We can’t all be Michael Jordan – The tension of discipleship

In response to my recent post about the professionalization of asceticism in Late Antiquity, a friend of mine commented:

It’s tempting to lower the bar, but also hard to expect everyone to play like Michael Jordan.

He makes a good point. The life of discipleship is, like most of Christianity, a matter of upholding tensions. We are justified by faith, not works, but works are evidence or at least fruit of faith. God is a single essence but also three persons. Jesus is a single person who has two natures. The Kingdom of the Heavens has broken through into history and is amongst us, but it will not fully come until the Last Days and the return of Jesus.

Discipleship, then, exists in tension. I affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone as articulate by Richard Hooker and, last I checked, Martin Luther (whose teaching bears a resemblance to St Mark the Monk, but that’s a different question). We do not enter into a right relationship with God, or become citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens, or escape Hell, or find our way into the New Heaven and the New Earth on Judgement Day because of anything we have done. Nothing we do holds any merit with God. It is all grace.

But we are called to be Jesus’s lifelong students. We are disciples. Faith without works is dead. Antinomianism, cheap grace — these are not the path of discipleship. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus tells his students to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19 NKJV)

The path of discipleship is figuring out how to live that last bit, seeking to love God and neighbour better and better every day. The tension is that we are already justified by our trust in God and his saving mercy upon us, yet we are still seeking to lead holy lives. Nevertheless, while we cannot become holy without doing something, we cannot do anything without God’s unmerited favour helping us.

The question, then, is how do we help people become better disciples of Jesus without lowering the bar on the one hand (“It’s okay if you sleep with your boyfriend, God’ll forgive you — we’re saved by grace, after all!”) or expecting everyone to play like Michael Jordan on the other (“If you eat meat during Lent you are re-committing Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden”)? Both parenthetical statements are real statements I have heard, not hyperbole!

I am not sure. I think we need to exercise grace on the one hand, but also discernment as we sift through the disciplines to see what will help us grow into greater love of God and of neighbour. What we need, then, is each other: People to encourage us and help us see what we need in order to grow spiritually. Loving community helps maintain the tension of discipleship and foster spiritual growth. This is what the old abbeys or the communities gathered around the elders of the Desert were about.

I wish I could create or find that today.

Grace and labour working together in sanctification (more Richard Hooker)

Hopefully not wrenching this passage out of context, I have just found another bit of Richard Hooker that is germane to the relationship between grace and works in sanctification. It was quoted in David Neelands chapter on Predestination in Brill’s A Companion to Richard Hooker, p. 189. I am going to do something I usually avoid, and give it to you with modernised (i.e. readable) spelling:

For let the Spirit be never so prompt, if labour and exercise slacken, we fail. The fruits of the Spirit do not follow men as the shadow does the body of their own accord. If the grace of sanctification did so work, what should the grace of exhortation need? It were even as superfluous and vain to stir men up unto good, as to request them when they walk abroad not to loose their shadows. Grace is not given us to abandon labour, but labour required lest our sluggishness should make the grace of God unprofitable. Shall we betake ourselves to our ease, and in that sort refer salvation to God’s grace, as if we had nothing to do with it, because without we can do nothing? Pelagius urged labour, for the attainment of eternal life without necessity of God’s grace, if we teach grace without necessity of man’s labour, we use one error as a nail to drive out another. …. In sum, the grace of God has abundantly sufficent for all. –Dublin Fragments, 13.

What I think Hooker is saying is that we need grace to be able to do good. But once we are justified, our labour is a real part of the life of the justified Christian. Sure, our works won’t save us in terms of making us right with God. But they are part of us becoming holier. Those who reject such teaching are replacing one error with another — the idea that the Christian life does not require our labour.

This sort of thinking is what lies at the root of what inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Protestants (he was looking at his own Lutheran tradition) take seriously Luther’s statement that justification is by faith alone. However, we have forgotten that this is essentially the beginning of our life in Christ. The rest — the rest involves, to use Hooker’s word, our labour.

I believe that an excessive focus on the doctrine of justification and a fear of over-reliance on our works has led to what Dallas Willard calls “the great omission.” We need to rediscover how grace works in our hearts to enable us to perform the good works that make us holy. Or how grace works in our hearts to make us holy, using our labour to that end.

We need to reject cheap grace and grace abuse, and recall St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), who said on the way to his martyrdom, “Now I begin to be a disciple.”

Here is the cost of discipleship:

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Blogging Benedict: My initial thoughts when I finished the Rule (this time)

What follow are my initial notes jotted down when I finished read the Rule of St Benedict this time. They are edited slightly for clarity.

My final thoughts on Benedict

So now I have finished RB. What does it mean? How can it change my life? First, I guess the balance between prayer and work. Contemplation and action. Too busy not to pray. To make such a life work requires discipline at both prayer adn work. NO wasting time. Setting regimens. This I hope to be able to do. But it cannot be done alone. The Witness Cloud, my wife, yes. Anyone else?

As far as lectio goes, I don’t read enough Bible, and not very well when I do. Again, discipline. Again, my wife.

Obedience — submission and service. Done wilfully, this a great good. I need to grumble less. Pray about that.

Food. I do not know how to control my belly. B wrote for a very different economy and lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean discipline surrounding food doesn’t exist. Less coffee, no sweets, no pop. Fast 1 x week? This is do-able. [Edit: And yet…]

Back to reading — stop starting new things all the time! A discipline of stability in books, like I first thought when M was born.

Back to prayer. I must MAKE TIME. I think I can do Evening Prayer. Also, Jesus Prayer. 11:00 alarm not for nothing!!

Should I look into becoming an oblate? Third order Franciscan? Ask wife. Pray.

The rest of this regulates communal life. I am in no capacity to speak on that.

* * *

What all the old ascetic texts have that grabs me is a sense of immediacy. Christ is here now. We are to strive for holiness now — no dilly-dallying. Now is the day of the LORD. We can find Christ. We can be consumed with the Spirit. We can become all flame. Holiness is attainable (by grace). We just have to seek God, seek the Holy Spirit, immerse ourselves in prayer, Scripture, disciplne.

I am inspired by lofty ideals but oh so weak. I find some aspects of late ancient asceticism too much. Onouphrios, Mary of Egypt, boskoi, encratism. St Simeon’s maggotty wound. That saint Theodoret tells of who wore an iron undershirt. But — they had ideals! A bit crazy at times, encratism. But none of this comfortable coasting to Christ. The Apostles, martyrs, Desert Fathers, Benedictines, did not imagine that the road to the Kingdom of God was a La-Z-Boy. It is narrow. It is steep — Syriac Liber Graduum. That icon I saw at Alpha Mega [of the people going up the wide, easy path getting thrown from a cliff to dragons, and others carrying crosses up a narrow path to Christ] (should’ve bought it!).

Too often, we Prots just rest easy on cheap grace. The cost of non-discipleship. The great omission. How can we live holy lives NOW in our context? It doesn’t matter if you are Quaker, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Coptic, you can find wisdom in the ancients, wisdom that can help you apply the lessons of the Bible and live biblically, growing in grace and charity. We need to recruit not only ourselves but our communities — spouses, children, friends, congregation. Living like this is counter-cultural, so it needs true community, rich Christ-rooted fellowship, to make it happen.

The old texts often assume that ascetic monks are the only ones ‘saved’. But think on the Macarius the Great story about the baker in Alexandria who was holier than he. Most married people in the anecdotes told by late antique monks live ‘chastely’. But we can still adapt these texts for our lives!

Blogging Benedict: A Wake-Up Call

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The Prologue to the Rule of Benedict is not so much a setting out of what will follow as it is a call to wake up, although it does touch on one of the most important themes of the Rule, one that is distasteful to our modern ears: obedience. Let us begin with the wake-up call (avoiding Petra references).

“Let us open our eyes to the divine light and listen carefully to what the divine voice tells us to do…” (p. 2 English)

As the verse says (Ro. 13:12), “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” Or, as my mother felt the Lord say once, “Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity.” What are we doing now about salvation? Christianity is not an exercise in passivity. It is a matter of finding the truth and living it.

For Benedict, the truth is found in the Scriptures, it is found in Christ, it is found the writings of the Fathers. We cannot be slack or lazy or put off to tomorrow the holiness to which we are called today. Christians in many (all?) ages have been tempted in two ways: cheap grace or legalism. Sometimes (for example) I think it is easier to be a teetotaller or someone who drinks to excess than it is to drink in moderation. Benedict will read to many people like legalism, even though he is far more lenient than some of his contemporaries. And the thing that we will chafe under most is obedience.

Very quickly, it is worth here reminding ourselves of the modern notion of freedom as the pure, unrestrained activity of the will of the human individual. Or nation-state, at a higher level. Anything that conflicts with my desires is seen as necessarily bad. This vision of freedom is in direct contrast with the pre-modern West, where true freedom was found by living according to your own nature, or the nature of the universe (Stoicism); it was found by seeking the summum bonum (Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas), or the beautiful (Plato’s Symposium) and then living in accord with that. It is choosing to restrain our wills to something bigger and better than the fleeting pleasures of a moment.

What we tend to consider ‘freedom’ today is really just slavery to the passions. We should instead seek to be freed from the passions, or seek to rule them and guide them in accordance with nature, reason, the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one (Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). If we do not control the passions, do not subvert them to the greater good, we are not free, for we cannot choose rightly.

While many Christians would agree with all of this, there are still concerns about obedience as Benedict lays it out. The Benedictine monk is to give absolute obedience to the abbot. This, in fact, is common to many Late Antique ascetic/monastic texts, whether in Sinai with John Climacus, Egypt (Palestine?) with Mark the Monk, Luxeuil with Columbanus, Monte Cassino with Benedict.

Our concern about giving any human such obedience is not ungrounded. We live in the age after Jonestown, after all. We have seen what personality cults can do in a less murder-suicide manner, anyway. Nevertheless, for Benedict, responding to the call to holiness starts with obedience.

Here, in the Prologue, obedience is first and foremost to Christ. Let us keep that in our mind when we consider other parts of the Rule and the rest of obedience. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not the abbot. But our disordered wills should perhaps submit to the wisdom of our elders in the faith. Otherwise, is it not like undergraduates determining pedagogy, as though 18-22-year-olds know what’s best for them, how best to educate themselves?

At the root of both ethics/morality and discipline lies the reality of God as creator and sustainer. He knows best because he is best. He is Aristotle’s summum bonum, as discussed by Anselm’s Monologion. Therefore, we willfully submit to God’s will and God’s commands in order to flourish. Our lives, as St Paul says, are not our own. We were bought at a price. Let us ever keep scriptural obedience in mind in our reading of Benedict.

We find God’s commands in Scripture. We also, sometimes, add disciplines. There is an important difference between discipline and morality. Discipline is the voluntary activity in which we engage to grow spiritually, but it is, morally, optional. Ivo of Chartres makes this important distinction in the prologue to his canonical collection around 1100.

Discipline is askesis, the word for training an athlete. We need to train ourselves for the fight for holiness in our lives, against the passions and the demons and the external temptations of life.

And so, as we steer clear of the Scylla of cheap grace, which is what Benedict’s Prologue is calling us to do, we feel like perhaps we are veering into the Charybdis of legalism or what Presbyterians call ‘works righteousness’. But what about ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)? The sheep and goats of Matthew 25? Faith without works is dead — the epistle James. Holiness is a calling that we pursue. God acts in us as we act for him.

The ancient and medieval ascetics are thus helpful for us in our simultaneous fear of cheap grace and legalism. They sought to radically train themselves to live in holiness. Even if we are saved by grace, holiness usually seems to arrive after some effort. I saw this as an Anglican, thinking beyond the ancients to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’ve blogged on the latter before. Both of these writers, without denying the necessity of grace, believe in the disciplined life. One of the points made by Taylor, and reproduced as an appendix in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is the fact that specific disciplines are not necessary to all Christians — that each of us needs to train for holiness in the way that works for our soul.

And so, finally, when we think on obedience and discipline and the serious call to holiness, we cannot forget grace. St Benedict believes in grace, intimately united to duty:

Those who fear the Lord and do not allow themselves to become proud because of their good works realize that the good that is in them does not come from their own abilities but from the Lord. (p. 4)

Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in his tabernacle, and we have heard his instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to his instructions. If our natural abilities do not allow us to do something, we must ask the Lord to grant us his grace to assist us. (p. 5)

All the great ascetic writers acknowledge the union of grace to our effort — that we cannot be holy without God making us so, that we cannot even performs virtuous acts of ascetic labours without grace. This union of God’s grace with our discipline is found in Theophan the Recluse (19th c. ), Prosper (On the Call of All Nations), Augustine (variously), Mark the Monk, and Cassian (Conference 13) in the fifth. Mark the Monk writes:

First of all, we know that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. -‘On the Spiritual Law’, 2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 110.

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. -‘No Righteousness by Works’, 18, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1

In ‘No Righteousness by Works’, St Mark goes into this discussion more extensively. He also has high expectations of his ascetic readers.

We have been called out of the darkness and into the light. We have been shown by the Scriptures what holiness looks like. Christ and the apostles fasted and prayed. The apostles searched the Scriptures. They performed acts of mercy. They called us all to obedience to God as well as mutual submission to one another.

“And so, clothed in faith and the performance of good works, let us set off along his path using the Gospel as our guide.” (p. 3)

Audio Adrenaline, the Philokalia, and Assurance of Salvation

I am listening to some of my old CD’s to determine which ones I shall keep and which I shall pass on to the Salvation Army.  Currently, I’m chillin’ to Underdog by Audio Adrenaline, on which you will find the preferred version of the song “DC-10”.*

The song runs thus:

Do you know
Do you know
Do you know where you will go

If a DC-10 ever fell on your head and you’re
Laying in the ground all messy and dead
Or a Mack truck run over you
Or you suddenly die in your Sunday pew

Do you know where you’re gonna go

It can happen any day
It can happen anywhere
It can happen while you’re nappin’ in your easy chair
It can happen at home
It can happen at school
It can happen while you’re scattin’ like a scattin’ fool
Do you know where you’re gonna go

. . .
Straight to heaven
Or down the hole?

A 747 fell out of Heaven
Crashed through the roof of a 7-11
You’re working on a slurpee
Things get hazy
Rich for a twinkie now you’re pushing up daisies?
Do you know where you’re gonna go

This raises the question of the assurance of salvation.  Do you know where you’re gonna go?  Straight to Heaven or down the hole?

When I lived in Cyprus, I spent some time reading the Philokalia, and I found that there was often a fear of Hell amongst these Eastern ascetics, amongst men who lived lives of prayer and holiness, who truly trusted (ie. had faith) in the living Christ.

An example is Evagrios the Solitary, “Outline Teaching on Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life,” who says that one must imagine Hell for fear that one shall, in fact, go there (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, 01 Philokalia, p. 36).  I believe that this fear of Hell, this belief that one may end up there despite a faith in Jesus, is the drive behind much ascetic practice.  By mortifying the flesh, by prayers, vigils, fasts, one draws nearer to God, and by this closeness escape the fires of Hell.

On the other hand, we have excessively assured Evangelicals who live by cheap grace, believing that grace will save them whether or not they sleep around, gossip, booze it up, etc.  Or those who simply believe that they will get into “heaven” because they once prayed a prayer at a Billy Graham Crusade.

The truth lies somewhere in between.  Faith produces good works.  It is the faith that saves, however.  Thus, Evagrios the Solitary need not spend his life with the image of Hell before himself for fear that this is his eternal destination.  However, the Evangelical can take a cue from Evagrios and seek to live a life of holiness.

This is the path of costly grace, the path of obedience to the One in Whom Christians claim to place their trust, their faith.  When we cast all our cares and fears upon Christ, when we start trusting in Him to save us and the world from utter ruin and destruction, then we can start living holy lives.  And then we can live with assurance.

Through faith alone do we know where we’re gonna go.  Trust in Jesus.  Obey His word.

*There is a not-preferred version on Live Bootleg.