Edward Pusey and the Mystical Sacraments

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Readings for the Feast Day of Edward Bouverie Pusey:

Ezekiel 36:24-28

Psalm 84:7-12

1 Peter 2:19-23

Luke 3:10-14

This sermon was preached at All Saints Chapel on Community Night at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley CA on September 18, 2014.

Ever since I was 12 years old, when I was first introduced to Thomas Merton, I have been drawn to and fed by the Christian Mystics. One reason I entered the doctoral program here at the GTU was to spend more quality time with these mystics; to learn from the healing and colorful wisdom of Hildegard of Bingen (whose feast day was yesterday), the bold optimism of Julian of Norwich (who is the unofficial patron saint of this chapel), the wild tears of Margery Kempe, the Zen-like sayings of Meister Eckhart and the interior castles of Teresa of Avila and much more. All of these mystics sought union with the divine through spiritual discipline. They prayed and fasted and suffered and wept and had visions and got swept up into the whirlwind dance of the Triune Mystery, which transformed them and gave them new hearts of flesh empowered by the Spirit that overflowed with compassion for humanity. They were clearly recipients of the promise declared by one of the original Jewish mystics, the prophet Ezekiel, who said, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). By entering into union with God, they were transformed. Some would say they were deified. And when I read about Teresa’s or Julian’s ecstatic intimacy with God, I want to experience it myself and I cannot help but say that famous line from the film When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what she’s having.” So how do we experience union with God? Union with God that transforms our hearts and deepens our love and compassion for all of God’s creatures and for creation itself?

Today is the feast day of Edward Bouverie Pusey, a leader in the Oxford Movement in 19th century England and one of the triumvirate of the Tractarians, along with John Keble and John Henry Newman. Although I do not identify as an Anglo-Catholic, I find myself enticed by how the Tractarians, especially Pusey, stress such a high view of the sacraments. They seem to speak of the sacraments almost as a means for mystical experience, for union with God. For Pusey, the sacraments are far more than “signs only of grace [which is] given independently of them,” as the Calvinists would say. No, for Pusey, the sacraments, especially Baptism and Eucharist, are “the very means by which we are incorporated into Christ, and subsequently have this life sustained in us.” He says that Baptism engrafts us onto the true vine as branches while the Eucharist drives the richness and fullness of divine life into the engrafted branches, like a holy xylem and phloem, like a mystical sap.[1] And he writes that the “immediate and proper end” of the Eucharist is “union with Him Who hath taken our humanity into God, and the infusion into us of His Spirit and life and immortality.”[2]

And Pusey is not just making this stuff up. What makes Pusey and the Tractarians so radical is how deeply connected they are to the roots of the Christian tradition (which is what the etymology of the word “radical” means: “rooted”). They returned to the patristic theologians and to the Scriptures. As a professor of Hebrew at Oxford, Pusey knew his Bible well and it was in the midst of teaching Scripture that Pusey began to take baptism more seriously. A student of his was on the verge of leaving the Church of England because the Church taught Baptismal Regeneration in the Prayer Book. So Pusey decided to show what the Scriptures taught about Baptism, which is why his tract is called Scriptural Views of Holy Baptism. By Views he did not mean doctrines, but the aspects of Baptism that are revealed in Scripture.[3]

By reading Scripture and the early Church fathers, Pusey understood Baptism as our entrance into the river that flows into the very heart of God; and we give ourselves over to the currents of the river when we participate in the Eucharist, the sacrament that transforms our hearts to thrive in depths where our old heart of stone would drown. This is why Pusey stressed frequent participation in the Eucharist. This is how we continue to participate in the mystical work of transformation that is begun in us at Baptism. He says, “There is and ought to be a real consciousness that more frequent Communion should involve a change of life, more collectedness in God…deeper consciousness of His Presence, more sacredness in our ordinary [everyday] actions… and greater love for His Passion which we celebrate, and carry it about…in [self-giving] love.”[4]

Pusey is trying to show us the tremendous and transformative mystical power of what we are about to do in a few minutes. At the Eucharist, we are being transformed. We are entering into the bridal chamber. We are stepping into an experience that made Teresa of Avila swoon with ecstatic pleasure, that made Margery Kempe howl and moan, that made Bernard of Clairvaux feel like he was drinking milk from the breasts of the Virgin Mary and that made Julian of Norwich feel like she was drinking from the breasts of Jesus. It is no wonder that Pusey, after delivering a sermon on the mystical power of the Eucharist, was prohibited from preaching for two years. Although his views were orthodox, fully in harmony with the Scriptures and the patristic theologians, he was thought to be too radical and too intense in his understanding of the sacraments. Apparently, he took their transformative power too seriously.

Author Annie Dillard takes this transformative power seriously as well when she writes, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT…. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For… God may draw us out to where we can never return.”[5]

The river that flows into the heart of God has a strong current. The sacraments plunge us deeper and propel us closer to God. And when I take them seriously I have to acknowledge my own lack of desire for them, my boredom, my wish that I was doing something else more important. It is a great gift to be in seminary (as both a doctoral student and teaching fellow) and have the opportunity to participate regularly (almost daily) in the Eucharist. But do we want to?  Do I want to? Is stepping into the mystical transformative power of God really a priority in my life? Is one day in God’s courts better than a thousand elsewhere?

C. S. Lewis, who understood the infinite joy offered at Eucharist, said, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[6]

Pusey urges us to the Communion Table, where we experience a foretaste of heaven and, as he says, “a union with God so close; that [we have a hard time imagining] how we could daily be [both] in Heaven and in our daily business below.”[7] By participating in this foretaste of Heaven we bring Heaven into our daily business here. We become transformed into harbingers of God’s Reign on earth through acts of self-giving love to our neighbors and especially to the victims of society, the poor and hungry.

Our Gospel reading includes the teachings of the one who baptized our Lord: John the Baptist, the proto-mystogogue, whose ministry and identity revolved around the river. He stressed the importance of our social responsibility to our neighbor: “Share your coat and share your food so that you may bring about God’s Reign on earth.” John knew that a caring concern for one’s neighbor was a sign of the transformative mystical power at work.

Pusey agreed when he said, “[The Church] herself ought to [provide] [social] remedies…We need Missions among the poor of our towns; …Clergy living among them;… preachers in the streets…We need Clergy to penetrate our mines, to emigrate with our emigrates, to shift with our shifting population, to grapple with our …[social] system[s] as the Apostle did with the slave-system of the ancient world.”[8]

As harbingers of heaven on earth, transformed by the mystical power of the sacraments, we are bound to confront opposition to the Reign of God on earth and sometimes, in these confrontations, we are called to risk our own wellbeing in order to be faithful to our baptismal covenant, knowing that it is indeed a gracious thing to “endure sorrows while suffering unjustly.” The river may lead us through dangerous and choppy waters, but the end is overflowing joy and mystical oneness with God; which we get to taste in a few minutes as we enter into the Holy of Holies as priests cleansed by the waters of baptism and propelled from strength to strength by the current that pours us into Zion, into the very heart of God where we are nourished by the body and the bodily fluids of Christ as a child is nourished by mother’s milk.

We get to participate in the Mystery that essentially makes us all into Christian Mystics. So I invite us to give ourselves over to the flow of the mystical river, the transformative power of the sacraments and receive new hearts of flesh so that we can be the heart of God in a cold and hungry world.

 

[1] Edward Bouverie Pusey, The Holy Eucharist a comfort to the penitent (University Sermon, 1843), 4.

[2] Pusey, The Holy Eucharist, 27.

[3] “A pupil of mine was on the verge of leaving the Church [of England]…on the ground that the Church taught Baptismal Regeneration in the Prayer Book. So I set myself to show what the teaching of Scripture about Holy Baptism was. My tract was called Scriptural Views of Holy Baptism. By Views I did not mean doctrines, but only such aspects as Baptism would present to any one who looks at Holy Scripture.” http://anglicanhistory.org/pusey/liddon/1.15.html, accessed September 18, 2014.

[4] Pusey, The Holy Eucharist, 30-31.

[5] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 52-53.

[6] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.

[7] Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 201.

[8] Pusey, The Councils of the Church (Oxford: Parker, 1857), 4-5.

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