Hilary Weeks on Tractarian Spirituality

Dr. Hilary Weeks, Course Leader in English at the University of Gloucestershire, gave the latest seminar in our Bible and Spirituality series (31 October 2012): ‘Storied Mysteries’, Victorian Spiritualities: Isaac Williams, The Cathedral (1837-38) and Tractarian Poetics. ‘Mystery’ gives the clue to the topic: how do we know anything about the nature of the universe, and how express it in life and worship? The C19 Oxford Movement, which featured John Keble, and for a time Henry Newman, had a distinctive approach to such questions, and Isaac Williams made an individual contribution to it. In The Cathedral, a work consisting of 119 poems, Williams offered a poetic treatment of the cathedral building, designed to articulate a Tractarian view of reality. In it, poem and building are intertwined, so that the poem becomes a ‘textual representation of external form and space’. Key concepts in this conception were a) analogy, concerning ‘the manifestation of God’s will in the visible world’, or the making visible of things unseen (after Romans 1.20), so that nature is known by grace (Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion, 1736); and b) reserve, which demands restraint of both emotion and expression in religion, in the belief that God too had shown such restraint in his self-disclosure to the world. The cathedral building is a text that expresses divine truth by such means as allegory and typology, which can unlock the relations between natural and spiritual worlds. The cathedral can thus teach the enquirer mysterious things. The Middle Aisle, standing symbolically for Holy Scripture, becomes a guide, at whose hand ‘ethereal doors/Fly open, answering to the wondrous key’. The reader may be reminded of the biblical ‘celestial guides’ of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel and 1 Enoch, who conduct the reader through the mysteries of heaven. Yet poetry, including biblical poetry (such as Hosea), can express a more complex relationship between natural world and heavenly reality. For HW, Williams ultimately disappoints, because The Cathedral turns out to be a puzzle that church members could solve if they chose to do so. She regrets particularly that Williams does not take up Ruskin’s metaphor of the quarry, by which he enables the stones (The Stones of Venice) to take on ever new meanings. In Williams, the meaning is all given in advance. For HW, the potential of Tractarian poetry is better represented by Keble, with his deep appreciation of Wordsworth. For myself I found this meditation on the relationship between poetry, Scripture and the symbolic possibilities of a building made for worship, highly stimulating for reflection on the project of biblical spirituality: to think about and practice forms of biblical engagement in which the unknown may become known, while the ‘knower’ remains open to new avenues of faith and understanding.

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