Historical/Fantasy Authors Take Note

Alice Hicklin tweeting as @AngloSaxonist is one of my favorite medieval tweeters. She sends out terrific images of mostly Early Medieval artifacts, and if you have any interest in the material culture of this period or just like pretty things, I definitely recommend you follow her!

This one came across today:


Here’s the point I want to make.

It’s November so everybody and their brother who thinks they can write a historical fiction or fantasy novel is toying with the idea of doing so. Please, learn an important lesson from this beautiful reliquary. While gemstones could be polished, cutting and faceting is a relatively late technology. Some crystals do appear in natural shapes that look like or suggest faceting, but the actual cutting of gems didn’t happen until the late medieval period and the Renaissance.

Pretty sparkly gems in your story are fine, but if the technology level is Early Medieval, gems would be in the cabochon style seen here, not faceted cuts!

I’ll save my rant on the ridiculous paucity of bucklers in historical fiction and fantasy (as in the end of this post) for another day…

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Another GrowChristians Post

I have another post up on Grow Christians. This time, G and I tackle an important question on the way to ballet: Could Jesus fail a math test? Why or why not? And what is the practical effect of the answer on how we understand who he is and who we are?


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Why No New Oxford Movement

There was a thought-provoking post up at Covenant the other day on Fr. Hendrickson’s call for a New Oxford Movement.

Both posts are worth reading and pondering.

But the time is not yet here. Sadly.

Fr. Hendrickson, a figure who needs no introduction to most of my readers, is—by all I can tell for someone who doesn’t attend his parish—a great priest and I count him as a friend. He is one of the core people who assisted in the creation of the Society of Catholic Priests here in North America. There is a point he makes in his original post that I think may explain why we still lack such a renewal:  Individualism unchecked.

A friend asked what a group of us thought of the article. A fellow layman explained his experience of being or, perhaps, finding his place as an Anglo-Catholic within a reverent low-church parish. That was something I resonated with very much and this is my reaction…

The elephant in the room is Catholic Anglican identity: What does it look like, what does it mean, how does it live? The chief issue that the Society of Catholic Priests has brought out into the open and laid bare is that organic “Anglo-Catholic” identity has broken down thanks to splits, departures, and arguments. It’s no longer a matter of being formed organically in a loose network of affiliated parishes; it’s largely a matter of self-study by clergy and laity grouped around a set of disconnected idiosyncratic parishes whose ritual practices and theological teachings are, again, based these days largely on the memory/dream/projection of an organic past and whatever self-study the rector/former rector thought was right (or fun, or liturgically titillating). There won’t be a new Oxford Movement for the Episcopal Church until those of use who identify as Catholic Anglicans figure out why we do and what that looks like, and how that theology is expressed, habitually and ritually. And the key point there that my friend has identified is how lay Catholic Anglicans live that stance out in parishes that aren’t Catholic and (these days) may only be marginally Anglican. Like mine too…

A revival of Catholic Anglican substance will not occur by means of priests writing treatises. That ship has sailed; those days are past.

A revival of Catholic Anglican substance will occur when the imagination of the lay faithful are caught by a vision of the church that is deeper, more beautiful, more compelling and that can be practiced even in communities that fail to grasp that vision or perceive a different vision of the church at work.

Posted in Anglican, Formation | 8 Comments

First Comment!

I’ve been neglecting the blog, sadly. The upside is that really good progress is happening on the Psalms/Cassiodorus book. I should stick some stuff from there up here to test some reactions…

inwardly-digestOne of the things I’ve been intending to do here, though, is to ask those of you who have read Inwardly Digest to post a review of it on Amazon. Positive reviews are always good for prospective readers, but also count for quite a bit behind the scenes in the ranking/display algorithms.

When I surfed over this morning, I found to my surprise that I had a reader review! It’s the very first and totally unsolicited—I don’t even think it’s someone I’ve encountered online yet (as far as I can tell…) and it’s a very gracious 5-star review!

It looks lonely, though; I think it wants company…

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On John Cassian’s Method of Reading Scripture

I’m jumping around quite a bit in the Cassiodorus books as I write them… This is a section of what I believe is going to be Chapter 3. Basically, in Chapter 3, I’m going to be diving directly into Cassiodorus’s great Psalm commentary and discussing what he thought a commentary was for, our stereotypical view of allegorical interpretation  (based largely in the High Medieval period with extra fuel on the fire a la De Lubac), and then an investigation of how Cassiodorus actually read, focusing on methods from Classical Antiquity, Augustine, and John Cassian. Here’s the Cassian bit… So, yes, it starts in the middle of a larger argument that isn;t conclude here either, but I think is sufficiently robust to stand on its own as well.

John Cassian’s Conferences are a strange and wonderful collection of conversations. The story goes that John Cassian and his friend Germanus, after spending some time in a monastery in Bethlehem, took the theological equivalent of a Gap Year trek and set off to see the sites—in the Egyptian deserts. They hiked around the wastelands of Northern Egypt, meeting and interviewing the famous hermits of the desert and gaining wisdom from them about the spiritual life. Many years later—probably in the opening decades of the fifth century—after founding two monasteries around modern day Marseilles, Cassian wrote down the conversation as the Conferences and, in so doing, created the first great work on the nuts and bolts of Christian spirituality in the West.

Translating and transmitting a spirituality born of experience in the desert, rooted in the teachings of Origen, Cassian’s writings were invaluable to the emerging monastic movement in the West. Benedict praises him, and advises his monks to read Cassian (RB 73.5). As monastic reformations periodically swept through the Church in the course of the Middle Ages, John Cassian’s books in general and the Conferences in particular are cited again and again with approval.

John Cassian’s fourteenth conference portrays a conversation between Cassian, Germanus, and an old man known as Abba Nesteros which is focused on the topic of spiritual knowledge. As they delve into the topic, Abba Nesteros begins talking about the ways to interpret and understand the Scriptures. First, he separates spirituality in general into two parts. The words that he uses are the “practical” and the “theoretical,” but it’s better to say that one part is the active external part while the other is the internal meditative part. That is, the central task of the active/practical part is the control of the body and mind—built on a foundation of fasting and self-mortification—whereby one focuses on sinning less. Once that has task has been fully engaged and some progress has been made will the turn to the interior life bear fruit. This is where he gets to the Scriptures.

Abba Nesteros explains that the study of Scripture is divided into two main parts: “historical interpretation and spiritual understanding.” In making this division, he lays down the two major modes of interpreting that writers of the early medieval period will prefer. He splits the spiritual interpretations into three subcategories: tropology, allegory, and anagogy. After identifying these, he explains them a bit. The historical sense is not just about the past but includes what we would consider the literal meaning of the text. In particular, the Abba says that history pertains both to things that happened in the past and to visible things. Hence, an interpretation relating to natural science would be an historical reading in the sense of the phrase “natural history.” Allegory is the mystery that is prefigured by the historical/literal events. Said another way, allegory is the means “by which the things that the historical interpretation conceals are laid bare by a spiritual understanding and explanation.” Anagogy “mounts from spiritual mysteries to certain more sublime and sacred heavenly secrets.” This is restated a little better to clarify that it is the means “by which words are directed to the invisible and what lies in the future.” Tropology, at least, is more clear: “moral explanation pertaining to correction of life and to practical instruction.” More helpful than his definitions, though is his example where he demonstrates what these four look like in practice:

The four figures that have been mentioned converge in such a way that, if we want, one and the same Jerusalem can be understood in a fourfold manner. According to history it is the city of the Jews. According to allegory it is the church of Christ. According to anagogy it is that heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all.’ According to tropology it is the soul of the human being, which under this name is frequently reproached or praised by the Lord.

While a theoretical distinction is made between these four senses, as far as early medieval writers are concerned, there are two broad sense: the historical and the spiritual. Only rarely will an early medieval author specify what kind of spiritual interpretation they are using and, in practice, the categories are very fluid. Indeed the fact that only three kinds of spiritual understanding are described seems to have more to do with scriptural prooftexts than actual practice. Abba Nesteros cites two different biblical texts, one which refers to three things, Proverbs 22:20 (”…have I not written for you [three] sayings of admonition and knowledge…”), and one that refers to four, 1 Corinthians 14:6 (”…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching…”). In each case, you get the sense that the numbers recorded in Scripture are driving the enumeration of elements rather than the methods themselves. In practice, there are many more modes of spiritual interpretation than three, and not all of them are clearly defined or delineated. We will come back to this point a little later as we discuss how we actually see spiritual interpretation happening in Cassiodorus and other authors.

Modern readers—and especially biblical scholars looking for the history of the discipline—tend to focus in on this section of this conference. However, this is just one part of a larger argument, and it deserves to be put into the proper context. Again, this whole conference begins with the idea that first step of proper interpretatin is the purification of the body, mind, and spirit. The undisciplined who persists in their sin simply cannot read the Scriptures rightly—they don’t yet have the right frame of mind to read what is found there. As a result, after talking interpretive method, Abba Nesteros returns to hammer this point again:

Maintaining the diligence in reading that I think you have, then, make every effort to get a complete grasp of practical—that is, ethical—discipline as soon as possible. For without this the theoretical purity that we have spoken of cannot be acquired. The only people who attain to it, possessing it as a reward after the expenditure of much toil and labor, are those who have found perfection not in the words of other teachers but in the virtuousness of their own acts.

This is a key point and leads to an emphasis on doing rather than teaching. Scripture must be put into practice; any one who wishes to teach it must first demonstrate with their actions their deep grasp of its teachings. Knowing with the mind is not enough; no one should presume to teach Scripture until its truths have been—literally—embodied in their habits and actions. Abba Nesteros explains that this is essential for two reasons. First, because you cannot presume to teach what you do not know and knowledge only comes by putting it in action. Second, because putting the teaching of Scripture into action is itself a sign of the converting presence of the Holy Spirit—the true guide to right reading and interpretation: “For it is one thing to speak with ease and beauty and another to enter deeply into heavenly sayings and to contemplate profound and hidden mysteries with the most pure eye of the heart, because certainly neither human teaching nor worldly learning but only purity of mind will possess this, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.”

Humility and the other virtues, then, are the central prerequisites to reading Scripture well. From that point, Abba Nesteros describes the proper practice of engaging Scripture. While he had talked about technical matters of interpretation in the earlier part of the dialogue, he now turns to what this looks like in day-to-day experience:

Then, once all worldly cares and preoccupations have been cast out, you must strive in every respect to give yourself assiduously and even constantly to sacred reading. Do this until continual meditation fills your mind and as it were forms it in its likeness, making it a kind of ark of the covenant . . . All of these are guarded by two cherubim—that is, by the fullness of historical and spiritual knowledge, for the cherubim are interpreted as the breadth of knowledge. . . . Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention in occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapments of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow grow with the person who is making progress.

In this set of statements, Abba Nesteros speaking to us through John Cassian reveals the incredible profoundity that we encounter again and again in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: they have a remarkable grasp of the habits of the mind, displayed here in the discussion of the processing power of the subconscious mind, that seems amazingly modern—yet is centuries old. In the spiritual laboratory of the desert, these hermits and anchorites observed and taught about the power of habit and the functions of the conscious and subconscious mind in ways that would not be replicated again until the rise of psychology in the twentieth century.

The pattern, then, is clear: memorize and rehearse. Soak the soul in Scripture, and Scripture itself would transform the soul to be more like Scripture. In so doing, the soul’s perception of Scripture will be transformed and freed to perceive more and deeper meanings within Scripture.


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Brain Foggy

Between things at work, things at home, trying to promote a book, trying to write two books, and fulfilling other writing/programming obligations, my brain hurts…  I owe a number of people emails as well that I’m very behind on. If you’re one of them, I apologize!

I have things to say on a number of church-related links floating around right now, but don’t have the time to actually say them. So let me issue this as a general thought on things in the church right now.

If you see something that needs doing, don’t wait on a committee or a process. Just do it. Some of the very best stuff for the church that I’ve seen in the last decade or two wasn’t produced by committees, dioceses, study groups, or well-funded organizational structures.


They were all done by regular people and their friends who gave a crap.


It’s your turn.


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Dinner Table Verbatim

Setting: The family dinner table with reference to the girls’ school, a nondenominational Christian school populated largely populated by Roman Catholics and conservative Evangelicals with a sprinkling of mainliners and two hardcore Catholic Anglicans. H is now in 5th grade; G is in 8th (!).

H: Dad, do the Roman Catholics have Rite I and Rite II?

Me: Umm… Not really, what do you mean?

H: Well, when we did class prayer in 3rd grade we used Rite I, in 4th grade we used Rite II, and now in 5th grade we use Rite I again.

Me: Oh, and your 3rd and 5th grade teachers are Roman Catholic while your 4th was nondenominational, right?

H: Right. Before we started class I asked [teacher] if we were going to use Rite I or II and he didn’t seem to know what I meant.

Me: [Realizing that she was referring to the Lord’s Prayer] Ah—no. They don’t call things Rite I and II. We do that. They’d call Rite I “traditional language” and Rite II “contemporary language.”

H: Oh. Why are Rite I services usually the early services?

Me: Well, usually the people who go to the early service are older people. There’s this idea that Rite I is for the older people and they’re more comfortable with it since it’s closer to the sound of the ’28 prayer book that a lot of them grew up with. I think some people in the Church were hoping that Rite I would just die out as the people who grew up under ’28 did, but I’m not sure that’s what we’re seeing…

G: So—as the people Grandmommy’s age [Baby Boomers] become the old people does that mean that we can make the early service Rite II because that’s what they like, and we can have Rite I back for the main service?


For the record, the church the girls and I attend now uses a mix of Rite II and EOW (we’re currently slogging through “EOW 3 season”). However, when we go to M’s church the first service is Rite I and that tends to be their preference. This isn’t something that we have consciously directed them towards—it just seems to be what they like…

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The Amazon Edition!

People have been asking about an ebook version of the new book and it now exists—at least on the Kindle platform. You can get Inwardly Digest on the Kindle now from Amazon. The Forward Movement folks have entered the paperback version into the Amazon catalog as well, but apparently Amazon hasn’t figured out that they’re linked yet and that the information on the two formats should be shared… I guess these are the hoops and perils of the new publishing environment!

Posted in Anglican, Spirituality | 3 Comments

Interview and Giveaway on GrowChristians

So—the new book (Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life) is out now, and Forward Movement is shipping physical copies. To promote it, I’ve got an interview up on GrowChristians. I’ve been writing with them for a while now, posting in an on-going series called “Secrets of a Pew-Whisperer,” and Nurya and I did an email interview on how my book connects with the work I’ve been doing over there.

Also, they’re giving away a free copy! All you have to do is comment on the thread to be entered.

Posted in Anglican, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Daily Regula

An important part of any decent, sustainable Rule of Life is its regular review. You gotta keep checking in to make sure everything is still working. In my case, given my home situation and the age of my kids, there are two points of the year where I review my schedule, my regula, and take another shot at getting it right. They are—predictably—when the girls get out of school and when they go back to school. Well—they’re back! This week was the first half-week of school consisting only of half-days is it was a weird liminal period that was neither fully on or off. The other piece of this is that Mother M is now a rector. (Yay!!) Since she’s got her fulltime work schedule and the girls have a new schedule and their activities have new schedules, I have to sit down and figure out how to make everything work again… (And this will take a little bit to come up with something fully functional…)

A Rule of Life or regula to me is fundamentally about living out (or attempting to) what we ask help doing in Ps 90:12: “So teach us to number (or, maybe, “reckon” and hence “organize”?) our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” It’s making sure that the things that I say matter are actually present in the things that I do and the way I arrange my daily schedule. Of course, doing all of the crazy things I do, there’s *never* enough hours in the day to do all of the things I want to do balanced against the things I must do including the day-job, the extra work, the books, driving to and from ballet, and giving my wonderful wife the attention she deserves.

Typically in churchy circles regula is about fitting in “spiritual” stuff. And—yeah—it is. Prayer, meditation, and lectio certainly are included here. But the physical stuff has got to be included here too. Not being disembodied souls, maintenance of the body is simultaneously care of the soul. Not only that, some of the things I do, like tai chi and running, are definitely part of my spiritual life. My focus, attention, and clarity suffer when I’m not doing them.

One interesting aspect of all of this—how I set up my time, how I give daily progressive time to those activities that maintain and improve physical and spiritual health, and the relation between the physical and the spiritual—has been given new energy from an unusual direction… For my birthday, M gave me a book I’ve been lusting after for a while, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey.  It’s got a fascinating discussion of the importance and ubiquity of weigong training which is quite frequently forgotten in many modern western interpretations of the classical Chinese martial arts. To clarify, weigong is the “external” physical muscular strength/aerobic capacity training stuff while neigong is the “internal” training. The latter gets a lot of press especially in the so-called Internal Styles (particularly in some of the more New Age-y Western interpretations of tai chi) because this is where qi gong and meditative practices and other exercises to develop the qi, the body’s internal power, fit into the schema. The authors emphasize, though, that this is a fundamentally skewed perspective:

Neigong and weigong are the two halves that when put together equal achievement in the Chinese martial arts. All skilled Chinese martial artists have both weigong and neigong abilities, and well-designed Chinese martial arts systems make use of both categories of training exercises. Oftentimes, especially in the West, there is an overemphasis on the more esoteric neigong side of training, but without a weigong basis, neigong is largely useless. (pp. 18-20)

Physical conditioning, basic technique practice, set routines, and sparring are the four corner-posts of traditional Chinese martial arts practice. (p. 26)

(And I’ll just note here that the principal author of this section is a xingyi practitioner and thus hardly in the anti-internal camp!) Too, I’m reminded here of the great discussion in Paul Gallagher’s Drawing Silk where he expresses his bewilderment at those who want to study aspects of a pretty effective and hardcore martial art (tai chi) without doing or having the physical cultivation in terms of strength, power, and flexibility that are proper prerequisites. (If you just want to do qi gong, just do qi gong—don’t do qi gong and call it tai chi!)

((It’s also occurred to me recently how good moving qi gong exercises (like the Eight Pieces of Brocade or the Five Animal Frolics) are for either cultivating and retaining basic mobility and flexibility. Whether you believe in qi or not,  the gentle movement and joint work is becoming increasingly more important to me as my body continues its slide into middle age!))

This trap—of isolating one aspect of training, especially the one that seems the most interesting and the most cool—isn’t just a phenomenon in the Chinese martial arts… I suspect we do it quite a bit in our spiritual lives too. And this, again, is why the concept of regula—patterned, disciplined habits—is so important. We have to take the periodic opportunity to stop, step back, and assess what we’re up to to make sure we’re not skewing our practice. Or, better yet, we make sure that we are adjusting our practice as needed (with the help of a spiritual director as needed?) to realize the long-term goal of a perspective that is healthy, mature, and well-grounded.

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