A little Brother Lawrence…

Finished off the manuscript that has brought me to Oxford with enough time to browse a used bookshop. Found this:

The book, that is, not me.
The book, that is, not me.

Unfortunately, that blurry photo taken with my webcam in Starbucks tells you only the amazing size of my 99p book find. It is The Practice of the Presence of God.

I’m quite chuffed about this purchase. For one thing, it’s a practical size of book. One of my rants (yet to be blogged) is the move from pocket books to trade paperbacks by series such as Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics as well as a great many Christian publishers. But back in 1961, they knew how to print pocketbooks.

This one would actually fit in your pocket, after all.

Of course, I don’t just buy small, cheap books willy-nilly.*

The Practice of the Presence of God is one of those books that people who talk about Christian mysticism talk about. Written by a Carmelite lay brother in the late 1600s, this little book turns up in many places, including the bookshelves of Protestants who doubt that Catholics are ‘saved’, and with the recommendation of Richard J Foster of Celebration of Discipline fame as well as Jim Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Dallas Willard (mind drawing a blank on which book of his references this one).

I have never read it, since my spiritual reading tends to be contemporary or ancient/mediaeval (more late ancient than mediaeval), so I’m looking forward to this.

You can read it online here.

*Insert Corner Gas reference: ‘How stupid are you? You can’t go shooting off your gun willy-nilly.’ ‘It wasn’t willy-nilly. It was at crows.’

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Read the Fathers!

The world of Patristics on the internet is always interesting, and today I learned of an exciting development that I fully endorse. Over at Read the Fathers, some people are organising an online community to go through a seven-year cycle of readings of the Fathers that will take you through most of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) series.

You are not committed to use the sawdusty versions of ANF and NPNF (but they are available free through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library), for the organisers have kindly let us know book.chapter.verse for each day’s readings, so you can find a better translation with more up-to-date notes based on a more recent critical edition for each of the Fathers. E.g. for Augustine, grab the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Confessions. For Tertullian, a lot of it is as yet not updated, but the Apology and De Spectaculis are available in a Loeb volume. And, if my life follows the swiftest trajectory possible, by the time we reach Leo, you can read my translation of the letters! ūüėČ

The commitment is seven pages per day. A lot, but not really. My fun reading is often 10 to 100 pages per day. And this will be far more profitable if more time consuming than briefer devotionals such as the (recommended) Ancient Christian Devotional from IVP. Here you’ll read entire works of the Fathers and get into the messy stuff — but through bite-sized, daily readings. This is why it will take seven years.

If you fall behind, pick up with that day’s readings (or at least a reasonable starting point). The organisers recommend you don’t play catch up, otherwise you will probably lose heart and abandon it all together. My former priest says the same thing about reading the Bible.

I cannot recommend this idea enough. The challenges and wonders and mind-stretching ideas that come from reading the Fathers are exactly what the pocket scroll is about. I started this blog not only to have a place to work through some ideas but as a place to encourage others to meet with the texts that have formed the Christian faith and made it what it is today to help bring them to a place of deeper faith in God, greater awe before Him, fuller strength in the face of trouble, truer holiness in a licentious society.

So go Read the Fathers.

Saint of the Week: St. Hilda (or Hild)

Last week, my wife and I visited Durham Cathedral, where they have a commemoration to St. Hilda — as well as the bodies of St. Cuthbert (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here) and a commemoration to St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (saint of the week here). Since Hilda was also abbess of Caedmon’s convent (recent saint of the week here), it seemed more than high time to post about her as Saint of the Week.

Here is a re-post of what I originally wrote on this Northumbrian saint four and a half years ago:

Today’s feature is St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, one of the many good English saints. Here’s the prayer from the Prayer Book for any saint:

O ALMIGHTY God, who willest to be glorifled in thy Saints, and didst raise up thy servant Hilda to shine as a light in the world: Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth thy praises, who hast called us out of darkness into thy marvellous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I would reprint all of the Venerable Bede about her, but that would take too long. It is worth reading, and the story of Caedmon is part of hers, as he was a brother at her monastery. You can find it in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book IV.23-24; my translation of the Caedmon bits here.

Here is her entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Abbess, born 614; died 680. Practically speaking, all our knowledge of St. Hilda is derived from the pages of Bede. She was the daughter of Hereric, the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, and she seems like her great-uncle to have become a Christian through the preaching of St. Paulinus about the year 627, when she was thirteen years old.

Moved by the example of her sister Hereswith, who, after marrying Ethelhere of East Anglia, became a nun at Chelles in Gaul, Hilda also journeyed to East Anglia, intending to follow her sister abroad. But St. Aidan recalled her to her own country, and after leading a monastic life for a while on the north bank of the Wear and afterwards at Hartlepool, where she ruled a double monastery of monks and nuns with great success, Hilda eventually undertook to set in order a monastery at Streaneshalch, a place to which the Danes a century or two later gave the name of Whitby.

Under the rule of St. Hilda the monastery at Whitby became very famous. The Sacred Scriptures were specially studied there, and no less than five of the inmates became bishops, St. John, Bishop of Hexham, and still more St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, rendering untold service to the Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with paganism. Here, in 664, was held the important synod at which King Oswy, convinced by the arguments of St. Wilfrid, decided the observance of Easter and other moot points. St. Hilda herself later on seems to have sided with Theodore against Wilfrid. The fame of St. Hilda’s wisdom was so great that from far and near monks and even royal personages came to consult her.

Seven years before her death the saint was stricken down with a grievous fever which never left her till she breathed her last, but, in spite of this, she neglected none of her duties to God or to her subjects. She passed away most peacefully after receiving the Holy Viaticum, and the tolling of the monastery bell was heard miraculously at Hackness thirteen miles away, where also a devout nun named Begu saw the soul of St. Hilda borne to heaven by angels.

With St. Hilda is intimately connected the story of Caedmon, the sacred bard. When he was brought before St. Hilda she admitted him to take monastic vows in her monastery, where he most piously died.

The most notable part of the example of St. Hilda is her perseverance through her sickness and trial. To quote Bede:

When she had governed this monastery many years, it pleased Him Who has made such merciful provision for our salvation, to give her holy soul the trial of a long infirmity of the flesh, to the end that, according to the Apostle√Ę‚ā¨‚ĄĘs example, her virtue might be made perfect in weakness. Struck down with a fever, she suffered from a burning heat, and was afflicted with the same trouble for six years continually; during all which time she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for taught by her own experience she admonished all men to serve the Lord dutifully, when health of body is granted to them, and always to return thanks faithfully to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity. (from CCEL)

We should all take courage from the example of this saint and realise that we can do things for God, make an impact, and rest in His grace, sure in the knowledge that our afflictions are temporal and we can still serve Him. St. Hilda‚Äôs ‚Äúlife was an example of the works of light, not only blessed to herself, but to many who desired to live aright.‚ÄĚ (Bede again.)

Evangelicals read the Fathers for ‘fresh’ readings of Scripture

The word fresh is in quotation marks above because the freshness of the Fathers is relative to the reader. They themselves are not fresh, for they have mostly been around for 1500 years of more. But to many of us, their ideas can be a breath of fresh air.

When I queried Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?, the third response, from a friend doing a PhD in New Testament who was once a pastor, was ‘To learn how not to do exegesis.’ (The other two were ”Cause they’re awesome‘ and ‘Because they are relevant‘.)

When we first meet patristic exegesis, it can often seem quite unfamiliar to us. And some of it is probably bogus. So why should we even try Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers? (To name a book that addresses this very issue.)

To answer this, I think I’ll use a different approach, one that will hopefully highlight those other reasons to read the Fathers — their awesomeness and relevance. I’ll talk about myself (something bloggers like to do).

My very, very first encounter with patristic exegesis was, thankfully, not the beautiful, lyrical, typological poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian. If it had been, I would have been left very puzzled and very nonplussed. No, it was with level-headed, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘Antiochene’ St. John Chrysostom.

I knew of the efforts of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and I wished to make use of such things those few moments when people foolishly gave their pulpits to me. I also knew of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and its digital version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF). Not overfond of reading lengthy text online, especially if Victorian, I got my hands on St. John Chrysostom from NPNF and used him in preparing for homilies.

What I found was not merely attention to detail or the exegesis of the passage in terms of what it meant in its original, historical context. Chrysostom looked at the passage and exegeted it to bring its full weight to bear upon his congregation. He drew forth from the words of Holy Writ spiritual and ethical lessons for his congregation. He called them to lead holy lives.

When Chrysostom talks of St. Paul’s conversion, he also calls his congregation to read their Bibles for themselves. Commenting upon Philippians, he berates fathers who are angry about their sons taking up the religious life — if they are Christians, how is this a bad choice? Better than the pitfalls at the imperial court with its many opportunities for sin and worldliness! Then he says that one could be a light in the darkness at the imperial court, and it’s not a place Christians should avoid.

The Scriptures for Chrysostom and many, if not all, of the Fathers are alive. They speak here and now. They call us to holiness. They call us to contemplation (theoria) of God.* They drive us to worship. They are not objects of study — rather, they turn us into the objects of study. Patristic exegesis was not scary but exciting and invigorating with Chrysostom.

If you are cautious about patristic exegesis, start with St. John Chrysostom.

If you are curious about things less familiar, less like a Sunday-morning evangelical sermon, curious about things that will take you into the land of mystical union with the Divine and the world of the luminous eye (to cite the title of a book by Sebastian Brock), check out my second major helping of Patristic exegesis: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.

The Life of Moses starts out with Chrysostom’s familiar territory — ad litteram — the literal, historical meaning of the text. St. Gregory (Saint of the Week here) tells us the life of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. There are lessons to be found here about life, ethics, and God. Even that (in)famous allegorist Origen believes in the power and importance of the literal meaning of Scripture.

But Gregory takes us beyond the literal into the mystical world of allegory. Moses’ life is an allegory for our own spiritual world. As the Israelites were saved by crossing the Red Sea, we are saved in the waters of baptism. As Moses ascended the mountain of God into the cloud of unknowing (to borrow the title of a piece of Middle English mysticism), so too is the Christian called to ascend the mountain of God and find God in His incomprehensibility through mystical contemplation.

That’s probably more than enough to make most people uneasy about Patristic exegesis. What has Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to do with me, alone, in a dark room engaged in the ‘useless’ pursuit of omphaloskepsis (‘navel-gazing’, used as a perjorative in the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy)?

We, as Protestants, shy away from this sort of allegorical, mystical reading, fearing that it will turn the Scriptures into a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction.

When I read The Life of Moses, I found it invigorating, in fact. Who knows if St. Gregory’s mystical allegory is true or ‘right’? What I know is that it contained truth and rightness. I mean to say that it found in all of Scripture a spiritual sense and sought to encourage Christians through the use of Scripture for understanding their special call as followers of Jesus. St. Gregory sees the events of the history of the people of Israel as more than simply the account of God’s dealing with the human race — he sees in them a vision of God’s dealings with each, individual human. God can save you and me, and draw us to Him, if we have the eyes to see and a deep faith rooted in Him and His word.

You may not like allegory. You may think it dangerous. You may confuse it with typology (if that’s the case, read my post about the usefulness of typology in Scripture-reading, as well as on the fourfold sense of Scripture). Nonetheless, I hope that encountering uncomfortable writings such as St. Gregory of Nyssa will jar you into trying to see that there is spiritual benefit in all of Scripture, that the Scriptures are not a self-help book, that the Scriptures are not there as a perfect roadmap to life, but, most importantly, that the Scriptures exist primarily as the revelation of God and as a means for us to be drawn into him.

This leaves us even with a place for the mind-bending typologies of St. Ephraim the Syrian (see this hymn on the Incarnation of his), well worth a read. And then, perhaps we can shed any vestiges that we have the perfect, historically accurate, airtight, ‘useful’ interpretation of Scripture and allow our souls to breathe.

Further Explorations

If you are curious about looking into Patristic exegesis and hermeneutics more, here are two places to start:

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. IVP. This book was my introduction to Patristic ways of reading the Bible. Worth a read.

Oden, Thomas, General Editor. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. IVP. Hall’s book is meant to be an accompaniment to this 26-volume commentary on the whole of Scripture, including the Deuterocanonical Books, giving brief selections from the Patristic witness ranging from Origen and Athanasius to Cassian and Augustine. A fantastic resource.

*For a good article about Chrysostom and the Antiochene understanding and use of theoria in interpreting Scripture, see Bradley Nassif, “Antiochene theoria [actually in Greek] in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. IVP.

Who is the rich man who will be saved?

There is abroad today a pernicious pestilence that believes that, while not every rich man is saved, every man who is saved is rich, for Christ came to give us, of all things, material prosperity.

As in, stuff. Good health, nice car, pure-bred dog, big house, ridiculously expensive clothes.

All you need is faith.¬† If you trust in Jesus, your problems of health and wealth will go away. If you see a big house on a hill, don’t say, “Too bad I’ll never live there.” No, indeed, according to Joel Osteen, that is the thought-life of defeat. You need, instead, to say, “I will live there.” Put your faith in God that He will provide you with the house. And He will.

This is the sort of idea one would expect, say, Charlemagne to comfortable with. I’m pretty sure that King of the Franks attributed his military success to the favour of God (and possibly the turning of the Wheel! of! Fortune!). And I’m certain the William the Bastard (aka Conqueror) directly attributed his conquest of England to God’s favour. The successors of Mohammed were known to say, do, and think similar things.

Of course, this isn’t the Middle Ages, anymore. So the modern prosperity heretic instead says that God will give you a big house and a nice car, not the better portion of Germany or North Africa. Same falsehood, new guise.

I’m being blunter than usual. This is because this teaching, this so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth Gospel” is pernicious and terrible and, quite frankly, pisses me off. And that’s righteous pissed-offness, if you’re wondering.

There are two issues we need to address here, my friends. One is: What is the “biblical” (orthodox? true?) view of wealth? What is the “b”(o?t?) view of salvation?

When trying to figure out a proper Christian view of something, the best place to start is not only the Bible, but the words of Jesus therein. What does Jesus say about wealth?

The core text for Jesus and money is Mark 10:17-31. This is the famous story of the Rich Young Ruler, a guy who wants to know how to be saved. Having told Jesus that he was good at fulfilling the law, he’s told that he lacks one thing: selling all his possessions and giving to the poor. If he were to do that, then he could go and follow Jesus.

Wait. According to Joel Osteen and his ilk, following Jesus makes me rich. But according to Jesus, this particular person should, necessarily, be poor. This doesn’t add up. I can understand people who rationalise this commandment, arguing that rich people can be saved, even if it be more difficult than a camel traversing the eye of a needle. The earliest known account of this is St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who wrote the beautiful treatise from which I stole this post’s name (at CCEL).

St. Clement demonstrates the uneasiness early Christian had with wealth, but encourages the wealthy to salvation nonetheless:

let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy.

And also:

a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened.

St. Clement’s treatise encourages all Christians to live lives of virtue, seeking the wealth and riches of good deeds and pure hearts rather than the temporal wealth of the world. And well he should, for the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But wait, if we are only to serve God and not Mammon (Mt. 6:24), should we be desiring a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger paycheque? Isn’t this just serving two masters (also Mt. 6:24)? And doesn’t it sound a lot like the Law of Attraction (The Secret)? And what about all that stuff about having your treasure in heaven? I’m not so sure Jesus will make us wealthy. In fact, as we’ll see in a later post, Jesus promises us something quite … different.

Rationalisations of Clement’s that allow Christians to have wealth usually work on me. This is no big surprise, since I am, on a global scale, wealthy. So, probably, are you. However, when we see Jesus has lots of things to say about money — and actual money, parables not counting as they are analogical and allegorical — I get a little worried. Maybe you should worry, too:

whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!)

I think Mr. Osteen has found a way to pack the pews, but not the path of righteousness.

If the evidence of the Fathers well allowable (I mean, besides St. Clement), the verdict against the Prosperity Gospel would be damning, for many of them were ascetics. St. Antony heard the call from Matthew’s version of the Rich Young Ruler and went and became a hermit. Similar stories for the rest of the Desert Fathers, really. The great theologian of the Trinity, St. Basil, was an ascetic as well. So was St. Augustine of Hippo. And St. Ambrose. Really, do I need to list them all? I know that sometimes the Fathers have wacky ideas, but I don’t think, “Lead a disciplined life and seek Christ through prayer and fasting — and avoid accumulating stuff,” is amongst them …

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.¬† This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It‚Äôs probably a good idea, if you‚Äôve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.¬† Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not ‚Äútheological‚ÄĚ in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.¬† The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.¬† This book is a ‚Äúpatrology.‚Ä̬† As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.¬† However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.¬† The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.¬† In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls ‚Äúpaleo-orthodoxy.‚Ä̬† He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.¬† This is the first volume of Webber‚Äôs ‚ÄúAncient-Future‚ÄĚ series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden‚Äôs is mainline.¬† He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.¬† Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.