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:

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Confronted with the glory of God

The Transfiguration

This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the BCP was from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish. When St Peter witnesses the miracle, here is his response to Jesus:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken

This is the biblical response to meeting the divine. When God the Father spoke on the mount of Transfiguration, St Peter went from, ‘Let’s build tents,’ to falling on his face terrified (Mt 17:6).

At the moment of his throne-room vision, the prophet Isaiah declared:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5 ESV)

When Ezekiel has his super-intense vision of the divine:

So when I saw it, I fell on my face (Ez 1:28 NKJV)

Moses was told by God that he would not be able to look on God’s face and live, so God hid him in a cleft in a rock and covered him with his hand as God passed by. Moses only saw the divine back. Later, when Moses descended from the mountain, even his own reflected glory was too much, and the people veiled his glowing face.

When St John had mighty things revealed to him by an angel, he, too, fell on his face (Rev. 22:8).

Angels and people who have been close to God are more than we can handle, so far as the Bible shows us. God Himself … well. He’s a different story.

And yet we figure that making the worship of the Most Holy Trinity a combination of rock concert and stand-up comedy routine will help us encounter the Most High God.

The Bible, on the other hand, says:

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Ps. 96:9)

And so the tradition feels that incense and icons, Gothic architecture and polyphony, stained glass and the ringing of bells, the prostration of human bodies on the floor, are the way to best encounter the Most High God. God is mystery, and true mystery is not a puzzle to be solved but an immensity to be embraced and entered into.

God, that is, is neither your boyfriend nor your best friend.

Let’s restore some reverence to our worship and devotion.

Alcuin on the Psalms

A quote from Alcuin of York (735-804) that reminds me a bit of St Athanasius:

If you come to the psalms with a serious mind, and look with the spirit of understanding, you will find there the word of the Lord incarnate, suffering, risen, and ascended . . . you will find every virtue in the psalms, if you deserve to find the mercy of God in revealing to you their secrets.

Hrabanus Maurus (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right). Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, saec. IX 2/4)

Jesus our mother (wherein I court controversy)

What follows will likely either offend some Christians in different ways whilst leaving most thinking, ‘So what?’ I hope it will appeal to somebody out there (maybe a Classicist or two), and I have no doubt, if I’m right, a biblical scholar has already addressed the bit where I talk about Greek. #philologywillsavetheworld

In Chapter 8 of A World Transformed, ‘Being Reborn’, Lisa Deam discusses the Ebstorf Map, from c. 1300, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peek out from behind the round globe of the world. She argues that this represents Jesus pregnant with the world. Not being an art historian, I can neither affirm nor deny this idea. It’s kind of neat — I’ll take it from Deam, who is an art historian, that this is a feasible interpretation of the map. Here it is:

This leads into a discussion of medieval piety to Jesus as mother. Interestingly, Julian of Norwich doesn’t come up, possibly because Julian’s references to Jesus as mother are so fleeting as to be almost content-less (in my non-expert opinion). Instead, we get something much more powerful, much more vivid, combining late mediaeval crucifixion piety with the image of Jesus as mother. Deam quotes Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310), A Page of Meditations, one of whose passages is this:

Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; and seeing this, they stretched you out and fixed you with nails and you were so stretched that there was no bone left that could still have been disjointed, and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day. (World Transformed, p. 104)

First, given that this piety is around the same time as the Ebstorf Map, this lends weight to Deam’s interpretation.

Second, this is, I think, totally acceptable, along the same lines as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (that is, keep it to yourself; don’t add it to the liturgy). It is a pious meditation upon the salvific event of the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour. And it is a realisation that his death brings life. His agony allows me to breathe. The cross, as the ultimate kairos, is an event with trans-temporal significance, backwards to Abraham and Adam, forwards to Judgement Day. The true life of the world is brought forth in the cross.

The theology expressed in what, for us, is entirely novel, is also entirely in keeping with the theology of St Irenaeus of Lyons or St Ephraim the Syrian.

Deam also points out that has nothing to do with the historical gender of the real Jesus. God the Word Incarnate may have had two natures, but he had only one sex. Jesus was a man. This has more to do with seeing His role in our lives and in salvation history in a light we’re not used to.

The argument leading up to Marguerite is also of interest, reminding us of the various biblical passages where God and Jesus are discussed with maternal imagery. Jesus even uses it of himself, after all! I, however, am one of those people who are quick to say that a metaphor or image doesn’t have anything to do divine names or attributes, but points beyond itself to the divine Person in some other aspect of His Person(s). God the mother is about the oikonomia of God the Father acting in our personal and world salvation history, not about renaming the First Person of the Trinity.

God as Father fulfils all the functions of fathers and mothers perfectly. But God is not named Mother in Scripture; therefore, I refuse to use feminine pronouns for God and I refuse to call God ‘Mother’.

However, I am not sold on the reading of Acts 2:24 provided on page 101.

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (ESV)

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ

The word for ‘pangs’ here is τὰς ὠδῖνας. Following Margaret Hammer, Deam renders it ‘birth pangs’, because this is exactly what the word means in Greek. If you check your big, fat Greek dictionary, this is what you’ll find under ὠδίς. It can, however, be used metaphorically, in which case St Peter is not necessarily saying that Jesus was giving birth to the world. In fact, the ὠδῖνας under discussion are not necessarily those that Jesus went through, in the first place. They are what Jesus has loosed, has set free by his death (λύσας from λύω).

Thus, it is our ‘birth pangs’ that Jesus has loosed, not ours.

But I don’t think that St Peter said τὰς ὠδῖνας in the first place, because he would have been preaching in Aramaic, right? If you read the entry for ὠδίς in Liddel & Scott to the end, you’ll find citation of the word in the plural to mean ‘bonds’:

ὠδῖνες θανάτου, ᾄδου, the bonds of death, LXX 2 Ki.22.6Ps.17(18).56 (due to confusion of Heb. [hudot ]ēbel ‘pang’ with [hudot ]ěbel ‘cord’), cf. Act.Ap.2.24.

The ESV, translating Hebrew, gives us this as 2 Samuel 22:6 (LXX 2 Kingdoms):

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

This is the same as Ps. 18:5:

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

The difference between ‘cords of Sheol’ and ‘pangs of Sheol’ is the length of the first vowel in Jebel. You can see how the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament, aka LXX) could easily have mistaken the Hebrew, given that Hebrew is written in consonants with little markings to represent vowels. If we imagine that Acts 2:24 is, in fact, parallelling 2 Sam. 22:6/Psalm 18:5, then we see St Peter drawing a scriptural parallel, using scriptural language for the great, powerful, salvific act that is Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It works with both the wider and immediate context.

So, in sum: If you want to imagine Jesus as your spiritual mother, that’s totally legit. It’s a medieval thing. It’s not my style, but whatevs. However, I don’t think Acts 2:24 has anything to do with it.

Blogging Benedict: The Rule and the Bible

An immediate concern of many Protestants when they meet a text such as the Rule of St Benedict will undoubtedly be, ‘What about the Bible?’ First, as I observed in my post on the Rule of St Benedict’s last chapter, St Benedict does not believe that his little rule for beginners is the be-all and end-all of the Christian life, nor even the first or best place to look for instruction. He upholds, first and foremost, the Bible.

In fact, the Rule is saturated with the Scriptures. Benedict quotes the Bible on almost every page. Many of the rules governing the life of his monks are based directly on biblical precepts or principles. Some paragraphs include whole chains of biblical citations. Benedict is using the Bible throughout the Rule; it informs him at almost every turn.

Not only this, but he continually recommends reading the Bible and integrates it into monastic life. If you want to learn holiness, St Benedict will tell you to read your Bible. From what I can tell, the Bible is the main book read by Benedictines (and other sixth-century monks) during times of lectio. They are spending hours of every day reading and thinking about Scripture.

This emphasis on Scripture and it study will pervade the history of Benedictine monasticism in its various forms. Looking at the hand-list of Durham Cathedral Priory’s manuscripts (it is not a complete description of each manuscript’s contents so there are likely some commentaries I’ve missed), we find at least 69 manuscripts containing parts of the Bible; many of these are glossed, and an entire pandect Bible from the Middle Ages is rare; the Bible is huge when written by hand on parchment, even in minuscule hands. I also identify 33 manuscripts of commentaries and Bible reading aids; more are undoubtedly there, since I see many famous Bible commentators in the list, but I don’t have time to hunt them down.

From another approach, consider a few Benedictine types. The Venerable St Bede (672-735) is well-known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but most of his life was devoted to writing commentaries on the Bible. In the generation after Bede, Alcuin (735-804), besides working on correcting the biblical text of the Vulgate, wrote on Song of Songs and Genesis. Hrabanus Maurus (780-856) also wrote commentaries on the Bible. Or consider St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the famous Cistercian father — one of his most popular and famous works is a commentary on the Song of Songs. William of St Thierry wrote commentaries and aids to biblical interpretation.

Moreover, if you read the works of the Benedictine tradition that are not Bible commentaries, they demonstrate a strong familiarity with the Bible and are informed by biblical theology at every turn.

Besides these approaches to Scripture, Benedictines sing Psalms and have multiple Bible readings at each of the seven offices. The monastic life of the Rule is saturated in Scripture as a result. Indeed, I’ve always thought it grimly funny that in the Scottish Reformation, the Tironensians (a reforming order like Cistercians) of Arbroath were allowed to live out their last days in peace at the abbey so long as they didn’t sing the office! The office is approximately 90% Scripture if not more. The strict office of the Rule is one of the most Presbyterian things in the Middle Ages — a cappella Psalms, after all!!

So, fear not. One of the first pieces of wisdom to take from the Rule of St Benedict is: Read the Bible. Mark the Bible. Inwardly digest the Bible. Meditate on Scripture, pray Scripture, study Scripture. If you want to know the path to holiness, read Scripture.

Monks and the goal of reading in the 6th century

I am reading Pierre Riché, Edcuation and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries. Of relevance to my ongoing posts about the Rule of St Benedict is his discussion of reading. First of all, Riché establishes that there was a common Latin Mediterranean monasticism and monastic culture in the sixth century. Then he discusses what monastic education would look like. It is all focussed on what St Benedict calls the ‘school for the Lord’s service‘ — education in asceticism. To that end, they have the Bible and the Fathers and the lives of saints read aloud to them, and they spend time reading these same texts. Not for intellectual growth nor even for understanding as we would think it:

To what end did frequent reading of the Bible and the other texts we have cited lead? Historians have taken quite different and even opposing positions on this subject, especially insofar as the beginnings of Benedictine monasticism are concerned. According to some, monks read the Bible without ever truly appreciating its meaning. Others claim that the monks abandoned themselves to learned study and portray Benedict as the ‘initiator of Biblical studies in the West.’

We have only the texts with which to settle this debate — in particular, the regulae, which speak of lectio, especially of lectio divina and meditatio. But what do these terms mean? The intellectual vocabulary of the period was quite rich but rather imprecise. For example, meditatio, which for the Church Fathers often meant ‘prayer,’ [cites Jerome and Cassian] in the rules meant ‘study,’ especially ‘preparatory study.’ Meditari litterasmeditari psalmos meant to learn to read and to learn the Psalter by reading it aloud in order to become thoroughly familiar with it. [Benedict, Rule of the Master, Cassiodorus] Meditari was also synonymous with legere, which ordinarily meant ‘to read’; but when Benedict spoke of the lectio divina, did he not mean something more than simply reading? Lectio, for the grammarians, was the beginning of interpretation. ‘To read’ the Bible, then, could mean to study it intensively under the direction of the abbot. Was the abbot to explicate the hidden meaning of the Scriptures to the monks and to be, as was said of Achivus of Agaune, an ‘interpretator insignis?’ All that is certain is that the abbot was primarily charged with directing the spiritual and moral life of the monks. He was more a ‘physician for the soul’ than a teacher; a passage in the Regula Magistri portrays him curing an ‘illness’ with words and appropriate readings. I see no place for the establishment of ‘Christian learning’ as Saint Augustine understood it in the ascetic climate described by the regulae.

According to Cassian, who borrowed the thought from Evagrius Ponticus, purity of heart was preferable when learning when it came to delving into the meaning of Scripture. The cenobites of Gaul and Italy remained true to this advice. Caesarius said that humility, obedience, and charity were the primary conditions necessary for lectio and oratio, while Benedict, like Cassian, insisted on ‘puritas cordis.’ Cenobites, beginners in the art of asceticism,[Benedict] were apprentices under the direction of their abbot. Their final goal was real meditatio, the contemplation of God.[Cassian] Legere and meditari mean more ‘to taste’ than ‘to understand.’

Thus the monk’s religious culture was an exclusively ascetic culture. While there is no doubt that Benedict founded an original monastic organization, he was somewhat less original in the realm of religious culture. He compares in this respect more with the Eastern cenobites than with Cassiodorus. This monastic culture, which, as we have described it, was completely opposed to profane culture, was also proposed as a model for clerics. (120-122)

A quick note: This is explicitly a discussion of sixth-century southern Gaul and Italy, not the wider monastic culture that will grow up in Benedictine monasteries and which is described and studied by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

‘Let … a two-edged sword be in their hands’ (Ps. 149:6)

Every day at Lauds in the Benedictine tradition, you pray Psalms 148-150; these Psalms, in fact, give this office its name of Laudes. These Psalms begin ‘Alleluia!’ and are filled with exhortations to praise the Lord — Laudate dominum in Latin.

In the midst of the praise, at Psalm 149:6, we meet this:

Let the praises of God be in their mouth, / and a two-edged sword in their hands;

For some reason, this image always sticks in me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of Coverdale’s verse. Arresting as it is, it’s not exactly the sort of thing Christians today are comfortable with, especially when we read that the sword is for vengeance. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mainline liberal Psalters have quietly expunged it along with the end of Psalm 137 (like Canada’s BCP).

Now, I haven’t checked any of the Fathers or medieval exegetes on this, but — what do we think that two-edged sword is?

The patristic and, therefore, medieval principles of interpreting the Bible are that the Bible is always right. The Bible interprets itself. The Bible is always about Christ and/or His mystical body, the Church. The literal sense is never to be ignored, but we are called to dig deeper through allegory, typology, etc. And, which should be common to all Christian reading of Scripture: Jesus trumps all.

Attempting, then, to think like the Fathers, we should admit that executing vengeance is something many of them would be uncomfortable with. Are there clues in the verse as to what it means for Christians today? Unlike a modern(ist) reading, this verse cannot be left as a historical relic. It speaks today, to our situation.

Well, where else do we see a two-edged sword in Scripture? Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This immediately draws us to Ephesians 6:17, in the discussion of the full armour of God, where the Sword of Spirit is the Word of God. What we don’t always think on is Ephesians 6:18, which is what we are to do whilst wearing this armour:

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints

We’ll come back to this.

Revelation has a few relevant sword references:

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Rev. 1:16)

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev. 2:16)

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations (Rev. 19:15)

And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:21)

The Revelation verses are all about the two-edged sword coming out of the mouth of the visionary Christ, the Rider on the White Horse. It is not insignificant that the sword comes from his mouth — Christ is God the Word, after all. And our Ephesians and Hebrews verses refer to the word of God — in this case presumably Scripture — as being a sword.

What, then, is the two-edged sword of Psalm 149:6? It is the Word of God, being wielded by God’s people in battle against the Enemy — not men, but the world, the flesh, and the devil.

St Antony at prayer

And when do we take up this two-edged sword? According to Ephesians 6:18, in prayer. The battle for man’s soul (the Psychomachia) occurs on our knees. Do not forget Saint Antony (fourth-century) when he was confronted with all the denizens of Hell. He proclaimed Psalm 27:3:

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear

John Cassian (d. c. 435) recommends saying over and over again Psalm 70:1:

O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Let us, then, take up this two-edged sword in our hands, and get on our knees and fight.