Desert and City: The Prophetic Ascetic

A friend recently brought up the criticism of the Desert Fathers that their withdrawal from the city meant a withdrawal from addressing the social issues and needs of the city. If we consider, perhaps, their own idealised desert anchorite or hermit, this holds true. However, if we consider the actual history of the Desert Fathers as well as their situation within the ancient church, I think this is a criticism that does not fit the reality as it was enacted.

First, as far as the actual history of the Desert Fathers is concerned, the first point we must acknowledge is the fact that almost none of the hermits achieved their idealised withdrawal from the world. St Antony ended up with a community gathered around him. St Simeon the Stylite shared wisdom with those who gathered around the base of his pillar. St Hilarion (although his story was largely fictionalised by St Jerome) was found by people wherever he went — he was forced into giving spiritual wisdom and performing miracles, whether he liked it or not. St Simeon the Mountaineer (less famous — one of John of Ephesus’ monks) found the local people living near his monk’s cell to be a field for evangelism.

Simeon the Mountaineer, in fact, is but one of many monks/nuns/hermits who found himself engaged in evangelism, despite the alleged ‘seclusion’ of his monastic profession.

Indeed, any anchorite or hermit whose name is known is known because he was the agent of God in the lives of others, whether, like Sts Barsanuphius and John, that was writing letters, or, like St Daniel the Stylite, that was dispensing advice in person. Therefore, they fulfilled a calling that was of benefit to church and world in these spiritual ways.

The cenobites (monks living in community), on the other hand, had opportunities to fulfill the commands to serve one another and love your neighbour simply through daily life. Moreover, there was always a class of monk who was in community because it provided him with the means of survival. Sure, you only ate once or twice a day. But you ate. At the social level, then, the cenobium provided the ancient poor with a place of refuge.

Moreover, not only the Desert Fathers but many other monks, nuns, hermits, et al., throughout history have left us a wealth of spiritual writings that are well worth reading. This is part of their prophetic calling. For we who read the sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, or the mystical treatises of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, are spurred onward and strengthened in our journey into God’s love through the wisdom he gave them in their lives of solitude.

This, however, does not save them all from their abdication of social responsibility.

My thought on this point has to do with the nature of the church in Late Antiquity, and, indeed, the Middle Ages. Not only was this a pre-denominational age for the church, the local church community did not see the different paroikia (parishes) and communities as, well, different communities. In a given, small-scale church community, not everyone is called to volunteer in the food bank, to lead the music, to cook meals, to help out with the moms’ group, to lead Bible studies, to get bricked into a room to pray and never leave. Each of us must discern which tasks are our own in the wider functional of the ecclesial community.

So in the ancient and medieval church. While we rightly see something lopsided in the belief that a life of retreat from the world and city was better, I do not think we can rightly see it as a wrong choice. Shenoute of Atripe and his monks may have lived in the White Monastery and prayed for the salvation of the world (and beat up the odd tax collector or two), but Cyril was in Alexandria giving to the poor (when not bribing the imperial court).

A better example: The ancient church needed bishops like St John the Almsgiver, a Bishop of Alexandria who was ceaseless in his acts of mercy, and St Daniel the Stylite, a monk on a pillar outside Constantinople who gave spiritual counsel to people from all walks of life.

In fact, I believe that, whatever their excesses and possible errors, the Desert Fathers were part of a prophetic movement of the Spirit of God beginning in the decades after the Constantinian settlement, a prophetic movement that monasticism and its offspring (such as the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans) would continue so long as Christianity and power were united.

Constantius in the Chronograph of 354

To a church that was seeing the large-scale conversion of aristocrats, as well as the syncretism of folk belief (as archaeology from Egypt shows), and which was perhaps getting doxologically and even morally lax in the comfort provided by favour from the state, the Desert Fathers served as a living embodiment of the full devotion Christ calls his disciples to make. They served as a reminder that Christianity is not a socially respectable institution but an encounter with the fully transcendent God (pictured below) who outstrips any purple-clad, bejewelled emperor in grace, holiness, and majesty (as pictured to the left). They served as a reminder that prayer is ultimately something we live, not simply something that we do when we turn up at a basilica for prayers before resuming ‘normal life’.

Whether in the desert or the city, whether monastic or cleric or layperson, each of us must realise that, for the Christian, there is no ‘normal life’, for the immanence of the transcendent God and the sacramentality of his good creation make that impossible.

And this is the prophetic role of the Desert Fathers.

 

Transfiguration of Jesus, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (art of the Desert)
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Sacramental reality

Today, I was explaining Vestal Virgins to my first-years, and I noticed that my slide said that the fire of Vesta was ‘symbolic of Rome’s power’. I took a moment to explain that that description is really inadequate. Symbols, I explained, were much more closely associated with that which they symbolised to the ancient Roman mind. You could almost say that the fire of Vesta was Rome’s power.

I went on to say that the world of the ancient Romans was interpenetrated by a sense of the numinous, that the divine interacted with daily life.

What I wanted to launch into was a discussion of the sacramental and transcendence.

But that wouldn’t necessarily fit a lecture on Roman mythology.

But I find even this Roman pagan view of the world much more appealing than the dead, inanimate world proffered by the Enlightenment. A world where the divine lurks behind every corner, where your hearthfire is an access point to another reality, where gods walk among mortals.

And my mind is turning this direction because I am reading Boersma’s Scripture As Real Presence, where he discusses a sacramental worldview, a world where God Himself is readily available to us hidden beneath the sacramental veil, and especially available to us in the words of sacred Scripture.

At the same time, I’ve begun reading a dissertation about the loss of a sense of transcendence in Canadian culture, including the Canadian church, and how this has led to the haemorrhaging of young people from our churches.

Maybe my excitement about divine immanence in the Roman world excited some young minds about finding that here and now.

Because these are realities we need — the transcendent, ever-present God who makes Himself known through symbol and sacrament.

St Cuthbert and missionary monks

Melrose Abbey

When I lived in Durham, my office was a two-minute walk from the powerful, weighty Romanesque/Norman cathedral. I visited the cathedral at least once a week to refresh my soul in what was, for us, a difficult year. If you turn right on entry and go to the Galilee Chapel, you find the tomb of the Venerable St Bede. If you turn left and walk along one of the broadest Romanesque naves of Europe, through the transept and into the late mediaeval Gothic expansion, you will find the tomb of St Cuthbert, behind the High Altar of the chancel.

St Cuthbert’s tomb is at the same height as the chancel, so you’ll have to take some stairs to get to it.

When King Henry VIII wanted the wealth of the church, combined with a Reformation zeal for simplicity, the old, glittering, glitzy, bejewelled shrine to St Cuthbert was dismembered (disiecti membra sancti?). Today, the saint lies interred beneath a black slab, similar to that of St Bede, ‘Cuthbertus’ inscribed in gold on it.

This body, intact for centuries (they disinterred it in 1104 and found it still to be fleshy and the limbs moveable), is Durham’s greatest treasure. To be sure, there are some mediaeval ecclesiastical politics behind the placement of St Cuthbert’s body, to do with the desire of Durham to be the episcopal seat of Northumberland, but the choice of St Cuthbert as Durham’s preferred saint is no accident.

Christianity arrived in (returned to) England in 597, and King Oswald of Northumberland brought St Aidan (d. 651) as his monastic mission-bishop based at Lindisfarne. The mission of St Aidan was something of a top-down affair. The king and his thegns converted, and the assumption was that their people would as well.

Around the time of Aidan’s arrival from Iona, Cuthbert, his most famous successor, was born. What makes St Cuthbert so interesting, from his time as a monk at Melrose to his death as a hermit on Inner Farne (at the time, all that was Northumberland), was the fact that, although a hermit at heart and contemplative by practice, he was also a preacher.

It is rumoured he preached as far north as Edwin’s Burg (Edinburgh), where a church to St Cuthbert stands today where once the shores of the Nor’ Loch lapped against the land. And he did not just preach to kings and carls, to thegns and landholders. He preached to the common folk of Northumberland, people to whom the king’s religion had not yet reached in the ensuing decades.

And this is why St Cuthbert is the greatest treasure of Durham Cathedral, for he really, truly was the instrument of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Gospel to Northumberland (which in medieval terms would include County Durham).

When I think about how we might reorient our lives and churches in post-Christendom, it is the example of such figures as Sts Cuthbert and Aidan that strikes me the most — people who are devoted to both the inner chamber, the secret room, the contemplative life of the mystic, and to the outer world, the preaching of the Gospel, the saving of the lost, the making of disciples.

Maybe we need more missionary monks.

This year’s Lent book: Scripture As Real Presence

As you may recall, I made a poll for 2018’s Lent book. Two books were nominated, but I had a year-long rule of only reading books I own in my spare time. Well, now it’s 2019, and that rule is up. So I have chosen one of those two books, Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence, on the grounds that I live a 15/20-min walk from Regent College where he teaches.

Also, I need to get better at reading the Bible. This book should hopefully do that; it is a study of patristic exegesis.

There is always the general desire to read the Bible more consistently. But I think that I am bad at reading the Bible. Either I don’t invest enough attention or I don’t really get it. I’ve already read Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, a book that laicises the work of Graeme Goldsworthy. But somehow, situating a passage from the Old Testament in salvation history doesn’t always help.

So this Lent, I want to read the Bible more.

And it strikes me that being equipped to read the Bible better will help. It will also help to re-learn discipline and humility, of course.

I’m hoping Boersma will be part of that better reading. I mean, I already know a lot about the topic, but what I really want isn’t just information about how the Fathers read the Bible but how I can follow in their footsteps. This book will hopefully help with that. I’m on chapter 4, about Melito of Sardis and Origen’s allegorical reading of Exodus. The introductory sections of the book were inspiring and meaty, and the chapter on Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine’s literal reading of Genesis was thought-provoking. In chapter 3, about Origen and Chrysostom on Abraham’s theophany at the Oak of Mamre, we encounter two different styles that are to be held in tension with each other but not necessarily strictly harmonised.

The underlying conviction of this book, and one that the ancient and medieval exegetes also held, is that Scripture itself needs to be theologically and holistically, and Jesus Christ is at the centre of all true exegesis. God makes Himself manifest to us through Scripture, and we need to prayerfully apply ourselves to it. What I want to know is how Boersma now interacts with his former influences, such as the Reformed tradition and N T Wright.

But I do hope his trajectory through the Fathers into Anglicanism will not end with him Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, as happens to so many.

This is a readable book, and so far I can heartily recommend it for Protestants who want a taste of the riches of Scripture beyond the sort of historical exegesis touted almost everywhere else.

St. Patrick: A Sonnet

A powerful poem for St Patrick from Malcolm Guite. Enjoy while you wear green and drink your Guinness today!

Malcolm Guite

PilgrimYear_SaintPatrickMeme

Here is my sonnet for Saint Patrick’s day. It is in my anthology Word in the Wilderness and is also collected in Parable and Paradox but here it is for the day itself. This particular poem was prompted by my good friend Steve Bell who was writing a fascinating book on the seasons called The Pilgrim Year and who wanted me to write something for St. Patrick’s day. I can strongly commend Steve’s ebook!

While Patrick is of course primarily associated with Ireland where he flourished as a missionary in the second half of the fifth century, he was not Irish to begin with. He seems to have been a shepherd on the mainland of Great Britain and was in fact captured there, at the age of sixteen, by raiding pirates and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. He was six years in captivity…

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Making the Bible ‘possible’: Pre-modern exegesis

When I was doing my PhD, a bunch of my friends (mostly Biblical Studies PhDs) read a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith’s major thrust — from what I recall — was that evangelicals read the Bible as though it is perfectly clear and has one meaning when, in fact, it is possessed of polyvalence, as any glance at the many volumes available at your local Christian bookstore would make clear. I don’t remember if he had a solution internal to evangelicalism or not.

On a related note, Smith himself had converted to Roman Catholicism because, in part, of this issue. In the Roman Church, the Magisterium can help you navigate the polyvalence of Scripture.

I don’t think one needs to convert to the Church of Rome in order to address this problem. Moreover, I suspect that many people who go to Rome seeking authority and absolutes are converting for the wrong reasons, given the fact that the Magisterium leaves many awkward questions unanswered, and a great many Roman Catholics are in open rebellion against the Magisterium on many issues, and priests occasionally utter heresy in the confessional. This is not to characterise all converts to Rome, of course. Some, I suspect, though.

That is to say — you need more than a desire for absolutes if you want to swim the Tiber, because you’ll find fewer than you expect.

Anyway, I am reading Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, and here we meet the polyvalence of Scripture head-on. What marks the late antique and medieval approach to polyvalence is the authors’ extreme comfort with it. Time and again, from St Augustine of Hippo onwards, so long as an interpretation does not undermine the Catholic faith, and so long as it builds up charity to God and/or neighbour, any interpretation is a go.

Some of them may be more factually correct, of course. St Jerome, as I recall, is a big fan of at least producing factual and logically valid options, even if multiple ones exist. Some are also to be preferred because they strengthen the Catholic faith more than others.

Moreover, not only are pre-modern exegetes totally comfortable with polyvalence, they expect it and revel in it. Scripture has been given to us as a way for God to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite. Therefore, we should not be surprised that His self-revelation is itself potentially infinite in its interpretation. Furthermore, different people and different times have different needs and different questions. The inexhaustibility of Scripture means that it can and will produce meanings that will help its various readers.

I recall first meeting ideas like this in Augustine’s Confessions, where he talks about Genesis and how any logically valid interpretation that builds up charity is allowable. It was something of a breath of fresh air after the years I spent in the interminable (at times ridiculous) creation-evolution debate. Here was the greatest theologian of Latin Christianity saying that, in Genesis 1, there is no one right answer. And he himself was espousing allegory, of all things! St Augustine, the great propagator of predestination!

So if you’re starting to find the Bible impossible, one pathway to recovery is finding those exegetes who came before western Christendom fractured at the Reformation. Take their inisights alongside those of modern scholars and seek the infinite God in His infinite variety.

Anselm’s prayers as meditations

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

One thing that my contact with ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity has not done away with is my mistrust of the cult of saints. I am not interested in asking the blessed departed to intercede with God on my behalf. This creates a potential problem for me and other Protestant types in reading St Anselm’s prayers, since the bulk of them are addressed to saints.

Now, the scholarly solution, and one I endorse, is to read these as specimens of Christianity from another age. Ask the texts what they show us about high mediaeval spirituality. Ask also how they interact with St Anselm’s other work, the theology and spirituality of his contemporaries such as his mentor Lanfranc or younger contemporary Hugh of St Victor. I commend that historical task to you always, whenever you read Christian authors from a different time, for it can help bridge the gap and enliven their spirituality (and therefore your own as a result!).

But if we can use the Prayer to Christ as a means to stir up our hearts to Jesus, how can we read the prayers to saints devotionally?

I can think of two ways we can use St Anselm’s prayers to the saints devotionally. One is to use his meditations on theology that are embedded within the prayers as spurs to our own prayers and meditations. The other is to consider the virtues of the saints whom he addresses.

I prefer the first.

When we do so, we realise how stark an awareness of one’s own sin the mediaeval Christian had:

If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I do consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side. (Prayer to St John the Baptist, trans. B. Ward, p. 130-31)

Such thoughts run through the prayers — one of St Anselm’s concerns is that God is both judge and plaintiff — how can he stand? Condemnation is his lot. This gloomy vision of human sin and wickedness would probably be considered pathological by modern psychology. Maybe it was. Then again, maybe Anselm had it right. Maybe Know Thyself (a theme I’ve discussed before) leads directly to this awareness. And this awareness leads you directly to Christ:

God, whose goodness is not exhausted,
whose mercy is not emptied out,
whose knowledge does not fail,
whose power can effect what you will;
whence shall I ever be able to get back life,
who have thus been driven desperate by my sins?
For if you are angry against sinners,
at least, kind Lord, you are accustomed to give counsel
to those who plead with you.
Teach me, O Lord, whence I ought to hope,
so that I can pray.
For I long to pray to you;
but I neither know how because of my ignorance,
nor am I able to because of my hardness.
And I am forbidden to do it by despair because of my sins. …

Jesus, good Lord,
why did you come down from heaven,
what did you do in the world,
to what end did you give yourself over to death,
unless it was that you might save sinners?
St Paul, what did you teach
when you were passing through the world?
God, and his apostles, and you most of all,
invite us sinners to faith;
you show us this as our only safe refuge.
How then should I not hope, if I believe this,
and ask in this faith?
How can this hope be frustrated in me,
if that faith does not fail me
from which it was born? (Prayer to St Paul, pp. 145-6)

I hope that if you are interested in reading the Prayers and Meditations these meditations of mine may help you use St Anselm to deepen your own devotional life.