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The Angels' Apprentice looks at the Episcopal Liturgy for 10/14/18



A look at Scripture in the Episcopal liturgy for 10/14/18, with Dr. Matt Miller, BA, MA, PhD


Apprentice Angels and the Power of Humility

Job is the classic complainer in the first Reading for Episcopal Proper 23 (Oct 14), Job 23:1-9, 16-17. But his complaining serves a theological purpose. In the terms proposed by the Apprentice Angel program, he is trying to repudiate his role as Apprentice Angel because it seems to him his burden is too heavy. 

God does not answer his plea, and he is ashamed.

Psalm 22:1-5 repeats the same ideas. The Psalmist says his burden is too heavy, because God helps everyone else, but not him. Like Job, the Psalmist receives no answer from God, and he is ashamed.

There is an answer, however, in the next Reading, Amos 5:6-7, 10-15. Here we read that people who are so rich they have nothing to complain about, achieved and maintain this state by wronging others. They do not get rich by feeding the hungry or healing the sick, they get rich by keeping the money for themselves. In doing so, they refuse their assigned role as Apprentice Angels. Readers are encouraged to do not so themselves. Psalm 90:12-17 expands the cry to God for help into some detail.

And yet this does not mean rich people cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven – it’s a hard road for them, but with God all things are possible, as we find in Hebrews 4: 12-16. Here we are advised to seek the judgment of God, so that we may better function as an Apprentice Angel.

An example is provided from the Gospel, Mark 10:17-31. Here a rich man asks to follow Jesus. He is a good man, and keeps the ten Commandments. So he seeks Jesus’ judgment – can he walk the path of the disciples? But Jesus sees his wealth as a burden, preventing him from being a Guardian Angel for others. Indeed, if he had been a Guardian Angel, he would no longer be wealthy, but many who still are hungry would have had food to eat.

This is Kingdom of Heaven economics. There we become rich by giving, not by hoarding. It is also the “indigenous economics” we find in many Native American and Polynesian cultures, where the “chief” gathers the wealth of the harvest to himself – and then distributes it among the people. The richest chief is the one who gives the most away. And this giving-away binds the people into a cultural unit, a Oneness. All drink from the same fountain, and that fountain is the wealth of their chief.

This is Stone Age economics, far older than capitalism. And yet the heart leaps in primal recognition even now. That’s the way it was in the beginning, in the Garden. There was always fruit on the trees, so one simply took what was needed in the moment and left the rest. Nature was like a great chiefess who distributes her wealth among the people. And our name for that great leader today is “God.”  

But the wealthy young man who asked to follow Jesus was not imitating God in this respect. His wealth was not a fruit tree from which all could take as they needed. Because of that he could not fit through the narrow gate to the Kingdom of Heaven. His soul was too fat with hoarded possessions to squeeze through. The only way in for him would be to somehow leave his wealth behind. Then his soul would be thin enough to fit through.

It is hard indeed to give up all your wealth for others, but with God all things are possible, and there is an intermediate way. This can be done by disengaging from your wealth emotionally – not letting it stand in God’s place in your heart. If you can accomplish that, you will be free of it. But, once you have so disengaged, it will be easy and obvious to start sharing it with others. Once you have turned around in this way, Guardian Angel behavior follows.

And this is the answer provided by the texts of Proper 23 taken as a group. Complaining about our suffering is evading the post of the Guardian Angel for which we are supposed to be training. Do we picture Gabriel with his flaming sword, guarding the gates to Eden, groaning that this sword is so heavy, he is sick and tired of holding it up in the air? Hardly – for then he would not be Gabriel. Holding up the sword is his privilege, as well as his responsibility.

On that core idea of a burdensome responsibility that is also a privilege, we can turn to secular story-telling and find the same lesson taught there. An Apprentice Angel understands that the hard spots in the road are part of being an Apprentice Angel. At the very least, they provide an opportunity for humble continuation despite hardship, that sets an example for others. And story-telling outside Christianity is full of examples of humility in the face of adversity, and its eventual rewards.


Apprentice Angels, The Sound of Music and The Imitation of Christ

For a fun and popular example, let’s look at the Julie Andrews movie The Sound of Music. There Maria is a young would-be nun who finds God in Nature as often as in the church. The Mother Superior sends her off to be a governess, to test whether her place is really in the convent, or in the world.

The seven children of widowed Captain Von Trapp soon fall in love with her, because she hits just the right balance between being a loving older sister and a Mom. Captain von Trapp is about to marry a wealthy Baroness, a glittering but loveless prize who will send the children off to boarding school as soon as possible. But Maria knocks all that sideways as the Captain, too, begins to fall in love with her. This startles Maria very much, and she flees back to the abbey, terrified that she has done something wrong. But the Mother Superior will not let her hide there. She must let go of her pride, her confusion – she has been given a task by God and she must return to fulfill it.

So she comes back in humility, to stay by her post at least until another governess can be found. But long before that happens, the Captain has seen the light, dismissed his erstwhile fiancée, and asked Maria to marry him. No sooner do they return from their honeymoon than Captain Von Trapp is called up to serve the Third Reich in the anschluss (i.e., the Nazi invasion), which is about to sweep over his beloved Austria. He and Maria manage to smuggle the children out of the Von Trapp property under the Nazi’s noses and walk over the Alps to free territory.

No, it was not an easy path, but Maria’s humility and desire to provide service swept both the diamond-studded Baroness and the Third Reich out of the way. Because she was determined to be a Guardian Angel, everything worked out for her. The children loved her because they desperately needed a guardian who would let them be children as well as reining them in. Captain Von Trapp loved her because his idea of household management was based on his experiences as a Captain in the navy, and that just doesn’t apply very well to children. They loved her because she gave off love by her own angelic nature, and they opened up to it like thirsty flowers to the rain. Their love formed a configuration no Baroness could break apart.

If God is love, can we not see the Divine Hand everywhere in the movement of pieces on the chessboard of this musical’s plot? By being a Guardian Angel, Maria made love grow all around her. But it seemed to wither and die every time the Baroness approached with her parties and her yachts. In such a story, it is easy to see that Angels could be involved, who help those who are training in good faith to be Angels themselves, while not helping those who have refused the Apprentice Angel role offered to them.

But how do we know higher spirits could be counseling us invisibly? Consider the case of Thomas à Kempis. Between 1418 and 1427, he wrote a work in Latin, the Imitatio Christi, which recorded numerous extended conversations he had had with Jesus. In those conversations, Jesus explains how ordinary Christians can shape their lives so that they are walking in Jesus’ footsteps, in an “imitation of Christ.” In the Wikipedia article on The Imitation of Christ, we read that Kempis’ work was immediately popular.

By 1471, the manuscripts of the book were so frequently hand copied and passed from one monastery to another, that there are still today around 750 extant manuscripts of the Imitation. The first printed edition appeared in Augsburg in 1471-2. By the end of the 15th century, the book had more than 100 printed editions, and had been translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish. George Pirkhamer, the prior of Nuremberg, said of the 1494 edition: "Nothing more holy, nothing more honorable, nothing more religious, nothing in fine more profitable for the Christian commonwealth can you ever do than to make known these works of Thomas à Kempis.”

By 1650 it had been published in over 745 editions. At that time, apart from the Bible, no book had been translated into more languages than the Imitation of Christ. Today, over 2000 editions have been printed. Scholarship has kept up with Kempis: a critical edition was published in 1982, and the original Latin text was retranslated into English by William Creasy in 2015.

Throughout the time and place of this book’s gestation, creation, publication and meteoric rise to success (15th to 17th century Europe), people who talked to spirits and followed their counsel on how to live were hunted down like animals, tied to a stake in the public square and ignited with everybody watching but nobody lifting a finger to help.

The witch-hunts were sparked, and the spark fanned to a flame, by the incendiary sermons of Vincent Ferrer and his disciple Bernardino of Siena in the early 15th century. They travelled Europe, delivering fire-and-brimstone sermons about how all witches were agents of the Devil, because only magic performed by qualified Christian representatives was magic from God. In an environment where the peasant farmers who fed all Europe had always relied on simple charms and spells to keep the fields fertile and the weather favorable, this created the most incredible chaos. It sparked a holocaust in which many innocent herbalists were done to death in the most dreadful ways, as well as a few people who actually knew enough to do malevolent magic that apparently really worked.

Through this vicious, three-hundred-year civil war Thomas à Kempis sailed with his pure white canvas unstained by the blood and horror splashing all around him, and his reputation sailed on after him equally undefiled – and yet he was doing the same thing as the witches. He had a “familiar” spirit who counseled him, just like them. The only difference was that his “familiar” was Jesus. He had humbly sought out the Great Teacher, instead of pridefully finding any little spirit that would empower a little kitchen magic for personal reasons.

But what Jesus taught him is not how to make the crops grow, or keep the weather fair. Instead Jesus taught Thomas à Kempis how to be an Apprentice Angel – how to live like he was in training to be a Guardian Angel one day. This is what Jesus was doing in His own life. The story of His life lays out the curriculum through which Apprentice Angels work, to be given charge of another soul when they are ready. The imitatio Christi is the Apprentice Angel Program – they are one and the same. Thomas’ genius was to perceive this and record it.

This wisdom made it through the violent, remorseless censorship of the Inquisition, where no other path to magic power could go. Thomas a Kempis was a Christian magician, and he is still revered today by people who think all traffic with spirits is doubtful, dangerous and possibly demonic – and yet they do not blink at Thomas a Kempis’ conversations with Christ.

Kempis did not seek power, wealth or fame from his “familiar.” He only sought wisdom that could be applied in ordinary life. He asked the question of Job – if God loves me, why is life so hard? Jesus answered, life is not hard if we think about it properly. And in his conversations with Thomas a Kempis, He showed how to think about it so it would not be so hard.

We must despise the vanities of this world – an idea dramatized by Bernardino of Siena’s 15th century “bonfires of the vanities,” in which people would bring their cosmetics, fancy clothes and other prideful objects, and throw them in a public bonfire. This symbolic and unintentionally prideful public parade of humility evolved into the idea of throwing people like witches into the same fire, and became a reality worse than any horror film.

But Kempis’ Christ said avoiding vanity was sufficient. We should show meek subjection and obedience, profit quietly by adversity, avoid judging others, be aware of our own imperfections, and turn to Jesus for consolation and counsel rather than to the outside world. Humility is essential. Its forsaking of the self, so one’s actions are shaped to help others, permits no whiners (the lesson of Proper 23).  

Here in these two best-sellers, one from the 15th and one from the 20th century, we find the message of Proper 23. We are lifting spiritual weights, so we will one day be strong enough in our souls to help others who have fallen. The world is a training program, a soul gym. God never said it would be easy. He just said He would work out with us, and so indeed He does. Not a baby sparrow falls from its nest but the immanent God falls with it, for He permeates that baby sparrow as much as anything else. Our pain is His pain.

Our job is to keep up with the Coach.


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