently memorizable. As books of hours spread and become status objects even among those classes with questionable literacy, the static form makes these offices easier to read (fewer changes).

By the time of the first English language prymers, the Hours of the BVM had quite a number of these “memorial” forms consisting on an anthem/antiphon, a verse/response, and a collect appended after Lauds and Vespers. With the coming of the Books of Common Prayer and the suppression of antiphons and v/r patterns, most of these disappeared, but some of their collects linger. In fact, you ought to be familiar with one of them—the collects “for Peace” in the section after the Collect of the Day at morning and Evening Prayer are remnants of the Memorial for Peace.  Too, the collect used at the Little Hours of the Passion is tucked at the end of the Good Friday liturgy on page 282:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ok—so that’s a real quick fly-by of the history of the Little Hours. In fact, I’ll make it even shorter:

  • They started out as focused versions of choir Offices
  • Over time, most were reduced to invariable forms through the day consisting of a verse-length hymn, a versicle/response, and a collect
  • By the time of englishing the liturgy, they entered as collects alone.

The trend for these ancillary devotions is a move to become shorter and less variable. Ergo, they were easier to memorize and to use throughout the day.

What are the implications for lay devotions in our own day?

Do we want to create things that are as variable as possible with as many moving parts as we can find—or does it make more sense to follow the fundamental channels that lay devotion seems to have followed in previous ages?

It seems to me that if I wanted to create intermediary offices as a supplement to the BCP’s Morning and Evening Prayers, I would go with the base pattern: hymn verse, versicle/response drawn from the psalms, collect. Some of the Little Hours, like those of the Holy Spirit and of the Passion, explicitly referred to the time of day and connected the devotion to biblical events that happened at that same time of day. Perhaps that strategy might still retain some utility today.

I wonder if the average hymn verse and/or collect has more or less than 140 characters…?

Interview in The Living Church

I realized with the craziness of December, I never posted this on the blog. I know several people in the Facebook loop probably saw it, but—if you didn’t—here it is.

Richard Mammana, a friend of mine and one of the masterminds at Anglicans Online, is doing a set of interviews with some of the younger folks in the church. He asked me to do one with him which I was more than happy to do so.

Through a mix of chatting and email, we hammered this one out. It touches on a variety of things including where the name of the blog came from, how to pronounce it, and my hopes for the church

You can read it all here!

And, yes, I did finally get my hair cut shortly after that photo was taken…

On the Essence of the Sanctoral Cycle, Part 2

Following on the heels of the first section, here’s the second section on the sanctoral cycle of the Calendar.


Back to Baptism

There are two primary definitions that the church uses for the term “saint.” The first definition is a general one with biblical roots; Paul consistently uses “the saints” to refer to the whole people of God. Those who have been joined to Christ in baptism are “holy ones” (same word in Greek) because they have become part of a holy whole. Thus, there is a general sense in which “saint” is appropriate for every member of the Church.

But there is also a more specific use of the term as well that the Church has used for centuries: a saint is a person who manifests Christ to the world. They are people in whom and through whom Christ can be seen. In a sense—like the icons that regularly represent them—they should be seen both as a window and as a mirror. The saints are windows because the light of Christ flows through them, and their primary purpose is not to reveal themselves but, in their transparency to the divine, reveal to us the heart of God. The saints are mirrors because they offer us an opportunity to see ourselves as we could be—to show us what a life in the service of Christ looks like. Just as we might glance into a mirror before a big meeting, the saints reveal when we still have spinach stuck in our teeth, when and where we fall short of living a life glowing with God.

The saints represent the goal for us. What we receive in the spiritual patterning of the prayer book, in the spiritual patterns of the Church at large, is a sacramental path to discipleship. Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, these things are tools that lead us ever deeper into a relationship of discipleship where we hear and answer God’s call to follow, to learn, to love, to die, to truly live. The saints are images of the wide variety of what Christian maturity looks like. It takes a host of forms in a host of situations but the central qualities never stray far from the pattern of Jesus himself: faith, hope, love, mercy, justice, peace.

Paul, positively influenced by the Stoic teachings of his day, understood that the true transmission of the faith could only be partially accomplished through language; the deeper patterns required examples. Hence, a critical part of his proclamation is captured in this simple (but not easy) call: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). There is an inherently incarnation element in the call to imitation. It contains the recognition that the being of people cannot be reduced to their thoughts or their teachings or even their virtues in an abstract sense; their instruction is incomplete and incompletely taught without gaining a sense of the whole embodied reality with which they engaged the world. The saints are mediators of the faith to us because, as Paul, they call us through themselves to imitate Christ and to learn from his ways what it is to be holy, what it is to be fully human.

Imitation of the saints means learning about lives. Some of the earliest literature about spirituality and teaching spirituality did not appear in the form of treatises or doctrinal essays. Rather, they wrote lives. The fathers of the nascent monastic movement presented their ascetical theology in narrative form: Athanasius gave us the life of Antony; Jerome gave us a number—the more fantastical lives of Paul the Hermit and Malchus as well as the more historically grounded life of Epiphanius and the various examples and remembrances in his letters of people with whom he had lived and to whom he had ministered. Even the first great writings on Christian spirituality sought to retain a connection with lives and stories: John Cassian’s great work is a dialogue that weaves oral teachings with human lives; Sulpicius Severus likewise offers a mediation of eastern monasticism to the West by means of a dialogue about ways of life and means of imitation.

What I’m getting at here is that when we deal with the saints—particularly using the second, more particular, sense of the term—we are talking about and working within the realm of Incarnation. How is Christ made manifest in material means to heal and redeem the world? An answer is in the lives of those called to follow him. We, in turn, learn Christ in and through them.

To return again to the prayer book and to Baptism, the Baptismal Covenant lays out a set of ideas made explicit that have always been implicit in Baptism and in discipleship. The specific promises asked: fidelity to the Church’s creed, persistence in the Church’s worship and gatherings, the practice of repentance, spreading the Good News of what God has done in Christ, humble service to Christ in the person of all humanity, striving for justice, peace, and respect for all are nothing new but reflect a variety of facets of discipleship that the Church has taught through the ages. Some individuals embrace these promises more concretely than others. Some embody them more profoundly than others. These are our exemplars of Christian maturity, these are the stewards of the virtues, from whom we learn Christ and imitate him in them. To the degree that they model the more excellent way, they deserve to be set apart and held up by the Church.

And, in making that connection, we come full circle to the issue of the two buckets—the saints, the departed, and who goes where. The good news, of course, is that it’s not our decision. We can’t put anyone into these buckets—that’s God’s work. And, at the end of the day, even the metaphor of buckets fails as being overly concrete. Here’s what we can say: God knows his own far better than we ever will. Recognizing that fundamental truth, no church or ecclesial body has ever said (or at least not properly or wisely…) that it can state the contents of the buckets. Even when churches declare saints, they are not attempting to identify the whole population of the holy. There are far more of every kind who enjoy the fullness of the presence of God than we can imagine. And, if God’s ways are true to what we find in Scripture and in the Tradition, some of those enjoying that nearer presence will come as quite a shock to us! No, the most that churches can—and should—do is to state that there are strong positive signs that certain individuals are among the blessed. Not so that whole company can be catalogued, but to have a sense of whom to hold up as exemplars and representatives of the holiness and spiritual maturity to which all of us are called.

Now, what may these “strong positive signs” be? Well—I’d like to focus on the one that makes us the most nervous… In Late Antiquity and through the medieval periods, one of the key signs of sanctity was identified as miraculous power. The saints could be known and identified because they were agents of supernatural power. For most of Christian history, in fact, sanctity was something declared on the local level by people who were convinced that one who was dead was still serve as an agent of God’s power in their community. Bishops might ratify this by proclaiming a feast, pilgrimage centers would spring up or cool down as healings or apparitions or other manifestations occurred. When the Roman Catholic Church centralized the process of sanctity in the mid-fourteenth century—in a way that the Christian East never did—it incorporated this principle in the famous criterion requiring three documented miracles. To this day, this is the part of the process that most modern people feel uncomfortable about. Significantly, among the various Anglican churches who recognize saints no such criterion exists. Rather than getting bogged down in the whole question of miracles, it’s more useful for our purposes to ask, not how and to what degree it gets fulfilled, but why this criterion is important in the first place. How does this connect back into everything else?

Truthfully—it’s all about connections. The point about miracles originally was that it established proof that the saint was hooked into the life of God and was serving as a conduit of God’s grace and power to the local community. Not only that, most of the miracles that are described in the medieval lives of the saints aren’t terribly original. You’ll have a disciple of St. Benedict do something that Elisha did, or healings and meal multiplications that mirror what Jesus did. What were these people doing, just copying Scripture? No—they were, in fact, imitating Scripture. When the saints either performed or were thought to have performed biblical sorts of miracles it confirmed that they were participating within a continuity of sanctity that points directly back to Scripture and to Christ himself. The Christian life—the holy life—was about embodying Scripture, not only in terms of following its guidelines but in receiving the same graces the biblical personages enjoyed. Imitation of the saints and imitation of the Scriptures ultimately points to the imitation of Christ who is the source and pattern of both the saints and the Scriptures.

Now, it’s one thing to show evidence of holy power when you’re alive—it’s another to do so when you’re dead. Because it’s precisely proof that you’re not dead, at least not in the usual sense. And that’s precisely the difference between secular culture and church culture. The secular culture has days that celebrate certain individuals—Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day, and so forth—and they do it to celebrate important historical figures who are a significant part of our national story. They are dead, gone, and fondly remembered. It’s not so with the Church. When we remember the saints, we’re remembering those around us whom we see no longer—but who are still fellow workers with us in the Kingdom of God. Recovering a truly baptismal ecclesiology requires the recognition that that baptismal connection is not severed by physical death. The prayer book encapsulates this notion in these two collects:

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intersessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen. (BCP, 250)

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 504)

The proper theme here is fellowship, connection, continuity. The saints pray for us, love and remember us, just as we love, remember, and pray for those we see no longer. The celebration of saints’ days gives us an opportunity to honor and thank those who pray for us, to lift up their examples before our eyes, and to point back to Christ himself who gave them gifts of grace, and courage in their trials.