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)

Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 3

The first main discussion in book 3 of St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is about love, and what sort of love is suited to the building of spiritual friendship:

The source and origin of friendship is love, Although love can exist without friendship, friendship can never exist without love. Love develops either from nature or from duty, from reason alone or from affection alone, or from both together. We are bound together by a special affection from nature, as a mother loves her child. From duty, when introduced and accepted by reason. From reason alone, as we love our enemies, not from a spontaneous inclination of the mind but by the constraint of the commandment. From affection alone, when someone wins the love another because of such physical qualities as beauty or strength of eloquence. 3. From reason and affection together, as when one whom reason persuades is lovable because of his meritorious virtue enters another’s spirit through his sweetness of manner and the charm of a purer life. Reason is so joined to affection that love may be chaste through reason and delightful through affection. (3.2)

The final kind of love is that which is best suited to the sort of friendship under discussion in this dialogue.

Aelred says:

In a friend, a certain four qualities should be tested: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. (3.61)

Loyalty, argues Aelred, is at the heart of friendship. There is no betrayal, no revealing secrets, no belittling of one’s friendship, and there is freedom from suspicion. Much of Book 3 discusses what sort of person should be chosen for this truest of friendships, with the warning ‘not to set our hearts too quickly.’ (3.40) If, however, you admit into friendship someone who has some of the forewarned vices and who commits a grave sin, be patient. If this person proves to be unsuitable, do not cut off the relationship quickly, but just slowly drift away.

If one who was a friend seeks to do you wrong, you should put up with that person’s behaviour patiently and lovingly, with regard to the former affection. Respond so lovingly and reputably that disgrace falls on the other person, not yourself.

However, it is always preferable to avoid the above through testing a potential friend, letting someone into your confidences and trust little by little.

The monks say that this is all well and good, but does not Aelred himself embrace many people who would make unsuitable friends? He responds:

With all affection I embrace many whom I do not admit into the intimacies of friendship, which consists especially in communicating all my secrets and aspirations. (3.83)

He gives the example of Jesus Christ, who loved everyone, but who still had some disciples closer than others, let alone the great crowds that followed him.

Having tested a potential friend, what do we do now? Aelred has quite little to say here, actually. He believes that such friendships will purify each other. Throughout, it is the sharing of confidences and the praying for one another that seem to do the trick. Having chosen a person of similar enough character who is also pursuing virtue and Christ, you can share with him (or her) your deep secrets, your fears and weaknesses as well as your joys and strengths. Because of the trust in this relationship, you know that your friend will not mock you or heap scorn on you for your weakness or be jealous of your strength, but give advice and pray for you as well as praise God for your victories.

So, besides whom you choose, what seems to set Aelred’s spiritual friendship apart from what most of us experience, is the intentionality. You and your spiritual friend discuss spiritual things. You have a strong relationship that you can accept criticism from each other — Aelred speaks of how a look from one of his close friends was able to calm his anger and keep him in check.

Most of us do not go deep with our friendly acquaintances, whom we have never tested, whom we have never considered going deeper with. I suspect that if we did, we would find that human intimacy leads to divine intimacy, as St Aelred recommends.

Whom might you choose as a spiritual friend, then?

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship Book 2

Book 2 of Spiritual Friendship is the shortest of the three books of St Aelred’s guide to making friends and growing spiritually. In the drama of the dialogue, a few years have passed, and Aelred has gained new dialogue partners, his original interlocutor having passed away. We have a recap of what went before, and then discussion of the importance of friendship.

Basing his discussion in Scripture, Aelred sees friendship as one of the highest goods in a person’s life. Without friendship, we are like wild animals. Furthermore, friendship provides a foundation for the virtues. Friendship is medicine. One elegant passage runs:

Consequently, friendship for the rich is a glory, for exiles a country, for the poor remission of taxes, for the sick medicine, for the dead life, for the healthy a benefit, for the weak strength, and for the vigorous a reward. (2.14)

… One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.” (2.14)

Such wonderful friendship, though, such friendship that brings excellence and lays the foundation for virtue, exists only among the good. To be more precise, Aelred says that it exists perfectly among the perfect, but has its origins among the good and progresses as they themselves progress in perfection.

Pre-modern Christians have no qualms in stating outright that if we are less holy, we will enjoy the benefits of life less fully.

Nevertheless, the argument as it sits in Aelred, with his descriptions of what friendship is, makes sense. Friendship is a unanimity of mind, a deep bond of harmony. It is the foundation for virtue and a balm in distress. Moreover, and this is a vital point first made in book 2, friendship is a pathway to Christ. It only stands to reason, then, that we will enjoy its benefits more the more we become like Christ.

Consider as follows. Let’s say I suffer from the passion of anger, due in part to my own prickliness, in part to my own selfishness, in part to my own pettiness as I judge others. This will limit the number of deep, true, spiritual friendships I have, and limit the depth of any friendship I form. But if I am able to acknowledge that I have such a weakness, and profess it to a friend — well, my friendship has become a stepping-stone to becoming more like Christ.

Moreover, my friend can pray for me about this problem, and I can pray for him. As I overcome my own anger and the selfishness whence it comes, I will be better able to listen to my friend’s weaknesses and to take his concerns to Christ in prayer. As I pray for him, and as he prays for me, we both become holier. Our mutual growth in holiness will stir us up to become even holier.

But if I remain petty and selfish, judging my friend for the ways in which he is unlike me, neither will I have the vulnerability to open up to him, nor will I have the magnanimity to take his own concerns seriously.

This is just my own imagining. Nonetheless, I think it true. So let’s find someone at least as good as ourselves to be vulnerable with, to pray with, and to be friends with.

This will be a path to Jesus and the heart of God.

St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1

I just finished reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Aelred d. 1167). You can read the introduction through to the end of book 1 for free as a publisher’s preview from Liturgical Press (the Benedictines who now publish [or at least distribute] Cistercian Publications) if you like. I thought I would share a few reflections on Book 1 here.

The whole of Spiritual Friendship is a dialogue, and Book 1 consists of an abbot named Aelred conversing with a monk named Ivo on the question of friendship. For a starting point for the discussion, they take up Cicero’s definition from On Friendship 6.20:

Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. (Aelred, 1.11)

From here it is pondered whether this is attainable outside of grace and of Christ. As they proceed, three kinds of human relationship that might be called ‘friendship’ emerge:

  1. Carnal friendship: Simply enjoying things, mostly sin, with another person. Like Augustine’s friends and the pears, or like a band of thieves.
  2. Worldly friendship: Maintaining a relationship with someone else for personal gain. They mostly discuss wealth, business, and the like, but we can imagine ‘career advancement’ or, in their own 12th-century context, ‘advancement at court’, being the same basic thing.
  3. Spiritual friendship: Friends who are friends simply for the sake of each other’s company.

This third friendship is not charity (caritas), for charity embraces both friend and foe, whereas in spiritual friendship you can entrust everything to each other. Moreover, this friendship is between people with ‘agreement in things human and divine’, so it differs from caritas since caritas is to be given to all, friend, foe, stranger.

To distinguish it from the other two friendships, Aelred says:

Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired not with an eye to any worldly profit or for any extraneous reason, but for its own natural worth and for the emotion of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself. (1.45)

An important idea that emerges is the statement that friendship is part of human nature — therefore, it is good, and it has been there since creation. Evidence for this comes from Genesis, where it is said that it is not good for the man to be alone, so the woman is created out of him. This is also, for those who have an interest, used as evidence that male and female by nature are equals.

Friendship, however, was corrupted at the fall by cupidity, avarice, envy that brought in contentions, rivalries, hatreds, and suspicions. This is the state of the world we live in. But true, that is, spiritual, friendship is still possible.

As the book draws towards its end, Aelred also makes a provocative statement:

if you weigh these teachings carefully, you will discover that friendship is so close to or steeped in wisdom that I would almost claim that friendship is nothing other than wisdom. (1.67)

Ivo disputes that, and as part of his wider explanation, Aelred says:

Since in friendship, then, eternity may flourish, truth light the way, and charity delight, see for yourself whether you should withhold the name of wisdom where these three co-exist. (1.68)

Some thoughts arising from this very brief account of only a few points in Aelred’s text.

First, not having read Cicero’s On Friendship and so speaking second hand, it seems that from texts such as that and from what Aelred says, that in the ancient mindset, life was a contest — so most friendships were of the ‘worldly’ kind at best. What Aelred has not imagined in this part of the book is that kind of friendship that arises between persons of mutual interests but where the relationship ultimately does exist for its own sake but will never progress to the kind of spiritual friendship that I understand the second and third books discuss.

What do we do with this? Do we see it as a foundation for true friendship that cannot be realised in the unregenerate outside of the grace of Christ? That said friends, if converted, would find themselves strengthened even more?

Second, I think this text was important in Aelred’s day for much the same reason as in our own. St Aelred is writing in the same era as the troubadours of France, the same era as courtly love, of Chrétien de Troyes, of Marie de France, of others. This is an age where a secular literature emerged of ‘true’ love being the highest good, rising (in literature) even higher than that of the Christian God, where ‘true’ love is erotic and not bound by marriage but often of necessity found only in adultery.

We may no longer esteem adultery so highly, but we are not so far from the courtly ethic of love and its power and its importance as might be though.

In such a context, to find a great, high, and magnificent ideal in friendship is powerful. And then to find in friendship a pathway to Christ through those humans around us — this is a message that we need in our age that is at once more connected and more lonely than ever, our age of sex without intimacy, and online ‘friends’ we’ve never met.

Let’s see where the next two books will take me…

‘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.

Thinking about the hours of prayer in the 21st century

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.

Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.

Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.

So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.

Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.

If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?

There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.

One that seems to arise in the tradition itself, and not amongst the monks, is praying at certain times of the day. I’ve noted it in relation to The Apostolic Tradition recently, as well as in relation to St Benedict, and as a general point of discussion, amidst other posts on the topic.

When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.

In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).

I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?

Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?

The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.

An example might be:

  • On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
  • Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
  • Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
  • Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
  • Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
  • Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.

My two main thoughts are:

  1. Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
  2. Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.

Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.

Sorting out a ‘Rule of Life’

One of the recommendations in the Catechism of the Canadian 1962 Book of Common Prayer is the creation of a personal rule of life. I’ve not investigated previous editions to know if they include this instruction. Nevertheless, I imagine few Canadians since 1962, let alone Anglicans at large beforehand, have followed through with this recommendation.

It is something that I have attempted before. I blogged about one attempt, and was told in the comments that I needed a spiritual father, otherwise I’d just fail.

As I reflect on the recommendations for individuals in The Apostolic Tradition as well as the reminders of asceticism for all believers that run through David W. Fagerberg’s On Liturgical Asceticism, I find myself musing on what my own ‘asceticism’, or askesis — the Greek word for training — or disciplina would look like.

As I sort it out, dealing with the passion of gluttony is one concern of mine, remembering that gluttony is not just eating too much (as yesterday here in Canada we celebrated Thanksgiving) but eating the wrong food and at the wrong time.

The other foundations must be prayer and Scripture-reading. I’ll post soon on the hours of prayer, I think. But I wonder if finding some way of praying at those times, as the ancient Christians and living monks do, might not be possible. Not a full-blown liturgy of the hours with set prayers, but times of prayer and remembrance, with maybe one or two offices proper mixed in?

What disciplines are you seeking to pursue in your own rule of life today?