Biblical manhood?

I recently led a Bible study about ‘biblical manhood’. We looked at Genesis 1-3, focussing on specific passages, such as the creation of humans as male and female from the beginning, the fact that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, and what the curse entails for men and women, and what freedom in Christ should look like.

My inspirations were Fr John Behr on Genesis 1 when considering male and female together as comprising the fullness of humanity in God’s image, as well as Met. John Zizioulas, Being As Communion, for the fact that we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity, and St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship for practical implications. Closer to my Protestant friends filling the room were Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, and Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Finding God Beyond Harvard.

Anyway, beyond these inspirations that lie beneath my interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, chapters that are foundational for biblical anthropology and what it means to be male and female, I realised that there is not a lot in the Bible specifically about being male.

Now, there are many male characters throughout the biblical narrative. But these stories are a variety of things to us — some are good examples, others are definitely not to be copied, while still others are simply things that happened. And of the positive examples, it strikes me that very rarely are they specifically masculine examples, and if we might think they are, is that us reading masculinity into the text or is it already there?

Consider King David: Clearly adultery and murder come on the list of bad examples, whereas killing Goliath and playing the lyre were good things. But what does that say to us? That we are all to become literal warrior-poets? The one thing we know for sure was that he was a man after God’s own heart — so it is the inner life of King David that matters, I guess.

Although the list of good examples could go on, I don’t think that it’s that informative about the Christian view of manhood and masculinity. Generally, the principles we can draw from these examples are applicable to Christians of either sex, male or female.

Furthermore, I think there is a danger in reading the Old Testament this way, because it can reinforce a certain white Anglophone machismo, that real men are burly fellas like Samson, that the ‘great men’ of the Bible were soldiers like Joshua, Gideon, David, and others.

Christian history has actually tended to provide alternative masculinities, partly rooted in and inspired by the ‘household code’ passages of the epistles — you know, ‘Husbands, do x‘, that sort of thing. This alternative masculinity, coupling the household codes with the upside down kingdom preached by Jesus to persons of either sex, is full of men who fight on their knees, turn the other cheek, give up careers in the army, and die obscure deaths.

In the Middle Ages, alternative Christian masculinity found concrete form in the monk, the pray-er. The secular ideal of the Middle Ages is that of the Knights of the Round Table, who spent a lot of time involved in extra-marital sex and fighting with other people, not always for any good reason, or of Orlando/Roland (I’m reading Ariosto in my spare time). Orlando mostly just jousts with people and chases a woman who doesn’t really like him. He is big and strong and mighty. They were tough. They were macho. Knights were bros.

Monks were brothers. They were called to a different kind of life. Whether we’re thinking of monks in the strict sense — those cloistered ‘cenobites’ like Benedictines and Cistercians or semi-hermits like Carthusians — or of their more active brothers, the Franciscans and Dominicans (for example), members of religious orders abandoned their worldly responsibilities, their wealth, their power, the violent lives of their past, and romantic liaisons with ladies. Consider Francis, who went from fighting local wars to preaching poverty and salvation. He subverted the world of courtly love and called people to a better love, to the love of Lady Poverty.

I believe that the ideals of the monastic life are rooted in Scripture (so do monks), and I also believe that we are called to wage peace. We are to fight on our knees in the training of the holy life.

Back, then, to biblical manhood. The Kingdom of the Heavens is the upside down kingdom, where husbands love their wives sacrificially, where men submit to one another and, you will note, to their wives, where they do not provoke their children to anger, and where they give up all worldly pretension for their King. We have a high calling, but we have a mighty Leader.

What does biblical manhood look like? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. ↓

Fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

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

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

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

Where did it all begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revivifying the tradition

One of the main thrusts of Gabriel Bunge’s book about patristic prayer, Earthen Vessels, is to drive Christians today back to the tradition and its fountainheads for our guidance on prayer. He believes that our faith fails in the West so often because our praxis of the faith — by which he means things spiritual, not naked activism — does not align with our doctrines. (NB: He wrote this while still a Roman Catholic member of the Order of St Benedict.)

What we need, then, are reliable guides to the ancient paths of prayer so that we can walk the Way that is Jesus in a manner compatible with the theology of the ancient faith we profess.

I noted in my post ‘Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?‘ that most of us, especially from within evangelical communities, end up going it alone. Indeed, we lack that living tradition of the contemplative life found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In that post, however, I did mention James Houston of Regent College here in Vancouver.

Perhaps this tradition is starting to return to us.

This morning at church, the Houston effect was felt as a Regent student gave a wonderful sermon all about how to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). My own slightly tangential thoughts about Evagrius, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, The Way of a Pilgrim, and St Athanasius suddenly coalesced when the sermon began discussing a course the preacher had taken at Regent all about prayer, and how one of the pathways of prayer they learned was John Cassian’s invocation of repeating Psalm 70:1 over and over:

O God, make speed to save me / O Lord, make haste to help me. (BCP translation)

I’ve written on Cassian here a lot over the years, although I cannot seem to find a post devoted to this verse specifically. It matters little, I suppose.

Anyway, we were given some of Cassian’s own wisdom as well as the preacher’s own experience of putting into practice this ‘arrow prayer’.

I am encouraged beyond a reminder for my own self (a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer) but also for this wider world of Christian ‘spirituality’: Regent is teaching this sort of thing to its students. Regent is well-respected in the evangelical and academic worlds, both (as much as any evangelical seminary can manage both). And Regent students are sharing this wisdom in congregations.

This is tradition coming back to life!

John Cassian was himself, as has been demonstrated variously, a disciple of the great spiritual master, Evagrius Ponticus, who was a disciple of Gregory of Nazianzus before coming to Egypt, and then of the two Macarii (of Alexandria and the Great) when in the Egyptian desert. The full story of the mediaeval reception of Cassian is not germane today, though.

For Protestants, much of that reception gets cut off in the 1500s.

Nonetheless, we have editions and translations of Cassian’s works.

And so people like Steve Bell come to Regent College, equipped by the good work of (I do hope) Boniface Ramsey’s translation and share the riches of ancient ascetic wisdom to evangelical Christians. And suddenly, a roomful of people is plugged back in.

What we need, though, are the living people beyond well-known Manitoban virtuoso guitarists who prevent Cassian from being relegated to the Reserve shelf at Regent and who themselves take up Cassian’s wisdom and become, to cite the title of a book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer.

The flowering of spiritual disciplines and the rebirth of these traditions may be taking longer than Richard Foster may have thought when he wrote Celebration of Discipline over two decades ago. But more and more people, whether the folks who preach at my church or Ken Shigematsu over at Tenth, or people beyond Vancouver, are reentering these ancient traditions and revivifying them.

That’s good. (Even if it’s not as full-on as Bunge would like.)

To close, here’s Steve Bell doing Psalm 70:1:

Classic and Charismatic 3: Monomaniacs for God

The subtitle of this piece borrowed from Mark Galli.

Returning to the theme of my current theological-devotional position in relation to my charismatic Anglican upbringing, one thing that often characterises — or caricatures, depending on source — charismatics is utter devotion to Almighty God. Charismatics want to be at church whenever there is a service. Some of them go to one church because they like the music, then a service at a different church because they like the preaching. They go to mid-week prayer meetings and Bible studies. They give up time to go out on the streets and not merely do ‘street evangelism’ but what the Durham Vineyard Church calls ‘treasure-hunting’ — going out and speaking the truth of God directly into the hurting hearts of strangers on the street. They give of their time and money to serve the church.

They are fervent.

They annoy their unbelieving friends and family by talking about Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit.

They also unnerve some of their believing friends by actually talking as though God has a habit of doing things in their lives.

In many ways, this was me at 17. I talked about Christianity at school with my friends. I went to special services at church as well as to youth group and ISCF meetings at school — on which I served as a member of the executive committee — and helped run Alpha at my church. I have memories of myself and some friends sitting in the living room singing worship songs as my brother played the piano — just because we wanted to.

Lately, there have been some thorns trying to choke this. I pray the Holy Spirit will weed the garden of my heart!

And one of his tools, as I investigate the history of his life in the world of men (aka ‘ecclesiastical history’), is the fervent devotion of generations past. To take one example: as a father of only two whom I love but find draining on time and energy, I find the image of Susanna Wesley, mother of nine living children (a further ten died in infancy), hiding beneath the table to do her devotions.

Or, considering my current direction of research, the works of Evagrius Ponticus are always challenging but hopeful. His works are ascetic, and I feel like I will never really progress from praktike to theoria, let alone theologia. But I find the study of Evagrius does not leave me feeling barren. I find, rather, his whole-heart recommendations of utter devotion to God light a fire under my rear. Rather than cause me to succumb to acedia, they help me become more diligent.

I have recently started reading Alan Jacobs’ The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. Obviously, I am sympathetic towards the Prayer-Book party, whether they are facing down Puritans or Papists. But their conviction that doing so was a means of securing true ‘evangelical’ worship for the Church of England inspires me to take up a Prayer Book and a Bible more often. Monomaniacs for God who went into exile because they believed that the right worship of God was being trodden upon by Cromwellian religion — whether you agree with Prayer-Book worship, their devotion to Christ is part of their support of the book. So worthy of emulation.

We, today, are lazy and flaccid Christians in the West. We are practical atheists. We need to be reminded of what true religion looks like, whether Perpetua being slain in the arena, St Teresa in ecstasy, the Franciscans calling out the wealthy to repent, or the charismatics bringing the comfort of Christ to a hurting world.

Like so many believers of history, I want to become a monomaniac for God again. I think their theology and devotional practices will help…

Acedia and raising children

Acedia, by Hieronymous Bosch

Today, six months of sleep deprivation got the better of me and I slept through most of the sermon. One of the few notes I wrote was unrelated to what was going on in front of me, but instead what was going on inside of me. I wrote:

ἀκηδία has taken hold

Latinised as accidia or acedia, this is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, often translated as sloth. It is not laziness, but, rather, dejection as Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translate it in the Philokalia, or despondency as in the English title of Gabriel Bunge’s book on the subject, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus on Acedia. Here’s one of a few good posts by Fr Aidan Kimel on Bunge’s book. The pastor at my church calls it spiritual apathy.

In his text, ‘On Discrimination’ (part of The Philokalia), Evagrius Ponticus writes:

All the demons teach the soul to love pleasure; only the demon of dejection refrains from doing this, since he corrupts the thoughts of those he enters by cutting off every pleasure of the soul and drying it up through dejection, for ‘the bones of the dejected are dried up’ (Prov. 17:22 LXX). (ch. 11)

Cassian, the student of Evagrius who brought the riches of Evagrian asceticism to the Latin West, writes:

the demon of dejection … obscures the soul’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. He instils a hatred of every kind of work and even of the monastic profession itself. Undermining all the sou’s salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralysed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts. (From The Philokalia, Vol. 1, ‘On the Eight Vices’, which is a Greek translation of selections from Institutes 5-12)

Acedia is called the noonday demon. Imagine being a monk in the Egyptian desert. If that seems impossible, imagine being a monk in a Toronto heat wave. When else is such dejection more likely to come upon you?

Well, one other time it is likely to come upon you is when you are sleep-deprived because of your 6-month-old up in the night, combined with a toddler who gets up at 6 AM, on a day when you have been baked in the sun pushing the stroller to church and had the toddler reject a perfectly good snack on heaven-knows-what grounds, and you find yourself just wanting to take your introverted self away somewhere, but there is nowhere to go, and church just seems too much.

But you have to stay.

Your kid is in the toddler room.

Leaving church would be like using it as a daycare, wouldn’t it?

So I sat and sang the songs. I did not stand. I slept through most of the sermon. And I fled the church with my son as soon as I could.

Now, my elder son may have been an acedia trigger today, but part of the overshadowing of despondency in that pew is the rest of this life. The lack of work for September and the slowly drying prospects of work in my own field. The general spiritual weariness of anyone fool enough to consider his’erself Anglican. Not knowing where we’ll live in September. Not feeling that excited about my research. Feeling uncertain about this blog (that one being the least of my wearies).

So much. More than that, really.

But when your kid is Sunday school, and the noontide demon tempts you to just run away, you force yourself to stay at least for appearances, maybe with a tiny bit of hope that the Blessed Sacrament is what you believe it is and can do what you say it can do.

In other situations, you simply cannot run away at all. I could have decided not to maintain face and gone on a walk until the end of church. Maybe no one would even have known! But when acedia tempts you to just give up at other times, the toddler won’t let you. You will build the fort in his room. You will play with water on the porch. You will read a book seven times in a row.

And sometimes, you even like it. (Honestly, sometimes you still don’t. And sometimes you fall asleep reading to the poor creature.)

So the relationship between children and acedia is complicated. They can help cause it. They can help cure it.

Evagrius and Scripture

I am revisiting my decade-old work on St John Cassian’s reception of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399) in his demonology. One false conclusion I drew then was that Cassian had a stronger commitment, or a higher view, of Scripture than Evagrius, explaining some of their differences. As soon as I saw that I had written that, I knew it was not true.

I just need to demonstrate it.

I also think that, if more Protestants, especially evangelical ones, are to read the monastic fathers, then understanding the monastic and patristic use of, regard for, and theology of Scripture is critical.

One of the first places to look for Evagrius’ view of the Bible is Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos, translated by David Brakke as Talking Back, a book I did not have access to 10 years ago. This handbook for battle with demons and their temptations is a topical arrangement of 498 passages of Scripture for the monk to familiarise himself with to be able to readily pull out ‘the weapons of the spirit’ (Prol. 5) when attacked.

The existence of the Antirrhetikos alone should tell us that Evagrius thinks highly of Scripture. It is the chief weapon of the monk as he fights.

The letter Evagrius wrote to Lucius (rendered ‘Loukios’ by Brakke; Epistle 4) in response to the request for the Antirrhetikos gives some detail. Chapter 5 says:

And so everyone who has enlisted in this army must request discernment from the Lord without neglecting the things that contribute to the reception of this gift, which are, to speak in outline, self-control, gentleness, keeping vigil, withdrawal, and frequent prayers, which are supported by reading the divine Scriptures — for nothing is as conducive to pure prayer as reading. Ascetic practice cuts off the passions by destroying desire, sadness, and anger, but the reading that follows it [ascetic practice] removes even love for the representations by transferring it to the formless, divine, and simple knowledge … (my emphasis)

The references to ‘reading’ in the passage should, I hope, be clearly seen as references to reading the Bible. Pure prayer is what monks aim for, and reading the Bible is the best way to get there. What he implies here, and states more clearly in the Kephalaia Gnostica (‘Gnostic Chapters’) is that the goal of pure prayer is the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity.

Reading the Bible, then, is a short-cut for progress in both the ascetic and contemplative aspects of the disciplined life.

In the Prologue, Evagrius equates the words of Scripture with Christ Himself. We meet Him in the Bible.

In sum, based upon this work, Evagrius has a high view of Scripture, and he also, if you will, puts Scripture in its place. God gave us the Bible for us to get to know Him. Therefore, we read the Bible not simply to gain knowledge about the Bible but as a pathway to encountering God. What matters more than Bible study is knowing God, who is encountered through both prayer and Scripture.

Finally, this is important because Evagrius’s reputation has suffered due to some aspects of his speculative theology as outlined in the aforementioned Kephalaia Gnostica. It is important, then, as we unearth and retrieve the teachings of Evagrius, that we come to understand the place of the Bible on this ascetic master who was so influential — despite his condemnation — on both Eastern and Western Christian asceticism.

Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.