There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts and articles about the various ‘options’ that we Christians in America have for living in a world that repeatedly shows disdain for our values. If we are followers of Christ, we’ll admit our sin, and perhaps even, we’ll take some advice from an unbeliever. Seneca, writing at the same time as the birth of Christianity, has this advice for us (see here, pp. 227-231)
Athenodoros seems to have surrendered too quickly to the times, to have retreated too quickly. I myself would not deny that sometimes one must retire, but it should be a gradual retreat without surrendering the standards, without surrendering the honour of a soldier; those are more respected by their enemies and safer who come to terms with their arms in their hands.
What does Seneca think we should do then if our arms become useless against the might of the enemy and we have no choice left but to retreat?
If Fortune shall get the upper hand and shall cut off the opportunity of action, let a man not straightway turn his back and flee, throwing away his arms and seeking some hiding-place, as if there were anywhere a place where Fortune could not reach him, but let him devote himself to his duties more sparingly, and, after making choice, let him find something in which he may be useful to the state. Is he not permitted to be a soldier? Let him seek public office. Must he live in a private station? Let him be a pleader. Is he condemned to silence? Let him help his countrymen by his silent support. Is it dangerous even to enter the forum? In private houses, at the public spectacles, at feasts let him show himself a good comrade, a faithful friend, a temperate feaster. Has he lost the duties of a citizen? Let him exercise those of a man.
If we desire to be “great in soul” (a.k.a., magnanimous), Seneca explains, then a complete retreat is never an option:
The very reason for our magnanimity in not shutting ourselves up within the walls of one city, in going forth into intercourse with the whole earth, and in claiming the world as our country, was that we might have a wider field for our virtue […] If Fortune has removed you from the foremost position in the state, you should, nevertheless, stand your ground and help with the shouting, and if someone stops your throat, you should, nevertheless, stand your ground and help in silence. The service of a good citizen is never useless; by being heard and seen, by his expression, by his gesture, by his silent stubborness, and by his very walk he helps. As there are certain salutary things that without our tasting and touching them benefit us by their mere odour, so virtue sheds her advantage even from a distance, and in hiding.
One is reminded of St. Paul’s “you are the aroma of Christ.” If we have any concern for God’s Kingdom, any humility, then let’s be humbled by Seneca’s wisdom. Don’t retreat too quickly, and if retreat is necessary, do not be silent without being seen, without stubborn resistance. The whole world is our country, for Christ has given it to the meek.
A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul. If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.
How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.
The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.
When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.
Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.
In his The Heavenly Academie (1638), the Westminster Divine, Francis Rous urges his readers to acknowledge their knowledge of God to be a gift of grace, and thereby to give God praise for his gift. This act of praise is a participation in the motion of God’s own gift giving, that is, the heavenly motion of procession and return.
IT is the just saying of an Ancient, Prodere grata commemoratione decet scientiae patrem; It is comely to acknowledge with thankfulnesse, the Father of our knowledge. If this be justly due from man unto man, how much more due is it from man unto God? For though man be called the father of those that are taught by him, yet God is the Father of those fathers; even a Teacher of those teachers: and therefore by our Saviours judgement deserves only the name of Father, in perfection and eminence. Those then that have God to be a Father of knowledge to them, should returne to this Father the praise and glorie of this knowledge. The heavenly gifts of God, when they move kindly and naturally, doe move like the Heavens, in a circular motion; returning to that place and point from which they began first to move; from God unto God. They come from him as graces, and returne to him in the shape of glorie.
What does Paul mean in Ephesians 3:19 when he says “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God?” Girolamo Zanchi, in his Commentary on Ephesians, interprets Paul to mean that believers are partakers of the divine nature, a participation which depends upon one understanding “the mysteries of piety and its causes, that is, by understanding the love of God in Christ toward us.” This is not a bare cognitive assent, however, but is combined with an experience [sentio] of the love of God within one’s “inner man” by means of grace. Zanchi, like Aquinas, considers union with God to occur primarily through a certain created likeness of God within the soul, or in other words, a renewal of the image of God in the soul by means of certain infused qualities (i.e., wisdom, righteousness, etc.). He explains what it means to be “filled with the fulness of God”:
Translation: Girolamo Zanchi on Ephesians 3:19
By what, then, do we become strong? By a power and virtue, not human, but divine. So, [Paul] says, “that you may be strengthened with power, that is, of God.” Therefore, all of the virtues are excited within us, they stand upright, and are nourished by the power [δυνάμει] and virtue of God, and these are really nothing other than a certain divine power created, excited, and inflamed through the Holy Spirit within us, by which [we are] good, strong, wise, righteous, and finally, we are such as God wants us to be, and by which we have the ability, whatever ability we have, [to be] good. This is the power [δυνάμιν] of God that Peter calls the divine nature: “That you may become (Peter says) partakers of the divine nature.” By the word “nature” here [Peter] means a created quality by which we become like God. Paul calls [it] grace: “By the grace of God I am what I am & his Grace in me was not vain” (1 Cor. 15).
Zanchi, In d. Pauli epistolam ad Ephesios Commentarius, 1594, p. 201.
There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.
Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)
Marsilio Ficino inherited many philosophical principles both from the Medievals and from the ancient Platonists that he wished to emulate. One of these principles is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, that is, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In application to theology this means that divine knowledge is received by the angelic intellect in a specific angelic mode (i.e., by pure intellection) and by humans in a specifically human mode (i.e., through concepts abstracted from sensible qualities). In his commentary on Dionysius’s Divine Names, Ficino explains this principle as a necessary outcome of the human duality of body and soul. Because the intellect must first gain sensible images from the senses in order to know immaterial realities, so it was necessary for God to accommodate the heavenly light to the human sensation of vision in his revelation of himself to man. He did this, argues Ficino, in the Holy Scriptures.
Ficino comments on the first book of the Divine Names, where Dionysius explains divine illumination which reveals a hidden tradition “at one with scripture.” I offer his comment in Latin with an English translation below. This passage, to my knowledge, has never been translated into English:
Facilius tutiusque divina videmus si mentis aciem ad eloquia sacra convertimus, quam si in ipsum Deum audentius dirigamus:
Quod lucet in Deo tanquam Solis mundani Sole, super essentiae & intelligentiæ limites, non tam perscrutari quam venerari debemus. Mentisque oculos immensam hanc lucem minime sustinentes, hinc ad sacras literas tanquam ad cœlos flectere. In quibus nomina sunt cognomentaque divina tradita divinitus, velut stellæ oculis nostris accomodatæ, ex quibus sane stellis nobis emicant propriæ Dei vires & appellationes laudesque divinæ, tanquam Solis, virtutes in stellis. Ex hoc denique sedulo pioque studio duo quædam potissima reportamus. Primum quidem, quod divinos radios hinc haurimus nostro ingenio congruentes. Secundum, quod divinum Solem radiorum eiusmodi sacrum fontem, ut Deo placet, rite laudamus. In nominibus appellationibusque divinis divinitus videlicet traditis, mirabiles latere virtutes, tum ad divina mysteria declaranda, tum ad mirabilia perpetranda Hebræi omnes existimant, & Zoroaster Iamblichusque confirmant.
~ Ficino, Opera II:1027-1028
We will more simply and safely view divine things if we turn the vision of the mind to the Holy Scriptures, than if we more presumptuously steer into God himself.
We ought not so much investigate as worship the light which shines in God, just as the light of the sun of this world, beyond the limits of essence and intelligence, and we ought to turn the eyes of the mind (by no means holding this immense light) to the Holy Scriptures as to the heavens. In [the Scriptures] are the divine names and characteristics handed down by divine influence like stars accommodated to our eyes, because of which the particular divine powers, titles, and merits of God truly shine forth to us just as the powers of the Sun [shine forth] in the stars. From this we relay, in short, two most powerful [principles] to the one diligent and pious in devotion. First, we take in the divine rays from here in a manner suitable to our nature. Secondly, that we solemnly praise the divine sunlight, the sacred font of these rays, that it might please God. All of the Jews believe, and Zoroaster and Iamblichus confirm that wonderful powers lie hidden in the divine names and titles which were clearly and divinely handed down, whether for the sake of declaring divine mysteries or for accomplishing wonderful things.
Many modern interpreters of Ficino have labeled him as a philosopher to the exclusion of his theological writings. Others have recognized his devotion to “religion” and argued that Ficino promoted a purely naturalistic religion while excluding from the discussion his explicitly Christian theology most clearly propounded in his lengthy confession De Religione Christiana, which Amos Edelheit refers to as the “manual” of humanist theology. In his commentary on the Divine Names, Ficino shows his orthodoxy, which is partly why his commentary on the Corpus Dionysiacum was included in manuals of piety alongside the comments of other authorities such as Maximus and Eck.
This year marks the 45Oth anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Musculus, the famous 16th century theologian who was influential in the Reformation of the cities of Strasbourg, Augsburg, and Bern and whose Loci Communes (Common Places) was a very popular and influential theological work both on the continent and in England for hundreds of years after its first publication. I will be delivering a short address on Musculus this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, thanks to the industriousness of Jordan Ballor who put all of the pieces together for a panel on Musculus at SCSC but due to unforeseeable circumstances did not come to fruition. Below is a brief excerpt of my presentation, “Cœna Mystica: Recollection and contemplation in the Eucharistic theology of Wolfgang Musculus”:
As Gottfried Locher convincingly argues in Zwingli’s Thought: New Perspectives, Zwingli’s concept of “memory” that is crucial to his eucharistic theology, should not be thought of as univocal with natural memory or recollection. Rather, Locher argues, recollection for Zwingli is more akin to Plato’s concept of anamnesis, propounded from the mouth of Socrates in the dialogues of the Meno and Phaedro. By means of these dialogues Plato affirms the famous theory that human souls existed in the World of Forms prior to their embodiment, that embodiment has clouded the mind of its previous knowledge, and that one must turn inward away from the senses by means of recollection in order to retrieve this knowledge. Thus, as Socrates explains, all learning is recollection. This concept was adopted by Augustine, who avoided the heretical notion of the preexistence of souls but maintained the concept of recollection as a turn inward to the Truth or Christ who dwells within the soul (cf. Augustine, De Magistro).
In his commentary on Matthew (In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 1562) Wolfgang Musculus seeks to clearly differentiate his own theology from any eucharistic theology that would hold the sacramental signs to be merely symbolic or figurative or those that consider the ceremony of the “mystical supper” (‘cœna mystica’, a phrase adopted from the 1st Helvetic Confession) to be a mere memorial. Rather, he argues, with much reference to the writings of Bernard of Clairveaux that spiritual “recollection” is analogous but not univocal to natural memory. He explains that natural memory is powerful in that the soul is ‘lifted up’ [rapitur] by memories and ‘absorbed’ [absorbetur] into them, as the memory of a lost friend moves one to sadness and longing. The recollection that occurs in the Eucharist is similar to natural recollection, yet it differs in that the memories recalled are not purely natural and the result of the recollection is not an emotional experience but one that transcends the body. He explains:
(English translation below)
Si igitur tantae virtutis in rebus mundi est memoria, qua ratione non idem posset in animis Christi fidelium, qui credunt se morte Domini redemptos? Quomodo hic non raperetur animus totus, imò totus simul homo in hanc Christi dilectionem expendendam, laudemque debitam reddendam, ut iam non in terris, sed revera extra se in Christum translatus, dicere possit: Vivo iam non ego, sed vivit in me Christus? Ex hac scilicet Dominicae mortis memoria convalescit fides, spes, charitas, patientia. Ex hac refocillatur totus internus homo. Hinc animus rapitur ad agendas redemptori gratias. Hinc gaudium est & pax pacatae iam conscientiae, & custodia simul vitae nostrae, qua cohibeamur, ne denuò peccemus. Quis ergo dicet rem nihili esse, quae tantarum est virium? … Exemplo sunto duo euntes in Emaus, quorum corda ardebant, ubi de Christo, per Christum quidem, sed incognitum, sacrae scripturae expositionem audiebant. Orandum ergo pro fide vera & integra Christi dilectione. Illae si fuerint, sentiemus istam Dominicae memoriae efficaciam, abibimus alacriores ad quaevis adversa fide firmiores, ad veram pietatem instructiores. Excidet animis nostris omnis mundi vanitas, obtinebit sola Christi dilectio. In illo iucundabimur & pascemur, in illo vivemus & moriemur.
~ In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 616.
If, therefore, memory is of such great power with regard to the things of the world, for what reason would the same not be possible with the souls of the faithful in Christ, who believe themselves to have been redeemed in the death of the Lord? How does this not lift up [raperetur] the whole soul, or rather, seize the whole man at once in the love of Christ that he seeks and in the appropriate praise that he returns, with the result that, not being on the earth but actually having been taken outside of himself [extra se] and transferred into Christ, he can say: It is no longer I who live but Christ lives within me? Because of this, that is the memory of the death of the Lord, faith, hope, charity, and patience gain their power. Because of this the whole internal man is revived. Hence the soul is lifted up [rapitur] to give thanks to its redeemer. Hence joy is both the peace of the pacified conscience and the protection of our life, by which we are restrained that we may not sin again. Therefore, who will call this nothing which is one of the greatest powers? […] An example [of the power of memory] are the two [on the road] to Emmaus, whose hearts burned when they heard the exposition of the holy scriptures about Christ, indeed through the help of Christ though they did not know it. If these things come to pass, we will understand the efficacy of this memory of the Lord, we will go forth more courageous, more firm in faith against every enemy, more skilled in true piety. [This memory] will destroy the vanity of the whole world in our souls, it will prevail by the love of Christ alone [sola Christi dilectio]. In this [memory] we will be delighted and fed, in it we will live and die.
For Musculus the recollection of Christ in the soul requires faith. Faith permits the believer to pierce beyond the veil of the sacramental signs, yet the desire of love (dilectio) is also a requisite element. In his locus on the supper in his Loci Communes Musculus notes that only those who partake with a “greedy desire of the grace of Christ and heavenly food” may eat of it. This desire, though already imparted through baptism, is rekindled in the Eucharistic ritual. Through the hearing of the words “sursum corda” the heart of the believer is made to ascend to heaven. The “uplifting” of the heart is triggered, for Musculus, by means of the act of remembrance or recollection. He argues that faith must be placed in the specific words “do this in remembrance of me.” By remembrance “the soul is called away from earth into heaven.”
Musculus uses the common language of the “husk” and “kernel” to describe the recollection of Christ in the supper. The faithful “chew the cud [ruminant] and renew in themselves Christ who dwells within them, and are fed and filled with his spirit.” In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates describes those who have been captured by love (eros) as being taken outside of themselves through the recollection of the god which they imitate. For Musculus the love of Christ is rekindled in the hearts of the faithful when they recall his loving death and promise of future blessings because, “He that loves is more perfectly where he loves.”
In describing the “mystical supper” Musculus uses a variety of terms that were widely used by Medieval mystics. His use of mystical language (rapitur, absorbetur, translatus extra se, etc.), however, should not lead one to conclude that he held the body and the material world in disdain. Rather, Musculus was an avid reader of the Greek fathers – e.g., he refers to the Eucharist as synaxis in several places. Gregory of Nyssa used the phrase “sober inebriation” to describe the sort of disembodied exstasis of Christian experience. Just as the disciples at Pentecost were accused of drunkenness because of their reaction to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit yet were fully conscious and sober, so those who are united to Christ are simultaneously in the body and transferred to heaven all while maintaining an awareness of both realities. Those who participate in the Eucharist, for Musculus, do not lose their senses but transcend them by a sober awareness of themselves and Christ who is recalled out of the soul by faith and love after the hearing of the words of divine institution, Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts)!