Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi

If there’s one principle which has come up time and again in my theological studies, whether in classes on liturgy or theology or preaching or even evangelism, it’s the title of this blog post: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.  I’ve seen its origins attributed to the work of Prosper of Aquitaine, but it has been developed further over the centuries until it’s become a touchstone for thinking about the connections between theology, worship and life.

So what does it mean?  It loosely translates as, “As we pray, so we believe and live.”  That is, our prayers shape our understanding, which shapes our actions, which feed back into our prayers – an interpretive circle in which the Christian integrates the life of faith.

This has some implications, particularly for liturgy or formal occasions of public worship.  One is the importance of prayer being offered in a language which the people present can understand.  As much as I sympathise, for example, with Catholics who lament a loss of the numinous in the shift away from the Latin mass, I think they have gained far more than they have lost, in that the mass in the vernacular feeds our rational understanding as well as the non-rational (which is not to say irrational) response of the worshipper.

Another is the importance of care in crafting the words used.  I am not here arguing against the use of extempore prayer; but all too often that devolves into something like, “Um, Lord, we really just, um, want to say…”  Too many of these prayers are halting and hesitant, and all too often devoid of significant theological content.  In contrast, the best of the various prayer book traditions offers us a range of well thought out, well crafted, theologically laden prayers for all occasions; prayers which offer a right understanding of God, of the worshipper before God, and of the relationship between them (and the networks of relationship which flow out from that, within the church and out to the world).  Extempore prayer then needs to be offered by people who have some strong and sound Scriptural and theological foundations on which to build, and who can do so in public with a confidence and a facility with words which will shape the response of those who listen and participate.

There is also something to be said here for prayers which are repeated in a corporate setting.  I was told once of a young man who fell overboard from a boat in a storm; when he was found, he was holding on to a rock in the middle of the stormy sea, repeating over and over “…whose property is always to have mercy…”  In his hour of need, perhaps his ability to pray in his own words had deserted him, but this phrase, well-known to him from his prayer book tradition, gave him some idea of God to hold onto in the middle of the storm.  Patterns of repeated prayer can likewise become an enormous spiritual resource for people who become isolated, or who suffer shock, trauma or grief; in times when their own prayer life seems very dry, the words of the community can carry one through rather than leaving one desolate.

It also follows that, for the person in the pew, the stuff being said in church is not incidental.  The words of prayers, readings and songs have the potential to be the engine room of the Christian life through the rest of the week, and ought to be attended to and truly given our personal participation, not chatted through, ignored or mumbled while really thinking about something else.

I’ve focussed here on the lex orandi part of the circle, but I don’t want to imply thereby that the other two parts are less important.  How we live, how we engage in the mission of God, is of course going to shape our prayers for the world and for the church.  And as we study and deepen our understanding, that is of course going to shape both prayer and life.  No one aspect is more important than the others, but public worship, as the unique responsibility of church leaders, is the one which we can most directly shape and impact, in a way which overflows for the benefit of all.

Abiding in the vine

This is a sermon I preached several years ago, in the parish where I was a student at the time.  But a recent conversation prompted me to dig it out and post it here.  The Scripture it references is John 15:1-6.

Jesus said, “I am the vine.”  He also said, “You are the branches.  Abide” – that is, remain – “in me.”  That picture of Jesus as the vine made me think about how plants live and grow; what role in the life of the plant the different parts of the vine have, and what it might mean for us to be a branch of the grapevine.

It also made me think about how we remain in him.  Christ is risen and ascended.  While I don’t want, in any way, to imply that we don’t each have a personal relationship with Jesus, we participate most fully in that relationship by being part of the community of believers, part of what Paul tells us is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ; we affirm it week by week; and we need to understand that in that sense, this community is the vine.

But let us take a few minutes to consider the life of a grapevine, and how it functions and stays healthy – starting at the bottom.

The roots of a plant are often not obvious or even visible at a casual glance, and yet as anyone who’s done some weeding will remember, they can be surprisingly big and resilient.  If the body of Christ is the vine, then it follows that he is at the roots of our faith.  And roots do a couple of really important things for a plant.  One is that they draw water and nutrients up from the ground to the rest of the plant – to the branches.

Here we have, I think, no very surprising ideas about Christ.  Earlier in John’s gospel, he promised the woman at the well springs of living water, gushing up to eternal life.  And he taught the crowds who followed him that he is the bread of life.  Water and nourishment – in abundance – are to be found in Christ.  Remaining in him, then, as branches of the vine will mean that we look to him for that nourishment.  That is serious encouragement to us to consider our lives of prayer and reading, and how we nourish our spiritual lives.

The other thing that roots are really important for, and this function they share also with the trunk or main stem, is support, structure and balance.  Without this part of the vine, it would be prostrate on the ground, sort of the plant equivalent of a jellyfish.  Not really able to grow or live well.  And it occurs to me that we each need these supports in our lives of faith as well – unless we are happy to be the spiritual equivalent of jellyfish!  Developing some discipline, and allowing ourselves to be accountable to others in the church, gives us some structure when life is confusing and overwhelming.  Carrying one another’s burdens, caring, and being willing to share our own stories for encouragement helps to provide the support and balance that a healthy community needs.  These are things which we cannot experience if we try to live a life of faith on our own.

But what then of the branches?  How do we see ourselves in this extended botanical metaphor?  I think there are two things to say about us as branches.  One is that we are the growing edges of the vine.  It is the very tips of the branches which stretch out to new areas.

I remember when I was sharing a house with three other students, and none of us really had time or inclination for gardening.  I planted a grapevine outside our back door and then basically neglected it.  By the time I got round to looking at it a few months later I realised its branches had climbed into the neighbouring lemon tree to a height far above my head.  I think my housemates thought it was very funny when I was out there trying to detangle it and encourage it to grow over the fence I had originally intended…

But while that story doesn’t say much about me as a gardener, it does say something about the vigour of growth in a healthy vine.  And I would suggest that one of the things we should look for in ourselves, as healthy branches, is whether we are being stretched and reaching out.  This stretching can be in the interior life, in the stretching of our personal response to God.  And also, at the same time, this stretching means paying attention to the people around us, and looking for the ways to build connections with them.

The other key thing about branches is energy production.  It’s in the leaves – on the branches – that the plant produces all the energy that it needs to survive and thrive.  Without wanting to bore you all to tears with the chemical details, the water drawn up from the roots, (you remember that living water, don’t you?) with the help of the energy of light, goes into making the sugar that every cell in the plant needs.  Well, the intricacies aren’t important.  But I think it is very helpful to recognise that something vital happens in us when the light of God in our lives, and the nourishment he provides us, meet.  There is energy for us, there is something which keeps each of us going, keeps the church going, keeps the kingdom of God real and manifest in this world, in this meeting of elements, in us.  That is, none of it would be realised without us.

Which brings us, finally, to the fruit.  It is the energy produced in the leaves – on the branches – which is needed for a plant to produce fruit.  The fruits of the plant are its reproductive bodies; they hold the seeds of new life.  And again, a bit like the growing edges of the branches, this is true for us both in our interior lives – we remember the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace and so on – but also in the new life that comes about as new people are drawn into and become part of this community, this vine which ultimately is Christ.  This is another thing that simply can’t happen in the church without us functioning as we should.

But what, you might ask – and it’s a good question – what about that bit about pruning, withering and burning?  That doesn’t sound so positive.  It sounds somehow like punishment for failing to reach a high enough production level.  But look carefully at what Jesus says.  His comments about the branches which whither and are burnt come after his instruction to “Abide in me.”

If we remain in him, we will remain healthy, able to bear fruit, able to be the people we are created and called to be.  If we remove ourselves from him, if we deprive ourselves of all that the vine offers – the water, the support, and so on – we should not be surprised to find that we are dried out, lifeless, fruitless, and not able to continue.  I suspect that Jesus is simply pointing out the obvious; a branch away from the vine dies, and there its possibilities end.

I hope that by now, you’re starting to see some of the potential each of us has as a branch.  Here we are, the gathered body of Christ, experiencing something of life in the vine.  One of my teachers is fond of telling us that “the church is the community in which we die and rise.”  In this community, joined to Christ by our baptism, joined to him in his death and resurrection, the new life we celebrated not so long ago at Easter invigorates us, filling us with possibility, even to the smallest growing bud.  Perhaps my teacher ought to say that the church is the vine in which we die and rise.  Nourished, watered, given structure and support, able to be a people of dynamism and growth, able to produce fruit, in Christ we are risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Unicorns, satyrs and centaurs, oh my!

It’s not often anymore that one hears the Psalms read from the King James Version of the Bible.  But some years ago, I heard a Cathedral choir singing a setting of Psalm 22, in which the Psalmist cries out that “thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.”  I raised my eyebrows.  Unicorns?  Really?  But what got me from raised eyebrows to downright cranky was a conversation with a visitor after the service.  He was not a Christian, and he looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement and pity as he asked, “Christians don’t really believe in unicorns, do you?”

Well, this one certainly doesn’t.  So what were they doing in Psalm 22, as a piece of inspired Scripture?  I decided to investigate, and was fascinated by what I found, and the light it shed on Biblical translation and interpretation.

It turns out that unicorns are in quite a few places in the King James; Numbers, Deuteronomy, Job and Isaiah as well as several Psalms.  And Isaiah also boasts a couple of mentions of satyrs,  figures more commonly associated with Greek mythology.  So what are they doing here?

The use of these terms goes back to the translation choices made by the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, producing the Septuagint, in about the second century B.C..  The translators of the Septuagint were faced with a problem of how to render obscure Hebrew words for animals into Greek with no exact equivalent.  When they thought that the use of the term was literal, they used Greek words for ordinary animals.  But when they thought the Hebrew was allegorical, they used Greek words for mythical creatures.  So, for example, in Isaiah 13:21, where the NRSV today uses the word goat-demons to render the Hebrew, the translators of the Septuagint used the Greek word “saturos,” or satyr.  (I’m relying on the scholarship of others – I don’t read Hebrew myself – but I’m told the underlying Hebrew term means something like, “wild or chaotic animals,” with nuances of evil and uncleanness).  Other similar terms used in the Septuagint were the Greek words for sirens and donkey-centaurs.

Unicorns in particular are used to translate the Hebrew re’em, which modern scholars think most likely referred to the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle, Bos primigenius.  This species is thought to have become extinct at about the time of King David, so would have been known but already semi-mythical to the later writers and editors of Biblical text.  It was bigger and heavier than domestic cattle, and regarded as untameable and dangerous.  The Greeks believed that there was a real animal which they called a unicorn (“monokeros“).  Although it was one-horned, and therefore not an exact match for the mental image of a re’em, it was big, bovine (they thought of it more as a massive goat-like thing than our modern conception of a horse with a horn), and exotic, and I guess close enough for the translators of the Septuagint to agree that it was a reasonably close term when they were scratching their heads for the Greek equivalent of re’em.

Then, centuries later, when the translators of the King James Version sought to produce the best possible English translation of the Bible, they used the Septuagint as a reference point for some of these obscure terms.  Relying on the allegorical interpretation of the scholars who had produced the Septuagint, they echoed their use of both satyrs and unicorns, preserving the use of these terms in English.

So where does that leave a modern reader of the text?  Obviously a simple literal reading of the King James Version here would have you believing in unicorns and satyrs.  A deeper reading, though, would recognise that these are texts which have been understood in a more complex and nuanced way for much of their history, and that their translators have consistently pointed their readers towards allegory as an appropriate way of understanding these passages.

We ought to be careful, then, in how we present such passages, so that they can become not barriers (as in the example of the Cathedral visitor I met) but signposts on the way to faith.

The morality of Hermas

I’ve been doing some reading on the very early Christian piece of writing known as the Shepherd of Hermas.  It was considered a very important piece of work in he early centuries of the church, and before the canon of Scripture was codified, many authorities (such as Irenaeus of Lyons) considered it to be inspired Scripture.  (As an aside, I’m about to enroll in a minor thesis in patristics, so there may well be more blog posts inspired by these early texts as I work my way through them.  Stay tuned!)

Anyway, like many Christian works, and indeed Jewish works before them, Hermas presents some of its ethical considerations in the form of the Two Ways moral tradition.  In broad terms, this presents the ethical decisions of a person as dualistic; one chooses life, or death; good, or evil; light, or dark.  There are problems with this kind of framing of ethics, and I might consider them another time, but what caught my attention in the reading I was doing was that in Hermas, as in many other works, the choice between the two ways is shown as being influenced by spirits, whether evil or good.  (This too is not unique to this work, and indeed is well known in the pop culture image of an angel and a demon sitting, one on either of a person’s shoulders, and each murmuring into an ear).

The idea of spirits, whether good or bad, influencing a person is thus not really remarkable.  More liberal Christians have updated it a bit, and instead of literal angels or demons will consider the “powers” in terms of social systems, family dynamics, biological and psychological impulses, and all sorts of other external influences.  That too – while interesting – is an argument for another time.

What caught my attention, though, was that the author I was reading, Carolyn Osiek, almost as an aside, commented that this attribution of external forces at work in human decision-making is important because thus “the responsibility of the individual becomes more diffused and generalised.”

I find that a very interesting point.  On the one hand, human beings are moral agents; we don’t just suffer from the illusion of making choices, that is a fundamental part of our nature.  On the other hand, the field in which we make choices is often restricted in a variety of ways, and all sorts of influences play into our capability to make those decisions with true and complete freedom.   It seems to me that so often our attempts to make better choices ourselves, and to encourage and enable better choice-making in others, fail to take adequate measure of this impaired freedom.

I’m not sure what the answers are; a range of disciplines from social work to deliverance ministry each have some wisdom to contribute.  But perhaps it’s a starting point – whether we think of the “powers” in spiritualised or more systemic terms – to begin to take them seriously, not simply as aspects of cosmology or anthropology or sociology, but as having a moral dimension, and being attentive to that dimension and how it plays out for us.