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On Pilgrimage with Robert Crouse

Robert Crouse reads at home during a quiet breakfast. | Anthony Burton

Both in his preaching to fishers and farmers and in his renowned scholarship, the late Robert Crouse offered a profound critique of our global culture and the contemporary Church: that it has drifted into a state of “intellectual and cultural amnesia.” Because we have forgotten how the past has shaped us, we have lost the capacity to understand ourselves. “The past is always and inevitably here, and our choice is only whether to possess it consciously in recollection, or to possess it in the form of unreflective prejudice, devoid of understanding,” Crouse said in 2007. Crouse called the Church to the consensus fidelium — its common mind through the centuries that was constantly in a state of “reformation” by a conscious return to the authority of Scripture and creeds.

Crouse’s insightful teaching is no arid abstraction, but a call to spiritual pilgrimage that is equally available to all. Indeed, it is the sense of pilgrimage as the teaching and the life of the Church that is so valuable and so renewing. To accept this pilgrimage as a way of life is to know the depths of memory and deepest aspirations and hopes of the human soul. It is the way of romance and love and friendship. It is the way of suffering and denial, of being lost and recovered. It is the way of illumination and the pursuit of wisdom that incorporates the rigor of reason, the burning of our loves, and the apprehension of intuition. It is the very life of God and his redeeming work.

Now a collection of the writings of this preacher, scholar, and longtime professor at the University of King’s College, Halifax, is being published by a group of his former students. The Works of Robert Crouse is an ambitious publishing project to make Crouse’s writings and teachings available to a contemporary readership. These writings are filled with a hope that transcends our culture wars, pointing to the healing and illuminating power of the Word.

The influence of Crouse and King’s College across the Anglican Communion has been remarkable and surprisingly resilient. It’s striking to note how many bishops, leaders of large churches, and academics were touched by his ministry. He helped form leaders for the ages, even though they were facing many contrary winds.

Robert Darwin Crouse (1930-2011) was a contemplative, teacher, gardener, mystic, preacher, musician, and theologian who lived most of his life in the small community of Crousetown, Nova Scotia. In 1930, when Crouse was only an infant, his family moved from his birthplace in Winthrop, Massachusetts, back to Crousetown. When young Robert was 6, his mother died of tuberculosis, so he was moved into his grandparents’ home next door. He lived there until his death in 2011, except for the years when he was studying or teaching abroad.

His home was famous for its hospitality, but it also served as a hermitage. Crouse never married and lived alone with no radio, television, or internet. A phone was only installed in his later years, in case of emergency. But he accepted a fax machine, because it allowed him time to reflect before replying to queries.

Crouse earned degrees from King’s College, Harvard, and Toronto, and held teaching posts at Harvard, Toronto, Bishop’s (Lennoxville), and Dalhousie. He taught for 32 years at King’s College. For many years he served as the first non-Roman Catholic visiting professor at the Augustinianum of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He could read Greek, Latin, French, German, and eventually Italian.

A world authority on Augustine and Dante, he was in great demand internationally as a lecturer on the theological tradition of the ancient and medieval worlds. In the early 1970s Crouse helped establish a highly successful Great Books program at the University of King’s College and lectured on Augustine and Dante in this Foundation Year program well after his retirement.

Praise from Former Pupils

Anthony Burton, former Bishop of Saskatchewan and former rector of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, wrote in an obituary for Crouse: “He was a quiet, somewhat shy man who possessed a twinkling, mischievous wit. And he had a great gift for friendship. To those who sought him out for spiritual counsel he was the kindliest of fathers, to his students he was a velvet hand in a velvet glove — invariably merciful to those whose essays came in late.

“One had a sense that as he celebrated the Eucharist, the entire spiritual world opened up before him.”

Gavin Dunbar, rector of St John’s in Savannah, Georgia, first encountered Crouse in 1985 in a seminar on Dante’s Paradiso at Dalhousie. “He saw individual thinkers and works within the largest perspective,” Dunbar said. “And though his specialty was ancient and medieval, he had a vivid sense of what that legacy meant for modernity: that the eternal good manifested in beauty is to be known and loved in truth. Every time he returned to familiar texts he had taught before, and themes he had explored before, there was always new clarity and coherence to his reading of them.”

Dunbar learned from Crouse “the utter importance of true doctrine, classical liturgy and disciplined prayer in the formation of faith; that a convergence and consensus of catholic and reformed streams in Anglicanism was possible without postmodern liberalism and the supreme importance of the classical Book of Common Prayer to Anglicanism.” Dunbar is president of the Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A.

George Westhaver, formerly rector of the Parish of St. George, Halifax, and now the principal of Pusey House, Oxford, first encountered Crouse as a preacher and teacher in Halifax.

“I was inspired by the way he modeled a kind of synthetic thinking, bringing all things into unity in Christ. In his teaching he conveyed complicated theological ideas clearly and simply, often illustrating them with a fresco or a carving on a font. He showed how these ideas bore fruit both in prayer and in service, and at the same time led to adoration and praise.”

Sermons

Crouse preached the selected sermons in The Soul’s Pilgrimage between 1975 and 2005. Volume I is a collection of 47 sermons covering the first half of the Christian year, Advent to Pentecost, rehearsing what God in Christ has done for us. Volume II covers the second half of the Christian year, focusing on what God in Christ does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a sermon for Candlemas, Crouse declares: “neither rejoice in your strength and goodness nor despair in your weakness and sin. Rejoice rather in the mystery of God’s grace which overcomes and uses both — in ways past finding out.”

Adoration is key to his spirituality as he speaks frequently of being “transformed by adoration,” “habits of adoration,” and “penitential adoration.”

When preaching on Trinity Sunday, Crouse declares, “We are called to fix our minds and hearts upon the majesty and mystery of God — to lose ourselves in adoration of a goodness and a glory immeasurably beyond all earthly imagining, and to live our lives in the light of that vision.”

Then he closes: “To us, God’s life remains a mystery. But that does not mean that we understand nothing, that we ‘ignorantly worship.’ It means that we understand imperfectly a truth which exceeds our comprehension; and our knowledge ends in the worship of a glory which always remains beyond it. And thus we return to the language of poetry and prophecy, ‘Behold, a door is opened in heaven’ and we catch a glimpse of the majesty of God.”

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