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On Pilgrimage with Robert Crouse
A review by Sue Careless for the anglican planet

On Pilgrimage with Robert Crouse By Sue Careless, 2024


ROBERT CROUSE was one of the great spiritual mentors and contemplative theologians of the twentieth century.


Now a collection of the writings of this 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 the scholar’s writings and teachings available to a contemporary readership.


The impact of Crouse and King’s College in and beyond the Anglican Church of Canada 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 really helped to form leaders for the ages, even though they were facing many contrary winds.


Bishop Anthony Burton in Dallas and Fr Gavin Dunbar in Savannah have carried the Crouse torch in America while George Westhaver, Principal of Pusey College in Oxford, has done much the same in Britain.


Crouse’s interdisciplinary approach to scholarship, linking art, poetry, music, architecture, philosophy and theology of every age, influenced thousands of students.


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.


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 six years old, his mother died of tuberculosis so he moved into his grandparents’ home next door. He lived there until his death in 2011, excepting 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 the fax machine. He liked it, he said, because in response to the queries that came in, it allowed one time to reflect before replying.


Crouse gained degrees from Harvard, Toronto and Tübingen; and 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.


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.


He helped found the annual Atlantic Theological Conference, the academic journal Dionysius and a publishing house, St Peter Publications, all of which survive to this day.


He encouraged countless students not only to study classical literature but also to appreciate the Middle Ages as the indispensable connection between the ancient and modern worlds.


Praise from former pupils:


In the mid-1970s Gary Thorne was a student at King’s College when he first heard Father Crouse preach. Today, as the managing editor of the Crouse project, Thorne admitted:


“As students, most of us were uninterested in formal religion. We were preoccupied with our own issues of self-identity, friendship and love. Regardless, we were convinced by other students (who looked for all the world to be no more ‘churchy’ than we were) to come to the university chapel to hear this quiet, otherworldly, erudite preacher. What we heard was local and simple, yet at the same time cosmic and profound: a broad philosophical wisdom at one with Gospel teaching, applied practically to our contemporary friendships and loves.”


Thorne said that Crouse made “the past present, such that the glory and the challenge of every age becomes our glory and the challenge to our contemporary living.”


Anthony Burton, the former Bishop of Saskatchewan and the former Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas wrote in an obituary for Crouse:


“Many of his students discovered in themselves a vocation to holy orders. His sermons continue to be a touchstone for preachers around the world. For all that, it was neither his academic career, nor his tireless voluntary service to the Church that set him apart. A master without a masterpiece, it was his personality that affected so deeply those who knew him.


“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.


“He was not the kind of Anglo-Catholic who would set aside the insights of the Reformation, but saw them as necessary moments under the providence of God for Christian theology. He understood that piety, liturgy and philosophy depend on each other. Philosophy would be abstract without liturgy.”


Gavin Dunbar, Rector of St John’s Savannah, first encountered Crouse in 1985 in a seminar on Dante’s Paradiso at Dalhousie, and preaching in the chapel of King’s College. He described Crouse’s teaching as “lucid, elegant, often understated (less is more) and authoritative. It illuminated every text we read. He had not only read a vast range of texts – from Homer to Dante and beyond – but remembered what he had read, and understood them. He saw individual thinkers and works within the largest perspective. 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 post-modern liberalism and the supreme importance of the classical Book of Common Prayer to Anglicanism.” Dunbar is currently the President of the Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A.


George Westhaver, formerly the 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, at local churches, auditing a course at King’s and later at St John’s, Savannah (Elliott House).


“I was inspired by the way he modelled 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.”




The little volume Images of Pilgrimage, collects six addresses on the theme of pilgrimage that Crouse delivered during a 1986 clergy retreat in Nova Scotia. They were meant to be devotional exercises but at the request of some present, Crouse agreed to have them printed. While first intended for clergy, these addresses, which explore the concepts of paradise and wilderness in Christian spirituality, will also be appreciated by laity.


Crouse notes that “the spiritual meaning of wilderness becomes especially clear in the story of the Exodus” yet also notes its paradox, its “remarkable ambiguity”:


“Wilderness is both curse and blessing: it is the place where fiery serpents lurk to wound, but it is also the place where the brazen serpent is lifted high to heal; it is the dry and barren land where people starve, but it is also where the gift is made, of supernatural food from heaven. It is the place of lawlessness, but it is also the place where the law of God is given and received. It is in the wilderness, the place of solitude, that God speaks thunderingly; and it is there that the tribes of Israel come to know themselves as the chosen people.”


He concludes that “paradise is to be the wilderness transfigured” and “the wilderness of desolation becomes the paradise of joy…. All this comes into focus with the Cross, which is at once the tree of desolation and the tree of glory; the tree of death and the tree of life.”


Crouse recognizes that “Certainly the wilderness – the confusions of the world in which we live, uncertainties within the Church, confusions within our own souls – certainly the wilderness presents us with problems and dilemmas, and it is surely not very easy to ‘count it all joy’” yet our calling is to discern the paradise within the wilderness, for God gives us the Bread of Life in the wilderness.


Crouse acknowledged that “The practice of Christian spirituality presents us…with many difficulties” but continued:


“The only remedy – if we will trust it – lies in the steady cultivation of the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, holding on to the centuries of Christian wisdom, holding fast to our road of pilgrimage. What is essentially required is the practical upbuilding, among us and within us, of the life of penitential adoration. All depends, really, upon the prayerful life.”




As a preacher Crouse’s great intellect was filtered through a deeply pastoral spirit so that academics and parents, fishers and farmers alike could grasp his wisdom.


The selected sermons in The Soul’s Pilgrimage were preached in a 30-year period between 1975-2005.


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.


If you are expecting sermons laced with jokes and personal anecdotes, you will not find them here. Also, by ignoring specific current events, his sermons avoid becoming dated and are instead timeless.


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.”


He is himself so familiar with the likes of Gregory the Great, Bernard of Cluny, Augustine and Dante that you meet them though his friendship with them.


He wears his great scholarship lightly, and easily engages his listener, smoothly weaving in Scripture and clearly focusing on the God he adores.


In fact, 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.”


In such worship Crouse believes we will “see our troubles, our frustrations, our disappointments, our ambitions and achievements all in a new spiritual perspective – a radically different perspective – the perspective of eternity.”


Then he concludes: “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.”


Crouse helps us catch that glimpse.




After the publication of the second book of sermons in January, the Senior Editors anticipate publishing A Theology of Pilgrimage, a volume of Crouse’s theological essays, followed by a volume each on Boethius and Dante. The final publication in this seven-book project will be a third volume of sermons, The Divine Pilgrimage within the Life of the Trinity.

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