Canterbury Tales

Lately, it seems that God has been speaking English. Between the immanent beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Vatican’s initiative to welcome Anglicans home to the Catholic Church, and the coming revisions of the liturgy in English, the Holy Spirit is quite visibly at work. To me, there is no question that God is--and has been--looking in the direction of the English speaking world.

But just what does the Almighty see? Certainly, God knows just how far we in Great Britain, North America, Australia, and New Zealand have wandered from Him. He sees the decadence of our cultures, the decline of our family life, the depravity of our souls. But I do not think that is what our Lord sees first, for God looks at us with love.

My childhood was spent in the Episcopal Church. Even now, as a Catholic, I draw on the richness of Christian tradition I experienced there. Personally, I think that the King of Kings delights in the lasting English tradition of Lessons and Carols. He smiles as Anglicans on every continent sing all five verses of the recessional hymn. I think God enjoys the English sense of order and formal structure, and strongly approves of what has been called the “Protestant work ethic.” Anglicans have long been dedicated to causes of justice and human dignity. Thomas Becket and Thomas More found themselves in grace-filled opposition to their respective King Henry’s. They witnessed to their faith at the cost of their earthly lives. God is no doubt equally proud of how John Newton expressed his conversion in the lyrics of Amazing Grace, and of how William Wilberforce found in his faith the strength to fight the British slave trade in Parliament for more than two decades. The Lord loves to hear elevated words like “beseech” and “behoove,” and “it is meet and right so to do.” He doesn’t stumble over Juliana of Norwich’s description of him as a divine mother. And, I think if God were interested in travel and tourism, Narnia would certainly be on the Almighty’s short list of preferred destinations.

My earliest memories of worship were formed sitting backwards on the kneelers in Grace Episcopal Church. As a young child, I learned how to read by studying the hymnal during sermons. But more than phonics, the lyrics to those traditional hymns exposed me to a depth of personal faith I wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. Words like “love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all” inspired a thirst for God in me. Reverence for the mystery of God, and the gift of his Son, was expressed not just corporately, but beautifully. By the time I was six or seven, I knew what “concord” and “begotten” were. Neither of my parents were college educated. That rich vocabulary came from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

On my way to becoming a Roman Catholic, the love of liturgy I gained from Canterbury played a pivotal role. After a couple of years at Boston’s Church of the Advent, I have to admit that becoming Catholic meant trading in more beautiful liturgies for the minimalist approaches many of our Catholic parishes sadly opt for. But the law of prayer is indeed the law of faith. Liturgy catechizes and evangelizes. And if liturgy takes root in our hearts, it leads us home. By thanksgiving we enter into his house, through praise, we come into his courts. When our hearts are lifted up to God, we are more able to hear him call us to himself.

It seems to me that John Henry Newman has been very busy praying, and that God is answering his prayers at this time and place in history. The Oxford liturgical movement of the 19th Century that led Newman and many others to cross the Tiber and come back to the Church of Rome may well be taking shape once again in our own day. In the near future, we will be challenged to embrace a language of prayer that is more faithful to both Scripture and Tradition. In this moment, I think God is giving us a new saint to inspire us on the way, and new companions to come along with us. After all, the Incarnation shows us that God intends to speak to us in a language we will understand. But he also opens not only our ears to hear, but our lips to proclaim his praise.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.