Thursday, 28 February 2008

An introduction to the Biblical foundations of spirituality: (3) Johannine Spirituality

Saint John the Theologian listens to voice in the cave on Patmos and dictates what he hears to Prochoros

An introduction to the Biblical foundations of spirituality: (3) Johannine Spirituality

Patrick Comerford


In the lectionary readings this year for these Sundays leading up to Easter, we are reading from Saint John’s Gospel. Last week, we had the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus in the night, this week we had the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman meeting at the well, and next Sunday we have the story of the healing of the blind man, the healing at the pool of Siloam, and the controversy over the healing of the blind man. And on Easter Day we will have that wonderful Johannine account of Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the Resurrection.

In addition, the bishops who are preparing for this year’s Lambeth Conference began their six-month spiritual preparation earlier this month with a programme of studying Saint John’s Gospel.

For students in many theological colleges and seminaries, the approach to Saint John’s Gospel can involve placing it within the context of Johannine literature, looking at the context of the Johannine community, comparing it with the material in Synoptic Gospels, or similar approaches.

When we read the 21 chapters of Saint John’s Gospel, we discover images, ideas, and concepts that are not to be found in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, putting an emphasis on comparisons can only serve at times to allow us to miss out on the rich spiritual treasures in the Johannine literature. You will notice there are words that are part of John’s favourite vocabulary – word, I am, water, sign.

As you work with the Johannine writings in your own practice of daily reading, or preaching from it in the cycle of lectionary readings, or use them in studies, such as midweek Bible studies in your parishes, you will need to ask what John is trying to get across to his first century readers and why. What is his message? What do we need to hear? What does the world needs to hear? What do men and women need to hear? But you will also need to ask, what do I hear? How is this very special approach in the Johannine writings challenging my thinking, my understanding of my relationship with the Father, my relationship with the Son, my relationship with the Spirit, my relationship with the Trinity?

Any study of Saint John’s Gospel must attend to the writer’s use of symbolism and irony to portray human spiritual limitations, and his emphasis on the need for a spiritual transformation and rebirth in the spirit. And any discussion of Johannine spirituality must understand what is meant by “indwelling” or “abiding” and agape, which are unique Johannine ways of explaining how we can know God and how we can pattern ourselves on Christ.

The spirituality of the fourth evangelist has been called mystical. Origin described Saint John’s Gospel as “the first fruit” of the Gospels (Comm. on John 1.6, ca. AD 200). Over a century later, Eusebius said that “John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel” (Historia Ecclesiastica, ca. AD 320).

Saint John’s Gospel has been described as “God’s love letter to the world” (Henry Ward Beecher, ca. 1850). WG Rollins once said: “The Mona Lisa and the Fourth Gospel share two artistic qualities, beauty and enigma.”

The Johannine text is beautiful in its construction, in its poetic and its dramatic presentations. It is literature. It is also prophetic in its revealed anticipation of the constant struggle that the followers of Christ will have, until the end of time, with the demonic forces of evil at work in the world.

But we must remember that the Johannine spiritual approach is unique. While the Apostle Paul stresses the sinfulness of humanity and our need of grace to cope with our fallen nature, Saint John emphasises humanity’s innate blindness and our need for light from Christ who is the Light of the world.

Personally, since my own experience of God’s light breaking into my life in my late teens, I have found Johannine spirituality particularly enriching in my spiritual journey and pilgrimage.

The place of Johannine spirituality:

Today, with an ever-growing awareness of world spiritualities, there is a tendency to see Jesus as a norm for spiritual growth rather than as a personally-involved covenant partner. But in the Johannine literature, spirituality is a matter of committed love, not just self-development. The writer of the Fourth Gospel has a very realistic perspective. True faith is shown by commitment to the God-given community, first by Jesus’ commitment to Israel despite being put to death, and then by the permanent commitment of the believers to the community through committed love. There are no ambiguities about the necessity of a personal commitment to Jesus as the source of eternal live [John 6: 68].

Johannine literature:

Johannine spirituality is found in five separate Johannine books in the New Testament: Saint John’s Gospel, the three letters or epistles, I John, II John and III John, and the Book of Revelation. Between them, these five books provide three different literary genres.

Saint John’s Gospel reached its final form toward the end of the 1st century. It is quite different from the other three Gospels, which were probably not available to the Johannine writer.

I John contains the controversial Johannine comma; II John is the shortest book in the New Testament, containing only 13 verses; III John is second shortest book.

The Book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature. It uses symbolic imagery to communicate hope to those in the midst of persecution. The events which occur in Revelation are ordered according to literary, rather than strictly chronological patterns. Does the Book of Revelation simultaneously describe contemporaneous events and prophecies of events to come, foreshadowed by those contemporaneous events?

The book can be seen as a warning to be spiritually and morally ready for the end times, whenever they may come (“as a thief in the night”), but that they will come at the time of God’s choosing, not something that can be precipitated or deduced. The prevailing Anglican view is that the book of Revelation should be seen as a book of hope and also a book of warning. It gives hope to Christians who are being persecuted, assuring them that their suffering is not in vain.

Some theologians also see the liturgical worship of early Christianity, particularly the Easter rites, as the background and context for understanding the structure and significance of the Book of Revelation. This view is shared by Professor Massey H. Shepherd of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific at Berkeley, California, an Episcopal theologian, in The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (new ed, Cambridge: James Clarke, 2004), and by Scott Hahn in The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. Those who hold this view say the Book of Revelation provides insight into the early Eucharist, saying that it is the new Temple worship in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

The structure and content of Saint John’s Gospel:

After the prologue [John 1: 1–5], the narrative of Saint John’s Gospel begins with verse 6, and consists of two parts. The first part [1: 6-Chapter 12] relates Jesus’ public ministry from the time of his baptism by John the Baptist to its close.

In this first part, John emphasises seven of Jesus’ miracles, always calling them “signs.”

The second part [chapter 13–21] presents Jesus in dialogue with his immediate followers [13–17] and gives an account of his Passion and Crucifixion and of his appearances to the disciples after his Resurrection [18–20]. In Chapter 21, the “appendix,” Jesus restores Peter after his denial, predicts Peter’s death, and discusses the death of the “beloved disciple.”

Raymond E. Brown, a scholar of the Johannine community, labelled the first and second parts the “Book of Signs” and the “Book of Glory,” respectively. Brown identifies three layers of text in Saint John’s Gospel:

1, an initial version he considers based on personal experience of Jesus;
2, a structured literary creation by the evangelist which draws upon additional sources;
3, the edited version that readers know today.

The Gospel of John is easily distinguished from the three Synoptic Gospels, which share a considerable amount of text. John omits about 90 per cent of the material in the Synoptics. The Synoptics describe much more of Jesus’ life, miracles, parables, and exorcisms. However, the materials unique to John are notable, especially in their effect on modern Christianity.

The opening Hymn to the Word declares that the Logos is God (Greek: theos) and was with “God” (Greek: ton theon). John portrays Jesus Christ as “a brief manifestation of the eternal Word, whose immortal spirit remains ever-present with the believing Christian.” The gospel gives far more focus to the mystical relation of the Son to the Father. The gospel also focuses on the relation of the Redeemer to believers, the announcement of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter (Greek Paraclete), and the prominence of love as an element in the Christian character.

Summary of Johannine spirituality:

John is steeped in Greek culture and thinks in terms of polar opposites. Such dualities as light/darkness, truth/falsehood, spirit/flesh, and life/death permeate the text. The author’s idea of the universe is also dualistic: he conceives of existence as divided into two realms: the world above and the world below; the world below is the world of earth and humanity, of darkness, fleshiness, and sin; the world above is the world of God and heaven, of light, spirit, and holiness.

>For John, Jesus:

● comes from the world above,
● has traversed the chasm which separates the world above from the world below,
● has testified to the truth from above,
● has been “lifted up” [John 3: 14; 8: 28; 12:3 2] in order to return to his home above,
●offers the chance for those who believe this to become animated by the life of the world above, and, ultimately, to abide in the world above with Jesus.

Saint John’s Gospel depicts the Son bringing the light of the world above into the darkness of the world below.

This theme of the Son descending from heaven and ascending back there is encountered throughout the Gospel. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” [John 3: 14]. He tells Pharisees that “you are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” [John 8: 23]. At the Last Supper, he declares: “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father” [John 16: 28].

As the One from Above, Jesus discloses to the ignorant world below the things of the world above. In particular, he reveals the Father so thoroughly that those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father [John 14: 7]. Through a series of rich metaphors, John exalts Jesus as the one who reveals and who makes the Father accessible, and who is “the way, the truth, and the life” [John 14: 6]. For John, Jesus is the “bread of life . . . that came down from heaven” [John 6: 35, 41]; the “gate” [John 10: 7, 9]; the “good shepherd” [John 10: 11, 14]; the “light of the world” [John 8: 12; 9: 5]; “the true vine” [John 15: 1, 5]; and “the resurrection and the life” [John 11: 25].

Those who believe that Jesus has been sent by the Father are those who are “born from above” [John 3: 3 – a word-play on being “born again”]. They are born of the water [a baptismal reference] “and the Spirit … which blows where it chooses” [John 3: 5, 8]. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,” by which Jesus refers to the Spirit [John 7: 38-39].

This Spirit is unleashed at Jesus’ death, as symbolically shown by the blood and water gushing from Jesus’ side, a detail unique to Saint John’s Gospel [John 19: 34]. He is the “Lamb of God” [John 1: 29, 35] who dies as the lambs are being sacrificed for Passover.

Believers perceive that Jesus and the Father are “in” each other [John 14: 11]. Consequently, the love which the Father has for Jesus comes into believers [John 17: 26]. The Father and the Son [John 14: 23] and the Spirit [John 14: 17] come to dwell in believers. And so, believers live according to Jesus’ only commandment in this Gospel, “Love one another” [John 13: 34; 15: 12, 17]. This is what John means by eternal life. It is a sharing in the love-relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. It is a love and life that transcends human death. It is a relationship with the Father made possible because the Son came down from above and has returned to his home above “to prepare a place” and take believers there [John 14: 3].

The Johannine church was probably traumatised at some point when its Jewish members were expelled from the local synagogue community [John 9: 22; 12: 42; 16: 2]. It is in the aftermath of this expulsion that we must understand how the author uses the term “the Jews” throughout the Gospel, although it is obvious that almost every character, including Jesus, is Jewish. The author conveys the alienation experienced by the Johannine Jewish-Christians who feel deprived of their Jewish heritage by so-called Jews. The factor which precipitated the expulsion was probably what Johannine Jewish-Christians were saying about Jesus. The exalted picture of Jesus as the One from Above was understood in the synagogue as asserting the existence of two Gods: the Father and the Son [John 10: 33]. Such a perceived breach of Jewish monotheism was intolerable in the synagogue.

The main Christological point in John, then, is that Jesus comes from Above and brings the eternal life of the world above; namely, the love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit, to those who believe. Authentic discipleship, therefore, is defined by the bond of love which unites believers [John 13: 3 5].

The Gospel of differs from the Synoptic Gospels in ethos and theological emphases. The Gospel appears to have been written primarily for Greek-speaking Jews who were not believers: “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” [John 20: 30-31].

A second purpose was to counter criticisms or unorthodox beliefs of Jews, John the Baptist’s followers, and those who believed Jesus was only spirit and not flesh.

Of the four gospels, John presents the highest Christology, describing Christ as the Logos (Greek λόγος, a term meaning “Word,” “Wisdom,” “Reason,” “Rationality,” “Language,” or “Discourse”) who is the Arche (ἀρχή, in Greek philosophy, the beginning or first principle of the world, who “existed from the beginning" or who is “the ultimate source of all things”), teaching at length about identity of Christ as saviour, and declaring him to be God.

Compared to the Synoptic Gospels, John focuses on Jesus’ mission to bring the Word to his disciples. Only in John does Jesus talk at length about himself, including a substantial amount of material Jesus shared with the disciples only. Certain elements of the Synoptics, such as parables, exorcisms, and possibly the Second Coming) are not found in John.

The Seven “I am” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel:

The phrase “ego eimi” is used with a nominative predicate seven times in Saint John’s Gospel:

● I am the Bread of Life [John 6: 35, 41, 48-51];
● I am the Light of the World [John 8: 12, 9:5];
● I am the Door of the Sheepfold [John 10: 7, 9];
● I am the Good Shepherd [John 10: 11, 14];
● I am the Resurrection and the Life [John 11: 25];
● I am the Way, the Truth and the Life [John 14: 6];
● I am the True Vine [John 15:1, 5].

There are other additional sayings that are also counted by some as “I am sayings.” Two are “I am” statements of Jesus if “I am” with no object is included: “It is I; be not afraid” or “I am; be not afraid” [John 6: 16-21]; “Before Abraham was, I am” [John 8]. And in the Book of Revelation we have other examples, including: “I am the Alpha and the Omega” [Revelation 1: 8], “I am the first and the last” [Revelation 1: 17].

The use of the phrase “I am” (Greek: ego eimi) is distinctive to the Fourth Gospel. It is significant because it is the name by which the God revealed himself to Moses as he commissioned Moses to set the Exodus events in motion [Exodus 36]. The revelation of the Divine Name to Moses [Exodus 3: 14] is significant. In English, the rendering would be “I Am that which I Am.” The definition of God is himself. He is the essence of being. There is no other meaningful name by which he can reveal himself.

God reveals himself to Moses under a name which translates from the Hebrew into English as "I am that I am.” The peculiarities of Hebrew tenses, in fact, are such that these words can equally well be rendered, "I will be what I will be” … "I am sovereign in my self-determination. I will turn out to be for you what I will turn out to be for you. Not what you choose, but what I choose shall govern our future together." As well as meaning "I will be" the Hebrew verb also conveys the idea of being present: "I will be present among you as all that I will turn out to be."

Later, in Isaiah, we find similar ideas: "I am Yahweh, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you, I have given you as a covenant to the peoples, a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am Yahweh, that is my name; my glory belongs to no other ..." [Isaiah 42: 6].

Elsewhere [e.g., Isaiah 55: 12], we hear: “I, even I am the one who comforts you.“ In the Septuagint translation of the Wisdom passages of Proverbs 8, the phrase ego eimi is used to emphasise the characteristics of Wisdom.

Seven signs:

We could see a deliberate use of the significance of “seven,” the perfect number, indicating that Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father to the world, and that the work of salvation initiated by the Father is perfected in him. Some scholars, including Stephen Smalley, want to link the seven “I am” sayings to the seven signs, although it is not that simple. He links the Water into Wine with “I am the true vine.” However, different scholars associate different signs with different sayings.

In any case, the seven miracles in John are referred to as "signs." These signs are given to confirm the deity of Jesus. The seven principal signs in Saint John’s Gospel are:

● John 2: 1-11, water into wine
● John 4: 46-51, healing with a word
● John 5: 1-9, a crippled man at Bethesda
● John 6: 1-14, the feeding of 5,000
● John 6: 16-21, walking on water
● John 9: 1-7, the man born blind
● John 11: 1-46, the Raising of Lazarus.

In addition, some scholars talk about Seven Themes in this Gospel: Life, Truth, Faith, Light, Spirit, Judgment and Love.

The context of Johannine spirituality:

In discussing Johannine spirituality, it helps to look at both the context of Johannine spirituality, and the content of Johannine spirituality.

All that John says about the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately concerned with salvation, which he normally describes as “eternal life” [see John 3: 16, 36; I John 1: 2].

This life is the gift of God [John 17: 2; I John 5: 11], mediated to the believer through Christ in his incarnation, death, resurrection and exaltation [see John 3: 14 ff; I John 4: 14], and made possible in the Spirit [John 3: 5, 8; I John 4: 13].

John’s theology of eternal life takes its particular character from his perception of the sacramental context in which God’s saving activity has taken place.

The thought patterns in Saint John’s Gospel and the Johannine letters are not only symbolic (for example, the contrast between light and darkness in John 1: 4, 8: 12, and I John 1: 5-7), but they are also sacramental. In this way, all Christian experience is derived from a unique conjunction of the material and the spiritual in the Word made flesh [John 1: 14; see I John 1: 1-3].Jesus is one in being with God [see John 10: 30; I John 5: 20]. He is also “flesh” and so is one with humanity [John 1: 1-14; I John 4: 2; II John 7]. From the decisive moment of the incarnation, therefore, history assumes a new meaning. As the seven “signs” of the Fourth Gospel illustrate so tellingly, the temporal becomes the potential carrier of the eternal.

Jesus makes God known in a new way; now, in a new way, humanity can know God in a new way, and live in him and for him [John 1: 18; 6: 63; 17: 3; I John 4: 12]. This Christological focus becomes the basis of John’s teaching about the work of Christ. Because Jesus took part fully in the two natures, his death and exaltation, or glorification [John 17: 5) became the means by which believers could pass from death to life [John 5: 24; I John 3: 14], enabling them to walk in the light and to live as the children of God, which continue as the twin themes of I John.

2, The content of John’s spirituality:

The concept of “abiding” is one of the leading categories used in the Johannine literature to interpret Christian experience.

The dynamic unity between the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ [John 14: 10] is the source of the believer’s continuing unity with God the Father [John 17: 21; I John 4: 15 ff.], Christ [John 15: 4 ff; I John 2: 24] and the Spirit [John 4: 23 ff, I John 4: 2]. This is also the foundation of unity between the believer and other Christians [John 17: 11]. In the same way, the spiritual life of the Christian is nourished by the abiding presence in the believer of God the Father [John 14: 23; I John 3: 24], and the Spirit [John 14: 16; I John 4: 13].

In order to demonstrate the infinite truth that a new humanity can share in the divine life of eternity [see John 3: 5, 8], John uses the language of love [John 14: 21; I John 4: 8 ff], and he uses this language to summarise the profound mystery of reciprocal abiding, both human and divine: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in him” [I John 4: 16].

The English writer Evelyn Underhill describes this as “John’s most characteristic contribution to the interpretation of Christian life” (Evelyn Underhill, The Mystic Way: a psychological study in Christian origins (1913), p. 242). His was that piercing vision which discovered the Spirit of Love is one with the Spirit of Truth, and that only those who love will understand. It was this which definitely established the essentially mystic character of Christian faith.”

John and the believer’s experience of God

The Johannine literature regards three elements as fundamental in the believer’s experience of God: worship, service and mission.

In the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman – which was our lectionary Gospel reading for Sunday last and in the chapel last night (27.02.2008), and the subject of a Bible study I led in Whitechurch parish on Monday night – we find the classical presentation of the place of worship in the believer’s experience of God.

In this passage, Jesus speaks of the necessity of worshipping God “in spirit and truth” [John 4: 23 ff]. But this reference is not to purely “internal” worship as opposed to “external” worship. In the Johannine community, worship included such “external” dimension as prayers, the exposition of Scripture, baptism and the Eucharist. The contrast is made between worship in Jerusalem and worship on Mount Gerizim on the one hand and, on the other, worship in spirit. This recalls the familiar Johannine distinction between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Jesus is saying that the Spirit inspires the worship that replaces the rituals and liturgies in the Temple [see John 2: 13-22]. God the Father can be worshipped worthily through the Spirit who gives new life [John 3: 5], who is also the Spirit of Truth [John 14: 16 ff; I John 5: 6].

John’s teaching on prayer is closely related to the Johannine teachings on worship. In the Johannine literature, the practice and results of prayer flow from the intimate relationship, the abiding relationship, that the Christian shares with God though Jesus and by the Spirit.

In this living, abiding relationship with God the Father [John 16: 23-27], the Son [John 16: 16] and the Paraclete [John 14: 17], we find our prayer are answered [John 16: 23; see I John 3: 21 ff, 5: 14 ff]. These requests, prayed and answered in the name of Jesus [John 16: 23] involve the daily needs of life and deepen that life and our spirituality through the in-dwelling Holy Spirit.

Surprisingly then, in Saint John’s Gospel, there is no Lord’s Prayer. Instead, the great prayer of Jesus at the last Supper [see John 17] offers a model for all Christian intercession. In this prayer, Jesus prays for himself, the Church and the world.

Service is the second key theme in the believer’s experience of God in the Johannine literature. In the Johannine writings, Christian spirituality is not only devotional, but is also practical. Those who follow Jesus are invited to worship, but are also invited to serve. The best example of this service is given in Saint John’s Gospel when Jesus washes the feet of the Disciples as an example of sacrificial humility [John 13]. This action of Jesus is, of course, linked to the death and exaltation of Jesus. In his spirit of self-offering, the disciples are to respect others, and to show their mutual love [John 13: 34-35].

On occasions, this service may lead to the ultimate sacrifice [John 15: 12-13; I John 3: 11-18; see also II John 5-6; II John 5-6]. The supreme example of this service is found in Jesus himself, who was sent by the Father [John 13: 3; John 17: 5, 8], and who promises the presence and power of the Spirit to his disciples before returning to the Father [see John 14: 16 ff; 16: 17; 17: 11].

The third element of our experience of God, according to the Johannine literature, is to be found in mission.

According to Saint John’s Gospel, the believer who worships God and serves the community of faith is also sent out to bring the good news of life in Jesus to the world. As I hinted in my sermon last week, John’s special contribution to our theology of mission is to show that the Father’s sending of the Son into the world [John 3: 16] is both the model and the basis for the way in which the Son sends the disciples into the same world [John 20: 21; see also John 21: 1-19].

Johannine thinking also makes a close connection between the mission of the disciples and the sending of the Spirit [John 20: 22; see also John 15: 26-27]. In this way, the mission and ministry of the Church and of Christians is like that of Jesus himself and is salvific [John 6: 39-40; John 20: 31; see also I John 5: 11-13; II John 7].

Each of these three major aspects of Christian spirituality in the Johannine literature – worship, service and mission – is derived from the intimate relationship between Christ and the Christian, which is fundamental to the Johannine understanding of salvation.

The spiritual life of the believer is made possible by the incarnation and the glorification of Jesus, and is sustained by “abiding” in him or his indwelling, just as he abides in the Father.

The ministry of the Spirit is closely associated with the Christian’s experience of all these aspects of spirituality – worship, service and mission.

John’s spirituality has both individual and collective applications: the Spirit brings the believer into a new life that we share with the whole Church [John 3: 1-8; 14: 16 ff; I John 3: 24]. Similarly, for John eternal life is both present and future [John 3: 16-21; 5: 21-29; see I John 3: 1-2]. Christian spirituality begins in the here and now and is consummated in the hereafter.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This esay is based on notes used for a seminar in the Year I course, Christian Spirituality, on 28 February 2008, and on material presented by Stephen Smalley in ‘Johannine Spirituality,’ pp. 230-232 in G.S. Wakefield (ed), The SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM Press, 1983/2003).

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The spiritual experiences of other Christian traditions (3): An introduction to Methodist Spirituality

John Wesley preaching in the early days of Methodism

The spiritual experiences of other Christian traditions (3): An introduction to Methodist Spirituality

Patrick Comerford


Listening: Hymn 634 in the Irish Chuch Hymnal, ‘Love Divine, all love’s excelling,’ is one of the most popular of the Wesley hymns in the Church of Ireland:

There is a long-told joke about a Methodist minister who was offered a case of wine as a present on condition that he thanked the donor publicly from the pulpit. On the following Sunday morning, the minister thanked the local shopkeeper by name for his kind donation of fruit, and the spirit in which it was given.

In recent weeks we have looked at the Spiritual traditions and the riches of other Christian communities, including the Eastern Orthodox and the Benedictines. Let me introduce the Methodist tradition and the unique gifts of Methodist spirituality.

The best man at our wedding was a Methodist friend and neighbour from teenage years. Later, I was enriched by Methodist spirituality during two student placements in Methodist churches the 1980s, one at the Dublin Central Mission, with the Revd Paul Kingston, the other at Shankhill Road Methodist Church in Belfast, with the Revd Robin Roddie.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of arrangements, both formal and informal, between local Methodist churches and parishes of the Church of Ireland, including Shannon in Co Clare, Leeson Park in Dublin and Glencairn in Belfast. We have a Methodist member of staff at the Church of Ireland Theological College, a resident Methodist student, the Rev David Nixon, who is preaching in the College Chapel on Wednesday 27 February, there are Methodist students on the NSM course, we have good links with the staff of Edgehill Theological College in Belfast, and we use the unique words of the Methodist covenant in our covenant service in the college chapel at the beginning of each academic year.

But there are five specific, practical treasons why theological students in the Church of Ireland should have an understanding of Methodist spirituality:

● The place of Methodism within the Anglican tradition:
● The brothers John and Charles Wesley were the sons of an Anglican priest, were ordained Anglican priests, and died as priests in the Church of England.
● Methodism began as a movement within Anglicanism
● Methodist spirituality has become part of the spirituality of the Church of Ireland through the large number of Wesley hymns in successive editions of the Irish Church Hymnal, and has become part of wider Anglican spirituality in a similar way.
● The covenant between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church, adopted by both our churches in 2002, commits us to “a fuller relationship of commitment to common life and mission and a growing together in unity.”

Many other reasons abound. Can you think of some?

The Influences of Methodism on Anglican spirituality:

The Wesley hymns in the Irish Church Hymnal include: Hymns 11, 17, 52, 99, 104, 119, 132, 160, 218, 234, 266, 277, 281, 302, 327, 398, 487, 492, 505, 523, 528, 553, 563, 567, 589, 621, 634, 638, 639, 671 ...

There are at least 30 hymns in the Irish Church Hymnal with words and/or music by five members of the Wesley family … Charles Wesley is said to have written 6,000 hymns in all.

John Wesley and Charles Wesley:

John Wesley (1703-1791) is the leading figure in the evangelical revivals of the 18th century. John and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were the sons of the Revd Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth, and his wife Susannah Annesley. John was the second son, and Charles the second youngest in a family of 19 children.

John Wesley was educated at Charterhouse School and Christ Church Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1728. The early influences on his spirituality included the Church Fathers; Anglican divines such as the Cambridge Platonist, John Norris (1657-1711), who spent his final days as Rector of George Herbert’s former parish, Bemerton; Henry Scougal (1650-1678), Professor of Divinity at King’s College, Aberdeen, and author of The Life of God in the Soul of Man; and post-Tridentine Roman Catholic writers such as Saint Francois de Sales (1567-1622), the saintly Bishop of Geneva and author of Introduction to the Devout Life.

But the greatest influences on him may have been Thomas à Kempis (ca 1380-1471), author of The Imitation of Christ, which remains one of the best-known and best-loved works of Christian spirituality; the greatest of the Caroline Divines in the Church of Ireland, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Bishop of Down, Dromore and Connor; and, above all, the Nonjuror William Law (1686-1761), and his books Christian Perfection and A Serious Call.

William Law was particularly influential: John Wesley visited him regularly, and as a consequence Wesley’s views were typical of the High Church and Nonjuring Anglicanism of the day.

After a period as his father’s curate in Epworth, John Wesley returned to Oxford where he lectured in Greek and joined the Holy Club which had been established by his brother Charles while he was a student at Christ Church.

The members of the Holy Club were devoted to Bible study, prayer, frequent communion, visiting prisoners and visiting the sick. Their methodical approach to their devotions brought them the nickname of Methodists.

John Wesley subsequently took over the leadership of the Holy Club from his brother Charles. Under his direction, the Holy Club extended its mission to include prison visitation, helping the poor, and running a school for deprived children.

In 1735, John and Charles Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG), then the principal Anglican mission agency. On their journey to Georgia, they were deeply impressed by the piety and prayer life of some Moravian emigrants on board the same ship. But perhaps they were already open to this influence, for among the books John Wesley took with him for the journey were writings by German pietists such as AH Francke and patristic writings.

In America, Wesley remained in contact with the Moravians, and translated a number of German pietist and Moravian hymns.

On his return to London in 1738, John Wesley met the Moravian Peter Bohler who encouraged him to “preach faith until you have it.” At a meeting in Aldersgate, London, on 24 May 1738, John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” when he heard someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This experience is usually described as John Wesley’s conversion. From that time on, he dedicated his life to proclaiming the Gospel. He travelled extensively as a preacher, and enlisted laymen in that task of preaching.

Wesley insisted that he remained a loyal priest of the Church of England as he continued in his itinerant ministry, especially preaching to those he felt had been sidelined by the Established Church and its parish structures. Soon, meeting houses and chapels were being built for the preachers and the growing number of Methodist societies. In 1784, the “Deed of Declaration” set out the use for these chapel buildings, and established an annual conference of 100 preachers.

In that same year, the Bishop of London refused to ordain chosen preachers to work in the new United States of America. As a result, John Wesley took it on himself to ordain the preachers himself. Methodism had attained its own independent life, and had become a separate denomination, although Irish Methodists struggled for another quarter century to remain within the Church of Ireland, and the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Society, whose members wished to maintain that communion, and the Wesleyan Methodists only merged to form the Methodist Church in Ireland as late as 1877.

John Wesley’s understanding of grace:

Wesley spoke frequently of prevenient or preceding grace – the grace of God that goes before us. This grace stirs our consciences, moves us to do good and creates in us a hunger for God, eventually bringing us to our knees. There then comes a moment when we are set right with God through Christ, and we become conscious of his saving or justifying grace. We then begin to experience the love of God in our lives.

Wesley then says this is followed by sanctification, regeneration, holiness and perfection. Wesley saw perfection not as a realised or final state but as a process involving growth in love. Finally comes assurance of union with God.

Early Methodist Spirituality:

The young men at the Holy Club in Oxford in the early 1730s were given the nickname Methodists because of their earnest approach to religion and their religious practices.

The name remains attached to the movement and churches that trace their origins back to the brothers John Wesley and Charles Wesley.

The earliest rules of the first Methodist societies required:

● Frequent attendance at the Holy Communion;
● Meetings for the study of the Bible and other religious writings
● The encouragement of each other in ethical conduct.
● Regular visits to the prisons.
● Service to the poor.

This balanced and “methodical” approach to spirituality is characteristic of early Methodism.

The Large Minutes, a publication summarising Methodist rules and practices during John Wesley’s lifetime, carefully enumerates the “Means of Grace.” Those described by John Wesley as being the “instituted” Means of Grace included:

● Prayer (Private, Family and Public).
● Searching the Scriptures through Reading, Meditating and Hearing – the methods of meditating on Scriptures that were recommended included the Meditations and Vowes (1605-1606) and Occasional Meditations (1630) by Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) and Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who gave us the phrase “mere Christianity” popularised by CS Lewis..
● Attendance at the Lord’s Supper – “at every opportunity”.
● Fasting – on Fridays.
● Christian Conference: be this, Wesley meant conversation with fellow Christians.

In pursuance of these means, those early Methodists attended Church of England or Church of Ireland parish services on a Sunday morning as well as their own preaching service at 5 a.m. Additional prayer meetings took place during the week.

At home, the head of a household would both pray alone and pray regularly with his family.

John Wesley published forms for each type of prayer, although extempore prayer was a familiar mode.

In addition to the “instituted” means of grace, there were the “Prudential Means” of grace, which consisted chiefly of occasions for Methodist fellowship.

Every Methodist belonged to a small class, and the more earnest to the smaller band. These classes and bands provided opportunities for prayer, learning, sharing and testing the spiritual life. Anything spoken of “in band” was treated as confidential. An early Methodist needed no confessional. On joining a “band” he/she was asked: “Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?”

John Wesley also provided forms for self-examination as a regular penitential discipline. The original purpose of the classes was to create groups which could collect money for the work of the Methodist movement. Those members with further responsibilities – such as leaders, helpers, Preachers or Assistants (later Superintendents) – saw these meetings as means of grace.

John Wesley believed that spiritual progress occurs when people take part faithfully in the right means of grace. What carried this spiritual revolution was John Wesley’s development of the class meeting.

This idea matured with the foundation of the first society by Wesley in 1739. For him, a society was “no other than a company of men [and women] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their own salvation.”

There were other opportunities for growth in faith. A variety of occasions for corporate prayer provided rich soil:

● The periodic Love Feasts were chiefly meetings for testimony, at which biscuits or cake and water were shared.
● The annual Covenant service, when Methodists solemnly renewed their relationship with God.
● Watchnights were times of prayer and witness, late into the night. Wesley modelled these on the vigils and feasts of the early Church.
● In addition, sermons and hymns are import dimensions to Methodist spirituality.


A mark of evangelical piety was the frequent reading and discussion of sermons. Methodism included sermons as part of its official doctrinal standards, including 44 sermons by John Wesley.

Perhaps it is worth dispelling one myth, however. Wesley was not the first evangelical preacher of his time to preach in open fields: he was inspired to do this by his contemporary, George Whitefield, in 1739.

Yet his record of preaching is phenomenal: he travelled over 250,000 miles on horseback throughout these islands, he often preached three or four times a day, he never repeated a sermon, and he is said to have preached over 40,000 sermons.

Methodist hymns:

Perhaps the most enduring Methodist influence on private worship comes through the Methodist tradition of hymn-singing. John Wesley compiled his Collection of Hymns, which was published in 1780 and which included a large number of hymns by his brother Charles Wesley. This collection was described as “a little body and experimental and practical divinity.”

The index to Wesley’s hymns reads like a Creed. There are hymns for Believers’
● Rejoicing
● Fighting
● Praying
● Watching
● Working
● Suffering
● Groaning for full redemption
● Brought to the birth
● Saved
● Interceding for the world

Hymns were provided to describe “the pleasantness of religion” and the “goodness of God,” as well as judgment and its consequences. “Backsliders” found verses for their encouragement. A section of the collection was designed to meet the needs of societies and classes when they met.

Another important collection of hymns was Hymns for the Lord’s Supper, published in 1745. This collection had 166 hymns.

Through these hymns the Methodists learned their doctrine and found a pattern for their lives. They sang these hymns, but they also meditated on them, and they prayed them. There are stories of how many Methodists on their deathbeds would recall the words of the hymns, as well as those of scripture.

Much of this early pattern of piety and spirituality continued to characterise Methodism after the death of John Wesley in 1791. However, with his death Methodists lost his personal supervision of the life of the Methodist societies.

The movement became the Methodist Church in 1795. But many other bodies arose with tenuous links with Wesley and Methodism, despite their names, and with a very different approach to spirituality and piety.

Many of these emphasised revival. The Primitive Methodists in England, who were radically different from the Irish Primitive Methodists, were known for their “enthusiasm.” At their open-air camp meetings, preaching had the primary objective of bringing about conversions. There was fervent prayer. After Sunday evening services, the more devout people who were present would stay back for a prayer meeting that included extempore prayer and hymn-singing. This had led to the mistaken impression that the next stage of Methodism placed a great deal of its emphasis on emotional expressions of spirituality.

Methodists sought to bring people to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the salvation of their souls. These benefits were felt, and a proper aspect of sanctification or being made holy, was an experience, bringing a sense of release, of peace of mind, or a vision of Christ. It produced changed characters. But in fact it was not normally marked by excessive emotional expressions.

Although Methodism has since become a mainstream denomination, the enthusiasm associated with the spirituality of the early movement has not been lost totally.

The present unique aspects of Methodist spirituality on these islands include:

● The preaching services,
● The Covenant Services;
● The singing of hymns and extempore prayer;
● Love Feasts (in some places);
● Watchnight services;
● Class meetings (occasionally).

Today, when fasting is found among Methodists, it is normally in identification with the world’s poor and hungry rather than as a spiritual discipline. There are fewer occasions for family prayers and small prayer meetings. In the last few decades, Methodism has also been influenced by the liturgical movement and the ecumenical movement.


Methodism is an important part of Anglican tradition, and has had an important place and influence in Irish society – think, for example of the pasrt played by Wesley College, Dublin, Methodist College, Belfast, and Gurteen Agricultural College in Co Tipperary.

John Wesley’s own spirituality drew on a variety of sources including late mediaeval spirituality, the Elizabethan, Puritan and Scots divines, the Caroline divines and the Nonjuros and the post-Tridentine spiritual writers.

Methodist spirituality made a very important connection between faith and life, rather than bringing any new insights or doctrines. The dramatic success of the great Wesleyan revival in the 18th century was due to educational methods and structures of spiritual accountability as much or more than it was to new and dramatic doctrinal formulations.

David McKenna says: “[U]nder the mandate and motivation of the Holy Spirit, John Wesley saw in the chaos of his time the challenge of spiritual regeneration for individuals and moral transformation for society.”

The Methodist Covenant as adapted for use at the Covenant Service in the Church of Ireland Theological College:

Christ has many services to be done.
Some are easy, others are difficult.
Some bring honour, others bring reproach.
Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests,
others are contrary to both.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.


A Raymond George, ‘John Wesley and the Methodist Movement,’ pp 455-459 in The Study of Spirituality, eds Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold (London: SPCK, 2004).

RW Gribben, ‘Methodist Spirituality,’ pp 265-266, in The SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed Gordon S Wakefield (London: SCM, 1983/2003).

Richard H. Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002): ‘John Wesley,’ pp 116-126; ‘Charles Wesley,’ pp. 127-140.

Peter Thompson, Working out the covenant: the story so far (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes used in a seminar on the Year III course, ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on 26 February 2008.

Embracing difference: The Samaritan woman at the well

Patrick Comerford

Reading: John 4: 5-42

The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period. Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion. Jesus tries to break down those barriers. The Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, which was the Gospel reading for Sunday last (the Third Sunday in Lent), the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards. While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not one the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus. All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions but are so shocked by what is happening before them that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger. But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life. They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say.

Points for discussion:

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?

If I am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

This Bible Study was presented in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, on Monday 25 February 2008 as part of a Lenten series using the Bible studies in Chapter 3 of Patrick Comerford’s book, Embracing Difference: The Church of Ireland in a Plural Society (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-1-904884-13-2). Embracing Difference is available in the Resource Centre Bookshop, Holy Trinity Church, Church Avenue, Rathmines, Dublin 6 (email) and the Good Book Shop, 61-67 Donegall Street, Belfast BT1 2QH (email).

Saturday, 23 February 2008

50 years later, CND is still on the march in a nuclear world

Women encircling the cruise missile base in Greenham Common in 1982

Patrick Comerford

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is marking its golden jubilee this year. Other great campaigns on issues of global political morality have worked themselves into happier redundancies, from the campaigns for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the more recent Anti-Apartheid Movement. CND has been at the forefront of the peace movement in both Ireland and Britain, and remains Europe’s largest single-issue peace campaign. But its founding figures could not have imagined in 1958 that it would still be campaigning in 2008.

Growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s, I was part of a generation that had its fears confirmed by the Cuban missile crisis, for which CND’s logo was an indispensible accessory, and for whom the slogan “Ban the Bomb” was a mantra on every protest march and demonstration.

Public fears about nuclear weapons emerged in Britain in the mid-1950s when the government revealed plans to build its own hydrogen bomb. When JB Priestley wrote an article in the New Statesman on 2 November 1957, “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs,” attacking Aneurin Bevan for abandoning his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the New Statesman received an avalanche of supporting letters.

Later that month, the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, chaired a meeting in the Amen Court rooms of Canon John Collins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The meeting agreed to launch CND, with the philosopher Bertrand Russell as president, Canon Collins as chairman, and Peggy Duff as secretary. The first executive included Michael Foot and the Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Rotblat, and the first sponsors included John Arlott, Peggy Ashcroft, Benjamin Britten, Edith Evans, Victor Gollancz, EM Forster, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Julian Huxley, Doris Lessing, Compton Mackenzie, George McLeod, Henry Moore, Flora Robson, Michael Tippett, the cartoonist Vicky, Barbara Wootton and the bishops of Birmingham and Llandaff.

About 5,000 people attended the inaugural meeting of CND at Central Hall, Westminster, on February 17th 1958, and hundreds marched afterwards to Downing Street. The first supporters included Fenner Brockway, EP Thompson, and AJP Taylor, as well as scientists aware of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and Church leaders concerned to resist the moral evil represented by nuclear weapons. The support base included academics, journalists, writers, actors, musicians, Quakers, Labour Party members and trade unionists.

The one early activity most vividly associated with CND was the four-day Aldermaston March each Easter weekend, with tens of thousands of people marching from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Establishment near Aldermaston. CND’s first high point came in 1960, when the British Labour conference voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. But Hugh Gaitskell responded with a threat to “fight, fight, and fight again” against the decision. It was overturned at the 1961 conference, and that year the Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, declared: “The British people are prepared to be blown to atomic dust if necessary.”

Meanwhile, in reaction to the tameness of CND leaders who refused to engage in any illegal activities, Bertrand Russell formed the Committee of 100. In effect, the Committee of 100 became the direct-action wing of CND, and during protests in 1961, 4,000 people sat down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and 1,300 demonstrators were arrested in Trafalgar Square, including Bertrand Russell, by then 89.

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis raised public fears that nuclear war was imminent. But when the telephone hot-line between Washington and Moscow was set up, the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, US missiles were quietly removed from Turkey, and the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the threat of nuclear war appeared to fade and CND numbers began to dwindle. From the mid-1960s, protests against the Vietnam War eclipsed concerns about nuclear weapons.

After a decade of little activity, there were only six remaining CND members in Ireland in 1979 when I convened and chaired a meeting in Dublin to revive Irish CND. The nuclear threat returned that year with decisions to deploy US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Britain and Western Europe and Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, and talk of nuclear war was commonplace once again.

There were major demonstrations in London, Dublin, and other cities in 1981, with similar marches throughout Europe. I addressed the biggest of these rallies in London, when 250,000 people marched to Hyde Park. In a major revival, thousands of new members were joining CND each month and local councils were declaring nuclear-free zones. Liberty Hall in Dublin overflowed for a screening of The War Game, once banned on the BBC. Scorn was heaped on British civil defence plans in Protect and Survive, a booklet offering DIY instructions on how to survive a nuclear attack in the home. In September 1981, the first women’s march arrived at the US base in Greenham Common, where the cruise missiles were being deployed. The new women’s-only peace camp became a focus and symbol of women’s resistance to nuclear weapons.

The international climate changed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and a treaty to remove the new missiles was signed in 1987. With the end of the Cold War, the world seemed safer and CND membership declined once again. Yet CND is still on the march, protesting against the US “Star Wars” plans, the wars in Iraq, French nuclear tests and British plans to replace Trident and build new nuclear power stations. But has this single-issue campaign had any successes over the past five decades?

Despite Bertrand Russell’s misgivings about a tame CND, the tactics of the Committee of 100 found widespread acceptance and were imitated from the 1960s on by anti-war and civil rights campaigns across the world. The women’s camp at Greenham Common inspired and motivated many new forms of protest. The last missiles left Greenham Common in 1991, the land has been restored to the public, and the SS-20s are gone from Eastern Europe, proving the nuclear arms race can be reversed at any stage. But the ever-growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, India and Israel, the potential for nuclear explosives and materials being sold or stolen, the threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of corrupt regimes and terrorists, and environmental fears about the nuclear industry constantly call on CND to renew and reinvent itself.

Canon Patrick Comerford was chairman of Irish CND when it was refounded in 1979. He becomes President of Irish CND at its annual general meeting on Saturday March 1st in the Mansion House, Dublin. This ‘World View’ column was published in The Irish Times on Saturday 23 February 2008.

Friday, 22 February 2008

DUFEM to launch Chinese immigrant report

The Dublin University Far Eastern Mission (DUFEM) was founded in 1886 to engage TCD students with Christianity in China. The Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin are Patrons of DUFEM, which is chaired by the Revd Canon Patrick Comerford. DUFEM has had a long and distinguished history of supporting the Church in China through education, friendship and material care. The context of DUFEM’s work has changed since its foundation and the organisation now engages in ecumenical and secular endeavours without losing sight of our founders’ original concerns.

In recent years, DUFEM has developed a Summer Placement Scheme that helps young students from TCD to travel to China and to work there with Shanghai YMCA, learning about life in this exciting and different context. When they return to Trinity, these students share their experiences with the community in college.

DUFEM is also engaged with the Fuzhou Foreign Language School, a division of the Chinese Middle School system in Fuzhou, Fujian, providing the opportunity for recently-graduated Irish teachers to teach in China. The Middle School was founded as Trinity College Fuzhou in 1907.

DUFEM supports theological education in China through an exchange programme between the Church of Ireland Theological College and Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong. DUFEM is also engaged in examining the status of immigrants to Ireland from mainland China. These people constitute a significant minority in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Many report experiences of racism and of discrimination. It is unclear what their spiritual and their social needs are and how they are being met.

The Dublin University Far Eastern Mission and the China Educational and Cultural Liaison Committee, representing Roman Catholic agencies with an interest in China, recently commissioned a sociological study into the religious values of the Chinese people in Ireland. This was carried out as a first step in determining the pastoral care the Churches might offer and in uncovering issues which the Churches might not be able to directly address but which our whole society needs to respond to.

The report, Mainland Chinese Students and Immigrants in Ireland and Their Engagement with Christianity, Churches And Irish Society, by Dr Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfastand Dr Lan Li of University College Dublin, will be launched on Thursday 6 March at 6.15 p.m. in the Chapel in Trinity College Dublin, following Choral Evensong at 5.15 p.m.

As an ecumenical space within a secular university, the chapel reflects the ethos of DUFEM as it strives towards greater understanding through education and engagement.

For more information about the launch please click here.

To view the executive summary of the report click here.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Praying the Psalms with Bonhoeffer and Brueggemann

Patrick Comerford

We all know from experience the central place the Psalms have in the liturgy of the Church and in shaping our spirituality through that liturgy. Originally, the Book of Common Prayer provided for the Psalms to be read through completely in one month. The Psalms remain the one full, complete book to be bound in with the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland.

Many of us own or will have come across separately published Psalters. Even when the New Testament is published in a separate volume, it often has the Psalms bound in with it at the back. Apart from the Psalter, psalms appear throughout the Book of Common Prayer, either as canticles, or as direct quotations “cut and pasted” into the liturgy and the offices.

Pastorally, when visiting people at home or in hospitals, at times of crisis and bereavement, reading to them from the Psalms is a great source of comfort. And when it comes to the great rites of passage, people inevitably have favourite psalms and psalms they expect to be used at weddings and funerals.

In a discussion with students, some of the favourite psalms they identified included: 22, as helpful during Lent and Holy Week; 23, because of its image of the Good Shepherd, and familiarity with it, especially at weddings and funerals; 89, for its praise of God; 95, for its imagery and familiarity; 98, for its joyful approach to music and worship; 104, for its praise of God; 132, which was found comforting when times are difficult – “look at how David of all people felt”; and 150, for its joyful praise of God.

Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular churchgoers.

Psalm 23, which begins The Lord is My Shepherd, offers an immediately appealing message of comfort and is widely chosen for funerals, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings.

Psalm 51, Have mercy on me O God, called the Miserere from the first word in its Latin version, is by far the most sung psalm of Orthodoxy, in both the Divine Liturgy and the Hours, during the sacrament of repentance or confession, and in other settings.

Psalm 103, Bless the Lord, O my soul, is one of the best-known prayers of praise (for a popular Taizé setting see Hymn 1 in the Church Hymnal).

Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, is a moody meditation upon living in slavery and captivity, and has been used in at least one spiritual, as well as one well-known reggae song recorded by Boney M. In the Orthodox Church, this psalm is often used during Lent.

Many of the Psalms have been set to music by the great composers including Moneverdi (Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610) Purcell (Psalm 130), Vivaldi (112 and 117), Bach (51 and 121), Handel (130), Mozart (130), Schubert (23), Mendelssohn (91 and 130), Cesar Franck (150), Brahms (13), Stanford (119), Vaughan Williams (23 and 148), Gustav Holst (148), Benjamin Britten (Jubilate Deo, Psalm 100) and Leonard Bernstein (Chichester Psalms). Even Bono and U2 have their version of Psalm 40.

The word psalms comes from the Greek, psalmoi (Ψαλμοί) originally meaning “songs sung to a harp,” from psallein, “to play on a stringed instrument.”

At the Church of Ireland Theological College, we are committed to daily prayer, morning and evening, during which we read and pray the psalms together. We normally use the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer as we read and pray the assigned psalms for the day from the Lectionary. The idea is that the office of Morning Prayer should shape my whole focus for the day and that at Evening Prayer I have a chance to offer up the day that is coming to a close in thankful prayer to God.

The Psalms in Christian worship

There are 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament, which goes to show that they were familiar to the Judean community and to the first century Christians. New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in most Christian Churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions in the Church have always made systematic use of the Psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more weeks.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine rite, have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata (Greek καθισματα, “sittings”), and each kathisma (Greek καθισμα) is further subdivided into three staseis (Greek: στασεις, “standings,” singular στασις). At Vespers and Matins, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year, and on different days of the week, according to the Church's calendar, so that all 150 psalms (20 kathismata) are read in the course of a week. More recently, some among the Orthodox laity have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks, three times a day, one kathisma a day.

Aside from kathisma readings, psalms occupy a prominent place in every other Orthodox service including the Divine Liturgy and the services of the Hours. In particular, the penitential Psalm 50 is very widely used. Fragments of psalms and individual verses are used as Prokimena (introductions to Scriptural readings), and Stichera.

The bulk of Vespers would still be composed of psalms even if the kathisma were to be disregarded; Psalm 118, “The Psalm of the Law,” is the centrepiece of Matins on Saturdays, some Sundays, and of the funeral service. The entire book of Psalms is traditionally read out loud or chanted at the side of the deceased during the time leading up to the funeral, mirroring Jewish tradition.<

The Psalms in the mediaeval Church:

The Psalms have always been an important part of liturgy in the Western Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is centred on chanting or recitation of the Psalms, using fixed melodic formulas known as psalm tones.

The early church employed the psalms widely in individual prayers too. However, as knowledge of Latin diminished, this practice ceased among the unlearned. And yet, until the end of the Middle Ages it was not unknown for the laity to join in the singing of The Little Office, which was a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours, providing a fixed daily cycle of 25 psalms to be recited, and nine other psalms divided across Matins.

Post-Reformation Roman Catholic use of the Psalms in liturgy

The revision of the Roman Missal after Vatican II reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a psalm, in some cases an entire psalm, after the first reading of Scripture. This Responsorial Psalm, is usually sung or recited responsorially, although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal permits direct recitation. Similar liturgical insights have been adapted in many other traditions through the modern liturgical reform movement.

The Psalms at the Reformations and in Anglicanism

The psalms were extremely popular after the Reformations, when verse paraphrases of many of the psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition, and often they were sung to the exclusion of hymns. Calvin made some French translations of the psalms for church usage. Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God is based on Psalm 46.

The Psalter is an integral part of the Book of Common Prayer for Anglicans. Originally the idea was to work our way through the Psalter through a one-month cycle of reading the Psalms at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day. But the Psalms are additionally familiar to Anglicans through the Canticles and through the way they have been woven into the liturgy and office, including the verses and responses in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Personal spirituality and the Psalms

But sometimes I have real difficulties with saying the psalms appointed for the day, never mind singing them, accompanied or unaccompanied by stringed instruments.

I may be feeling down, and find it difficult to pray psalms that say I am rejoicing. I may be happy and content and find it difficult to pray psalms that talk about being surrounded by adversaries and enemies. I may feel insecure and find it difficult to thank God for his abundance. There are some times I may be feeling smug and unable to acknowledge my total dependence on God. And, whenever they come around, I find it difficult if not impossible to pray psalms that wish on people things I would not own up to wishing on my own worst enemy.

In a discussion with students, some of the psalms identified as presenting difficulties include: 22, which describes me as “a worm, and not human” (verse 6), and surrounded by evildoers who are dogs” (verse 16); 58, which was read in the chapel last Monday at Evening Prayer, asking God to break the teeth of ours enemies in their mouths and to dissolve them like the snail that dissolves into slime or the untimely birth that never sees the sun (50: 6, 8); and 109, with its prayer that the prayers of my accusers be turned to sin, their children turned into orphans who are forced to become wandering beggars, and their wives turned into widows (109: 9-10, 20).

Perhaps the most famous example cited is the one provided in Psalm 137: 9: “… happy the one who repays you for all you have done to us: Who takes your little one and dashes them again the rocks” (Psalm 137: 8b-9, Book of Common Prayer, Church of Ireland, 2004), or “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (NRSV).

The imprecatory psalms are those which invoke curses against enemies. Examples include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 – considered the most relevant – while Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143 are also imprecatory. Some of the ideas we come across in the Psalms are: God will rain fire and brimstone upon the wicked (Psalm 11: 6); if you forget God he will tear you in pieces (Psalm 50: 22 ); if you trust in riches instead of God, he will kill you, and while you're dying the righteous will laugh at you (Psalm 52: 5-6); the righteous will rejoice when they see the wicked being dismembered by God and they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (Psalm 58: 10); God will fill the nations with corpses (Psalm 110:6); God is praised for slaughtering little children in Egypt (Psalm 135: 8; 136:10); and God is asked to burn people to death (Psalm 140: 10).

Bonhoeffer and the Psalms

For me, the best introductions to not just reading and studying the Psalms, but praying them, and dealing with the great contradictions I find as I pray the Psalms, have been provided by the great German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in three books, The Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible, which is a classic of Christian spirituality, Meditating on the Word, and Life Together, and by Walter Brueggemann, one of the most prolific writers in the area of Hebrew Scriptures, in his short book, Spirituality of the Psalms.

Like Bonhoeffer, I often find it difficult to pray many of the psalms. We can find their joy too high, their pains too sharp, their sufferings too distant. How difficult it is to pray the psalms of deep lament. How often I find it impossible to pray those imprecatory psalms calling for divine retribution upon the enemies of the righteous. But in his short theological interpretation of the Psalms, Bonhoeffer describes the moods of an individual’s relationship with God and also the turns of love and heartbreak, of joy and sorrow, that are part of the Christian community’s path to God.

Bonhoeffer wrote: “For years I’ve read the Psalter daily; there is no other book I know and love so well as this one. I can no longer read Psalms 3, 47, 70 and others without hearing them in the music of Heinrich Schutz. Knowing them in this way belongs to the greatest enrichments of my life.” Here, Bonhoeffer was writing to his parents on 15 May 1943 from his cell in the Nazi prison at Tegel. Throughout his life, he not only read the Psalms, but was spiritually formed by them as he became one of the greatest prophets and martyrs of the modern Church.

His simple yet rigorous discipline of reading the Psalms daily was instrumental in his spiritual formation and the development of his courageous spirit. His short book, The Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible, was written at the same time as he was writing Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer’s book is only 70 pages long, but in it he manages to set out how he and the community at Finkenwalde – the seminary he ran for the Confessing Church – read the Psalms. In order to find favour with the Nazis, German theologians reintroduced the Marcionite heresy that the Old Testament is dispensable for Christian teaching and New Testament interpretation. At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer made the discipline of prayer and meditation a vital part of theological training and the sustaining practice of their illegal Christian community, and their prayer book was the Psalter. After the seminary was forcibly closed by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer wanted to pass on what he had learned through their life together and his experiences of the communal practice at Finkenwalde of praying the Psalms.

At the time of publication (1940), Bonhoeffer was under severe scrutiny and was required to present any work before it could be published. He was fined heavily when the nature of this work – theological exegesis on the Old Testament – was uncovered and the book was published without consent.

This book on the Psalms made a politically subversive statement. Bonhoeffer argued that the Psalms, regarded in Nazi Germany as a distinctly Jewish book, were the prayer book of Christ and that they are necessary for the Christian practice of prayer. He portrayed Christ as a first century practicing Jew, and his book on the Psalms was a significant political statement.

At Finkenwalde, the staff and students learned how to pray through the Psalter as the canonical prayer book. The daily reading and singing of the Psalms was an essential part of the formation of the students and of the community.

As Bonhoeffer wrote: “Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” Against the background of a Europe at war, a church divided, and a nation engaged in genocide, Bonhoeffer’s study of the Psalms was a protest and yet offered hope. Bonhoeffer was concerned that the German Church had abandoned the Gospel for the sake of survival under the Nazis. He called on the Church to return to faithfulness to Christ in the midst of enemies for the sake of the enemies.

Central to Bonhoeffer’s thinking on the Psalms is that we do not know how to pray. When we are left to our own devices, we cannot find words of true prayer. We must join the disciples in asking Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11: 1). With those words, Bonhoeffer begins his book.

Bonhoeffer has a keen sense for our hopelessness without Christ. Sin has permeated our whole being, even to the point of affecting our ability to discern what we really need. Bonhoeffer wrote: “It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s word, ought to determine our prayer.”

We are not the best judges of what we need to pray for. God tells us what we need and tells us how to begin to align our prayers with what God wants us to need. This is why Bonhoeffer turns us to the Psalms. He calls the Psalter “the great school of prayer.” In the Psalter we learn the language of prayer. There is a discipline to the practice of prayer. It does not come easy. Why should we expect learning to talk to God is going to be easy to learn?

Bonhoeffer talks about the Psalms as “the school of prayer.” He writes: “The child learns to speak because the parent speaks to the child. The child learns the language of the parent. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken and speaks to us. In the language of the Father in heaven, God’s children learn to speak with God. Repeating God’s own words, we begin to pray to God. We ought to speak to God, and God wishes to hear us, not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.”

We learn to speak by repeating God’s words to us and for us. The Psalms are God’s gracious gift to us. Through their words we learn how to speak the language of God back to God. We submit our self-centredness to God and allow him to shape our desires. This divine language we find in Psalms is “the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer makes the connection between God’s Word (Holy Scripture) and the Word made flesh (Jesus Christ). The language God speaks is the Word, Jesus Christ. All that God has spoken is through the Word. Thus these Psalms are given to us by God through his Word.

Bonhoeffer writes: “God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.”

When we pray in this language of God we are praying with Jesus Christ. When we pray the Psalms, Christ joins us in our prayers. “We pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.”

Bonhoeffer found it amazing was that in the Psalms we have both the Word of God and the prayers and songs of human beings. Later he writes that “the Psalter is the prayer of Christ for his Church in which he stands in for us and prays in our behalf … In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s own prayer [and] as such is the great school of prayer.”

Bonhoeffer explains it this way: “In the first place, we learn here what it means to pray on the basis of the word of God, to pray on the basis of promises … In the second place, we learn by praying the Psalter what we should pray for just as surely as the range of the prayers of the Psalms goes far beyond the experience of any individual, we still pray the whole prayer of Christ in faith, the prayer of the one who was the truly human being and who alone has taken into his life the full range of the experiences of this prayer … In the third place, praying the psalms teaches us to pray as a community … the deeper we penetrate into the Psalms and the more often we ourselves have prayed them, the simpler and richer our own prayer will become.”

In the daily reading of the psalms we can allow our prayers to become expanded and transcendent as we stop focusing on our own wants and needs and begin to give priority to the wants and needs of others.

Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together: “A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter … He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time? … Jesus Christ prays the Psalter through his congregation …

“Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth, continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in the peculiar way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth.”

Bonhoeffer says that the prayers written by and for the Davidic kings are most fully taken up on the lips of the Messiah, the David who was to come. Only he met the truest requirements of innocent suffering, of true righteousness, of just kingship, and of inheriting the covenant promises through his obedience. And so the Psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus. As such, they become the perfect prayers of the New Man to whom we belong and in whom we are found. When we pray the Psalms, we pray as Christ's body and in Christ. Our cries and praises come to the Father as if from the Son himself. And when the Son prays, he is never rejected: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always” (John 11: 41-42, RSV).

Bonhoeffer also advised that “[e]ven if a verse or a psalm is not one's own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.” Offering up petitions of sad lament, praises of glad adoration, pleas for justice can have this sort of transforming effect as we put ourselves in others’ shoes. And when the Psalms are joyful and I am not, I can thank God for blessings he is shedding that day on others whom he loves – people I don’t know and don’t see, but who are benefitting from God’s blessings. In that little book, The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Bonhoffer shows us how the laments of the Bible also bring us into the heart of this paradox, this conundrum that seems irreconcilable this side of eternity.

The Psalms, he writes, “do not deny [suffering] or try to deceive us about it with pious words. They allow it to stand as a severe attack on the faith. Occasionally they no longer focus on suffering (Psalm 88), but they all complain to God. No individual can repeat the lamentation Psalms out of his own experience; it is the distress of the entire Christian community at all times, as only Jesus Christ has experienced it entirely alone, which is here unfolded. Because it happens with God's will, indeed because God knows it completely and knows it better than ourselves, only God himself can help. But therefore also must all our questions again and again assault God himself.

“There is in the Psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering. There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt. God’s righteousness, which allows the pious to be met by misfortune but the godless to escape free, even God’s good and gracious will, is undermined (Psalm 44: 24). His behaviour is too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Neither is help expected from men, nor does the distressed one in self-pity lose sight of the origin and goal of all distress, namely God. He sets out to do battle against God for God. The wrathful God is confronted countless times with his promise, his previous blessings, the honour of his name among men.

“ … There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions [about God’s justice and motives], as there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and agony on God: ‘We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all of the lamentation Psalms. They pray concerning the one who took upon himself our diseases and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ to be the only help in suffering, for in him God is with us.

“ … But not only is Jesus Christ the goal of our prayer; he himself also accompanies us in our prayer. He, who has suffered every want and has brought it before God, has prayed for our sake in God’s name: ‘Not my will, but thine be done.’ For our sake he cried on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ Now we know that there is no longer any suffering on earth in which Christ will not be with us, suffering with us and praying with us – Christ the only helper.

“On this basis the great Psalms of trust develop. Trust in God without Christ is empty and without certainty; it is only another form of self-trust. But whoever knows that God has entered into our suffering in Jesus Christ himself may say with great confidence: ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me’ (Psalms 23, 37, 63, 73, 91, 121).”

Bonhoeffer was eventually executed in a Nazi concentration camp. He knew more than many about the difficulties in forgiving those who hate us. He wrote: “No section of the Psalter causes us greater difficulty today than the so-called imprecatory psalms … Every attempt to pray these psalms seems doomed to failure. They seem to be an example of what people think of as the religious first stage toward the New Testament. Christ on the cross prays for his enemies and teaches us to do the same. How can we still, with these Psalms, call for the wrath of God against our enemies? …

“The enemies referred to here are the enemies of the cause of God. It is therefore nowhere a matter of personal conflict. Nowhere does the one who prays these psalms want to take revenge into his own hands. He calls for the wrath of God alone (see Romans 12: 19). Therefore he must dismiss from his own mind all thought of personal revenge; he must be free from his own thirst for revenge. Otherwise, the vengeance would not be seriously commanded from [that is, prayed for from] God …

“God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God's own Son. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays. He stilled God’s wrath toward sin and prayed in the hour of the execution of the divine judgment: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!’ No other than he, who himself bore the wrath of God, could pray in this way. That was the end of all phony thoughts about the love of God which do not take sin seriously. God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found.

“Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all men in Jesus Christ …

“Even today I can believe the love of God and forgive my enemies only by going back to the cross of Christ, to the carrying out of the wrath of God. The cross of Jesus is valid for all men. Whoever opposes him, whoever corrupts the word of the cross of Jesus on which God’s wrath must be executed, must bear the curse of God some time or another …”

It is in the knowledge that God’s judgment is faithful and just that we can pray for his avenging of our enemies’ sin. For their evils will either be mercifully transferred unto Christ on the Cross or they will be brought to nothing in the working out of God’s eternal plans, for God does not wish “for any to perish but all to come to repentance” (II Peter 3: 9) – and as recipients of his grace and love we must share that same desire.

Walter Bruegemann and the Psalms of Negativity

Walter Brueggemann, who is one of the most prolific writers in the area of Hebrew Scriptures, has produced two interesting books in this area: Spirituality of the Psalms (2001), which runs to 76 pages, and his longer The Message of the Psalms (1984), which runs to 205 pages.

In the later version, Brueggemann seeks to offer words of comfort and understanding in light of the changes the events of 11 September 2001 have made on Western Biblical interpretation. Brueggemann states in the preface “these tragic events suggest how urgent the descent into disorientation is for the practice of faith.” He reminds the reader of the vibrancy of the Psalms for practical faith in today’s world.

Brueggemann looks at the Psalms from three major perspectives. Firstly, many of the Psalms relay a picture of “orientation.” Repeated psalm types among these psalms are Creation psalms, Torah psalms, or Wisdom psalms. These psalms each reflect an order present in the world. God is in God’s place and all is well in the world. A serenity of hope, or confidence in a divine order, permeates the psalms of orientation.

Secondly, Brueggemann says, certain psalms relay a different message, namely “disorientation.” He lists the individual and communal laments as examples of this type. Common among these Psalms is the sense of disarray that arrives when we encounter problems or storms in life. He says that the hymnody of Israel changes in many instances from confidence in a divine order to abject confusion or consternation on behalf of the psalmist(s). The psalms of disorientation play a vital role in the development of an informed, honest faith; a faith that allows the God of Israel and of the Church today to still be God in the midst of confusion or disarray.

Brueggemann rightly discusses the dilemma that most present day Churches frequently avoid the psalms of disorientation in favour of psalms of orientation.

The third major perspective he finds in the Psalms is in what he calls the Psalms of “new orientation.” These psalms are filled with images of God’s grace prevailing itself through times of peril, often emerging unexpectedly in aid of the psalmist(s) or the community at large. The hymns of praise along with songs of thanksgiving are afforded a place in this category. These describe words of joy, hope, and assurance of God’s continued presence in the world of the worshiper.

Brueggemann also seeks to address the issue of theodicy throughout the Psalms. For him, the issue of theodicy is best seen as reflecting various distinct “dimensions.” He states that theodicy is a religious crisis about the character of God. Theodicy is also to be viewed as a social crisis when evaluating life’s social inequities. Finally, theodicy can be seen as a revolutionary action seeking to change the rules of the game. Theodicy provides the arena for the implementation of the scheme necessitating a variety of psalms, including psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.

Brueggemann clearly accepts the limitations of categorising psalms in a convenient system. The varied psalms defy the interpreter to conveniently domesticate them into a pre-arranged order or category. Spirituality in the Psalms is his attempt to make his earlier work The Message of the Psalms meaningful to a broader audience.

The “psalms of negativity” are largely neglected by us because they sound so harsh and are so embarrassing. Yet they remain so relevant to the personal, pastoral, and public dimensions of Christian life today. Brueggemann claims that today “much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness ... But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience.”

And so, the “psalms of negativity” are profoundly subversive because they help us to embrace what we try so very hard to deny – the darkness, self-deception, and overall disorientation that characterises much of life. Our culture prizes success and control, and even does not like surprises. But the Psalms, says Brueggemann, point us to a two-fold movement of faith. First, we move from a settled orientation to a season of disorientation. Then, we move on to a new orientation that comes to us as a surprise gift of God’s grace.

Of course, this cycle continues and repeats itself throughout life. The “stunning fact” for Brueggemann “is that Israel does not purge this unrestrained speech but regards it as genuinely faithful communication” with God. That is no less true today than it was 3,000 years ago when the Psalms were first written. Far from being a literature that we should shun or explain away, the Psalms offer us a unique “healing candour.”


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1970).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word (ed David McI. Gracie, Cambridge MA: Cowley, 1986).
Dietrich Bonhoffer, Life Together (London: SCM, 1954).
Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001).
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on the discussions at a seminar with Year I students on 21 February 2008 in the course on Christian Spirituality.