“the Catholic faith is not what I thought”

In Book V of his Confessions, St Augustine describes a period when his trust in the Manichaean religion was ebbing, and his skepticism was growing. He was not yet willing, however, to return to the catholic faith his mother had entrusted him to, the faith he had left at university. He writes,

When my mind attempted to return to the Catholic faith, it was rebuffed because the Catholic faith is not what I thought.

Confessions V.x (20)

Eventually, he would go to Milan and encounter Ambrose. Through Ambrose’s preaching, he slowly learned better what the Catholic faith really was, and then leave Manichaeism, and then, after some time amongst the Platonists, eventually fully convert to catholic, orthodox Christianity and get baptised.

How many people — even those entrusted to the church by their parents, raised in our Sunday schools and youth groups — leave in high school and university, and sometimes might feel a tug to return to the faith of their youth? But they don’t return to the faith. And sometimes, when you look at deconversion and deconstruction stories of their faith, you realise that the Christian faith they rejected is not actually true, sound orthodoxy, but a misconception and false projection.

This is why good Christian education is a component of discipleship to Jesus — simply so that we can understand our Lord and His world better, and thus more easily submit ourselves to His Lordship, His teaching, and His worship.

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

Seeing and believing (John 20)

Cut from the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday on John 20:1-18

Resurrection, from Notre Dame de Paris (my photo)

After the women find the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles. And so Peter and John run together. John never refers to himself by name or in the first person; he is always just “the disciple Jesus loved”. John gets there first, and “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there…” Peter also “saw the linen wrappings”. John follows Peter now and enters the tomb, “and he saw and believed.”

Here’s a philological moment from Professor Hoskin for you, then.

The Greek uses three different verbs of seeing in this passage. First, βλέπει from βλέπω. When John first arrives and looks in without entering, this is the kind of seeing. It’s your most basic kind of seeing, I guess. See, perceive, that sort of thing.

Second, θεωρεῖ (theorei), from θεωρέω (theoreo). This is the kind of seeing Peter has. This is a deeper kind of seeing, like when you go to the theatre—in fact, the word theatre comes from this verb, as does the word theory, since it can also take on meanings of contemplate and meditate in other contexts.

Third, εἶδεν καὶ ἐπίστευσεν (eiden kai episteusen). This final moment of seeing, εἶδεν (eiden) doesn’t have a present form, which is fulfilled by ὁράω (horao). This time, St John beholds, perceives, observes, really. And then he believes. I guess this means that he believes in the Resurrection, although he immediately tells us that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Which Scripture, you may ask? Psalm 16:10 is one possibility, “For You will not abandon my soul to Hades / Nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Possibly the sign of Jonah that Jesus talks about elsewhere, that just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so must the Son of Man be in the tomb. Neither of these is a straightforward fulfilment of prophecy the way we moderns like it, though, is it? Not like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Nonetheless, God has interwoven hints and clues of his plan to save us throughout history and throughout the very fabric of sacred Scripture.

When St Mary Magdalene sees the two angels, it is again θεωρεῖ (theorei), and again when she sees Jesus. When she tells the disciples that she has seen him in verse 18, she says, “Ἑώρακα (heoraka),” – “I have seen,” from ὁράω (horao). This is the verb which acts as if it were the present of εἶδεν (eiden).

And now we chart beyond the boundaries of what I had prepared before I cut the sermon down to size…

What is the upshot of all this seeing? I am thinking on this. Do the different verbs of seeing carry great weight in our interpretation of the passage? Should John’s first seeing from outside the tomb be “glance”, and then Peter’s seeing be “observe” or something like that? What about when John looks again?

It seems certain to me that there are perhaps three distinct acts going on with the male disciples. John does, indeed, just glance at first. Peter goes right in, so he sees more clearly. John’s second view that is paired with believing is likewise more than a glance.

But I would always go with the kind of seeing Peter and Mary do as being the deeper — θεωρέω (theoreo): watch, observe, contemplate, meditate on, whereas the other verbs of seeing are more neutral.

There is, of course, always the basic possibility that these are simply three Greek words for “to see” chosen for variation because that’s how ancient literary composition worked. And that’s why many English translations do not distinguish between them, either. (St Augustine wouldn’t like that option, though.)

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

This is my body…

Pandemic regulations have shifted, so we can now have up to 43.5 people in our sanctuary for religious gatherings! Wishing to advertise tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I rounded up the image below for use on Facebook:

Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)

I chose the photo because of the Renaissance fresco of the Last Supper from San Lorenzo in Milan (a church I visited because its fabric is Late Antique, even if not its decoration). After putting the details below the pic — Holy Communion, 7:30 — I went to type “This is my body…” in the upper left corner.

And then I realised that this blurry photo I took has more going on than I was thinking about. Because there, in the foreground, is a terracotta pieta, of the dead Christ with His mother. I think she’s cleaning His wounds?

Here’s the wild beauty of the Eucharist, friends. The night He was betrayed to suffering and death, the night before He died, Jesus took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body.”

And then, the next day, they took His body, limp and dead, off a Roman cross. They tended His wounds. They placed His body in a tomb.

Jesus also said, “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)

That body, that flesh, is present to us, really present, in the Holy Communion. It is a mystery to be received in reverence, as He imparts His very self and the fulness of His grace to us.

Palm Sunday reflection

This is a reflection I put together for my church, Urban Abbey, in Thunder Bay for this past Sunday.

Since ancient times, Palm Sunday has had two Gospel readings—a short reading for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and then a long reading of a passion narrative, recounting Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution at the hands of sinners. The English word passion comes from the Latin passio, the word for suffering. This suffering and death, recounted to us in Mark 14:1-15:47 in today’s Gospel, is something that I have meditated on in these reflections the past few Sundays, pointing to Jesus, high and lifted up, glorious and dead, saving us, drawing us to the Father with whom he now reigns in glory.

A surface reading of this passage in Mark shows us a beaten man, dying unjustly under the thumb of an imperial power. Yet when we unite this with the events of Palm Sunday, something starts to peek out, as the crowd calls, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25, 26) and our Lord’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zechariah 9:9). On Palm Sunday we glimpse Jesus as the King of Israel, the Messiah, the anointed one of the God of Israel.

Philippians 2:5-11 brings out the deep meaning of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This passage is thought to actually be an early Christian hymn incorporated by St Paul from the church’s worship into his letter. Here we read that although Jesus was “in the form of God” he chose to “take on the form of a slave”. Most modern English Bibles have “servant” here—the ESV unhelpfully gives us the antiquated word “bondservant” in the notes as an option for “servant”. The Greek is doulos. It means slave. It’s worth thinking on this mystery.

Jesus is fully God—completely and utterly God, as much God as the Father is God. Anything we can say about God we can say about the Christ: immortal, invisible, wise, almighty, eternal, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, compassionate, infinite. He is also fully man—that is the upshot of Philippians 2:7, that he has the “form of a slave” and was made “in the likeness of human beings.” God in His very Self knows precisely what it means to be the lowest of the low—there is no one in ancient society lower than the slave. A Roman slave was the legal property of another human being. It was part of the regular process of Roman law to simply torture slaves if they were witnesses at trials—not even if they were defendants. If a master was killed by a slave, the entire household of slaves was liable for the murder and put to death; they should have known better or done better to protect him. This is how far God chose to come down to be with us.

God knows everything about being human—he is not aloof.

For us to consider to how deep the love of God the Word for us is, the next verse brings us to the cross—”he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) First, Christ our God took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society. And then he did not merely suffer, he died. And he did not merely die, he died the death reserved for the lowest of the worst criminals. Romans crucified those they considered the scum of the earth, such as Spartacus and 6000 of his fellow slave rebels, the thieves and murderers on either side of Jesus, or 2000 Jews who rebelled against the Romans around the time when Jesus was born. It is a terrible way to die, as many Good Friday sermons enjoy describing for us.

Just as a reminder, here are of some of the divine attributes ancient Christians and Jews believed in and passed along to us—God is immortal. God cannot suffer. God is eternal. God is infinite. As Charles Wesley put it: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”

What is the result in the divine plan of his action in human history, his taking on our flesh and dying as one of us? “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Because of the basic nature and order of the universe, humans and the rest of the creation are meant for loving and worshipping God; as has been said, our main purpose in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In falling away from the worship of God, we have fallen from our truest life, and therefore we have gone away from our truest joy and happiness and source of contentment.

Part of our salvation is for God’s glory because, when we give glory to God, we are living our best life now. This is what the Paradise we lost was and what the Paradise we shall regain is going to be. Following Jesus means going through suffering to glory. The grand narrative of the Bible is not simply creation to fall to redemption, but also from redemption to glory, to the new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation.

Let us now go back to Philippians 2:5. I quote my own translation, “Therefore, let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” From here, St Paul describes the mind that was in Christ Jesus. Ethics and theology are intimately united in the Bible. The ethics that flow from the theology that I have just described, the way of living that we disciples (or better, apprentices) are called to follow by our master and teacher, is given in Philippians 2:6-11. We are called not to grasp for power and authority but to pour out our whole selves in love for others. We are called to humble ourselves and deny ourselves daily. To take up our cross and follow Him—Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, Saviour, Lord, Prophet, Priest, King. His mind is a mind filled with loving humility, with humble love.

Humility, of course, is a strong biblical virtue, and through the centuries, disciples of Jesus have had much to say on the subject. Since we at the Urban Abbey follow a version of the Rule of the seventh-century Irish abbot St Columbanus, I thought I would commend some of his words to you this Palm Sunday:

if … we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to heal the poisons of pride and envy and vain glory, through the teaching of our Saviour Who says for our example, “Learn of Me for I am meek and lowly of heart’’ (Matt. 11. 29), and so on, then let us all, made perfect with no further blemish, with hatred rooted out, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another’ (cf. John 13. 35) with our whole heart. (Letter II.4)

The only pathway to humility, as with all virtue, is grace. St Columbanus reminds us of God’s grace in his third sermon, where he urges those pursuing eternal life to

call on God’s grace to help [your] striving; for it is impossible for anyone to acquire by his own efforts alone what he lost in Adam. (Sermon III.2)

In closing, here is the prayer of the day (called a “collect”) for Palm Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, bringing together many of these themes:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

A rubric worth following

This morning, to save battery on my phone and for a bit of variety, I prayed the morning prayers from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers instead of the Prayer Book Society’s Daily Prayer App. Some of these prayers are worth praying over and over and over again as well as meditating on. What I want to blog about, however, is the final rubric (which really ought to have come first):

If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it is preferable to say only a few of the suggested prayers, with attention and zeal, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 11

I think this is a very important instruction. In fact, in Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes so far as to say that it is better to pray just one line of the Lord’s Prayer carefully, attentively, and truly mean it than it is to pray the whole thing without much thought.

As any longish-time reader of this blog knows, I am a big advocate of the Book of Common Prayer for both personal and corporate prayer and worship. But sometimes, in the midst of two kids under five, managing a cafe, and the various other pressures of life, I find myself swiftly rushing to reach the end. I often skip the Scripture lessons, to be honest. Sometimes, then, it is a blessing to have something shorter, such as the Canadian 1959/62 BCP’s prayers for use by families, or the book Celebrating Common Prayer, or, when truly pressed, to be Franciscan and pause simply to pray the Lord’s Prayer before life consumes you.

The main thing with praying fixed-hour prayer is to pray the prayers attentively and seek the Lord’s face. If you have the time to do this with the BCP or the Roman Breviary or some other long-ish book of hours — glory to God! If not, do not think yourself a failure in your hour of prayer. Make the most of the time available through attention and devotion.

Of course, there’s another facet to prayer life that’s a topic for another post, and that’s the fact that we have more time available than we think…

Athonites at prayer

The Annunciation

As we journey to the Cross, suddenly, the turning of the calendar and rolling of the year brings us face to face with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel – today is nine months until Christmas. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate God’s self-giving love, as it was poured out in the conception of Christ and culminated in his saving death and glorious resurrection. From ancient times, Christians have seen the willing obedience of Mary as a grace-filled opposite to the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Christ as the opposite of the disobedience to Adam. Here’s a hymn by St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess and mystic, the antiphon “Quia ergo femina”:

Because a woman brought death
a bright Maiden overcame it,
and so the highest blessing
in all of creation
lies in the form of a woman,
since God has become human
in a sweet and blessed Virgin.

-Trans. Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings

Here is a recording of the original Latin:

Living orthodoxy or dead conservatism

I recently watched a really good episode of the Pilgrim Faith podcast on YouTube where my new colleagues Joseph Minich and Dale Stenberg of the Davenant Institute (where I teach) interview my friends from PhD days Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (goes by Gray). The interview was about Cory and Gray’s new translation of Herman Bavinck’s Christian Worldview.

They talked about many things pertinent to Bavinck, early twentieth-century Reformed theology, and the creation of a worldview. One thing that arose was the idea of living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism, which came up partly in the context of Bavinck and Kuyper’s work in founding a new Reformed church in the Netherlands (I think? I know nothing of Dutch ecclesiastical history after Thomas a Kempis, and I was also rolling change from tips at the cafe I manage so some details slipped by as I counted nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and twoonies).

Since I forget some of the context of the discussion, I am mostly just rolling from the paired phrases: living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism.

I think some would argue that conservative theology and ethics are moribund, are fossils, are traditionalism dressed up in modernist Protestant garb, or, for other Christian tribes, simply mediaeval corpses dressed up in liturgical vestments. I may know far less about Bavinck than my friends, but I have no doubt that this is not the target of the phrase “dead conservatism”.

Instead, “dead conservatism” is what I might call the “conservative temperament” coupled to articulations of historic orthodoxy that are simply held in the head but with no union of the head and the heart. Dead conservatism will happily and gleefully sign off on all three historic Creeds or a church body’s confessional document; it can proudly proclaim itself Bible-believing and theologically sound.

Living orthodoxy is not simply an attempt to accurately and truthfully articulate the faith once delivered. It is finding life as a disciple of Jesus Christ at the same time — maybe even through an orthodox articulation of faith. Living orthodoxy is embracing the reality that Jesus is life and the light of human beings.

If we try to unite the head and the heart, we find true power in words such, “for us humans and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The God who is Jesus is not aloof and distant; he is near to us and intimate, participant in our entire human existence — as the fathers I just finished teaching demonstrate, from Athanasius to Leo the Great. He became a human being. He suffered, was crucified, and died for us.

And he really truly in real human history with a real, albeit glorified, human body rose again from the dead.

Living orthodoxy takes this as fuel for absolutely everything. The life of discipleship, of being an apprentice to Jesus our teacher, is empowered by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Actually, in Athanasius’ terms, it is an ongoing participation in that incarnation, for we are the body of Christ. Look to the cross and the empty tomb — here is the fuel for prayer, for fasting, for studying Scripture, for charitable deeds to neighbours; he tasted everything there was to being human. Oh — and he conquered death!

“Glorious now, behold him arise!” as “We Three Kings” puts it each Epiphany.

We follow where He has gone before. We need not fear government restrictions, COVID-19, recessions, ordinary illnesses, unemployment, boredom, isolation, woke capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the alt-right, white supremacy, Marxists, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, “liberals”, “heretics”.

Living orthodoxy, living with right belief and right worship in the light and life — as part of the light and life — of Jesus the ManGod — also provides the fuel for the creation of a Christian culture. In our context, not so much the kind we saw in the 1200s with Gothic cathedrals, beautiful manuscripts, and wealth lavished upon all things “Christian”, more the kind we saw in the 200s with the creation of tight-knit communities of disciples learning the ways of the Master, and writing theology and commentaries on the Bible and living rightly amongst their pagan neighbours, always seeking Christ the teacher (or paedagogus), creating not a ghettoised sub-culture but a life-bringing counter-culture.

All of it — absolutely all of it — flows from the kind of orthodoxy that is alive, that is not simply signing off on the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession or the decrees of the ecumenical councils, but saying that these are the distillation of the teaching of the God Word found in Scripture and lived in the centuries — then going forth into the world and living as a result.

Reflections on John 12

This is my reflection on John 12:20-33, written for my church community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey:

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

In the narrative of the Gospel of John, today’s reading takes place during the final Passover feast during which Jesus will be betrayed, beaten, crucified. Everything has been moving to this point, from the preaching of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) In a few days, the Lord of glory will be slain. Yet this is not how Jesus frames it in this instance. When these pagan Greek-speakers appear, he does not say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be humiliated.” No, in foretelling his death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) St Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, a fifth-century preacher, writes:

He now desires to pass onward to the very crowning point of His hope, namely to the destruction of death: and this could not otherwise be brought to pass, unless the Life underwent death for the sake of all human beings, that so in Him we all may live. For on this account also He speaks of Himself as glorified in His Death, and in suffering terrible things at the hands of the sinners who dishonour Him. Even though by the angels in heaven He had been glorified from everlasting, yet nevertheless His Cross was the beginning of His being glorified upon earth.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 8

Jesus goes on to make this reference to his death more explicit in the next verse, saying that a grain of wheat must die and fall to the ground in order to bear fruit. We are the fruit of Christ’s death. His precious death and glorious resurrection have reaped a harvest of souls for 2000 years, raising us up with him to the heavenly realm. Yet here, bound up with the promise, our Lord also gives us a hard saying—hard to live, if not to understand: “Whoever loves his or her life loses it, and whoever hates his or her life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Thankfully, the wisdom of the ancients comes to us here as well. St John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher from Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) says:

Sweet is the present life, and full of much pleasure, yet not to all, but to those who are riveted to it. Since, if any one looks to heaven and sees the beauteous things there, that person will soon despise this life, and make no account of it. Just as the beauty of an object is admired while none more beautiful is seen, but when a better appears, the former is despised. If then we would choose to look to that beauty, and observe the splendour of the kingdom there, we should soon free ourselves from our present chains; for a kind of chain it is, this sympathy with present things. 

Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily LXVII

But this still seems too hard, too harsh, too difficult. Another ancient preacher who was alive at the time of Chrysostom and Cyril was St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine makes a distinction between using the things of this world, even enjoying them, as gateways to God and loving them for their own sake. His teaching means that with a rightly ordered heart one sees the sun rise over the Sleeping Giant, enjoys the sight, and then praises God for His handiwork. The whole of human existence thus becomes a gateway to God—my life in this world that I am called to hate for the sake of Jesus becomes transfigured into the heavenly life with Christ. Transformed in this way, I would more readily lose this worldly life for a life filled with the grandeur of the glory of God.

Our Lord Christ repeats this idea of death to self in a new manner straightaway, but couples it to great promises: “If anyone serves me, he or she must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him or her.” (John 12:26) We must follow Christ, we are told. And where does Christ go from here in the Gospel of John? To the upper room, to the garden, to betrayal, to arrest, to being slandered, to being beaten, to being stripped naked, to being humiliated, to being nailed to a cross and lifted up from the earth.

To death.

But from death to glory.

For us, Jesus says that the Father will honour the one who serves and follows him. He promises that his ignominious death is the place of his glory. And he promises to raise us up too, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) An important point in all of this is grace. It is Jesus himself who is the grain of wheat that bears much fruit. It is Jesus himself who draws us to himself. It is God the Father who honours those who follow and serve Jesus.

The path of discipleship is a narrow path of self-denial. The path of discipleship is the pathway of death, death to self and to the world. Yet it is also the path to glory, and it is made easy by Jesus who draws us to himself. It is made easy by the Father who honours us. Let us not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The life of the ancient monk Antony, one of the first to take up the monastic life, was a living parable of dying to this world to follow Christ, being drawn by him. He abandoned all of his worldly possessions because in church one day he heard the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 where the Lord says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” St Antony did so. At one stage in his retreat from worldly life, he lived in a tomb in the Egyptian countryside where he did nothing but pray and do battle with demons. When he left this tomb, a physical symbol of his death to the world, it was as a participant in the divine life of Jesus. As St Athanasius of Alexandria, his biographer writes:

Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.

Life of Antony 14

Among the sayings left by Antony, two are particularly important for us today:

“Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.”

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4:18)

Let us die to ourselves in order to be alive to God and love him to the fullest, being caught up into Christ’s life by the abundant grace of the Father.

Praying and praising in all circumstances

Most of us are having a hard time keeping our spirits up as we deal with government restrictions in light of this pandemic. Whatever we’re going through, I am not sure it is worse than being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, though. And that’s what happened to St Patrick. About his time as a slave, Patrick writes:

After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.

Confessio 16

Perhaps what we’re missing is more prayer?