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Timeless—or just old? – Br. Mark Brown

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Br. Mark Brown

Today we celebrate the life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, a key figure in the 19th century movement often called the Catholic Revival, or the Oxford Movement.  As the word “revival” suggests, this movement was, at its best, about reviving a church that had become sleepy.  Pusey was in the very epicenter of the controversies that come with challenging the status quo, but showed heroic patience and perseverance in the midst of it all.  He is also remembered for his extraordinary generosity in contributing his family fortune for the re-founding of religious orders. (There had been no monasteries in England since Henry VIII shut them all down and confiscated their land—so, great country houses called “such-and-such Abbey” were built on land that had belonged to monasteries.)

The Society of Saint John the Evangelist is part of Pusey’s legacy: his ideas and the movement generally were the air Fr. Benson and the other founders breathed in Oxford.  The early stages of the Catholic Revival, incidentally, might be distinguished from the later Ritualist Movement and high Anglo-Catholicism of later in the 19th century—into which the SSJE was also absorbed (probably not without a certain amount of skepticism of Fr. Benson….)

In a nutshell, the Catholic Revival was about re-invigorating the present by reincorporating thinking and practice of the past.  At its best, it was not about nostalgic antiquarianism—although it probably was that at times.  At its best, it was about “a creative recovery of the past”, as our Rule of Life puts it in the chapter on “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition”.

“Creative recovery of the past” means that something new is happening: “Behold, I make all things new,” he said. [Rev. 21:5] If we extend our roots down into the deep soil of the past, it is for the sake of new life, new growth.  The purpose of the roots of trees is partly to anchor the tree firmly in the soil, but also to provide nutrients for new growth: this season’s leaves and new shoots, this season’s fresh fruit–this very season’s invigoration of our humanity.

In sinking roots down into the deep soil of the past, we find that some things are timeless, even eternal.  And some things are just plain old.  Dr. Pusey challenges us to discern the difference.

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