The Silent Ecumenism of the Mystical Tradition

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:

The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).

As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.

Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.

It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.

And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.

Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.

Select Letters of St Jerome

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

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Lay piety – Augustine and Dallas Willard

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Last night I was reading the Introduction to Kate Cooper and Julia Hillner’s volume, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300-900, and learned one of the developments in Augustine scholarship of the 20th century was R A Markus’ work that presented a development in Augustine’s thinking in the 390s through the bishop of Hippo’s reading of St Paul. In this view, significantly also followed by Peter Brown (and if Brown and Markus say so, who am I to argue?), Augustine rejects the image of a two-tiered church — a decidedly anti-Manichaean move — and re-evaluates the place of the married faithful, ‘arguing that the ascetic elitism of a Jerome or an Ambrose could only be counter-productive.’ (Cooper & Hillner, 10)

They quote Markus, who says that Augustines asserts:

Both sorts of faithful belong within the one Church and both are called to serve God in faith and love. All who seek to follow the Lord are within his flock: ‘and the married are certainly able to follow His footsteps [vestigia], even if their feet do not fit perfectly into the footprints, yet following the same path’. -R A Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 46

This runs counter to the popular view of Augustine as a not-fully-recovered Manichaean who promotoes spiritual elitism partly out of guilt over his own sexual deviance. Augustine certainly sees celibacy and the committed ascetic life as better than lay married life, but, as in On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Coniugali), the difference is between two goods:

Therefore, just as what Martha did was good when she was busy attending to the saints, but what her sister Mary did, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words (Lk 10:39), was better, so too we praise the excellence of Susanna in her married chastity, but value more highly the excellence of the widow Anna, and even more that of the virgin Mary. Those who attended to the needs of Christ and his disciples, and did so out of their own resources, did something good, but those who gave up all their possessions, in order to follow that Lord without that encumbrance, did something better. With each of the two good ways of acting, both in the latter case and in the case of Martha and Mary, the one that is better is not possible without forgoing or abandoning the other. -8, 8, trans. Ray Kearney (as The Excellence of Marriage)

I am not saying I agree with Augustine, but it is important to attempt at least a balanced view of his teachings. He is not solely responsible and even, I imagine, helped mitigate ascetic elitism through the wide success of his writings (contra Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism). Unfortunately for the subsequent history of Christian discipleship, even if marriage was esteemed and encouraged by the church as a good thing where virtue can certainly be cultivated, not even Augustine’s teaching went far enough to stop the creation of a two-tiered spiritual world — a world promoted to a greater or lesser degree by the teachings of Jerome and Gregory of Nazianzus and Ambrose, for example.

One result of this two-tiered world, a result lamented by Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, is that the really good handbooks for the disciplined life of piety were all written for monks. Preaching to the laity has tended to lean simply towards basic doctrine and inculcating Christian morality and virtue. The disciplined life was sequestered off in the cloister — or practised by odd-ball mendicants (although the Franciscans tried to help out with the Tertiaries).

Therefore, Willard recommends the great monastic texts for those who wish to lead a more disciplined life. It’s true that for non-celibate married folks with jobs, some of the recommendations are simply not practical, feasible, or desirable. But many of them are. Askesis is training for virtue and holiness, and it’s not just monks anymore.

Chrysostom: The monk’s habit is the garment for the Wedding Feast

14th-c Russian icon of this parable

The other night I read the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-14, just before bed. Then I decided to think about it. I sort of understood most of it, but the end is not as straightforward as we all like to think the Bible is:

And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment; And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Mt 22:11-14 KJV)

I wasn’t so much concerned with ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ as with ‘many are called, but few are chosen’.

Chrysostom from Ayia Sophia

Since I am myself, I turned naturally to St John Chrysostom (d. 407), that great Doctor of the Church. I didn’t reallly find the answer to what v. 14 means exactly, although the short version is, ‘Sure, we Gentiles are all called. But just because you trusted in God at some point and got baptised doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities to live a holy life now.’

The orator bishop says:

Then in order that not even these should put confidence in their faith alone, He discourses unto them also concerning the judgment to be passed upon wicked actions; to them that have not yet believed, of coming unto Him by faith, and to them that have believed, of care with respect to their life. For the garment is life and practice.

And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.

The being called was not of merit, but of grace. It was fit therefore to make a return for the grace, and not to show forth such great wickedness after the honor.

You can read this section of Homily 69 on Matthew here, beginning at the fourth paragraph on p. 932. As you proceed, it will be much as you expect — he berates the congregation for being too worldly-minded, for not living by Christ’s commandments, for caring more about who became governor of which province, for …

not being monks.

Unexpected, but not surprising.

Chrysostom pulls out some of his golden* prose for the ensuing description of life in the desert-made-city.** St John Chrysostom was a former monk, so he had first-hand knowledge of what life was like for the average fourth-century monk. And Syria, where he had been a monk before joining the ranks of the ‘secular’ clergy, was a hotbed for weird and wooly monasticism — some of the more extreme examples of Late Antique ascetic piety arose there.{See footnote ***}

I quote the beginning of his ensuing oration on monks:

3. Wilt thou that I show thee them that are clad thus, them that have on a marriage garment?

Call to mind those holy persons, of whom I discoursed to you of late, them that wear garments of hair, them that dwell in the deserts. These above all are the wearers of the garments of that wedding; this is evident from hence, that how many soever purple robes thou wert to give them, they would not choose to receive them; but much as a king, if any one were to take the beggar’s rags, and exhort him to put them on, would abhor the clothing, so would those persons also his purple robe. And from no other cause have they this feeling, but because of knowing the beauty of their own raiment. Therefore even that purple robe they spurn like the spider’s web. For these things hath their sackcloth taught them; for indeed they are far more exalted and more glorious than the very king who reigns.

And if thou wert able to open the doors of the mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely thou wouldest fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience.

For we could tell also of men of old, great and to be admired; but since visible examples lead on more those of grosser souls, therefore do I send you even to the tabernacles of those holy persons. For they have nothing sorrowful, but as if in heaven they had pitched their tents, even so are they encamped far off the wearisome things of this present life, in campaign against the devils; and as in choirs, so do they war against him. Therefore I say, they have fixed their tents, and have fled from cities, and markets, and houses. For he that warreth cannot sit in a house, but he must make his habitation of a temporary kind, as on the point of removing straightway, and so dwell. Such are all those persons, contrary to us. For we indeed live not as in a camp, but as in a city at peace.

‘Thebaid’ by Fra Angelico, Uffizzi, Florence. Ascetic Egypt = Chrysostom’s paradise

This moved me (go on, read it to the end!). I am, admittedly, frequently moved by tales of monks and the lives of holy men and women in their quest for God — whether mystics, monastics, or missionaries.

But what are we up to? Are we clothing ourselves in the garments necessary for the banquet? Are we ready to feast with the King?

I am not here talking about justification or grace or any such thing.

I am talking about daily life.

Do we live as the pagans around us?

Come, let us get on our knees and pray. For there is no better place to start getting dressed.

*Pun on Chrysostomos (lit. ‘Goldenmouth’) intended.

**Hm … stealing from Derwas J Chitty or Athanasius/Antony?

*** Because everyone likes to read about this sort of thing: Simeon the Stylite on his pillar (d. 459; English trans of Syriac Life of Simeon the Stylite), this one guy who wore an iron belt under his clothes that was wearing away his flesh (see Theodoret’s History of the Monks of Syria), people who lived off wild herbs and had no shelter (boskoi in the Greek), several guys who never lay down to sleep, I think Simeon lived in a well before the pillar. It’s been a while since I looked at this material, sorry there’s not more.

Monk takes devotion to new heights

I blogged on this site once about the original and most famous stylite, St Simeon the Stylite as well as one of his successors, St Daniel the Stylite. Stylites are people who are the living embodiment of ancient desert monasticism, poised between earth and heaven, continually interceding for those below. They were most popular in the fifth century and have pretty much died out. But here we see that there is one in Georgia! What impresses me is that the monastery at the bottom of the pillar serves as an outreach to troubled young men. This is what true asceticism is about — the quest for holiness and God reaching ever upwards and then, as a natural result, turn outwards to bring Grace to the world.

CNN Photos

Maxime the monk lives on a pillar. When he wants to step down out of the clouds, the 59-year-old scales a 131-foot ladder, which takes him about 20 minutes.

After living on Katskhi pillar for 20 years, Maxime’s climbs have slowed, but having worked as a crane operator in a past life, he’s never feared heights.

Photographer Amos Chapple heard about Maxime while working in the country of Georgia, and when he first arrived and asked to go up, he was told no. Only priests and some of the troubled young men learning from Maxime and living in a monastery underneath the pillar were allowed to go up.

Chapple stayed with the men at the base for four days before he was told he could ascend the pillar. He participated in prayers seven hours a day, including four-hour night prayers from 2 a.m. to sunrise. When he was finally going…

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Untaming God: How the Fathers can help save modern Protestants from small theology

A friend recently posted on Facebook the famous passage from C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I would argue that today’s Protestant, especially the evangelical variety (speaking from within that tradition) has a tendency to tame, to reduce God and the Christian world. God is made smaller and domesticated, taken from His place as the Holy One (and therefore Wholly Other) to my best friend or my genie or the Dude Who gets me into Heaven or whatev.

I realise that’s a crude caricature, and it certainly isn’t true of all evangelical Christians. But I do think we have a minimalising tendency that can be harmful at some levels. For example, the endless war with Rome over justification by faith alone through grace alone or the inner-Prot fights over predestination can obscure the fullness of the Christian life and the bigness of our untame God.

For example, I was recently involved in a discussion about early monasticism, and people were displeased with the attempts by the Desert Fathers and other ascetics to live in the Adamic state not only in terms of walking with God in the cool of the evening but also in terms of diet and relationship with the natural world (using some ideas from Peter Brown, Body and Society, which I’ve never read). Where, wondered the Scottish Presbyterian deacon (not anyone from my church, don’t worry), is Christ in this? Didn’t he take our sin away? Are they not aware that the price has been paid?

I proceeded to explain that the discussion of this-life holiness is not necessarily the same as next-life reward. Christ has paid the price, yes, but these men were concerned how we live as a result. And if Christ has removed sin, we can once again life in the state of Adam, trusting in God’s grace.

The tendency revealed here is the fear that whenever Christians start discussing how we should live in practical details, we will forget justification by faith for some reason. Theology and the Christian life has been reduced to a paltry caricature of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Cheap grace, rightly derided by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, is a short step away.

Another manifestation is the quest for bare minimum Christianity. By this I mean what is the least I need do for salvation? What is the least I need do for the Eucharist or Baptism to ‘count’? What is the simplest version of the Scriptures? While this can help strip away things like, say, papal indulgences and such, it can also lead to non-sacramental visions of Christianity, such as contemporary Salvation Army practices.

The Fathers can help. They’ve certainly helped me. While I’m not yet an expert on the entire patristic period of Christianity, I’ve read a lot of them and a lot about them, from the Apostolic Fathers to St John of Damascus (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), with focuses (foci?) on the early ascetics from St Antony to St Benedict and on the fifth century.

These readings have helped regrow my vision of Almighty God and the Christian life (alongside dabbling in mediaeval mystics, of course). The high-flying world of Trinitarian thought in the Cappadocians and its modern explication by Christopher A Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers and by John Zizioulas in Being As Communion has helped me stand in awe before a God Who is so much bigger than ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ Christianity. Such theology can bring you to your knees and truly worship in Spirit and in truth — I would argue better than any Anglo-Catholic incense or low-church contemporary music ever can.

And for those who are rightly concerned about the intellectualising tendency that oft comes with high Trinitarian theology, the fifth-century has helped me enter into the messy bits, too. It all sounds so academic to say that Christ is one person with two natures, fully God and fully human, the God-man. But when you start seeing how this plays out in the sermons of Leo the Great (saint of the week here), you see that this means that God entered into the muck of our sordid lives, into a world of pain and sorrow, taking on the form of a slave, associating with the poorest of the poor. The ethical consequences of the two-natured Christ? Give to the poor and love abundantly; never despise those who share the same nature as the God you worship.

This is not minimalist theology but maximalist theology that takes hold of us and makes us ready to receive the God of Life Himself and be transformed as a result.

The ascetic fathers also help transform us. They remind us that we are called to pray continually, without ceasing. Evagrius Ponticus declares to us that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian; he also gives us some practical advice about how to fight temptation. We are given thoughts on our own thoughts and how to control them, how to assess our dreams, how to live day by day. We are shown a radical call to forsake this world and live for the next. We are called to help the poor. We are called to live humbly with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are called to radical obedience to the commands of our Lord Christ.

I’ve spoken before about why evangelicals do read the Fathers (here and here and here). This, I believe, is why they should — to rediscover the untame God, wild, powerful, unstoppable, majestic, glorious, awesome.

St Francis and the Monastic Impulse

St Francis and Brother Rufus, by El Greco

Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. I have been a fan of St Francis since ever I learned of him, and have read The Little Flowers of St Francis, G K Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi, John Michael Talbot’s The Lessons of St Francis, and Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (my wee review here).*

Last night after Bible study, I was talking about my tutorial for tomorrow with one of the guys, a tutorial about the Desert Father St Antony of Egypt (saint of the week here). Like many evangelicals, my friend sees no appeal in monasticism, rightly (I believe) criticising the all-too-frequent tendency in monastic or eremitic circles to cut oneself off from the rest of the world that the commandments of Christ to make disciples cannot be fulfilled.

I, however, tend to find the monastic call somewhat appealing — certainly the ascetic/mystical call. When we look at St Francis (as at Antony), we see someone who took up the ascetic life out of a desire to live in radical obedience to Jesus. He gave away his very clothes so as not to be beholden to his earthly father, declaring to his local bishop that he now had only God for his Father!

And what does Francis do? He goes and rebuilds a local church. And then he gathers a band of fellow jongleurs de Dieu. And what do they do? They go around getting into all sorts of trouble and preaching the Good News of Christ.

This is the monastic impulse as it should be, I think. The single-minded devotion to Christ that we find in ascetics from Antony of Egypt to Benedict of Nursia (saint of the week here and here) to Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) is present in St Francis of Assisi. He abandons the life of a warrior or of a middle-class merchant with wealth. Rather than giving the regulated, required tithe to the poor, he gives all to the poor and joins their ranks, out of obedience to Christ’s call to give all your possessions to the poor.

St Francis spent hours and days and months in prayer, once going off to an island spontaneously and spending all of Lent on it praying. This is the monastic impulse at work. But St Francis takes this single-mindedness and turns it outward to the suffering world around him.

Francis doesn’t shut himself away in a cave or the thick walls of an Italian monastery. He goes out into the world, preaching the Gospel of Christ, working to save souls. This is the monastic impulse as it should be directed, I think. He engages in the usual ascetic practices of dietary restriction, prayer, and poverty, but he spends his days in the marketplaces of Italy, telling people the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, calling them to repentance.

The Franciscan friary — their equivalent of a monastery — is meant to be a stop along the way, a place for refreshment both physical and spiritual before going back out into the hostile world and engaging in the true mission of Francis: winning souls for Christ.

It all sounds terribly evangelical, doesn’t it?

*Also, I’ve written these blog posts: St Francis and Why You Like Him; The San Damiano Crucifix; Saint of the Week: St Francis; St. Francis of Assisi; What to Do with the Canticle of Brother Sun; and St Clare’s Laudable Exchange.