Perfection is infinite

When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.

However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.

He also, as I’ve argued here before, loves infinitely.

From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?

By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:

It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222

The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).

As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).

Even the angels progress in grace.

This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!

Review of The Ancient Path by John Michael Talbot

The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life TodayThe Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book will most appeal to Roman Catholics and fans of John Michael Talbot. I read it because I am a JMT fan, having listened to his music my whole life, and having read three of his other books (The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily LifeThe Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life, The Music of Creation: Foundations of a Christian Life, and Reflections on St. Francis) — and I am a Patristics scholar. I was interested to see what this Francisco-Benedictine musician had to say about the Church Fathers. Oh, and I was pretty sure the book deserved better than a single one-star review on amazon.co.uk!

However, I can see why someone might be disappointed by this book. It honestly does not do what it is advertised as doing, not even what the Foreword by Cardinal Donald Wuerl says. It is not an introduction to the Church Fathers. Not by a long shot. This is part memoir, part invitation to the Fathers, part personal and devotional discourse on the Fathers. Furthermore, the sayings and teachings of the Fathers have been digested thoroughly by Talbot’s own life experience as a modern Roman Catholic; this results in them sometimes being taken at face value, and the book often reads, for example, as though he unproblematically assumes that Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop the same way John Chrysostom was a bishop 300 years later.

What we do see as we read, though, is a vision of the historic Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as being the successors to the Fathers. Talbot is aware of the ‘development’ of tradition — he believes, then, the fullness of the Patristic trajectory is found in Roman Catholicism. Therefore, what he is finding in the Fathers is not always the same things their ancient readers or hearers would have found. Instead, what he finds is wisdom for today that speaks to the Roman Catholic soul, finding either timeless gems or modern readings that are themselves worth pondering.

That may sound patronising or damning with faint praise. I hope not! I, myself, read the Fathers in my own context for their wisdom. Certainly, the great historical analyses of the Fathers that expound what they meant in their context, what the causes and effects of their tradition were, are of great value. That’s what some of us get paid to do. But all of us, as Christians, should also ask: What is the perennial wisdom and value in the Church Fathers? This is what Talbot offers. Furthermore, you can tell that Talbot, too, has profited from historical-critical research into the Church Fathers.

The book begins with the story of the fire of 2008 that destroyed the main building of Little Portion Hermitage, including the library and archives and monuments to Talbot’s recording career. And thus a rediscovery afresh of the community’s, and Talbot’s, own fathers. Then we learn a bit about how Talbot came to Roman Catholicism, and his time amongst Franciscans before founding the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, and taking us through various themes of his life and career to today, when he is an itinerant teacher. Throughout, he offers some of his favourite teachings, fathers, and texts and discusses how they have influenced his life and spiritual journey as a Roman Catholic.

In this book you’ll be introduced to the Didache, St Ignatius of Antioch, St John Chrysostom, St Diadochus of Photiki, St Cyril of Jerusalem, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Irenaeus of Lyons, as well as a host of others more cursorily. I had hoped for more discussion of the content of Chrysostom, as well as of mystagogy — his chapter on mystagogy is more of an example of mystagogy for the Mass as celebrated in the USA today. I had also hoped for a wee bit more on St Benedict (I guess I’ll have to read his book Blessings of St. Benedict for that!

In the end, I would recommend this to a Catholic friend or fellow fan of JMT (as I said at the top) who is curious about how we can live in the light of the Fathers today. Demonstrating that point is something that JMT has done admirably, and I hope we can all come to a place where we have become so suffused with Scripture and tradition that the Fathers come naturally to mind at any time.

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Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.

Suffering (St Mark the Monk and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)

An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…

Holy Saturday.

Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.

Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.

The day before, Good Friday.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison!

Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.

There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.

In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.

At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.

Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.

Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):

42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.

65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.

66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.

67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.

If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.

The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.

So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?

There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.

I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.

Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open. 

Gregory the Great: Monks, missions – Contemplation, action

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

I’ve been doing some reading on and of Pope St Gregory I ‘the Great’ (pope, 590-604, saint of the week here) recently, and this ‘last’ of the Western Fathers bears much relevance to my recent discussions of both contemplative prayer and of the ongoing demise of white Anglophone Christianity.

In R.A. Markus’ Gregory the Great and His World, there is a good discussion of Gregory’s own spiritual ideal of the contemplative life and how he was forced to reconcile that ideal with his own calling to be Bishop of Rome. It is a standard trope in Late Antiquity that one resists being ordained bishop but finally acquiesces. Every once in a while, though, we meet a figure who seems to genuinely have preferred the cloister and the cell to the cathedral and the throne. Gregory the Great is one, St Gregory of Nazianzus another. Shortly after being elected Bishop of Rome, Gregory writes:

Yet in this way, I have been bought back to the world in the guise of a bishop, in which I am as much a slave to earthly cares, as I remember being a slave to them in my life as a layman. For I have lost the profound joys of my peace and quiet, and I seem to have risen externally, while falling internally. Wherefore, I deplore my expulsion far from the face of my Creator. For I was trying every day to move outside the world, outside the flesh, to drive all corporeal images from my mind’s eye and to regard the joys of Heaven in an incorporeal way. Not only with my words but also with the innermost parts of my heart I kept saying, panting before a vision of God: “My heart said unto you, I have sought your face, your face, Lord, shall I seek.’ (Ps 26 (27):8) But desiring nothing in this world, fearing nothing, I thought I was standing on some high pinnacle, in such a way that I could believe that what I had learnt from the prophet promised by God was almost fulfilled in me: ‘I will raise you above the heights of the earth.’ (Is. 58:14) For a man is ‘raised above the heights of the earth’ who contemptuously spurns even the very things that appear noble and glorious in the present world. But suddenly driven by a tornado from the pinnacle of this temptation, I have fallen headlong into fears and trepidations, because, although I am afraid of nothing for myself, yet I greatly fear for those who have been entrusted to me. From all sides I am shaken by the waves and weighed down by the tempest of affairs …’ Ep. 1.5 to Theoctista, sister of the Emperor Maurice, October 590 (trans. J.C. Martyn)

Gregory’s main outline of how to wed these two lives is the Pastoral Rule. Rather than seeing them as two stages of progression as many other ascetics would — from the active to the contemplative — Gregory saw the two forms of life working in an integrated manner, operating cooperatively. At different times of life, the same Christian can experience each of these forms of life. And the duty of the pastor is, in fact, to take the grace and knowledge and peace attained through contemplation and use it in the service of others, through preaching the Word of God in particular.

In the Pastoral Rule, Gregory argues that someone who has been given gifts from God through seclusion and the contemplative life sins if he rejects the call from the church to the service of the people of God. At Rome, Gregory lived in community with fellow monks and promoted monks within the ranks of the Roman clergy throughout his tenure of the Apostolic See. Because Gregory was such a fan of St Benedict, some think this the Benedictine ideal, but it is actually Augustinian, for the Rule of St Augustine is for clergy, not cloistered monks.

Gregory, the first monk to be Rome’s Bishop, would send a band of monks, with a monk at the their head, to evangelise the English. An interesting thesis put forth, I believe, by Dudden’s 1905 work on Gregory the Great is that Gregory wanted monks to convert the English in a manner integrated with his own monastic programme within Latin Christianity. By so doing, the Anglo-Saxon church would be a bulwark of monastic missionaries in the North; their influence could later extend South into Gaul and Germania (which it would; see my posts on Sts Boniface and Willibrord).

Dudden, I think, goes too far in his analysis of Gregory’s works, hunting for references to St Benedict’s Rule. It is not, as far as I can tell, explicitly referenced by Gregory, and all of the parallel ideals of the Rule are easily found in Sts Augustine and John Cassian as well as western canon law. That is, Gregory the Great was not imposing and enforcing the Rule; the Rule simply stands at the end of a long tradition of monastic practice. Nevertheless, St Gregory certainly promoted his own view of monachism, a view influenced by the same sources that influenced the Rule of St Benedict.

But his own transplantation from the contemplative to the active life means that he has adapted this monastic ideal. The cloister is to go abroad and adventure. The fruits of contemplation are to be shared. Evangelistic preaching is to be wedded with meditative silence.

Perhaps a renewed commitment to both contemplation and mission will help us revitalise our congregrational life and bring more people to faith?

Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 2: Silence in context

Continuing from yesterday’s post about Timothy Keller’s negative views of mysticism in Prayer, I would like to discuss the lived reality of the mystical, contemplative tradition within Christianity. The arguments of John Jefferson Davis as presented by Keller present an opposition, almost a mutual exclusivity, between verbal prayer and non-verbal silent prayer.

It is true that Christians from at least as far back as Evagrius of Pontus in the 300s have said things like, ‘Contemplation of the most holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian.’ (Evagrius said that, in fact.) And it is worth challenging this pre-eminence given to mystical contemplation in certain corners of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox worlds, using Scripture and other pathways of tradition in the process.

The lived experience of most mystics is not one of opposition to verbal prayer, however. We cannot understand Christian mysticism and contemplation if we choose to look at, say, only Thomas Merton’s more Buddhist moments or Anthony de Mello’s truly Buddhist moments or only the works about mysticism by certain writers. Christian mysticism as practised by the majority of believers seeking inner peace, seeking God in silence, seeking inner prayer, treading the path of negation, is not done in a pure vacuum.

And it seems to me that Davis as represented (and tacitly endorsed?) by Keller either misunderstands mysticism as a whole or has only read certain works that espouse a certain view. First, mysticism is not done in pure isolation. Second, contemplative prayer is part of a wider life of Christian discipline and service. Third, turning ‘inward’ to God is not pantheism and does not ignore transcendence since it is also a turning ‘upward’, which is precisely what Davis believes prayer should do.

First, then — mystical exercises, contemplative prayer, are not matters done in isolation. While there have been and still are hermits and anchorites who spend their days alone, this is not the experience of the bulk of the Christians within the mystical tradition.

As they come to mind: St Hildegard was an abbess, St Bernard an abbot, St Bonaventure a travelling preacher and head of the Franciscan order, Meister Eckhart a Dominican preacher, St Catherine of Siena a nun in community, although Lady Julian of Norwich was an anchorite she had visitors, St John Climacus an abbot, St John Cassian an abbot, St Maximus the Confessor was involved in controversy as was St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila was an abbess, St John of the Cross was an abbot and also spent some time imprisoned by fellow monks, Brother Lawrence a Carmelite laybrother, and on and on and on.

St Basil the Great, himself a founder of the ascetic, monastic tradition wherein mysticism flourishes, believed in the necessity of community. So did St Benedict, for that matter. The regulated Christian life of a monk or a mendicant friar involved daily interactions with others. And verbal prayer. Ideally, it involves manual labour. It involves chores, and verbal prayers. For those of priestly rank, it may involve pastoral care and verbal prayers. For many of those I listed above, it involved frequent preaching of the word of God and verbal prayer. Indeed, it also involves a reading and rereading and internalising of sacred Scripture, accompanied by verbal prayer.

Intercession is a key part of the wider world of prayer inhabited by the greatest mystical writers. We should not lose sight of that.

Second, contemplative prayer and mysticism are not the only part of the spiritual life under discussion. The Philokalia is a five-volume guide to this single aspect of life as taught and practised by Late Antique and Byzantine Greek monastics. Many of the writers included in the anthology also have writings on various other aspects of life, on acts of charity, on the study and interpretation of scripture, on systematic/dogmatic theology, on the disciplines of the Christian life, etc., etc. Many of them were preachers.

What we think of as ‘mystical activity’ is not the only part of the life of the greatest Christian mystics. People like St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila had great encounters with God, and spent a lot of time in quiet, reflective prayer. But they also counselled others, wrote letters, met with each other, gave pastoral guidance to their fellow monks and nuns, and so forth.

The best of them prayed with words, too. They prayed the liturgy. They prayed prayers of intercession. They led or received the Blessed Sacrament. They were part of the corporate life of the church, even if they also believed in the importance of aloneness and silence before the mysterium tremendum. Today’s Eastern Orthodox proponents of silent prayer and mysticism pray with words, too; I know some of them and have read books by others.

Point 3 will be for tomorrow; I’ll pause here.