“Imitating the blessed apostles”: The matrix for ancient and medieval discipline

In my new job, I am acquainting myself with the works of the monk-historian Simeon of Durham, who died around the year 1129. In his History of the Church of Durham (Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie), Simeon writes:

Imitating the blessed apostles, the venerable Cuthbert adorned with good works the episcopal office which he had assumed; for by his continual prayers he protected the people committed to his charge, and called them to mind the things of heaven by his wholesome exhortations. (Book 1.10, trans. J. Stevenson)

A great many of our ancient and medieval ascetics believed themselves to be imitating the Apostles, or living the apostolic life, or living according to the Gospel, living ‘evangelically’ (gospelly). A century after Simeon, Franciscans will make much of ‘evangelical’ poverty.

This is in strong contrast with how most Protestants view asceticism. Indeed, asceticism tends to be associated with body-hating, unbiblical extremism; it is even used with such connotations by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. Moreover, it is in contrast with how the apostles are viewed; the only disciplines usually even considered in relation to the apostles are prayer and the study of Scripture.

Now, what might Simeon have in mind for St Cuthbert? Certainly, as the context makes clear, prayer and preaching — these are the chief apostolic virtues of St Cuthbert’s Scots-Irish predecessors, Sts Columba and Aidan. St Cuthbert, like those two, was an evangelist before he was a bishop.

He was also what one might call a prayer warrior. Of course, we might not go for his version of what continual prayer looks like. It is one thing to promote the daily office and cultivate silence, as St Cuthbert (who promoted the Rule of St Benedict amongst the monks of Lindisfarne) would have. It is another to stand in the freezing waters of the sea for an all-night vigil or to try and become a hermit.

Nonetheless, there may be something to the disciplined life being ‘apostolic’. It is clear from the biblical testimony that the apostles prayed at the Jewish hours of prayer; they fasted; they renounced worldly possessions; some of them forewent the joys of marriage for their apostolic mission; they studied and prayed over Scripture.

Many believe that St Paul’s time in Arabia was spent in prayer and communion with God before entering into ministry. Jesus certainly spent 40 days fasting on the cusp of his ministry.

As we saw a few months ago, in fact, Bede relates the story of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons, headed by Augustine at Canterbury, in terms of them living as the apostolic community did according to Acts 2. These were certainly monks.

Later in the Middle Ages, it was the canons regular who claimed to be living the apostolic life. These were not, by a strict definition, monks, but clergy who lived together in community, lived a disciplined life, prayed a version of the daily office, and were active in their local communities, preaching and tending to the poor.

It is worth thinking about and pondering seriously — what does the apostolic life look like? It may not look like the cloister, but does it look like the comfortable pew?

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Ancient Religion got me into this mess, part 3: Devotion

For part 1 of the series, click here, and for part 2, click here.

My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.

But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.

It began in the Desert.

Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!

I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.

Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.

Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).

My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.

Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.

A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.

As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.

And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?

How lectio divina and contemplative practices can be dangerous

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

Various Scripture-related ‘mystical’ practices that call themselves lectio divina have been growing in popularity in the world outside Roman Catholic monasteries, and, indeed, not only in the liberal mainline but even amongst evangelical Protestants. Some evangelicals are automatically, and irrationally, afraid of lectio divina because it comes from ‘Roman Catholicism’; others are concerned because some of its proponents are also into Buddhism and the like.

And, certainly, books about lectio divina are not all equal.

I won’t mount a defence of the practice here, though. Mark Moore has already done that in his post, ‘Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

Instead, I would like to highlight the fact that I think the disciplines of the contemplative life can actually be dangerous — and not ‘dangerous to your small views of God’ dangerous. Actually potentially harmful. Of course, I must get this out of the way first: Their alleged ‘Roman Catholic’ (aka Latin medieval) origins have nothing to do with their potential for harm. If Protestants rejected everything from the ‘Roman Church’, we would have no Bible, no sacraments, no doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, etc., etc. We must find the danger in the actual practices themselves.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking. As I said at the beginning, a variety of different practices currently masquerade under the name lectio divina. Some of these are actually medieval, deriving ultimately from the prayerful practices outlined around 1180 by Guigo II (d. 1188/93), prior of La Grande Chartreuse (motherhouse of the Carthusians) in The Ladder of Monks. Others are inspired by the medieval practices but are more in line with traditional Protestant discursive meditation. Others may not know what a Carthusian is but may be conversant with Buddhism.

The possibility is, in the end, that any of the forms of lectio divina currently on parade can endanger you spiritually.

One person, alone with a Bible, seeking to encounter God directly through the Word, sometimes reducing that to a single word or phrase.

Or, to move to other meditative practices, simply praying the Jesus Prayer. Or seeking to empty your mind of all thoughts. Or whatever.

Why do I think these things might be harmful? They might be harmful if they lack an important ingredient:

The community of the faithful.

Any of these practices can be salutary (yes, even ones tainted by Buddhism, let alone Roman Catholicism). They can be ways for us to focus our heart and minds on the Most Holy Trinity, upon the meaning and lesson and immediacy of Scripture as living and active. They can be ways for us to unclutter our cluttered hearts.

But they might make you go crazy. The Orthodox actually say that practising the Jesus Prayer unsupervised can be harmful. They also say that illusion is particularly dangerous for those who shut themselves off from the community of the faithful. The translators of The Philokalia are at pains in the introduction to point out that the teachings found therein, and the whole eastern Christian tradition of stillness (hesychia, hence hesychasm) is not reducible to these texts for monks and solitaries — these texts were written for people who participated in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church. They also read Scripture in the same ways you and I read Scripture.

Lectio divina, then, is not inherently harmful. I actually think it is good for us — as a way to stop trying to govern Scripture and allow it to govern us. However, any Christian discipline, when cut off from the fellowship and community of God’s people, can lead you astray and make you think that you are growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ when really you are growing up gnarled, crooked, and distorted. But don’t worry, God can straighten us out

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Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 3: Private Devotion

To my knowledge, at no time did the structures of the Church in western and central Europe bar the use of the vernacular in private devotion or in private writing. Indeed, for the illiterate, such prayers are the only way they could pray. For the literate, there were times when their mother tongue would take over, as when Stephen Harding (I think he’s the one; or Aelred?) died with the English name ‘Crist’ on his lips.

 

Anyway, the Latin Middle Ages contain a great quantity of vernacular religious literature, and there is, frankly, not enough time for me to go into all of it here. A few highlights are worth discussing, though, I’d think.

First things first, then. You should go check out Eleanor Parker’s blog A Clerk of Oxford, an excellent blog exploring many facets of Old English life, religion, and literature. A lot of it is devoted to religious literature, both its translation into modern English as well as its explication for the 21st-century reader.

If, for some reason, you’re still reading my poor excuse of a blog, I’ll start by saying that Anglo-Saxon Christian literature is very much worth your time. There is some splendid religious poetry to be found that will stir your heart up unto the Lord. Which is the whole point. A pleasant anthology, both from Old English and Latin, is Benedicta Ward’s Christ Within Me.

Vernacular Christian literature did not suddenly vanish in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. I’ve featured here the Middle English poem ‘Man and Woman Look on Me!’, a moving piece in the persona of Our Lord from the Cross. I find there is a lot of powerful devotional poetry in Middle English.

Of course, Middle English religious literature cannot pass by without discussing Julian of Norwich (d. 1416), one of the most famous mystics of the era (at least in English-speaking countries), whom I even feature here a little bit. Her Showings are worth a read or two. Julian is not the only vernacular English mystical writer from the Middle Ages, though. Also of great popularity from the second half of the 1300s is The Cloud of Unknowing, a discussion of how to focus the mind and heart on God, a guide to contemplation (I’ve not read it, alas). Third (and also waiting to be read by me) is Richard Rolle (1300-1349), another English medieval mystical writer in the vernacular. Another Middle English mystic I have yet to read is Walter Hilton (d. 1396), whose Scale of Perfection was recommended to me by Lisa Deam who now blogs over at The Contemplative Writer.

English is not the only vernacular literature of the Latin Middle Ages. Italy produced for us St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) , one of the first poets to write in the Italian language. Besides his Canticle of the Sun, I highly recommend the next generation’s Fioretti, or ‘Little Flowers’, which are inspirational tales about the original Franciscans. Another important writer in Italian is St Catherine of Siena, herself a Dominican (d. 1347); her Dialogue is very challenging and thought-provoking.

There is so much more to cover — the continental Old Saxon Heliand, a ninth-century epic retelling of Christ; Lilja, an Icelandic poem of the fifteenth century; Dante (!!); medieval Irish saints’ lives and poetry; and so much more. If we lean forward just a bit, we can peek into the world of sixteenth-century Carmelites writing in Spanish as well — St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross.

One thought that occurs as I glance over these authors. Most of them are members of religious orders or, in the case of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, hermits/anchorites. But consider which religious orders — Walter Hilton was an Augustinian; Francis founded the Franciscans; St Catherine was a Dominican. These are the orders that interact with ordinary people, rather than the orders of the cloister (the Benedictines, Cistercians, etc). I am greatly fond of monastic spirituality, but perhaps something important is to be found in this 13th- and 14th-century vernacular mendicant literature that will not be found in the majestic twelfth-century monastic literature.

They also, whether monastic or mendicant, exist in the world of the cities and the growing merchant class — not all of whom may have known Latin but who could probably read their own language to some degree. Another thought worth pondering.

Be that as it may, the Latin Middle Ages had their share of vernacular religion for the ordinary people. It wasn’t just priests for priests or monks for monks. There was vernacular preaching, there were even vernacular Bibles, and there were vernacular treatises, poems, saints’ lives, and even plays. The medieval west is, perhaps, more varied than our post-Reformation visions give it credit, then.

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 3: Pantheism?

My third point from yesterday’s post was that, contrary to how it seems to be presented by Keller in his analysis of the work of Davis in Chapter 4 of Prayer, mysticism is not about turning ‘inward’ simply to find God within me, and it is certainly not pantheist.

Here’s where I’ll finally get biblical, I guess. Davis via Keller rightly argues that prayer is meant to be focussed upward. Amen. So say all of us. However, God is both immanent and transcendent, and we must wrestle with this tension of the reality of God’s presence and absence in our lives, just as we accept on biblical authority that he exists as three persons in one essence and that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God existing as a single person.

That God is transcendent is, in fact, the root of apophatic Christianity — the via negativa, the path that seeks to silence all created thoughts and ideas to find an encounter with God. God is wholly other. This is the thrust of Genesis 1 — ‘In the beginning, God.’ Creatio ex nihilo is a rare idea in the ancient world, but it is rooted in Scripture, and it tells us that there is an ontological gulf between us and the Divine Person(s).

Furthermore, Isaiah 55:8 says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (NIV)

Indeed, the otherness and holiness and power and majesty of the glorious splendour of the transcendent God when he appears in glory before Isaiah causes him to fall on his face. Ezekiel’s vision of God is a singularly bizarre encounter that I doubt even Scripture has done justice to.

But God loves us. Mystical theology is rooted, I would argue, in the incarnation of God the Word. God loves us so much that he became one of us, suffered, thirsted, grew weary, ate food, was beaten, bruised, crucified, died. He tasted all there is to be human except for sin. God knows us intimately, and he is not disconnected from the human condition. This is the message of the Incarnation as found in the Gospels and laid out for us in the Apostolic epistles.

Not only this, of course, but, as St Paul famously said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ So God, in fact, is within me. He is so close to me, so near, so intimate with me because he is so other than me that he is simultaneously everywhere in universe at once, yet my own sin and clouded vision enable me to see only as through a glass darkly. The Kingdom of God is within you, but we don’t always realise it.

The mystics know this. There are certainly trends within the mystical tradition of Evagrius of Pontus and Pseudo-Dionysius in particular that make his transcendence an unsuperable gulf, and Protestants have generally taken an Evagrian or Dionysian theology as the basis of mysticism at large and thus rejected the wider tradition that is rooted in Scripture, in prayer, in the sacraments, and in the liturgy of the church simply through unfamiliarity with it.

There are also trends in some current discussions of mysticism that forget the transcendent gulf and jeopardise the difference between Creator and created. These trends are not part of the mainstream of Christian mysticism as I know it — certainly not in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the mysticism of St Gregory Palamas, for example, acknowledges the difference between us and God and allows for a way to express ideas of ‘union’ that are, perhaps, better understood in the English language as communion.

To be fair, Keller is not, however, as severely critical as Davis, and he seeks balance. However, J.I. Packer whom Keller sees as bringing balance carries similar suspicions when he characterises Neoplatonic/Dionysian mysticism:

God is to be realized and contemplated as an impersonal presence rather than a personal friend.

This, again, is not the majority tradition, is not the tradition rooted in Scripture and tradition that is the best on offer from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mysticism.

The solution Packer offers, as quoted by Keller:

there is a place for silence before God . . . after we have spoken to him, while joy at God’s love invades the soul.

I am not certain that silence need be so narrowly sought.

And so, in my final post in this meandering thought process, I’ll talk about silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer.