Arthur Middleton on keeping thinking and feeling united in our devotion
In 1827 John Keble published The Christian Year, which became his most famous volume of poetry, selling an average of 10,000 copies a year for fifty years. It has an important Preface, that states, ‘Next to a sound rule of faith there is nothing of so much consequence as a sober standard of feeling in matters of practical religion.’ The Church of England, Keble says, possesses both things in her liturgy (for him the Book of Common Prayer), yet ‘in times of much leisure and unbounded curiosity, when excitement of every kind is sought after with a morbid eagerness, this part of the merit of our Liturgy is likely…to be lost.’
And it has been lost to some extent in modern liturgies where instant understanding has undermined mystery. The ‘sober standard of feeling’ of the Prayer Book offices, sacraments and the round of the liturgical year are a rich treasure, and Keble’s intention in The Christian Year is to enable this to be realized and grasped. The poems on the Occasional Services are, Keble says, ‘the
most perfect instance of that soothing tendency in the Prayer Book.’ This is his main reason in writing it. Here our affections or feelings are engaged in our approach to our believing or creed. Devotion cannot be a lone engagement of the mind, a journey in abstract thought at a thinking level. Head and heart are to be conjoined. What we think in our minds has to be experienced and known in our hearts.
You cannot just think about that girl over there whom you fancy. You have to fall in love with her. This is what registers for you, that what you think in your head must be true because you have also felt it in your heart. So with God; you have to fall in love with him. What you think and know about him in your head, you have to experience and know about him in your heart. The early Fathers described this process as putting your head into your heart, which is the art of true prayer.
When Jesus could no longer teach his disciples by word and presence, he told
them of an inward teacher who would finish their instruction by a different method; and so the time comes for us to stop saying ‘What do I think?’ and begin saying ‘Come Holy Ghost…’ – for there is a Ghost, a Spirit rising from the heart of the Christian that is Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, bringing a direct experience of truth not through the head but welling up from the heart. Austin Farrer, in his book, Lord I Believe, points out that ‘no dogma deserves its place unless it is prayable, and no Christian deserves his dogmas, who does not pray them.’
This is the legacy of the Tractarians, that the religious affections particularly are understood to reveal truth about the human condition in a way that was not characteristic of the merely rational, conceptual approach of the Enlightenment way. What we see happening is the reintegration of theology, so that spirituality and theology are once more integrated. Theology becomes richer and livelier as it rejects a mere rationalist theology but also a merely experiential religion; what the eighteenth century would call ‘enthusiasm’. As other have said, John Keble made the Church of England more poetic.