Experimental thoughts concerning General Synods and the theology of councils

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.

For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.

For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.

A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.

As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.

Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
  2. Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
  6. Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)

The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.

The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.

But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in  Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.

Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?

By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?

What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:

  • The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
  • The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
  • In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
  • In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.

If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.

So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?

Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.

Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.

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A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren

The short version: This book is written in the genre of a novel which I think is a really good way to explore those ideas bundled together as ‘postmodern’. It is geared towards disillusioned American evangelicals who still love Jesus but find a lot of problems in the way church is done and stuff is talked about in the year 2000 (a lot of these problems persist to this day). It is good at asking hard questions, but the few answers are sometimes too vague as to actually be helpful or only highlight more problems. The concepts of modernism/modernity and postmodernism/postmodernity as assessed. Sometimes I think there are factual errors in these discussions. Nonetheless, this book is good at problematizing — and I think a lot of people found it refreshing to start thinking about different ways of being Christian that did not mean abandoning historic orthodoxy.

18 years later, I am not sure I would recommend the book. This is because McLaren imagined the imminent arrival of postmodernity, yet we have found ourselves living in the hypermodern instead. For example, instead of a pluralist culture where Christianity is one respected voice amongst many, we have a situation that I was recently told is called ‘postsecular’ — secularism is so deeply ingrained in our society’s ways of operating that we are living in the truly secular age forecast by Charles Taylor years ago. That is to say: The book is good, but limited in part because of the new directions our culture is taking and has taken, unanticipated by 2001’s new kind of Christian.

Cultural assessments and critiques like this are probably meant to only have a certain shelf life.

I’ll set aside where I suspect the factual errors are in the description of modernity, and focus on the conversations about Christianity. The conversation partners clearly want to rise above the division of conservative/liberal, which is nice but likely impossible. Throughout, the main pomo fellow, Neo, says, ‘People think in this binary fashion. The conversation is actually up here.’ It’s a nice way of dodging answers. Nevertheless, a question raised cannot be un-asked.

For example, when the question of salvation comes up, this book gets really twitchy. I think McLaren was reacting against some unhealthy approaches to the question used by American evangelicals and fundamentalists. One of the questions about salvation was the question of universalism vs inclusivism vs exclusivism; the first means everyone is saved by Jesus’ saving power; the second means everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is saved along with certain people of other religions like the Calormene in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle; the third means only those who put their faith in Jesus are saved. Neo says that this question isn’t the Bible’s main concern, and the Bible is more concerned with living out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Except the Bible does have things to say that have bearing on the question. I would rather the new kind of Christian be humble in his or her answer, whichever of the three, than come up with some pomo pseudo-logic to avoid answering.

This is only one example of many. It leaves the book intellectually unsatisfying. I am, perhaps, more ‘modernist’ than I’d like to admit, but since the first moderns were mediaeval, and I like the rigour of Boethius and Anselm, I’ll take the label.

I do agree that late twentieth-century American (and Canadian) evangelicalism (which, not modern Christianity at large, is the real target of the book) needed a readjustment regarding the word salvation. Neo insists that the way evangelicals approach the question, of ‘getting saved’ and going to heaven, is selfish. I’m not sure that it’s selfish; it’s too small, however, and I appreciate the bigness of Neo’s vision when he incorporates the cosmos into the question.

But human salvation means the salvation of persons, and this is part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. When I think of salvation on the human level, I am certainly not thinking of a ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card in a heavenly Monopoly game. My reading of the Fathers, medievals, and Orthodox thinkers has been leading me down new paths about participation in Christ and the ongoing work of salvation and such. This sort of richness of human salvation would have benefited the book simply because it tempers evangelicalism without gutting it.

This or something like it could be my tune for almost all of my disagreements with this book. For example, looking for a third way of ethics that is neither fundamentalist moralising nor liberal social works with no regard for inner character (that’s not quite how it’s phrased) — you mean Roman Catholicism? There’s a different kind of Christianity with a powerful social teaching and regard for the despised and rejected as well as moral standards as high as those of any evangelical — except at least Catholics can drink beer!

I could go on because it is easier to complain than to praise. There is much good in this book in terms of shaking things up — What do you believe about the Bible? What about salvation? Your own? Others’? Those outside the church? What is the relationship between church and kingdom? What do we do regarding other religions? Science and religion? etc., etc. Some of the answers are satisfying, some are correction course (‘Hey, the Bible is mostly stories!’), some are unsatisfying in the extreme.

In the end, this chief weakness still comes back to me, though. The characters foresee a future where Christians re-engage ancient and medieval spiritual practices (yay!). They imagine training for ministry that includes reading broadly through the whole tradition in terms of time and space (yay!). They engage in endless periodization (ancient – medieval – modern – postmodern) (blah). But the ideas of ancient and medieval, let alone Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christianity are never presented as options for those disillusioned with the options currently on offer in modern Christianity.

From what I see, this problem would plague the emergent movement until it fizzled out. They want the pretty, evocative stuff of ancient/medieval Christianity (incense, icons, candles, compline, pilgrimage, mysticism, even fasting and almsgiving), but not the intellectual rigour of an Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, or John of Damascus. The existence of Roman Catholics is noted, but the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition rarely engaged.

This is true of all three of McLaren’s books that I’ve read — and the reviews of A New Kind of Christianity show him ramping it up with his ‘Greco-Roman thesis’ that the biblical plot of creation – fall – redemption – glory was an importation from Platonic philosophy (it’s not; it bears little to no resemblance to Platonism; I do not know where he got this), or that if you reject penal substitutionary atonement theory you reject Christ’s death atoning for us (all Christians before Anselm must be confused, along with all of Eastern Christianity) — if he had read the Fathers and the medieval and Byzantine theologians deeply, he would not have made these errors. He may still have been a heretic, but at least an informed one.

In the end, if you are disillusioned with contemporary evangelicalism and want to find a different way of being Christian, this book may be helpful. On the other hand, why not just read Ephrem the Syrian, or Sebastian Brock’s excellent book about him, The Luminous Eye? Or Isaac of Nineveh? Both are online for free, after all. There you will find a different kind of Christian who yet affirms the reliability of Scripture and the Nicene faith without all the hazards of either evangelicalism or liberalism.

Review: On the Person of Christ, The Christology of Emperor Justinian

On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian Against the Monophysites; Concerning the Three Chapters; On the True FaithOn the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian Against the Monophysites; Concerning the Three Chapters; On the True Faith by Justinian I
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Kenneth Wesche’s translation of three treatises by the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) on Christological topics: Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites; A Letter on the Three Chapters; and The Edict on the True Faith. These are the three texts edited by E. Schwartz in Drei dogmatische Schriften. The notes throughout largely mirror Schwartz’s references, although I noticed that in one place, where Justinian cites Pope Leo I as having said something Leo did not say, Wesche did not include Schwartz’s note saying that Leo’s letter did not include the statement. Not to say that Wesche is deliberately fudging things, I guess, but he does have his own angle.

At the time of publication, Rev. Dr Wesche was an Orthodox priest in Minneapolis. He chose to make this translation because Justinian’s Christology is basic to the Byzantine understanding of Christ and endures in the Orthodox Church today. Moreover, although Wesche does not say this, Justinian is relatively straightforward in his presentation of Christological thought and his defence of his own position. One of the concerns some of the less famous bishops of Late Antiquity had in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon was that, while they agreed with the council, they did not think it had anything to offer their own congregations. Christology at this level, they said, was for bishops to stop heresy, not for catechesing the faithful.

Justinian does an admirable job of trying to make clear what is easily obscure. The same problems plague him here as everywhere in the controversy from 451 onward — the obstinacy of his opponents, the lack of clarity on terminology, etc. Nevertheless, I can easily see even a bishop looking at the long citations from the Fathers with commentary and tiring of what lies before him. That may be no fault of Justinian, but rather of human frailty.

The two targets here are ‘Monophysites’ (aka Miaphysites aka anti-Chalcedonian Cyrillians aka conservative Cyrillians), in particular the acephaloi, and supporters of the ‘Three Chapters’. Concerning ‘Monophysites’, it can be difficult to keep them straight in our minds. Justinian’s focus is not the orthodox (or nearly orthodox) forms of belief espoused by Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbug, but the radical, intransigent arguments of Timothy Aelurus and the acephaloi of Egypt, a group who rejected the Archbishop of Alexandria through a radical commitment to mia physis — ‘one nature’ — Christology. If his quotations are accurate, Timothy Aelurus looks truly heretical to me. The main point Justinian argues against the ‘Monophysites’ is that Cyril’s ‘one nature’ formula is perfectly compatible with ‘two natures’ when Chalcedon is interpreted properly.

The ‘Three Chapters’ are: the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian; and writings by Theodoret of Cyrrhus against Cyril of Alexandria. These three items were condemned by Justinian through various approaches as part of his attempt to reconcile ‘Monophysites’ like Severus of Antioch with the imperial church. The supporters of these ‘Three Chapters’ were mostly (but not entirely) Latin-speakers for whom anything that abrogated or seemed to threaten the authority of the Council of Chalcedon was anathema. They argued that condemning Ibas’s letter and the writings of Theodoret went against the council that welcomed both bishops into communion and rehabilitated them after they had been expelled from their bishoprics by the Second Council of Ephesus (449). They also objected to posthumous denunciations of people who died in the faith and peace of the Church like Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Justinian’s strongest argument was that neither Ibas nor Theodoret himself was condemned. Rather, particular writings that were not in accordance with the faith were condemned. Moreover, Theodore of Mopsuestia stands condemned for heresy by his own hand already, regardless of his position in the church at his death. Theodore was a particular target, for in the later stages of the Nestorian Controversy, after the Council of Ephesus (430), Cyril of Alexandria and his allies realised that the theology of Nestorius that they so detested and found so dangerous would still persist as long as Theodore’s teaching was allowed to be spread, since Theodore was the intellectual master of Nestorius. Therefore, through these condemnations, Justinian sought to heal the wounds of the eastern church.

Obviously, he failed. Indeed, his attempts at reconciling the East failed anyway, and they also brought about a schism in the West.

My one final concern about this book is Wesche’s assertion in the introduction to the ‘Edict on the True Faith’ that western and eastern approaches to Christology are very different, and the edict shows that. Perhaps I am simply a poor theologian, or I’ve spent too much of my own theological training reading patristic and eastern books, but I do not see anything in Justinian’s approach in this text that is counter to how I would think we do Christology.

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Review: Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 2, part 1

Christ in Christian TraditionChrist in Christian Tradition by Aloys Grillmeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first part of the second ‘volume’ of Grillmeier’s magisterial history of Christology. The first volume takes the reader up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This part of volume 2 takes you from Chalcedon to around 532. This volume is largely devoted to the history of the unfolding post-Chalcedonian controversy — the perception, reception, and rejection of the council and its two-natures formula.

A few moments and figures get detailed analysis of their Christology, but nothing as in-depth as vol. 1. I think that the really in-depth studies of figures such as Severus of Antioch are in part 2 of volume 2.

The sweep is grand, and Grillmeier brings up some important points for the period that I think we often overlook. One point is the way the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno was itself largely unknown in the West and interpreted in two different ways in the East, right up to the end of the reign of Anastasius — that is, those who think that abandoning this document spelled the end of any hope of eastern reconciliation have grossly overestimated its ability to hold pro- and anti-Chalcedonian forces together. They were already moving apart in the East, especially since many anti-Chalcedonians such Philoxenus of Mabbug and Severus of Antioch rejected the ‘Henotikon’, anyway.

I say this not to read Grillmeier’s book as teleological — that Chalcedon ‘had to’ triumph in the end. But it is a major corrective to ongoing treatments of the material that seem to think that a Miaphysite triumph would not have spelled schism and disaster as much as the Chalcedonian triumph did. People were using the same words in different ways with no interest or, at times, ability, to realise this fact. This can only lead to ruin, especially when you throw Latin into the Greek controversies, let alone the bulky Syriac-speaking population of the dioecesis of Oriens.

Anyway, that is the sort of historical treatment we find. Grillmeier wants to get beyond emperors this and popes that to the documents that reveal to us the ideas of the wider association of bishops, monks, and clergy. Thus, he uses Emperor Leo I’s Codex Encyclius as a means to discern how eastern bishops in 458 perceived the council of seven years earlier.

Grillmeier also corrects over-reading Emperor Anastasius as a Miaphysite. It becomes clear from the documents under discussion — often quoted at length, often paraphrased — that his support for the ‘Henotikon’ was not tied to any support of the more extreme Severan agenda. Indeed, the emperors emerge as a particular kind of force in geo-ecclesiology in this book — before Justinian, they do not enforce their own views, but use documents drafted by bishops to attempt to find some kind of compromise (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Basiliscus, the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno), or gain the opinions of bishops on fractious issues (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Leo I), or councils (Marcian at CP, several local councils of Anastasius, early councils of Justinian, a planned council by Vitalian [who never became emperor]). They seek unity and see themselves as arbiters of unity within the imperial church, working alongside the bishops who are the ones who set the correct interpretation of the faith.

They are often compromisers as a result. A figure like Anastasius cannot afford to be unshakeable in doctrine the way Athanasius, Ambrose, Leo, or Cyril was. Too much is at stake. For him, it is not doctrinal purity but unity of the imperial church that matters; the content of doctrine is set by the specialists. He simply seeks the best specialists and tries to enforce their judgement.

This book also sees that the watchword for orthodoxy in the West was always and ever Chalcedon — not that no Latin ever wrote anything interesting in Christology in these years. Indeed, there is much of interest here still from the later years of Leo and especially the interpretation of Leo by Gelasius I. But anyone or anything that implies either a rejection of Chalcedon or fellowship with those who reject the council is immediately anathema to the Latins. This is to be kept in mind for the sequel to the events discussed here.

Finally, Grillmeier shows himself a man of his times, with the buoyant atmosphere of ecumenism in the 1980s. He often talks about the relevance of the different measures to find or enforce unity, or statements drawn up, to the modern situation of ecumenical dialogue. Alas, the great ecumenical experiment has petered out, by the ongoing liberalisation of the Protestant mainline and the ongoing support of every ancient ecclesial communion for its own heritage — I am thinking here of the statements made by Pope Shenouda III in favour of monenergism that remind us that, whatever the joint statements on Christology say re Chalcedon, the disputes of the seventh century live on in the twenty-first.

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The disparate nature of tradition

Council of Chalcedon

I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?

Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.

For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.

Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.

But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.

Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.

Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.

Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.

Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.

A timeless truth about preaching from Jacob of Sarug

When the preacher speaks of matters that concern perfection, it leaves him cold; when he tells stories of those who have stood out for their zeal for righteousness, his mind begins to wander. If a sermon starts off on the subject of continence, his head begins to nod; if it goes on to speak of sanctity, he falls asleep. But if the preacher speaks about the forgiveness of sins, then your humble Christian wakes up. This is talk about his own condition; he knows it from the tone. His heart rejoices; he opens his mouth; he waves his hands; he heaps praise on the sermon: for this is on a theme that concerns him.

-Jacob of Sarug, late 500s, quoted by Peter Brown, ‘The Decline of the Empire of God’, in Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, p. 41.

Blogging Benedict: Hospitality

One of the characteristics that a bishop (episkopos) is meant to have, according to St Paul’s letter to Titus (1:8), is to be a lover of hospitality. Although all monasteries, Benedictine ones included, are a kind of retreat from the world, they are nevertheless places of hospitality. We read in chapter 53:

All guests who arrive should be received as if they were Christ. (trans. White, p. 83; Mt 25:35)

This should be enough for us to want to be hospitable. In the Lives of Eastern Saints by Benedict’s younger Syriac contemporary, John of Ephesus, this ideal drives the many encounters the monks and hermits of Mesopotamia have with others. In chapter 5, the monk Simeon the Recluse receives his guests thus:

he himself would run and prepare a footpan and bring water, and would prepare a towel and put it round his loins, in the manner which our Lord also taught; and thus he would wash them whether they were one or many, not allowing them to speak nor to refuse. (Patrologia Orientalis 17.86-87, trans. E. W. Brooks)

At another monastery, John of Ephesus tells us that the poor were received as if they were Christ.

When a guest arrives at a Benedictine monastery, first they pray together. Then they share the kiss of peace. Then they are welcomed as they were Christ. Fourth, there is more prayer and reading of Scripture; ‘after this all kindness should be shown him.’ (trans. White, p. 84) Like Simeon, they wash their feet.

The Desert Fathers often talk about how you can break certain rules for the sake of love and hospitality. For example, if a monk had a personal rule of not eating until, say, the ninth hour, but guests came and wanted lunch, he would serve and eat lunch with them. Or if he has a rule of eating no meat but is offered meat, he is to eat it. Love is the rule above all rules.

A very important aspect of hospitality is discussed by Benedict — care for the poor:

Special care and attention should be shown in the reception of the poor and of pilgrims because in such people Christ is more truly welcomed. When it comes to rich people, we are more likely to show them respect because we are in awe of them. (p. 84, trans. White)

Caring for the poor is an ongoing concern for Benedictines. In Lanfranc’s Constitutions (reviewed here), a lot of time is spent detailing how the alms are to be distributed to the poor and how the abbot and other monks are to wash the feet of the poor, all of this because Christ is in the poor. How do we welcome Christ in the face of the poor in our lives?

In chapter 56, we read that the abbot’s table is a place of hospitality for visitors who are thus not required to eat in silence with the brothers, since they are not bound by the rule. Visiting monks, who are bound by a rule, should live as the monks do. They can opt to join the monastery, in fact. However, if they are annoying and endlessly critical of how the monastery runs itself, they are to be kicked out and sent back to their own monastery.

Hospitality should mark the Christian community, whether that is a congregation, a private home, or a community such as a monastery. How can we open up our tables to others? Whom could we invite for dinner? Who are the lonely and isolated in our communities? How can we show hospitality to them?