For the next five Mondays, I’m going to be uploading 20-minute church history videos to YouTube on the theme “Spiritual Disciplines and the Expansion of Christianity.” The first video in the series is now up, covering an introduction to the series and Christianity before Constantine:
This is the first in a five-part series looking very quickly at the history of Christianity. I’d like to acknowledge the technical support from Pastor Ben Spears that made this possible — expect better videos as I get more practice!
I do two things in this week’s video:
First, I introduce my theme: spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity.
Second, I run through church history from Acts to around the year 300.
If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):
There is little that I, a middle-class white guy from Canada, can add of much value to the conversation on racism now happening, a conversation that will hopefully bear fruit in all of our lives and societies, from those of us unconsciously complicit in systems that oppressed, to active oppressors, to those unjustly oppressed. In Canada, we are coming to realise that we have our own share of anti-black racism, but also, since we have proportionately fewer black people for white people to oppress, more than enough oppression of and racism against indigenous people. In Australia, I understand the Aborigines are out marching as well.
So, as we all become painfully aware, I will only offer what little I can by way of what tiny part of stuff is my expertise: a sliver of ancient Christianity …
A few days ago, Death to the World posted this amazing icon of St Moses the Black, one of the fourth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt:
Before getting to Abba Moses, it is worth pausing on Death to the World’s caption and tags that accompanied the icon:
This is precisely what I would expect from Death to the World, and it’s always worth pausing to remember that. Death to the World, if you didn’t know, is an Eastern Orthodox group whose originally membership was drawn from the counterculture on the US west coast, especially those into heavy metal. It stills has a counterculture vibe. It actually started out as a zine back in the day! They are very big into the work of Father Seraphim Rose, who himself came out of the ’60s counterculture of hippies, New Age, and Marxism.
Death to the World will always point us in this direction. We are to abandon it all. There is no political saviour. We must give all to gain everything (okay, that’s St Clare of Assisi). We need to remember this, always. We will never build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land (contra William Blake). The last true rebellion is the overthrowing of self, the death to a corrupt and dying world, and a wholehearted embrace of truth. Be holy. Sainthood is your protection.
Abba Moses would agree. Abba Moses was a former robber who was converted late in life and became great and holy monk amongst the Desert Fathers in Scetis. I am not sure where exactly he was from, whether modern Ethiopia or Sudan or southern Egypt. But he was definitely one of the few black saints of the patristic era before the conversion of Ethiopia.
Here are four instructions from Abba Moses. The full ‘seven’ gets very long. From Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 141:
The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
If the monk does not think in his heart hat he is a sinner, God will not hear him.
If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain.
The first, last, and greatest rebellion lies here, within us, within the putrid wickedness of our own hearts.
The statement, “No political saviour,” should remind us that humans are evil and will perpetrate evil. If we fight for justice and a more just society, we must be ready for failure at some level.
The tension is that the same Desert that nourished St Moses the Black — who actually received some abuse from fellow monks for his skin colour — also calls us to care for the poor as part of our death to the world:
A brother asked an aged monk: ‘There are two brothers: one of them leads a life of solitude six days a week and does much penance, while the other is dedicated to the service of the sick. Which of the two is behaving in the way that is more acceptable to God?’
The old man answered him: ‘The brother who is always making a retreat would never attain the heights that the one who serves the sick has reached, not even if you hoisted him with a hook in his nose.’ -Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers no. 224, quoted in Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, 175
St John Chrysostom, who had been a monk in the Syrian desert before becoming a priest and later bishop of Constantinople, spoke often and at length about the abuse of the poor by the rich, and called upon his wealthy, aristocratic audience to care for the poor. His audience included the emperor, remember. St Basil of Caesarea, who lived an ascetic lifestyle and had visited the famous monasteries of Egypt, also exhorted people to care for the poor, but he went a step further and built a place where the poor and sick could be cared for.
Their political system was very different from ours, but those fathers of the church who had the ear of emperors tended to call upon them to care for the poor.
Our cultural world is also very different from theirs. Ancient Romans are a fine example of how bigotry and xenophobia can exist without modern concepts of race. Not that an ancient person wouldn’t be aware that Abba Moses was black and Patrick of Ireland was a pinkish white colour. They just had a variety of other markers of ethnicity that they took into account when being cruel and oppressive, frankly.
Our questions of racism and race are, therefore, not their questions. Nevertheless, justice cries out. We do live in this particular world, this iteration of human bigotry and oppression, this cultural moment. Injustice is being wrought against fellow human beings made in the image of God. St John Chrysostom and St Basil and the Desert Fathers would all call for just treatment of black people. They would consider kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he asphyxiates and dies, with people looking on calling for mercy, to be wickedness. To be murder.
Therefore, seeking social justice in our society, in ways that we hope are effective here and now, is an act in line with the spirit of the writings of these great Fathers of the Church.
The Kingdom of the Heavens, when a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather around the throne of the Lamb, has not yet come in its fullness and power. It will not come until Christ returns to exact justice upon evildoers. Until then, all our efforts at building a just society will be partial. Nevertheless, we are called to do these things, to preach repentance to racists and our own selves for our complicity, and to seek justice for the victims of the racist oppression that to this day plagues our societies.
I suspect that the only sustainable way to do this is to die to ourselves every day so that we can more fully love our neighbour.
This is the tension of the Christian life. Now and not-yet.
In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.
And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.
John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.
According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.
Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).
Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).
Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.
Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.
To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.
The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.
But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.
This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.
I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.
Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.
But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?
I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.
For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.
Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.
Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.
From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.
What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?
Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.
Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.
Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.
It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.
I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.
In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.
An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):
Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174
The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.
Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.
This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.
Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.
No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.
Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”
“That’s a cloud,” I said,
“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)
“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”
At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.
My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.
What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.
St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.
The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.
Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.
I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.
Today is the feast of St Mark. According to tradition, St Mark who wrote the Gospel that bears his name was a disciple of St Peter, and he went to Alexandria to preach the Gospel there. As a result, the traditional Egyptian Eucharistic liturgy bears his name. Our oldest surviving copy of this liturgy dates to the fourth century; given the highly traditional(ist) nature of ancient Christian liturgical texts, I am fairly sure we can safely say that most of what we find in this liturgy is ante-Nicene — that is, before all of the alleged Constantinian corruptions of the “pure” liturgy.
You can read this liturgy in the Victorian translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers over at New Advent. This version is definitely post-Nicene — it contains the sixth-century Trisagion as well as calling Jesus “co-eternal”, and I suspect that Arius would not have got so far as he did if the traditional liturgy of his hometown contained that word?
It contains a number of lovely prayers, such as this prayer of the entrance:
O Sovereign Lord our God, who hast chosen the lamp of the twelve apostles with its twelve lights, and hast sent them forth to proclaim throughout the whole world and teach the Gospel of Your kingdom, and to heal sickness and every weakness among the people, and hast breathed upon their faces and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit the Comforter: whosesoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins you retain, they are retained: Breathe also Your Holy Spirit upon us Your servants, who, standing around, are about to enter on Your holy service, upon the bishops, elders, deacons, readers, singers, and laity, with the entire body of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
We see that the ancient church in Egypt believed in the Real Presence, as well:
We pray and beseech You, O Lord, in Your mercy, to let Your presence rest upon this bread and these chalices on the all-holy table, while angels, archangels, and Your holy priests stand round and minister for Your glory and the renewing of our souls, through the grace, mercy, and love of Your only-begotten Son, through whom and with whom be glory and power to You.
One of the things I love about reading historic liturgies is the family resemblance they have — the Apostolic Tradition, the BCP, the Roman Mass, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and there, the Divine Liturgy of St Mark, begin the anaphora in the same manner:
The Lord be with all.
And with your spirit.
Let us lift up our hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is meet and right.
The Priest begins the Anaphoral prayer.
O Lord God, Sovereign and Almighty Father, truly it is meet and right, holy and becoming, and good for our souls, to praise, bless, and thank You; to make open confession to You by day and night with voice, lips, and heart without ceasing;
To You who hast made the heaven, and all that is therein; the earth, and all that is therein; The sea, fountains, rivers, lakes, and all that is therein;
To You who, after Your own image and likeness, has made man, upon whom You also bestowed the joys of Paradise;
And when he trespassed against You, You neither neglected nor forsook him, good Lord,
But recalled him by Your law, instruct him by Your prophets, restore and renew him by this awful, life-giving, and heavenly mystery.
And all this You have done by Your Wisdom and the Light of truth, Your only-begotten Son, our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, Through whom, thanking You with Him and the Holy Spirit,
We offer this reasonable and bloodless sacrifice, which all nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun, from the north and the south, present to You, O Lord; for great is Your name among all peoples, and in all places are incense, sacrifice, and oblation offered to Your holy name.
Next come sundry supplications, and then we have a very dramatic prelude to the Sanctus:
For You are far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but in that which is to come. Round You stand ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands of holy angels and hosts of archangels; and Your two most honoured creatures, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim. With two they cover their faces, and with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly; and they cry one to another for ever with the voice of praise, and glorify You, O Lord, singing aloud the triumphal and thrice-holy hymn to Your great glory:—
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.
You ever sanctify all men; but with all who glorify You, receive also, O Sovereign Lord, our sanctification, who with them celebrate Your praise, and say:—
Holy, holy, holy Lord.
After the Prayer of Consecration comes the epiclesis, the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts. I know that there is some historic controversy over the use of the epiclesis in Protestant liturgy. Nevertheless, the description of the Holy Spirit warms the heart:
O Lord our God, we have placed before You what is Yours from Your own mercies. We pray and beseech You, O good and merciful God, to send down from Your holy heaven, from the mansion You have prepared, and from Your infinite bosom, the Paraclete Himself, holy, powerful, and life-giving, the Spirit of truth, who spoke in the law, the apostles, and prophets; who is everywhere present, and fills all things, freely working sanctification in whom He will with Your good pleasure; one in His nature; manifold in His working; the fountain of divine blessing; of like substance with You, and proceeding from You; sitting with You on the throne of Your kingdom, and with Your only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Send down upon us also and upon this bread and upon these chalices Your Holy Spirit, that by His all-powerful and divine influence He may sanctify and consecrate them, and make this bread the body.
The grace of God is, as ever in Eastern liturgies, visible in abundance, saving us and setting us free:
O God of light, Father of life, Author of grace, Creator of worlds, Founder of knowledge, Giver of wisdom, Treasure of holiness, Teacher of pure prayers, Benefactor of our souls, who givest to the faint-hearted who put their trust in You those things into which the angels desire to look: O Sovereign Lord, who has brought us up from the depths of darkness to light, who has given us life from death, who has graciously bestowed upon us freedom from slavery, who has scattered the darkness of sin within us, through the presence of Your only-begotten Son, do Thou now also, through the visitation of Your all-holy Spirit, enlighten the eyes of our understanding, that we may partake without fear of condemnation of this heavenly and immortal food, and sanctify us wholly in soul, body, and spirit, that with Your holy disciples and apostles we may say this prayer to You: Our Father who art in heaven, etc.
I like the tendency to pile on the properties of God:
O Sovereign and Almighty Lord, who sittest upon the cherubim, and art glorified by the seraphim; who hast made the heaven out of waters, and adorned it with choirs of stars; who hast placed an unbodied host of angels in the highest heavens to sing Your praise for ever; before You have we bowed our souls and bodies in token of our bondage. We beseech You to repel the dark assaults of sin from our understanding, and to gladden our minds with the divine radiance of Your Holy Spirit, that, filled with the knowledge of You, we may worthily partake of the mercies set before us, the pure body and precious blood of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Pardon all our sins in Your abundant and unsearchable goodness, through the grace, mercy, and love of Your only-begotten Son:
Through whom and with whom be glory and power to You, with the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit.
In case it hasn’t become abundantly clear, I appreciate the richness of this theology. This sort of liturgy makes it hard for me to maintain contentment at low-church evangelical worship events. Would your pastor ever pray something like this:
O mightiest King, co-eternal with the Father, who by Your might has vanquished hell and trodden death under foot, who has bound the strong man, and by Your miraculous power and the enlightening radiance of Your unspeakable Godhead has raised Adam from the tomb, send forth Your invisible right hand, which is full of blessing, and bless us all.
This has gone on long enough. Go read the whole thing. May it stir you up to greater love and devotion of the God Who made everything, Who breathed life into the first man, Who become incarnate, died, rose, breathed the Spirit into His Apostles, and now dwells with us daily.
I have been getting into Richard Hooker recently — first, the Learned Discourse of Justification, then a bit of secondary material on his understanding of sin and grace by Ranall Ingalls in A Companion to Richard Hooker. Next will be David Neelands chapter on predestination, then the book by my colleague and almost friend Brad Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: An Introduction (Brad and I would be friends if we knew each other better).
My initial reason for this current foray into Hooker was seeking teaching from deep in the Anglican tradition about the relationship amongst grace, works, and sanctification. What I’ve found on these topics and more I have liked. I told my brother, “Richard Hooker makes me want to be an Anglican.” He said this was good, since I am one.
Anyway, one of the things I’ve been having clarified is that the real distinction between justification and sanctification is fruit of the Reformation. At least, I think so. The sixteenth century is full of so many writers and so many academic opinions, I’m sure someone disagrees with me. Anyway, grasping this little thread of conceptual framework explains both how Reformational Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism and how we are able to embrace patristics (as Anglicans since Cranmer on the one hand and Parker on the other have done).
Basically, what I’m seeing is this. There is grace coming from God — when you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. This grace is necessary at every stage of the Christian life, from conversion and baptism to extreme unction and burial. In terms of justification, the only thing we “do” is have faith. We trust Christ and His promises. This faith is objectively strong because Christ is, no matter how subjectively weak it may at times be. This grace makes us, sinners that we are, righteous in God’s eyes.
The fruit of this justification is good works. We live holy lives. And we become holier by the works we perform. Some of my Presbyterian friends shy away from this as “works righteousness”, but it seems to me that the work of sanctification is precisely something that only happens at every moment because of God’s grace, but that the tool in God’s hands is our own works. That is not an image of Hooker’s. Hooker is much less straightforward on this point than I am being.
We can be holy. And God’s grace makes us holy. The means by which grace makes us holy is our own works. Therefore, we must continually throw ourselves upon God’s grace if we wish to be holy, meanwhile working out our salvation in fear and trembling. This is sanctification.
Making this distinction between justification by faith alone and sanctification — both by works, all in Christ and by Christ — enables us to have Protestant asceticism. I am speaking here of what Kallistos Ware refers to as “natural” asceticism — so, not Stylites or flagellants or such things. Rather, frugal spending, simple eating, plain clothing, combined with fasting, regular prayer, regular engagement with Scripture, partaking of the Holy Communion. That sort of asceticism.
We do these things knowing that the works themselves avail nothing. But we do them knowing that the grace that makes them even possible is also at work in us to make us holy by these works.
This perspective sets us free from the Presbyterian fear of “works righteousness”, for one thing. We can freely perform our training (for that is what askesis means), knowing that God Himself undergirds it all. Second, it sets us free from the sort of late mediaeval anxiety that comes from works righteousness — none of our works can provide satisfaction, none of them holds any merit in relation to God.
We are already in a right relationship with God. We perform these works out of love for Him, out of a desire for holiness (and here I mirror John Cassian, Conference 11). In terms of meeting God, entering into relationship with Him, and escaping Hell — it is not by fasting and almsgiving that we are saved but by the Blood of Jesus. In terms of knowing God better, how else than by spending time with Him and doing what Our Father asks? How else can be transformed than by our own deeds?
Today is Good Friday for the Orthodox Church. In honour of that commemoration, I present a passage from Archimandrite Ephrem Lash’s translation of one of the Greek works attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, “On the Passion,” — this one may actually be by St Ephrem, given that it seems to have originated in Syriac.
Draw near all of you,
children of the Church,
bought with the precious
and holy blood
of the most pure Master.
Come, let us meditate
on his sufferings with tears,
thinking on fear,
meditating with trembling,
saying to ourselves,
‘Christ our Saviour
for us the impious
was given over to death’.
Learn well, brother,
what it is you hear:
God who is without sin,
Son of the Most High,
for you was given up.
Open your heart,
learn in detail
and say to yourself:
God who is without sin
today was given up,
today was mocked,
today was abused,
today was struck,
today was scourged,
a crown of thorns,
today was crucified,
he, the heavenly Lamb.
Your heart will tremble,
your soul will shudder.
Shed tears every day
by this meditation
on the Master’s sufferings.
Tears become sweet,
the soul is enlightened
that always meditates
on Christ’s sufferings.
Always meditating thus,
shedding tears every day,
giving thanks to the Master
for the sufferings
that he suffered for you,
so that in the day
of his Coming
your tears may become
your boast and exaltation
before the judgement seat.
Endure as you meditate
on the loving Master’s
give thanks from your soul.
Blessed is the one
who has before his eyes
the heavenly Master
and his sufferings,
and has crucified himself
from all the passions
and earthly deeds,
who has become an imitator
of his own Master.
This is understanding,
this is the attitude
of servants who love God,
when they become ever
imitators of their Master
by good works.
Shameless man, do you watch
the most pure Master
hanging on the Cross,
while you pass the time
that you have to live on earth
in pleasure and laughter?
Don’t you know, miserable wretch,
that the crucified Lord
will demand an account
of all your disdainful deeds,
for which, when you hear of them, you show no concern,
and as you take your pleasure
and enjoy yourself with indifference?
The day will come,
that fearful day,
for you to weep unceasingly
and cry out in the fire
from your pains,
and there will be no one at all
and have mercy on your soul.
I worship you, Master,
I bless you, O Good One,
I entreat you, O Holy One,
I fall down before you, Lover of humankind,
and I glorify you, O Christ,
because you, only-begotten
Master of all,
alone without sin,
for me the unworthy sinner
were given over to death,
death on a Cross,
that you might free
the sinner’s soul
from the bonds of sins.