Justice and the kingdom of now and not-yet

There is little that I, a middle-class white guy from Canada, can add of much value to the conversation on racism now happening, a conversation that will hopefully bear fruit in all of our lives and societies, from those of us unconsciously complicit in systems that oppressed, to active oppressors, to those unjustly oppressed. In Canada, we are coming to realise that we have our own share of anti-black racism, but also, since we have proportionately fewer black people for white people to oppress, more than enough oppression of and racism against indigenous people. In Australia, I understand the Aborigines are out marching as well.

So, as we all become painfully aware, I will only offer what little I can by way of what tiny part of stuff is my expertise: a sliver of ancient Christianity …

A few days ago, Death to the World posted this amazing icon of St Moses the Black, one of the fourth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt:

Before getting to Abba Moses, it is worth pausing on Death to the World’s caption and tags that accompanied the icon:

The last true rebellion is death to self. There will be no political savior. #counterrevolution #lasttruerebellion #sainthoodisyourprotection #deathtotheworld

This is precisely what I would expect from Death to the World, and it’s always worth pausing to remember that. Death to the World, if you didn’t know, is an Eastern Orthodox group whose originally membership was drawn from the counterculture on the US west coast, especially those into heavy metal. It stills has a counterculture vibe. It actually started out as a zine back in the day! They are very big into the work of Father Seraphim Rose, who himself came out of the ’60s counterculture of hippies, New Age, and Marxism.

Death to the World will always point us in this direction. We are to abandon it all. There is no political saviour. We must give all to gain everything (okay, that’s St Clare of Assisi). We need to remember this, always. We will never build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land (contra William Blake). The last true rebellion is the overthrowing of self, the death to a corrupt and dying world, and a wholehearted embrace of truth. Be holy. Sainthood is your protection.

Abba Moses would agree. Abba Moses was a former robber who was converted late in life and became great and holy monk amongst the Desert Fathers in Scetis. I am not sure where exactly he was from, whether modern Ethiopia or Sudan or southern Egypt. But he was definitely one of the few black saints of the patristic era before the conversion of Ethiopia.

Here are four instructions from Abba Moses. The full ‘seven’ gets very long. From Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 141:

  1. The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
  2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
  3. If the monk does not think in his heart hat he is a sinner, God will not hear him.
  4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain.

The first, last, and greatest rebellion lies here, within us, within the putrid wickedness of our own hearts.

The statement, “No political saviour,” should remind us that humans are evil and will perpetrate evil. If we fight for justice and a more just society, we must be ready for failure at some level.

The tension is that the same Desert that nourished St Moses the Black — who actually received some abuse from fellow monks for his skin colour — also calls us to care for the poor as part of our death to the world:

A brother asked an aged monk: ‘There are two brothers: one of them leads a life of solitude six days a week and does much penance, while the other is dedicated to the service of the sick. Which of the two is behaving in the way that is more acceptable to God?’

The old man answered him: ‘The brother who is always making a retreat would never attain the heights that the one who serves the sick has reached, not even if you hoisted him with a hook in his nose.’ -Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers no. 224, quoted in Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, 175

St John Chrysostom, who had been a monk in the Syrian desert before becoming a priest and later bishop of Constantinople, spoke often and at length about the abuse of the poor by the rich, and called upon his wealthy, aristocratic audience to care for the poor. His audience included the emperor, remember. St Basil of Caesarea, who lived an ascetic lifestyle and had visited the famous monasteries of Egypt, also exhorted people to care for the poor, but he went a step further and built a place where the poor and sick could be cared for.

Their political system was very different from ours, but those fathers of the church who had the ear of emperors tended to call upon them to care for the poor.

Our cultural world is also very different from theirs. Ancient Romans are a fine example of how bigotry and xenophobia can exist without modern concepts of race. Not that an ancient person wouldn’t be aware that Abba Moses was black and Patrick of Ireland was a pinkish white colour. They just had a variety of other markers of ethnicity that they took into account when being cruel and oppressive, frankly.

Our questions of racism and race are, therefore, not their questions. Nevertheless, justice cries out. We do live in this particular world, this iteration of human bigotry and oppression, this cultural moment. Injustice is being wrought against fellow human beings made in the image of God. St John Chrysostom and St Basil and the Desert Fathers would all call for just treatment of black people. They would consider kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he asphyxiates and dies, with people looking on calling for mercy, to be wickedness. To be murder.

Therefore, seeking social justice in our society, in ways that we hope are effective here and now, is an act in line with the spirit of the writings of these great Fathers of the Church.

The Kingdom of the Heavens, when a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather around the throne of the Lamb, has not yet come in its fullness and power. It will not come until Christ returns to exact justice upon evildoers. Until then, all our efforts at building a just society will be partial. Nevertheless, we are called to do these things, to preach repentance to racists and our own selves for our complicity, and to seek justice for the victims of the racist oppression that to this day plagues our societies.

I suspect that the only sustainable way to do this is to die to ourselves every day so that we can more fully love our neighbour.

This is the tension of the Christian life. Now and not-yet.

Blogging Benedict: The Final Chapter

What to read next?

Chapter 73 is the final chapter of the Rule. Here we learn that the journey we’ve been on these several months is just a beginning, a ‘little rule for beginners’. Where you really need to go if you want to progress:

  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Conferences (assume Cassian)
  • Institutes (assume Cassian)
  • Lives of the Fathers — RB 1980 does not think this refers to the Vitae Patrum, since it is compiled a few decades too late, but rather to those by Jerome and the Life of St Antony by St Athanasius
  • St Basil’s Rule

These books are singled out as:

the tools of virtue for monks who wish to lead a virtuous and obedient life (trans. White, p. 113)

St Benedict also says, ‘We are lazy.’ I wonder what he would think of our undisciplined, cheap-grace Christianity?

Somehow, we should overcome spiritual laziness (which can be one outcome of akedia, one of the eight deadly thoughts). What I find interesting is that St Benedict does not think that his rule is the main place for that. It is simply for beginners, to set up a coenobium that is neither too harsh nor too lax. Yet for many today (myself included), this Rule is itself an enormous challenge.

We write so many books and commentaries on the Rule (I’ve read only that by Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict), or books inspired by Benedict (I’ve read Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, for example). At Durham Cathedral bookshop, there is essentially a whole shelf of Benedictine books. Adalbert de Vogué wrote a multi-volume commentary on the RuleRB 1980, Latin with English and commentary, takes over 500 pages, while the Little Black Penguin with no intro or anything takes but 114 little pages.

We can’t help ourselves — whatever its intrinsic worth, the Rule has been used in so much of western European religious culture for so long that many of us who want to go deeper in our faith have to come to terms with it along the way.

But St Benedict points us away from himself. First, to the Bible. This is a prime lesson. People like me are very good at paying our lip service to the supreme glories of sacred Scripture, and professing it as God’s primary, normative mode of revelation, as holding authority, etc., and saying that it nourishes us — and then neglecting to read it ourselves, due to probably a variety of sins, weaknesses, and passions (I’ve already read it twice; I know theology; I keep meaning to but run out of time; I find it dry some days; I find biblical truths in other books, anyway).

Benedict says: NO.

Search the Scriptures. Read, mark, and inwardly digest them (okay, that was Thomas Cranmer).

And then he points us to Cassian, to saints’ lives, and to Basil. Probably more than enough wisdom in those to occupy us, I think. Maybe a good book for those seeking God after having read the Rule would be an introduction to Benedict’s reading list with some excerpts? (Just a thought.)

And so the Rule is done. Next: Benedict and the Bible — I’ve already hinted at it here.

St Basil the Great, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ (for Pentecost!)

On the Holy SpiritOn the Holy Spirit by Basil the Great

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read this treatise twice, once in the older, Anglo-Catholic Victorian translation, and once (most recently) in this translation. This book is the classic exposition of why we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’. St Basil begins with a liturgical complaint, which he deals with using all of his grammatical skills, then moves along to demonstrate through the Scriptures using logic as well as the life of the Church, why it is that we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’ alongside God the Father and God the Son.

In today’s milieu, unless you’re a Oneness Pentecostal or a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christadelphian, the divinity of the Holy Spirit is practically a non-issue. And, in the decades since the Charismatic Renewal came upon mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the logic parsing and proof-hunting St Basil provides here will seem pointless to many living believers. I would imagine that most people today think of the Trinity in economic terms, so they would approach a book entitled, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ expecting a long discourse on the role of the Spirit in Christians’ lives and church history. That figures only a little in this book.

Read it anyway

The divinity of God the Holy Spirit is an integral part of orthodox Christian faith. St Basil of Caesarea wrote this text at a time when many people were doubting this Person of the Trinity’s equality and consubstantiality with the other two Persons. We need to be reminded, day by day, Who Is the God we worship, and why we express that belief in certain ways. As far as that is concerned, there are few guides better than St Basil when we ponder, ‘Well, we’ve settled the whole, “God is Jesus” thing fairly well. Why do we think the Spirit is God as well?’

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Western-facing Churches of Rome in Late Antiquity

Santa Maria Maggiore, facing West
Santa Maria Maggiore, facing West

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Trevor Jalland, The Life and Times of Pope St. Leo the Great (as you do), and he mentioned the fact that Rome’s most ancient churches are all western oriented. That is, when you walk in and look towards the altar and apse, you are facing West, not East. At first, I didn’t believe Jalland. I had been told that all traditional churches face East — and, taking stock of a few I know (St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Duomos of Milan and Florence, Westminster Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey, Ayia Sophia in Nicosia), this is broadly true.

Then I thought about it and realised that Jalland was right — St Peter’s, St John’s (Lateran), Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere — these churches, two in place of fourth-century foundations, one fifth-century foundations respectively, all face west. This isn’t the sort of thing one says and is wrong, of course. Still, I was a bit taken aback.

You see, there is a bit of controversy about ‘facing East’ and ‘facing West’, liturgically speaking. Regardless of the compass points at your church, if your priest faces liturgical East during the celebration and consecration of the Eucharist, then you and the cleric are facing the same direction (sometimes called ‘facing away from the congregation’). If your priest faces you, that is facing liturgical West. Until Vatican II, most churches faced East — all in the same direction — and now, outside of the Eastern communions, only a few scattered congregations maintain previous practice in this regard.

Those who uphold facing East tend to quote St Basil of Caesarea (330-379) in their defence:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. (On the Holy Spirit 66, quoted [& presumably trans] by Andrew Louth, ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83)

Elsewhere, I have heard the reference to facing East because the rising sun symbolises the resurrection and Christ’s return in glory. Another argument in favour of the practice is the idea that priest and people are praying together, so they face the altar together.

What does the western orientation of ancient roman churches mean, then?

According to Jalland, the priests would still have faced East. Thus, they would have faced the congregation, facing, in contemporary terms, liturgical West.

This changed, he says, when the Via Ostiense and local topography forced them to build San Paolo fuori le Mura facing East. This is the first eastern-orientated church in Rome. The priest continued to face East, but now, so did the people, so they all faced the same direction, the priest with his back to the congregation.

Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, facing East
Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, facing East

I don’t know how true or accurate this is — Jalland gave no references for how we know which way people faced, and his book is from 1941. I do imagine, based upon what I’ve read in J Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, that facing East, if it is as common in the East as we imagine, would likely have become more and more common after Justinian’s mid-sixth-century Reconquest, when the Roman liturgy took on a variety of Greek influences, often because of a growing Greek population in Rome and Greek clerics (sometimes refugees from eastern problems) in the city.

It is certainly the case that San Teodoro and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, both sixth-century foundations, face East, as does Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, a seventh-century construction.

Anyway, it is interesting to think about how architecture, theology, and liturgical practice can all influence one another.