Pilgrim’s Paradise: The Works of Robert Crouse

The late Anglican theologian Robert Crouse (1930–2011) may be one of Canada’s best kept secrets. An Anglican priest, teacher, contemplative—not to mention a musician and gardener—Crouse was an understated authority in patristic and medieval theology, especially the writings of Augustine and Dante. He wrote with a humble style that belied an extraordinary spiritual depth, calling readers to pause and ponder, to see the familiar in new ways.

Crouse lived most of his career in the small Canadian town—his ancestral home—of Crousetown, Nova Scotia. From 1963 until 1996, he taught Classics at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, while lecturing widely across Canada, the US, and Europe. He helped found the Atlantic Theological Conference and the journal Dionysius. He was the first non-Catholic to hold a position at the Institute Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome.

Crouse is not widely known outside of Canadian Anglican (and mostly Anglo-Catholic) circles, but those who did know him can’t speak enough good about him. David Lyle Jeffrey describes him as “one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century” who “gracefully and perceptively brings the spiritual depth and intellectual brilliance of pre-Christian classical and biblical traditions into high relief.” Rowan Williams praises his wide range of classical and Christian learning that produce writings “quietly authoritative in tone, unfussy and measured in style.” Carol Harrison, Anthony Esolen, Douglas Hedley, and others provide similarly radiant praise.

Happily, though, the secret’s out. A new collection of Crouse’s writings is being edited by a cohort of his former students, Gary Thorne, Stephen Blackwood, Neil Robertson, and Susan Dodd. The collection will comprise, in toto, a short introductory volume on the theme of pilgrimage; a three-volume series of sermons on the church year, the Christian life, and the Holy Trinity; a book of theological essays; and commentarial works on the writings of Boethius and Dante. The first volume and two volumes of sermons have been published, with the others forthcoming.

What emerges is a comprehensive spiritual vision of the Christian life as pilgrimage—well-trod terrain, perhaps, especially for the Augustinianly inflected among us. But on Crouse’s itinerary, every bend in the road pulsates with new life and light.

This is especially the case in the initial volume of the collection, Images of Pilgrimage: Paradise and Wilderness in Christian Spirituality, which highlights the central tensions and resolutions in classical and Christian spirituality. In the philosophical and literary canon of the Greeks and Romans—from Homer and Aristotle to Virgil and Cicero—Crouse discerns the deep paradox of dignity and tragedy that textures the pagan vision of pilgrimage. The human telos exceeds human nature but cannot settle for anything less. “The divine good,” as Crouse quotes Aristotle, “is a life too high for man,” but it’s also our only hope of true happiness.

This pilgrimage, as a result, becomes inexorably cyclical. The wayfarer is locked into an unending agon in which the wilderness of peregrination and the paradise of patria are parted by an unbridgeable gap, which results in, at best, a tragic heroism. “Heroic virtue, heroic aspiration, is heroic hubris, and is destined for defeat. That is the worm at the heart of pagan spirituality: the endless cycles of aspiration and despair” (Images of Pilgrimage, 20; emphasis original).

In the Christian vision, however, especially as seen through Augustinian and Dantean lenses, the impasse finds both its truest expression and resolution—resolution not in the sense of how one resolves a complex problem but, in the etymological sense of the Latin solvere: to loosen or release. The Christian vision frees us not only to see but to attain the life “too high for man.”

For the Christian, paradise is both originary garden and teleological city, and wilderness the struggle of the Christian in via. But paradise and wilderness are not simply two discreet and disjunctive worlds. Paradise remains in the Great Beyond, but it also appears—bidden and unbidden—in the wilderness here and now, along the journey.

Most significantly, it is the theological affirmation of Christ as the one mediator between God and man who provides the final exitus from pagan cyclicality and despair. Plato could see the patria, but “without the via, the blessed homeland must remain only a vision, never an habitation” (Images of Pilgrimage, 57). But Christ, as both way and goal—via and patria, paradise and wilderness—makes his holy habitation ours. As God, he is the life too high for us; as man, he is our own life. The concomitant spirituality is one not of circles but spirals, summed up in a pithy phrase from St. Augustine: in melius renovabimur, “we shall be changed into something better.” Where paganism could only end in despair—however colored by a noble heroism—Christian theology offers hope that does not disappoint: paradise transfigured, human nature transformed.

Wilderness and paradise thus remain dominant notes in the musical score of Christian pilgrimage, but they take on much different tonal resonances. Wilderness is not just “remedial discipline,” a return to innocence, but the “sphere of spiritual activity which results in something better” (Images of Pilgrimage, 53). The cardinal virtue here is not muscular endurance but clear-eyed love, that weight (pondus) of the soul that propels us out of the pit of despair and onto the road of Christ incarnate. Christian pilgrimage is, quite literally, an “education” of love; it is being “led out”: out of sin-incurved selves, out of endless cycles of aspiration and despair, out of tragic heroism.

“Christian spirituality,” writes Crouse, “is neither ‘this-worldly’ nor ‘other-worldly’—these are its temptations and distortions; authentically, it must be lived in the tension between these worlds, in the ambiguity between paradise attained and paradise to come” (79).

Crouse’s writings—and I have only offered a small glimpse—provide just what he describes here: neither otherworldly nor this-world, they are paradise in the wilderness, the bread of patria for pilgrims on the way.

Alex Fogleman

Alex Fogleman (PhD, Baylor University) is an Assistant Research Professor of Theology at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and director of the Catechesis Institute. He is the author of Knowledge, Faith, and Early Christian Initiation (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

'Pilgrim’s Paradise: The Works of Robert Crouse' has 1 comment

  1. January 21, 2024 @ 7:32 am Peter Bryson

    This review captures the remarkable coherence of scholarly brilliance , and charitable humility of person , prose and word that was Father Crouse .


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