Martyrdom

I have recently taken over as administrator of Read the Fathers. It’s not too late to join! It’s never too late to join, but it’s pretty easy just now. We started on December 1, and everything we’ve been reading has been short so far. Check us out! It’s only seven years of your life. ūüėČ

This means a lot of my blogging energy is going there instead of here at the moment, such as my latest post, a bit of an introductory creature about martyrdom. I hope you enjoy it! Join the discussion. Join our reading group!

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship Book 2

Book 2 of¬†Spiritual Friendship is the shortest of the three books of St Aelred’s guide to making friends and growing spiritually. In the drama of the dialogue, a few years have passed, and Aelred has gained new dialogue partners, his original interlocutor having passed away. We have a recap of what went before, and then discussion of the importance of friendship.

Basing his discussion in Scripture, Aelred sees friendship as one of the highest goods in a person’s life. Without friendship, we are like wild animals. Furthermore, friendship provides a foundation for the virtues. Friendship is medicine. One elegant passage runs:

Consequently, friendship for the rich is a glory, for exiles a country, for the poor remission of taxes, for the sick medicine, for the dead life, for the healthy a benefit, for the weak strength, and for the vigorous a reward. (2.14)

… One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.” (2.14)

Such wonderful friendship, though, such friendship that brings excellence and lays the foundation for virtue, exists only among the good. To be more precise, Aelred says that it exists perfectly among the perfect, but has its origins among the good and progresses as they themselves progress in perfection.

Pre-modern Christians have no qualms in stating outright that if we are less holy, we will enjoy the benefits of life less fully.

Nevertheless, the argument as it sits in Aelred, with his descriptions of what friendship is, makes sense. Friendship is a unanimity of mind, a deep bond of harmony. It is the foundation for virtue and a balm in distress. Moreover, and this is a vital point first made in book 2, friendship is a pathway to Christ. It only stands to reason, then, that we will enjoy its benefits more the more we become like Christ.

Consider as follows. Let’s say I suffer from the passion of anger, due in part to my own prickliness, in part to my own selfishness, in part to my own pettiness as I judge others. This will limit the number of deep, true, spiritual friendships I have, and limit the depth of any friendship I form. But if I am able to acknowledge that I have such a weakness, and profess it to a friend — well, my friendship has become a stepping-stone to becoming more like Christ.

Moreover, my friend can pray for me about this problem, and I can pray for him. As I overcome my own anger and the selfishness whence it comes, I will be better able to listen to my friend’s weaknesses and to take his concerns to Christ in prayer. As I pray for him, and as he prays for me, we both become holier. Our mutual growth in holiness will stir us up to become even holier.

But if I remain petty and selfish, judging my friend for the ways in which he is unlike me, neither will I have the vulnerability to open up to him, nor will I have the magnanimity to take his own concerns seriously.

This is just my own imagining. Nonetheless, I think it true. So let’s find someone at least as good as ourselves to be vulnerable with, to pray with, and to be friends with.

This will be a path to Jesus and the heart of God.

Christ’s church … militant?

Christ in Glory, Ethiopic Gospel ms, British Library Or. MS 481, f.110v. 17th century

The title of this post is one of the many resonant phrasings from the Book of Common Prayer, ‘Christ’s church militant here on earth.’ I have to admit, though, looking first to myself, we are not very militant in the West. I have recently blogged about my attempts to set up regular prayer. It is slowly emerging, but I’m still no soldier. I need to figure out reading and study of Scripture, let alone working out other disciplines.

Somehow, sitting around at my computer with a beer and a bowl full of creamy dill potato chips doesn’t feel very militant.

Others have noticed what I have previously referred to as “spiritual flabbiness” here in the West. Apparently, one reason why immigrant Christians start their own churches in Canada is that they think we are too soft and that we will be a bad influence on their children. They’re probably right!

What inspires these thoughts today is a little something I found on an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church website (from Mountain of Medicine Saviour of the World, an English-language Ethiopian Orthodox mission parish in Toronto — I want to visit):

Orthodoxy in general helps the believer to realize that the Church is a Militant Church, which means every believer is a soldier in Christ; then one must realize that the Christian life consist of Order, Discipline and Sacrifice. These are traits that a soldier must possess in order to be successful in warfare.

The world is an undisciplined place so the Church of God must be the opposite. Just read the scriptures and see that Heavenly Worship is very orderly; it involves a Heavenly Hierarchy if you will, Cherubim, Seraphim, Archangel, Angels, Principalities, and Powers. The Worship is Liturgical Rev. 4:8¬†‚ÄúHoly, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, The Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come‚Ä̬†the living creatures chant this day and night without ceasing.

Order, Discipline and Sacrifice.

Now, even soldiers get time off, so don’t get me wrong. And our rich ascetic tradition in Christianity knows this — a bow that is always strung will break. But I think most of us — self included! — leave our bows unstrung most of the time.

The Ethiopians are not unusual in seeing us as soldiers, of course. The word pagan that refers to those ancient persons who are neither Christian nor Jewish, as it turns out, seems most likely to refer to non-combatants, to civilians. The ancient Christians saw themselves as fighting, as milites (the Latin word for soldiers). Everyone else was a civilian, not fighting the fight.

The martyrs were considers soldiers of Christ, and after them the monks.

In our Protestant hymn books, we used to sing “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”

Of course, Anglicans are too enlightened for this sort of thing, anymore.

But the Ethiopians know it. Maybe we flabby westerners should spend some time with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters to get back some of the fire, discipline, and strength of our own forebears, men and women who went to the stake for the Gospel, were imprisoned, were beheaded, and crucified, who travelled far and wide by primitive means of travel to share the Gospel of Christ with others, who endured sickness and death just to be faithful to Christ, their King.

Middle Eastern Christianity is complicated

His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012), Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Egypt

I am giving a talk in a few days about the relevance of Leo the Great’s letters for the modern Middle East. The basic argument is: the Oriental Orthodox still reject Leo’s theology and the Council of Chalcedon, however nuanced their official positions may be, based upon ecumenical joint declarations about Christology. The root of the schism between the Miaphysites and the imperial church (whose descendants are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) is the acceptance of Leo’s Christology at Chalcedon in 451.

What I want to find are stats on the different churches of the Middle East. Naively, I imagined that it was not necessarily so bad. There are the main focus of my investigation, the Oriental Orthodox: Coptic Orthodox, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (“Jacobites”), Armenian Apostolic, as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox. They are also in communion with the Indian Orthodox Church. And I knew there was also the Church of the East, formerly misleadingly called “Nestorian”. The other main churches I knew about are the Eastern Orthodox, particularly the Antiochene Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox, although I did visit an Eastern Orthodox church in Cairo that was under their own patriarch in Alexandria.

The destabilising element, however, is the West. First: the Church of Rome. I knew there were so-called “Melkites” in communion with Rome as the result of a simultaneous union with Rome and schism within the Antiochene Orthodox Church. I also knew about the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, themselves of a similar event in the Church of the East. And I knew that the Maronites are in communion with Rome. Plus, of course, western Rite Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome’s attempts at reunion in the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have resulted in some members of most of the historic churches of the Middle East joining them, but some not.

It gets more complicated, of course, because Anglicans have tried similar things as the Roman Catholics, seeking to enter into full communion with indigenous churches that are of apostolic origin with episcopal structure. And some of them go for Anglicanism, others don’t. So even more schism. This is not to bring in the many splinters of Protestantism familiar to any of us from the West.

I have to admit at this point that it has grown vaguer because I found it very hard keeping all of the different historic churches of the Middle East in order. Many of them have very similar names, for one thing. Others I had never heard of. But they exist, and they seek to live out the Christian life faithfully in often trying circumstances, whether we think of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq or civil war in Syria or non-government-sanctioned moments of persecution in Egypt or the memory of attempted genocide on Armenian and Assyrian Christians by the Ottomans.

What all of these faithful followers of Jesus have in common is an apostolic lineage. All of them can trace their bishops through succession back to the apostles, just like the Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury — mind you, Archbishop Welby can trace his succession back to Augustine of Canterbury, and from him to Gregory the Great of Rome. But that sort of thing is how it works for most of these churches as well — they can trace their bishops back to a missionary bishop who was connected with an older church, and the chain goes back to the apostles.

When I think about this, the apostolic succession argument, even if I were to fully embrace it, it clearly not quite strong enough to convert me out of Anglicanism. First, we tend to think that we have apostolic succession, certain denials thereof by the Church of Rome notwithstanding. Second, whose apostolic succession to choose? Roman Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy? Oriental Orthodoxy? The Church of the East? All of them have a tendency to say that their own form of Christianity is nothing but the pure tradition handed down by the apostles. This is actually an important point I want to consider in a later post.

Anyway, the Middle East is complicated, not only for the above but also because we Protestants are there bringing new and different approaches to the faith, from Anglicanism and Methodism to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the fact that so much of the complication arose from attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian unity centuries ago.

How might we do better today?

St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1

I just finished reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s¬†Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Aelred d. 1167). You can read the introduction through to the end of book 1 for free as a publisher’s preview from Liturgical Press (the Benedictines who now publish [or at least distribute] Cistercian Publications) if you like. I thought I would share a few reflections on Book 1 here.

The whole of¬†Spiritual Friendship is a dialogue, and Book 1 consists of an abbot named Aelred conversing with a monk named Ivo on the question of friendship. For a starting point for the discussion, they take up Cicero’s definition from¬†On Friendship 6.20:

Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. (Aelred, 1.11)

From here it is pondered whether this is attainable outside of grace and of Christ. As they proceed, three kinds of human relationship that might be called ‘friendship’ emerge:

  1. Carnal friendship: Simply enjoying things, mostly sin, with another person. Like Augustine’s friends and the pears, or like a band of thieves.
  2. Worldly friendship: Maintaining a relationship with someone else for personal gain. They mostly discuss wealth, business, and the like, but we can imagine ‘career advancement’ or, in their own 12th-century context, ‘advancement at court’, being the same basic thing.
  3. Spiritual friendship: Friends who are friends simply for the sake of each other’s company.

This third friendship is¬†not charity (caritas), for charity embraces both friend and foe, whereas in spiritual friendship you can entrust everything to each other. Moreover, this friendship is between people with ‘agreement in things human and divine’, so it differs from¬†caritas¬†since¬†caritas is to be given to all, friend, foe, stranger.

To distinguish it from the other two friendships, Aelred says:

Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired not with an eye to any worldly profit or for any extraneous reason, but for its own natural worth and for the emotion of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself. (1.45)

An important idea that emerges is the statement that friendship is part of human nature — therefore, it is good, and it has been there since creation. Evidence for this comes from Genesis, where it is said that it is not good for the man to be alone, so the woman is created out of him. This is also, for those who have an interest, used as evidence that male and female by nature are equals.

Friendship, however, was corrupted at the fall by cupidity, avarice, envy that brought in contentions, rivalries, hatreds, and suspicions. This is the state of the world we live in. But true, that is, spiritual, friendship is still possible.

As the book draws towards its end, Aelred also makes a provocative statement:

if you weigh these teachings carefully, you will discover that friendship is so close to or steeped in wisdom that I would almost claim that friendship is nothing other than wisdom. (1.67)

Ivo disputes that, and as part of his wider explanation, Aelred says:

Since in friendship, then, eternity may flourish, truth light the way, and charity delight, see for yourself whether you should withhold the name of wisdom where these three co-exist. (1.68)

Some thoughts arising from this very brief account of only a few points in Aelred’s text.

First, not having read Cicero’s¬†On Friendship and so speaking second hand, it seems that from texts such as that and from what Aelred says, that in the ancient mindset, life was a contest — so most friendships were of the ‘worldly’ kind at best. What Aelred has not imagined in this part of the book is that kind of friendship that arises between persons of mutual interests but where the relationship ultimately does exist for its own sake but will never progress to the kind of spiritual friendship that I understand the second and third books discuss.

What do we do with this? Do we see it as a foundation for true friendship that cannot be realised in the unregenerate outside of the grace of Christ? That said friends, if converted, would find themselves strengthened even more?

Second, I think this text was important in Aelred’s day for much the same reason as in our own. St Aelred is writing in the same era as the troubadours of France, the same era as courtly love, of Chr√©tien de Troyes, of Marie de France, of others. This is an age where a secular literature emerged of ‘true’ love being the highest good, rising (in literature) even higher than that of the Christian God, where ‘true’ love is erotic and not bound by marriage but often of necessity found only in adultery.

We may no longer esteem adultery so highly, but we are not so far from the courtly ethic of love and its power and its importance as might be though.

In such a context, to find a great, high, and magnificent ideal in friendship is powerful. And then to find in friendship a pathway to Christ through those humans around us — this is a message that we need in our age that is at once more connected and more lonely than ever, our age of sex without intimacy, and online ‘friends’ we’ve never met.

Let’s see where the next two books will take me…

‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book¬†The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’¬†Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the¬†Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s¬†Dark Night for myself. I started in on¬†The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the¬†Rule of St Benedict,¬†Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross,¬†The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of √Āvila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

Thinking about the hours of prayer in the 21st century

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.

Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.

Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.

So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.

Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.

If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?

There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.

One that seems to arise in the tradition itself, and not amongst the monks, is praying at certain times of the day. I’ve noted it in relation to¬†The Apostolic Tradition recently, as well as in relation to St Benedict, and as a general point of discussion, amidst other posts on the topic.

When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.

In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).

I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?

Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?

The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.

An example might be:

  • On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
  • Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
  • Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
  • Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
  • Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
  • Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.

My two main thoughts are:

  1. Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
  2. Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.

Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.