Saturday, May 16, 2015

Commentary: With Christ in God by Shirley C. Hughson, OHC

For more than a decade, my spiritual life has been nurtured through association with several of our Episcopal religious orders.  I am a priest associate of the All Saints Sisters and of the Community of Saint Mary, and I have visited both communities regularly to share in the daily prayers, to make retreats, and to receive spiritual guidance.  These are not easy times for Anglican religious orders, and both communities live, in some ways, amid the signs of former grandeur, while also holding fast to our faithful God and pushing on in the simpler vocations He has given them today.   They operate fewer schools, hospitals and mission houses, but remain devoted to enriching the Church’s life through unceasing praise of God and sharing what they have learned about following Christ.

The Community of Saint Mary is blessed with an extensive library, a relic of the days when dozens of women were trained in the novitiate at a time.  On my last visit, after speaking with the mother superior about some spiritual challenges I was facing, she asked me if I had read any Father Hughson.  I had not, something she insisted must be remedied.  I departed with a copy of With Christ in God (among several other treasures from the shelves), and now can understand just why she was so enthusiastic. 

Shirley C. Hughson, who served as a chaplain and director in the Community of Saint Mary over several decades in the first half of the twentieth century, was one of the great figures of Anglo-Catholicism’s brief golden age in the life of the Episcopal Church.  A native of South Carolina, he began his ministry as rector of Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia, before discerning a call into the religious life.  He became a monk of the Order of the Holy Cross, the first men’s religious order founded in the Episcopal Church.   He held several positions of leadership in the order, and lived most of his life at the motherhouse in West Park, New York.  But his many books were read widely, and he visited many religious communities on both sides of the Atlantic to teach and direct, and corresponded with many lay people who wrote him for help with problems in the spiritual life.

He is a deeply traditional writer, seeking to explain the rich heritage of Catholic ascetical theology to modern Episcopalians.  He is not an original thinker, but a skilled summmarist, though His particular interests do shine through.  Though the book is a very comprehensive overview, and includes sections on the virtues, sin and grace, spiritual gifts, and the sacraments, above all the work is focused on God’s love and grace, which conform us to Christ and deepen His life within us.

Hughson’s greatest sources, accordingly, are Augustine and Bernard, though he has obviously read deeply in the field, and turns often to ascetical writers like Francis de Sales, to the Spanish mystics and to Anglican sources, especially Pusey and the text of the Book of Common Prayer.  This is also a deeply Scriptural book, and less philosophical and didactic than similar Roman Catholic books of its era.  In part that arises from Hughson’s need to justify the tradition’s conclusions to his Episcopalian audience, but it also reflects a meditative disposition that is one of the work’s most winsome qualities.

It is rather striking that the work was published in 1947.  I don’t think I caught a single reference to contemporary events, even the great war that had so profoundly shaped that era. Even more surprisingly, he avoids any discussion of psychology, relying entirely on traditional assumptions about the nature of the conscience and the will in his discussion of temptation and spiritual discernment.  He was writing as an old man, living mostly in a cloister, and for some readers, this is probably a detriment.  But it’s also rather refreshing as well.  Writing about the human person in the first half of the twentieth century was absolutely dominated by psychology, some of it since proven mistaken.  One can hardly make it through a chapter of Chesterton without having to do battle with one therapist or another, many of them—happily—now confined to the dustbin of history.  Hughson is writing for the ages.  Surely, those who would think that some of his conclusions might need modification in light of modern science can’t help but admire the way he has expressed the spiritual wisdom of the Catholic tradition in such a comprehensive way.

I’ve been plucking bits of his text and using them for meditation, and many of these bits have appeared on the blog over the last few weeks.  Hughson is a writer best savored slowly, and I hope to have the opportunity to turn back to the text again.  He is an outstanding exhorter, and a joyful singer of the goodness of God.  I pray that he may rest in God’s peace and that his work will continue to shape the thoughts and prayers of many Christians for many generations.  

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