The Episcopal Church (like the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox churches) has a calendar for the year(s) which leads its disciples in remembering people and events which it finds important. Some of these are events in the story of Christ, like Christmas and the Transfiguration; some are events in the story of the Church, like the First Book of Common Prayer; some are people we know by ancient text and legend, like Saints Simon and Jude; and some are people whose faces we have imprinted on coins or photographs, like Alfred the Great, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Underhill.
These are called “feast days,” and for each the Church sets out a special prayer (or “Collect”) for the day, as well as particular readings (from the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, and the Gospels) which it believes speak to the special witness and work of the chosen person.
I was especially interested in the texts chosen for this Wednesday’s Feast of Alfred the Great—a king of England “during a time of distress” and a lover of learning, born in 849. The Collect for Alfred ends with this request:
“Awake in us also a keen desire to increase our understanding while we are in this world, and an eager longing to reach that endless life where all will be made clear . . . Amen.”
This last phrase actually comes from Alfred’s own words: “He seems to me a very foolish man, and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.” (This is found in the Church’s text, Lesser Feasts and Fasts.)
As a committed nerd—a lover of words, ideas, and strange new things—I found myself to be an immediate fan of Alfred. It seems intuitive to me to connect a curiosity about the truths of this world (grammar! physics! art history!) to the ultimate truth of reality, contained in God and fully known only when we will be able to fully know him. This is to say—wanting to understand how our hearts pump blood or why a sentences works is a natural path to wanting to understand God.
However! I was also struck by the readings selected for Alfred’s day, because they take this love of understanding around a more complicated turn. Reading them, I thought about how “understanding” is not just a movement outward from ourselves—a curiosity, a desire—but it is also something we gather up within ourselves.
The Gospel reading from Luke has two abrupt parables from Jesus, not about curiosity but about sources and outcomes. In the first, Jesus reminds us that “Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” In the second, one man “dug deeply” to lay the foundation of his house on rock; this is someone “who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” But “one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation”; you can imagine how that turns out.
Both of these images speak of having a solid center—the treasure of your heart, the foundation of your house. Out of these things come our words and actions—good or evil, a sturdy safe place or a wreck. Jesus calls this center “the abundance of our hearts.” I think part of this abundance includes the many many ways in which we understand our world—the ideas and systems of thought which we nurture, the intellectual and emotional habits we adopt, the styles of thinking which we choose to admire.
Out of Alfred’s understanding of the world and God came Anglo-Saxon translations of Bede and Augustine, a reformed law code, and an attempt to increase literacy and education in his home. This week I want to ask myself: What understanding am I building, and where are its foundations? What do I believe about the world, and about people? What is the abundance of my heart, and what comes out of it?
The first image is a silver penny with Alfred the Great’s noble face; here is the British Museum’s page on it. The second image is of the Bowleaze Cove Jewel, also found at the BM. (You could also read the excellent kids’ page about it, if you’re too tired for academese.) And the British Monarchy has even more information about Alfred.