Fr Christiansen's Remarks at the Campion Award
We are grateful to the many friends of America who are joining us this evening, and I extend a warm welcome to the friends of Archbishop Williams who are here to celebrate with him. We at America owe special debt of appreciation as well to our good friends, Archbishop Celestino Migliore and Bishop William Murphy, for their longtime support and their presence here tonight. We are delighted to have Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church North America with us too. His presence adds in a special way to the ecumenical character this evening.
Most of all we are grateful to Archbishop Williams himself for his willingness to be the 2009 Campion Award recipient. The delayed conferral of the award at the beginning of 2010 is especially fitting, as this year the Christian churches observe a century of ecumenism together. For 100 years ago, the churches of Scotland gathered in Edinburgh to foster unity in their missionary witness, beginning the modern ecumenical movement. At the end of this hour, we invite you to join us in the house chapel for our own ecumenical prayer as part of that centennial celebration.
The presentation to the archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Anglican Communion, of an award named for one of the foremost Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation, Edmund Campion, by the editors of a Jesuit journal for which Campion is the patron, is itself a mark of onward progress in Christian ecumenism. I must humbly acknowledge, however, that the Church of England took the first step by placing Edmund Campion among the Forty Saints and Martyrs of the English Reformation canonized by Pope Paul VI in the Anglican Church’s own liturgical calendar, with a feast on May 4th.
I must add that Archbishop Williams is famous for many things, but I hadn’t realized one of them was his dramatic sense of timing (and I am not referring to the hour of his arrival). When he proposed January 25 as a date for the award ceremony, I knew, of course, that was the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul and the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I didn’t know yet that it was also the 100th anniversary of the ecumenical movement. And only today our redoubtable archivist Father Peter Schineller reminded us that it is also the 470th anniversary of the birth of Edmund Campion. It really is auspicious timing. Saint Edmund must be smiling on us this evening.
Though tonight’s Campion Award ceremony is primarily a literary celebration, it is also an observance of “martyrial ecumenism”–the ecumenism of martyrs–as Pope John Paul II called it. On the Day of Pardon in 2000 the late pope prayed for forgiveness for the sins Catholic churchmen “committed in the service of Truth” during the second millennium. The same year Pope John Paul reversed the late Reformation practice of identifying those who were genuine martyrs based on the truth of their convictions and focused instead, as both Catholics and Reformers did in the first decades of the Reformation, on the sacrifice of their lives. Accordingly, during the Jubilee of Martyrs, the pope honored Protestant as well as Catholic martyrs. He declared that the witness of Christian martyrs of all denominations constituted a heritage which speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division. The ecumenism of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith is the most convincing of all [forms of ecumenism, he said]; to Christians of the 21st century [he concluded] it shows the path to unity.
This evening’s Campion Award is a further step along that path. It is an ecumenical event blessed and guided by our martyred forebears, both Catholic and Anglican. It is also a celebration of our common ministry of the Word. For in his prolific career as a scholar and writer, Archbishop Williams has shared in the ministry of the Word at which Saint Edmund Campion excelled and to which the Society of Jesus is committed.
Ministry of the Word
As a poet, theologian, apologist, culture critic and translator, the archbishop has heightened readers’ receptivity to transcendence, opened their minds to revelation and diagnosed the spiritual ills that debilitate our post-Christian culture. Tonight we honor Archbishop Williams’s writing in English and his translations from Welsh. The translations make me particularly mindful of his Welsh heritage. For, in its appreciation for landscape, for the particularities of place and the sufferings of life, the archbishop’s writing carries the feeling of his native Wales and of its ancestral Celtic spirituality.
The Welsh feeling for place marks the archbishop’s poetry. Many of you know my attachment to the Holy Land. That feeling for place may be found, among other poems, in a series the archbishop composed on Jerusalem. Reading them I feel the dust of the city, the penetrating chill of its winters and the chanting of the Benedictine monks and nuns at Abu Gosh during Holy Week. In its austerity, its sense of the weight of Christ’s grace on our mortal lives and of human failure in history, his poetry also bears ancestral memories of the hermit monks of the Celtic past.
An interpreter of the mysticism of Saints Teresa of Avila and a student of Orthodox theology, the archbishop is known for the depth of his own spirituality. For me his theological vision is captured in a phrase from one of his poems in translation, Waldo Williams’s “Die Bibelforscher, for the Protestant martyrs of the Third Reich”: “the apocalypse of glory.”
When I read that phrase the first time, it was like a blow between the eyes. I imagined the gory destructiveness of the Book of Revelations as well as its alluring vision of the New Jerusalem. “Apocalypse of glory” fused the two experiences into one.
Paradoxically, one finds light in darkness.
In the archbishop’s thought, there is no “cheap grace.” He looks at suffering and evil straight on, fortified by the cross of Christ. For him, as for Squire Aske in Man on a Donkey, Hilda Prescott’s epic novel about the Pilgrimage of Grace, the essence of contemplation is to gaze with compassion on the deepest darkness of life. Or, rather, in the darkness to encounter the Divine Compassion looking with love on the world’s finitude and sin.
For the archbishop, the holiness, which is the work of God’s grace in the Church and in every Christian soul, constantly pulls us beyond the bounds of familiar comfort–into the deepest mystery. That, at least, is my reading, though my use of “mystery” may echo Marcel and Rahner more than the Iberian mystics or the Orthodox theologians who inspire Archbishop Williams.
The Soul’s Growth
In The Truce of God the archbishop writes: We are in time, and thus what we are we must grow into. We do need contemplation; we need to learn selfless love, for there is always the possibility of failing to grow as we should. So we need to live in a world constantly inviting us to contemplation, a world which will not leave us alone, feeding only on ourselves. . . . a [shared human] world where we learn contemplative attention as we ourselves are attended to.
Like contemplation, Archbishop Williams’s writing won’t leave us alone; it constantly forces us to grow where we don’t want to grow, to endure in mind and spirit tensions and contradictions that make Soren Kierkegaard’s Christianity seem easy-going. It won’t allow us to lead an unexamined life–even for a moment. Atheism is not the problem people make of it. “The problem,” Archbishop Williams writes in Dostoevsky, “is with half-believers and unconscious unbelievers.” Faith does not permit us to sleepwalk through life.
Living humanly means being poised to plunge into unknown depths that like the sea at once threaten to drown us yet buoy us up. Holiness, Archbishop Williams writes, is “the cumulative labor of taking responsibility, knowing at every turn that we shall in important respects fail and can only depend on the persistence of grace in the depth of all kinds of defeats.” This is a steely spirituality indeed, but one well-suited, you will agree, to the thorny challenges the archbishop has been set in his ministry.
Spiritual Discernment as Social Criticism
As a social ethicist myself, I particularly appreciate Archbishop Williams’s penetrating cultural criticism. His control of the artifacts of popular culture from Alien and The Matrix to the psychopaths who drive TV’s police procedurals is extraordinary; and his analysis of the place of fear and horror in the malformation of our moral imaginations and consequently in our collective acquiescence to policies of force in public and international affairs reveals a social critic who is a discerning spiritual master. His social commentary reminds men and women of action that without self-knowledge, spiritual discipline and, most of all, constant awareness of our dependence on God, all our efforts to do good are mere moralism.
The archbishop is well-known as a Christian pacifist, but his discernment of the self-deceptions and internal contradictions of pacifist activism should be read by everyone inclined “to do civil disobedience” without searching self-examination. His understanding of charity as an enterprise of mutual regard rooted in the experience of human communication is very close to that of Pope Benedict XVI’s vision in Caritas in Veritate. That communal conception of charity challenges the shallow individualism of an Anglo-American political tradition that denies the richness and depth of connections that make up our real lives.
Archbishop Williams has written on the Rule of Saint Benedict, and, like Pope Benedict XVI, he sees the father of western monasticism as a patron for European civilization.
Speaking to an audience at San Anselmo in 2006, he identified the challenge the Benedictine tradition provides for Europe, and I would add America, today, the challenge of: how the ‘rumour’ is kept alive that there are levels of self-understanding and self-giving in service or adoration which keep the world of labor and production in perspective, and expose the world of passive entertainment as a narrowing and trivializing affair.
Archbishop Williams is one of those sons of Benedict who keep that “rumor” alive. Whether the subject is economics or entertainment, politics or terrorism, Archbishop Williams is a prophet to a post-Christian age. We editors of America, Jesuit and lay, are proud to present the 2009 Campion Award to His Grace, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for his achievement in Christian letters.
Ms. Patricia Kossman, our literary editor, will now read the citation and present the award.