The Ecclesial Dimension of Christian Discipline

It can be very easy to think of spiritual growth and the disciplines solely in terms of what each of us is and does individually. Indeed, the history of the disciplines feels like it is full of loners — hermits and monks, the lone missionary in a heathen land, Susannah Wesley hiding under the table for her private devotions, The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, medieval books of hours, et cetera.

This is an illusion. For example, Richard Rolle the hermit of Hampole (1305-1349) was, for want of a more western term to come to mind, spiritual father to a group of nuns. Carthusians in their silence work together, pray together, occasionally eat together. All monks who live ‘in community’ gather with one another to sing praises to God multiple times a day. Susannah Wesley inevitably spent time teaching her children about God and Christ. Lancelot Andrewes was a royal chaplain and Bible translator. When a French nobleman was done with his book of hours, he would be part of the eucharistic community, gathered under one roof.

Not only this, but when we are alone, we are never alone. Christians are united to one another the mystical body of Christ, after all. It is telling that the Lord’s Prayer begins ‘Our Father’, and if you use the Prayer Book for private devotions, you will find yourself reading many prayers in the first person plural, ‘O God make speed to save us!’

One of the moments in ecclesiastical history that seems most replete with Lone Ranger spirituality is the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy of the 1300s. This was a dispute about the monks of Mount Athos and what it was they were experiencing when they claimed, after a lot of time literally navel-gazing and praying the Jesus Prayer and such, to have seen the Uncreated Light. Their great champion, Gregory Palamas, said that it was the energies, or better activity, of God manifesting itself to them, the same light that transfigured Jesus on Mount Tabor in the Gospels. His opponents felt that they were wrong and this was, in our terms today, a purely psychological phenomenon. God in his absolute transcendence is inaccessible. The light seen can in no way be considered the Uncreated Light and God’s energies.

I’ve blogged on Palamas before.

Anyway, even this dispute about men who spend much of their day praying in silence, is about the Church. We are reminded this by Gregory Palamas himself:

Through God’s grace we are all one in our faith in Him, and we constitute the one body of His Church, having Him as sole head, and we have been given to drink from one spirit through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and we have received one baptism, and one hope is inall, and we have one God, above all things and with all things and in us all. (Homily 15, quoted in George Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man, p. 57)

So I guess today’s reflection and exhortation from the history of God’s people is simply this: Do not neglect the body of believers, not simply by going to church and mid-week events, but also keep them wrapped up in your heart as you pray, for we all pray together and are all bound together. No Christian is ever alone.

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Review: Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry

Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic ImaginationFaith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination by Malcolm Guite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Early in the New Year, I finished this volume which is a beacon of hope for those of us who maintain faith in the midst of a dark night of rationalism, knowing that there is more afoot than reductionism and materialism and scientism with their false certainties provide. Yet how can we articulate that vision, having been raised in these -isms of late modernity?

Poetry is Guite’s answer. In this book, he discusses how poetry, with its fraught edges of language and human experience, its deployment of symbol and metaphor and juxtaposition, brings us into contact with the transcendent God and provides a medium for expressing those realities glimpsed at the corners of our vision that are almost inexpressible in modernist terms, realities, as I would express it, embodied in liturgy and the mystical. Here, the medium for this theological expression and outlet for realities beyond the ken of man is the poetic.

After setting up the problem of late modernity and postmodernism’s failure to solve or address the problem with any success, he takes us into the realm of imagination, of poetry, weaving in a few poems along the way. An extended discussion of two wonderful poems ensues — ‘The Rain Stick’ by Seamus Heaney, and ‘Prayer (1)’ by George Herbert. Here we see how language plays upon us and how the created world can be a window into eternity.

Then the methodology of reading poetry is brought forth, a methodology we should all use, whether reading theologically or not. Guite cites five ways of reading:

1. Tasting the Words
2. Echo and Counterpoint
3. Images and Allusion
4. Ambiguity and Ambivalence
5. Perspective and Paradox

Re-read each poem seeking after all of these.

The main body of the book is then arranged chronologically from The Dream of the Rood, a poem which I love, to Seamus Heaney, my appreciation of whom is growing. And that’s not a backhanded compliment, but a sincere enjoyment of a modern poet (rare for me). The poets along the way are Shakespeare, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill.

Not all of these men are Christians — Hardy, Larkin, and Hill are explicitly not. Guite’s treatment of them is sensitive and eloquent, showing how the honesty of these poets allows for the real life fissures in any belief, including unbelief. And not all of the poems are explicitly Christian, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

Reflecting and refracting throughout the book is the image from ‘The Rain Stick’ of glimpsing eternity through the ear of a raindrop. And, from the arrival of Sir John Davies, an important theme of Faith, Hope and Poetry is the inner person, the microcosm (incidentally, an idea originally imaged forth by St Maximos the Confessor in the 600s), and how, for all its subtleties, physical science can never penetrate the human soul. Know yourself — but this is not achieved by science.

A third major contributor, and possibility the theorist who gave rise to so much of this, is S. T. Coleridge and his philosophy of poetry and symbol. Coleridge is important, for he is the first of these poets writing after the Enlightenment (Endarkenment). He believes that God, as Creator, is writ upon creation in a real yet subtle way. Indeed, symbols are not simply one thing standing for another. No, symbols are pathways from one thing to another. They bridge the gap between apparently divergent realities, human and animal, God and creation, nature and supernature. This, I observe, is not dissimilar from much of the theology of icons in St John of Damascus or, more recently, Pavel Florensky.

There are many great insights in this book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to come to poetry and to theology with fresh eyes.

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What book should I read for Lent?

Okay, folks, it’s Lent in a week. What should I read this year? I am pondering Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, making progress with The Philokalia, Vol. 1, or Christopher A. Hall, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Here’s my first-ever blog poll:

Blogging Benedict: Reading and suchlike

Benedictine monks are meant to be literate. Eventually, it will come to pass in the Middle Ages that such a creature as the ‘choir monk’ will exist — someone who can sing the offices in Latin but does not know Latin. But originally, in the Latin-speaking world of Late Antique Italy, it was expected that they would memorise the Psalter and offices both orally and from books, in a language that they understood. Indeed, in the language that they spoke every day.

Throughout the Rule of St Benedict, there is a lot of reading and listening to people read. When Benedict discusses the different offices within the monastery, we learn about the ‘weekly reader’ who reads at meal times (chapter 38). The rest of the monks sit in silence while the reader reads; they use sign language at the table when they need someone to do something. No moment for edification is lost for the Benedictine.

After supper, there is time to read collationes or the Lives of the Fathers — the latter probably being the Desert Fathers (chapter 42). This is not the time for reading Old Testament history, because it might excite some of younger brothers’ imaginations, and then they’ll have trouble sleeping. In the twelfth century, the books for reading at collatio at Durham Cathedral Priory were:

  • Lives of the Fathers
  • Diadema Monachorum (Crown of Monks by Smaragdus of St-Mihiel)
  • Paradise of Ephrem with Lives of the Egyptians (that is, Desert Fathers)
  • Speculum (I do not know which one)
  • Dialogues (presumably Gregory the Great’s, which are Italian saints’ lives)
  • Excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule
  • Isidore of Seville, De Summo Bono
  • Prosper On the Contemplative Life
  • The Book of Odo (of Cluny, I suspect; he wrote a work called ‘Collationes’)
  • John Cassian
  • Decem Collationes — awkwardly, this is a title of a work of Cassian’s

In chapter 48, we read about the daily round in the Benedictine monastery. The day is divided between times of work and times of reading, besides the set hours to pray the office.

Reading is called lectio divina at the start of this chapter; Carolinne White translates that phrase as ‘biblical study’. What exact process of reading, and whether it refers specifically to Scripture, is less clear than many would make you think. Pierre Riché, in Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries, interprets lectio divina generally to mean the study of Scripture for the end of devotion and religion, as opposed to a more scholarly or academic pursuit. What techniques or meditation on Scripture are involved is less clear at this stage. Sometimes, though, it does seem that lectio divina includes scriptural commentaries as well as Scripture itself.

In the early Middle Ages, the tendency was more towards commentaries like Bede’s that are a bit more practical and down-to-earth, or Gregory the Great’s that are more geared for monastic life than the sort of commentaries that seek to unpack thorny problems of interpretation like you’ll find amongst scholastics or that are more literary like Cassiodorus.

Every monk is given his own special book to read during Lent. In a largely oral world, the monastery becomes one of the refuges of culture — but that culture in the Early Middle Ages is almost entirely religious. These monks are not consciously ‘saving’ western culture from drowning in a sea of ‘barbarism’. They preserve great works of literature as well as rhetoricians and grammarians to better enable them to read and study the Scriptures and the Fathers as they approach God. Western culture is, at this stage, a by-product of Christian devotion. (See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.)

So, since it is Lent in a week, let’s think about orienting our reading towards God. And our eating. And our working. Everything we do should be done to the glory of God.

Blogging Benedict: Service

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In chapter 35 of the Rule, St Benedict writes:

The brothers should serve one another and no one should be excused from kitchen duty, unless he is sick or is busy with something particularly important, for by serving one another the brothers gain a greater reward and become more loving. (p. 60, trans. White)

This is, I think, something vitally important in our communal life, in homes, churches, workplaces, other communities. No one is above works of service. Service is love.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a monk who visited one of the monasteries, and they invited him to join them in their manual labour, and he remarked that he was there simply to pray. They took him to his cell and left him there. Eventually, after several hours, he grew hungry, and he was wondering when they would eat, for no one had come to get him. Growing curious, and a bit concerned, he left his cell to seek out the abbot and asked him about when supper was. The abbot remarked that they had not called him for supper, since he was so spiritual that he did not need to work with his hands, clearly he did not need to eat carnal food, either.

There is more to say about manual labour in RB later, of course. But no one is exempt from the service of others in the Rule. One of the reasons why St Basil the Great (of Caesarea) favoured communal life over hermits was because how can you fulfill Christ’s commands to love and serve each other if you are hermits?

In our communities, this means that elders, wardens, pastors, priests, deacons, deaconesses, et al., take their turns in the mundane aspects of church life. My minister in Edinburgh was often invisible in the kitchen at events. In Durham, my minister helps set up and take down equipment before and after services. Growing up, my dad (a priest) spent a lot of time at the food bank that ran out of our church unloading and distributing food.

Whether you hold an official post in the church, service, which leads to humility and is an act of love, can (and should!) be part of your Christian life. Wash dishes, cook food, take care of babies in creche, organise Sunday School storage cupboards. This all serves the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Evangelical Identity Crisis

A lot of pieces have been appearing recently — especially in the past year since the election of Donald Trump with the support of many evangelicals — discussing the crisis currently besetting evangelicalism. They usually reference American evangelicalism, but since there are 10 times as many people in the USA than in Canada and 5 times as many as in Britain, and since the largest denomination in the USA is the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, what happens in American evangelicalism has a knock-on effect on the rest of anglophone evangelicalism, even when we know there are definite differences amongst our different cultures and church traditions.

One problem is that people who aren’t evangelicals have no clue what an evangelical is to begin with. This is not necessarily a terrible thing; most people probably can’t tell the Greek Orthodox from the Coptic Orthodox, and some people can’t even tell Greek Orthodox priests from Muslims (true story). But as evangelicals in the USA have been making themselves a visible and felt presence in the public sphere for a while now, it’s a bit surprising that people still can’t tell them from other kinds of Christians.

For example, a somewhat amusing but ultimately false and absurd post at Salon says this:

Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists.

First of all, one of the defining features of American evangelicals is the fact that they are explicitly not fundamentalists. That’s part of the point of the evangelical movement in the USA since at least the 1970s — to be a countercultural, conservative, Protestant voice committed to Scripture, Gospel, and evangelism that is an alternative to the fundamentalists. Second, this is not how most evangelicals actually understand inspiration. Some do, I admit. But I don’t think most do. This is how Muslims think about the Qur’an, sure. But Christians aren’t Muslims.

One prominent scholar of Late Antiquity once referred in 2010 to people who believe in Intelligent Design as fundamentalists, which demonstrates a failure to understand either Intelligent Design (a movement that says science and theism are compatible, with an openness to evolution) or fundamentalism (a movement that requires the sort of biblical literalism that says that rejecting a literal six-day creation means rejecting the authority of Scripture).

So, part of the evangelical identity crisis lies in the fact that, well before Trumpism, people couldn’t actually tell who evangelicals were. As a result, anyone who thinks of his’erself as ‘evangelical’ and who pays attention to the misrepresentations of evangelicals on the Internet became a bit uncomfortable with the word. I remember, back in 2001, talking to a Canadian who was surprised when I talked about evangelical Anglicans, because he associated evangelicalism with certain varieties of (American) neo-conservative politics.

I’d say that American politics are probably the main source of contemporary evangelical angst, but before I get there, I’d like to say that we’ve been having an identity crisis longer than that. This is partly because evangelicalism, in whatever nation and whatever form, is a cross-denominational movement and often involves para-church organisations and inter-denominational events.

In his little book, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Carl Trueman argues that the real problem facing evangelicals is that there is no such thing as an evangelical. He, a Presbyterian of confessional cast, recalls being seated at the ‘evangelical’ table at a conference and found that he had very little with the others at his table, who included an Open Theist. He looked to another table and realised he had more in common with the Dominican Roman Catholics in the room than his fellow evangelicals.

Indeed, the concept of the evangelical is so loose that in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Bradley Nassif is able to argue that the two are compatible due to using the common definition of evangelical as having four components:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

But, of course, for most Orthodox, to cite the title of a different book, Evangelical Is not Enough.

So, not only do evangelicals get confused with other groups that they are not, they also can’t even agree amongst themselves what they are. But whatever they are, it originally was rooted in particular Christian beliefs and a certain view of the Christian life rooted in Scripture and the Cross.

But politics has muddied the waters. Surveys now show that a lot of people who, if you quizzed them on their beliefs, would qualify as evangelical, do not use the word. As well, there are people who would use the word of themselves if it had no political baggage. Others wouldn’t. That, I think, was a recent Pew survey? Another survey revealed that amongst self-identified evangelicals, regular churchgoers were less likely to vote for Trump than non-churchgoing evangelicals.

Wait a second.

Evangelicals who don’t go to church?

In my mind, evangelicals are a committed brand of conservative Protestant, part of whose personal piety is regular church attendance, along with daily prayer and Bible reading. Indeed, not just weekly church attendance on Sunday, but a mid-week Bible study is a typically evangelical event.

So, not only do we have an inability on the part of non-evangelicals to tell them apart from others, an inability amongst so-called ‘evangelicals’ to define what they are, we also have people who identify as ‘evangelical’ who are not even active Christians.

Of course, what matters is not what labels we use. I still think of myself as an evangelical — not just those four distinctives but also a belief in robust preaching and rich theological reflection being part of my vision of evangelicalism. But it is clear that, because of developments in the culture of the USA, the term’s usefulness is running out.

What matters, then, is the commitment of Christians of any denomination — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox — to the Gospel of Christ Crucified and Risen, to Scripture, to the encounter with God, to making more disciples, to living holy lives, to seeing a world transformed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. This can happen, and we don’t need the word evangelical to do it.

Should people like me give up on it, then?