in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Book Review: The Lost Knowledge of Christ: Contemporary Spiritualities, Christian Cosmology and the Arts. Dominic White

Dear All

I have just finished the review for this fascinating book. It really is worth looking at - there is a website for it too:

Best Wishes


The Lost Knowledge of Christ: Contemporary Spiritualities, Christian Cosmology and the Arts

Author: Dominic White

Date: 2015

Publisher: Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota

ISBN: 978-0-8146-8269-2

pp 221  pbk



I’m afraid to say that this book confirms many suspicions I have had for some time. Even if Fr Dominic White OP is not wholly right in all his conjectures but only in good part, then we are going to have seriously review a lot of our perceptions of Western spiritual and liturgical practices. For Fr White’s ambitious project is to review the roots of our liturgical and spiritual practices linking them to esoteric practices and attitudes long since vanished. Let me take one example. For many years I have enjoyed gazing at the Byzantine mosaics to be found in Italy in the dim half-light in situ. Admittedly my eyesight is not what it was, but once accustomed to the gloom I have noticed that the ikons begin to shimmer and glint almost in three-dimensional fashion only to vanish when the next tourist deposits their obligatory one euro coin in the meter so that all is now revealed in garish modern electric light (primarily, as is often the case, for the purposes of taking another worthless photograph on an iPhone or camera). The ghost of Byzantium vanishes. Now Fr White, in this splendid book, has confirmed my suspicions when he lovingly describes the ancient Holy Week liturgies of Mount Athos where the monks would twirl full candelabras of flickering candles before the mosaics exactly to produce the effect I had observed in Rome and Ravenna. In Fr White’s words, such a performance would cause the ikons ‘to seem to dance’. And liturgical dance and its origins are central to the revolution in liturgy that Fr White aims to initiate. Again, I was aware of the elaborate theatre of the old Cluniac rituals, but Fr White’s description of an imagined medieval Easter Vigil is a corker: ‘We’re in a cathedral, and it’s Easter. Everyone gathers round the labyrinth. The bishop follows the altar server to the centre of the labyrinth. The server puts the ball in the bishop’s hands. This is the signal: the organ sounds, the choir sings out, and the bishop throws the ball in the air. The dean catches it, takes a step to the rhythm of the music, then passes it on, till all the clergy are dancing around the labyrinth and passing the ball…’ New Age Quackery or Coming Soon to a Church Near You? Who can say? Fr White brandishes his official imprimatur from Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, no less, and he makes a scholarly and intriguing case for his liturgical revisionism. As I say, if only a small portion of what he says is correct then we will have to revise our whole approach to liturgy, especially in the hallowed sanctuaries of our great medieval places of worship such as Salisbury and Chartres. White’s fascinating book brings to life otherwise dull and incomprehensible parts of our present liturgy and shows through exquisite scholarship an alternative picture of Western spirituality. I recommend it highly.





Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Francis Project - The Spirituality of Laudato Si

Dear Friends

I have just written the first draft of the paper I shall deliver at our conference at St Mary's on Laudato Si. It will be on November 17th and all are welcome (it is being organised by Prof Geoff Hunt) however if you need any further details please email me. I shall put the details up here once they are ready.

It really was a joy to read the encyclical carefully and I hope the following inspires you to turn to it again.

Best Wishes


The Francis Project: The Spirituality of Laudato Si’


Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no-one is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy willl,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.



The poetic hymn of St Francis of Assisi from which Pope Francis takes the title of his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ encompasses, as the pope acknowledges, much of what we could call ‘Franciscan’ – orientated spirituality. By taking the name of the Poverello at his enthronement, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was clearly initiating what Leonardo Boff has termed the ‘Francis Project’ (Boff 36)[2]. My argument in this short paper is that the encyclical as a whole can be understood as a manifesto for an ‘integrated humanity’ as well, as is now clear, a call for an ‘integral ecology’. In making this claim I shall stick closely to the structure of the encyclical whilst suggesting links with Franciscan sources such as the work of St Bonaventure.

          However, before we get too excited with the conceptual, ecclesial and spiritual possibilities of a new ‘Franciscan Revolution’ I think it important to stress the continuities and, dare I say it, traditional aspects of Laudato Si as it fits into the broad stream of papal teaching over the past 50 years. In this respect, as was celebrated at St Mary’s last year, I think the fons et origo for the Franciscan Revolution lies in the work of his predecessor, Blessed Pope Paul VI, and especially his groundbreaking encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. Here, Pope Paul argues that for the Church to be true to itself and its mission it must engage in a dialogue with those beyond the boundaries of the Church (ES: 18). The dialogue initiated by Pope Paul was to be non-coercive, universal, not aimed at conversion, to produce clarity, to be expressed in ordinary language and to be centred on humility. It was to be constructed in an atmosphere of mutual charity and fellowship and adaptable to the needs of each participant (ES 75,76, 79, 81). If we had time we could extrapolate this new spirit of dialogue through the intervening pontificates of John Paul 1, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Before his resignation, for example, Pope Benedict stressed in 2012 that the church ‘represents the memory of what it is to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness’ and that dialogue ‘does not aim for conversion but at understanding’ and that ‘both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their respective identities’.

          Pope Francis’ latest encyclical can thus be seen as the latest stage of that engagement the Church has sought with the modern world since the ‘opening of the windows’ of the Second Vatican Council. Francis pointedly addresses the encyclical to ‘all people of good will’ and ends not only with a Christian prayer but a prayer to share ‘with all who believe in a God’ (LS 246). In this respect the encyclical goes further than that of his predecessors by supplementing biblical and patristic quotes, and the sayings of his predecessor popes with scientific and economic references as well as references to poets (Dante Alghieri), non-Catholic writers such as HAH Bartholomew and John Chryssavgis and even a Muslim sufi mystic (Ali al-Khawas, LS 223).

          The encyclical is therefore a dialogue and aims to initiate dialogue, I am sure the Pope would therefore be delighted with our little gathering today! All of which, for Pope Francis, takes place around an extended reflection on the person of St Francis who, for Pope Francis shows us ‘the heart of what it is to be human’ (LS 3) and thumbnail sketches of whom occur throughout the narrative. Such a meditation is what the pope calls an ‘integral ecology’ that ‘calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human’ (LS 11). In this respect the structure of the Encyclical reminds us of one of the great followers and interpreters of St Francis – the Seraphic Doctor, St
Bonaventure. In his ‘Ascent of the Mind to God’ (Like Laudato Si in 6 chapters) the saint envisages six steps on our path from imprints of God in his creation, through reflection on that creation to the vision of God himself. In this Bonaventure (consumed with six-ness) makes explicit reference to St Francis’s own six-ted vision of the wings of the Seraphim during the famous ecstasy at Mount La Verna.

          Thus, the encyclical calls for science and religion to enter urgently into a dialogue fruitful for both whilst both having ‘distinctive approaches to understanding reality’ (LS 17, 62) a conversation that the pontiff hopes will ultimately draw in everyone (LS 17).

          From this perspective, then, the rest of the encyclical derives. Drawing, so the pope says, on ‘the results of the best scientific research available’ (LS 15), we must let ourselves be ‘touched deeply’ to provide a ‘concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows’. Such solid scientific foundations, once juxtaposed with ‘principles drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition’ will, so hopes the Pope, lead to ‘broader proposals for dialogue and action’ (LS 15). His Latin American background in the liberationist  schools that exhorted Christians to ‘See-Judge-Act’ seems to surface here as he stresses that ‘change is impossible without motivation and a process of education’. Again, throughout the encyclical there are numerous emotive pictures of suffering humanity in distress to ensure we are moved by the end to the change and action the Pope wants (eg see LS 19). However, where Pope Francis’ work would differ from the work of a Franciscan interpreter such as Bonaventure, is that instead of the Seraphic Doctor’s journey upwards to the ‘vision of the Blessed Trinity in its primary name’. Pope Francis, rather, presents us with a circle (a true encyclical?) whereby we end not with a clash of cymbals and the Choirs Immortal but rather the ordinary everyday action whereby we save the planet through being more careful with what we put in our dustbins and how many times we walk to work. In this respect, I would argue, we see here more the face of Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ, the simple Jesuit who recalls St Ignatius’ vision to ‘attain love’ at the end of his book of Spiritual Exercises where we are urged not to disappear into the rapt embrace of the choirs invisible but rather to take the difficult road of service of others as we find ‘God in all things’ (a phrase lovingly referenced in LS itself).

[1]The Legend of Perugia, 43, narrates the circumstances of the composition of the first section of the Canticle, in which the saint invites all creation to praise its Creator. The author describes the intense suffering of the Poverello in that period after he had received the stigmata. "For his praise," he said, "I wish to compose a new hymn about the Lord's creatures, of which we make daily use, without which we cannot live, and with which the human race greatly offends its Creator." The second section of the Canticle, consisting of two verses concerning pardon and peace, was composed a short time afterward in an attempt to unite the quarrelling civil and religious authorities of Assisi. The same Legend of Perugia, 44, describes the reconciling power the Canticle had in the resolution of the conflict. The final verses of the work, which constitute the third section, were written at the death of Saint Francis. Once again the Legend of Perugia, 100, provides the details of the scene at the Portiuncula where the Seraphic Father enthusiastically sang the praises of Sister Death and welcomed her embrace.’ The Classics of Western Spirituality - Francis & Clare - Translation and Introduction by: Regis J. Armstrong, OFM, Cap. and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM
[2] ‘Francis is not only a name but a project’