Still thinking about catechesis and spiritual growth

Whenever (like last post) I think about the idea of reintroducing some sort of period of training or waiting for new Christians before (and even after!) getting baptised — catechesis or even the catechumenate — I start thinking about two things:

  1. What educational resources could I make? What already exists?
  2. Information is not enough. We need to make this about people entering into the school of the Lord

There is lots of stuff out there for Number 1 (would my own Anglo-Patristic catechesis be superfluous, then?), both in terms of basic introductions such as Alpha and Christianity Explored and in terms of spiritual growth like the Church of England’s Pilgrim Course (depending how you cut it, all three of those are from the C of E!). There are also readable books for topics you might want new Christians to get into, and I’m sure a lot of pastors and parishioners who read could work on getting these sorted for one’s own congregation.

What I don’t think we can really plan in any such endeavours, however, is the growth of people who take the course and their developing commitment to Jesus. And that’s really what matters. Who cares if you are well-informed about Christianity and its doctrines if you aren’t abiding deeply with its Lord Christ?

What we can plan, however, is what any committed disciples do in terms of discipling the undiscipled. Say your church is running a course for new believers either as a preparation for baptism or some other membership event. Something beyond just volunteering on a Wednesday night, right?

People first and foremost need to be deeply invested in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And then all-in in terms of seeing new disciples made. And then invested in the knowledge being imparted in the course. And then — pray!

Actually, let’s backtrack a bit.

Prayer and Scripture-reading are the two bedrock spiritual disciplines. Let’s assume these as daily practices for the people coming alongside the catechumens.

What if everyone involved in a catechetical course was also fasting as part of their intercession for the new believers? And praying for them every day. Or, even bigger, what if a congregation went through a big shift so that everyone had a rule of life and was committed to spiritual disciplines, and then catechesis of new believers grew out of that?

Well, there’s a new gap to fill in Christian educational material, then. How to help ‘mature’, committed Christians get a grip, grow spiritually, and live out spiritual disciplines. Maybe that’s where my Anglo-Patristic work can go…

Benedict Option education

Rod Dreher recommends that parents pull their children out of public schools and either homeschool them or enrol them in classical Christian academies. To most people, this probably seems too radical. However, one of the points from the previous chapter is that your children’s peer group has an enormous influence on the development of their character.

Here I address the ‘conservatives’, the orthodox who adhere to biblical and traditional Christianity, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox (that is, the people for whom Dreher wrote this book): Do you want your children going to a school where their peer group includes children in grade 5 accessing pornography on their smart phones? Or where 1/3 of the girls in their middle school homeroom see themselves as bisexual? Or where the sexual revolution is taking over sex ed, going beyond the basics of biology to the creation of gender identities?

Also, and this is far more central to Dreher’s point in this chapter, do you want your children to grow up formed in the image and likeness of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? Do you want to see children who see all of knowledge as an integrated reality founded upon the Holy and Undivided Trinity? Do you want the Bible to be fully integrated into their thought life? That is, do you want your children to truly be educated, in the classical and medieval sense, as those in Benedictine schools (such as Bec where St Anselm taught) were?

Moreover, do you want your children to at least be, frankly, educated in any meaningful sense? As in, do you want them to learn critical thinking skills? To learn logic and dialectic? To have a grasp of the roots of western society and culture? To be able to write in cursive? To not simply be given ‘subjects’ as mere data (for no such thing as mere data exists)? To be freed from a system that is more concerned with socialisation than education?

For the latter two paragraphs, you could potentially supplement their public school education. For the first paragraph, pull them out. Now.

I want my son to grow into a compassionate, loving man who is committed to historic orthodoxy. I have rich doubts that the current public school system will only hinder that goal.

A (frivolous?) plan for a 10-week course

10-week introductory courses to Christianity are a thing, these days — especially Alpha and Christianity Explored. But what resources might we develop to catechise and disciple new believers who have gone through those 10-week courses? Are there fundamentals to help people negotiate that could be assessed in this way? After blogging about Cassiodorus’ program of Christian learning, I was inspired to think out the following rudimentary 10-week course for disciples who have already done Alpha or Christianity Explored:

  1. Introduction to the Course, a brief review of some of the Alpha/Christianity Explored topics as well as pressing the importance of cultivating a Christian intellect.
  2. The Bible 1: How to read it for yourself. Some sort of strategy to help people read the Scriptures themselves. Provide also a list of useful commentaries to turn to for help?
  3. The Bible 2: Overview of the story, from creation to the resurrection of the dead.
  4. The Bible 3: Overview of the books of the Bible.
  5. Theology 1: The person and work of Jesus
  6. Theology 2: The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  7. Theology 3: The Holy Trinity
  8. Theology 4: Redemption
  9. Christian history
  10. Spiritual disciplines

Maybe I’ve given too much to something? Not sure. I mean, if it were a direct sequel to Alpha, perhaps we could squish together Theology into 3 sections. I dunno.

I do think that something like this would be more of a commitment than Alpha. I think people would be expected to read something from the Bible as well as from a book before turning up each week. That way you could go deeper. Maybe it wouldn’t work at all, but this is what I thought of walking along the street yesterday.

Cassiodorus’ program of Christian instruction

Possibly Cassiodorus, fr. Codex Amiatus

Cassiodorus (c. 485-c. 585) spent the latter decades of his life, after a career in the civil service of Theoderic the Amal, Ostrogothic King of Italy and then an exile in Constantinople, running a monastery called Vivarium at his estate near Scolacium (Squillace; nice photos here). For the monks, he composed his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning.

The Institutions begin by setting out divine learning. Cassiodorus was grieved that the study of the Divine Scriptures lacked a suitable programme of learning akin to what existed for secular learning, so he put this together. I think it is not a bad approach to Christian learning, although it would need updates in the reading list today! A lot of Christian learning is simply Bible classes/study with no overarching connections, or a focus on ethics/morality with little emphasis on really learning, or (in some places) study of the great writers and thinkers without study of the Bible.

Some people want to begin courses of Christian education with Plato, or with the Trinity. While I can get behind the second, the former is foolish. Cassiodorus begins with the Bible.

First, the Bible. Cassiodorus sets out in the Institutes the various divisions of the books of the Bible and what the most important commentaries are, including where to find Latin translations of the Greek Fathers. His commentators are the usual suspects — Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Basil, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, and Origen, who is recommended with cautions* — plus a copy of Pelagius on Romans which he had expurgated of heretical bits.

A benefit Cassiodorus’ monks would derive from these particular commentators is not just Bible knowledge — although certainly that — nor explications of difficult passages, but also Christian theology. The Divine Scriptures exist not for us to worship them but to show us the path to salvation laid out by One worthy of worship. Neither theology nor Bible study is an end in itself. If we were to adapt this program for life today, then modern commentators who seek such wisdom are the ones to choose, not simply those with brilliant academic insight and credentials.

After setting out the great Bible commentaries, Cassiodorus recommends consolidation of our knowledge. I think this task is to be carried concurrently with the above. First, he recommends introductory manuals to the Divine Scriptures, then learning the rules of elucidating the text; third, checking commentaries if something in the Scriptures is obscure; fourth, very careful reading of orthodox/catholic teachers; fifth, paying attention whilst reading the Fathers for when they mention specific Bible passages in wider discussions; sixth:

frequent discussion with learned elders; for in conversation with them we suddenly realize what we had not even imagined while they transmit eagerly to us the knowledge they have gained in their long years. (Inst. 1.X.5, trans. Halporn)

This recommendation is part of the ongoing programme of study. Always keep the words of the Holy Scriptures in mind, and seek wisdom on them in all places. One thing that I feel perhaps we lack in Christian education today is the contact with the living tradition of spiritual elders; instead, we spend our time with books (some, true, written by spiritual elders) or people with professional expertise — but something different is gained through conversation with wise elders. This, of course, can only be ‘built in’ to a program of Christian instruction by creating atmospheres where the elders are accessible to the disciples. But it’s probably (definitely?) of critical importance.

Third, the Ecumenical Councils. Having learned one’s Scriptures, Cassiodorus recommends the four ecumenical councils (Nicaea [325, creed here], Constantinople [381, creed here], Ephesus [431], and Chalcedon [451, definition of the faith here]). I find it intriguing that Cassiodorus wrote this after 553 but does not mention Constantinople II as a fifth such council. Anyway, the number accepted by East and West at least until the Reformation is now 7 Ecumenical Councils. Cassiodorus recommends them both for theology and the canons. Given the ongoing shifting and changing of canon law, I would say that their theology is more foundational for Christian education today than the canons — coming to an understanding of their definitions of the faith and theological issues, as well as the other historic definitions, the Apostles’ Creed and the so-called Creed of St Athanasius. The canons and dogmatic decrees of the Seven Ecumenical councils are online here.

For sola scriptura Christians who are possibly freaking out at this point, remember that the creeds are succinct summaries of Christian faith. As well, in the early Fathers such as Irenaeus (2nd c) and Tertullian (2nd-3rd c), there is a coinherence between the rule of faith, an oral tradition that evolved into the abovementioned creeds, and the Divine Scriptures. By studying the Creeds and the Councils in close succession to, or alongside of, the Scriptures, we are guiding both the students’ understanding of the Divine Scriptures and of the Creeds.

The next few chapters of the Institutions are about different divisions of the Holy Scriptures and then about how to correct one’s text. Perhaps a modern version would include courses on textual criticism and the history of transmission here? We no longer use manuscripts that we correct ourselves (which Cassiodorus says to do very carefully!), so his precise instructions here are not very useful.

After an encomium on the Sacred Scriptures, Cassiodorus then recommends study of theology. Here, he recommends some of the introductory texts on the faith by St Ambrose, as well as the more complex works on the Holy Trinity by St Hilary of Poitiers and St Augustine, then works on ethics and Augustine’s City of God. What would we add today? I would say some later Fathers, such as Maximus and John of Damascus. Aquinas? Palamas? Calvin? Luther?

After theology and ethics, Cassiodorus recommends Christian history. He lists the major writers of ecclesiastical history and their Latin translations. The study of Christian history is a good idea. I always highly recommend it. The difficulty for us is that we have about four times as much Christian history as Cassiodorus did. Thus, the study of it cannot necessarily be as imbued with the Fathers as the earlier sections. Perhaps, then, some of the best modern scholarship? Cassiodorus also recommends reading Josephus.

Great men Cassiodorus recommends. Next, the monk is to become acquainted with: St Hilary of Poitiers, St Cyprian of Carthage, St Ambroe of Milan, St Jerome, and St Augustine — but not to neglect living greats, such as Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus. I’ve a feeling that most of these would have been covered by a careful following of the rest of the course.

Secular learning that is useful along the way.  [This section edited.] Cassiodorus goes into secular learning most fully in Bk 2; in Bk 1, he recommends (biblical) geography and rhetorical studies. To these I would add a grasp of certain philosophical fundamentals. Of the disciplines Cassiodorus discusses, I would argue that these are the ones most likely to be missing from a standard education today.

Now, this is just Cassiodorus’ recommendations for sacred learning, for the training of the Christian intellect to understand the Bible and theology. What he leaves out in any detail is spiritual discipline. I imagine that someone following Cassiodorus’ program in conjunction with the disciplines of his contemporary Benedict or of Cassian a century and a half earlier would gain great knowledge both in head and heart. Because one can know all about the Bible and theology, but not know God. Update: Cassiodorus recommends Cassian to his readers.

I wonder if we could somehow help implement well-rounded Christian education like this not only for monks and theology students but for congregations as well? I know of some initiatives in some congregations; one of the theology PhD students who attends my church is organising quarterly sessions to teach biblical theology to the 20s-30s crowd, for example. It would also be great to see youth being taught more than a. apologetics, b. don’thavesexbeforemarriage.

*’Later writers say that he should be shunned completely because he subtly deceives the innocent. But if, with the Lord’s help, we take proper precaution, his poison can do no harm.’-Inst. 1.I.9, trans. Halporn

Saint of the Week: King Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great in Winchester (my photo)

Throughout history, many monarchs of one sort or another have gained the appellation ‘the Great’ — Alexander the Great, Charlemagne (who assumed ‘the Great’ into his name!), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and, in some circles, Constantine the Great (the only other monarch to have been saint of the week).

What makes Alfred, King of Wessex (lived 849-899, reigned 871-899) great? Well, he drove a Viking army into the Danelaw and got their ruler to convert to Christianity and settle down. He also kept the Vikings out of England. He united the various English kingdoms under his rule. He established a system of burhs, fortified towns throughout his kingdom where all ablebodied men learned archery for the defence of England from Vikings. He started the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

All of these things and more make Alfred a great king. And, certainly, striving to be good at your earthly calling is part of being a Christian, whether monarch or missionary, clerk or cleric, artist or apostle. But, fascinating as these parts of the Life of King Alfred are, they are not what made King Alfred, who is commemorated tomorrow, this week’s saint.

As famously related by Asser, King Alfred when a young boy did not know how to read or write, but spent his hours listening to the songs and tales of the Anglo-Saxon tongue in the court at Winchester. When he was twelve (I believe), his mother made a contest between him and his brothers, that whoever could memorise a book of poems could keep it. Alfred did so.

Although he undoubtedly learned the Anglo-Saxon tongue shortly thereafter, he did not come to his knowledge of the Latin language until 30 years of age. As king, he felt that it was a shame how learning had decreased in his kingdom — Anglo-Saxons had once been at the forefront of learning in Europe, in the age of Bede (saint of the week here). Probably a bit awestruck by all he had seen on the Carolingian mainland as a child and in the eternal city of Rome as well, he wanted to see learning flourish in England again.

Therefore, Alfred set about ensuring that the clergy of his kingdom were all literate. He also set about translating and ensuring translatin by others from Latin those works he felt most important, including his own introductions. Most famously, he translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.

This latter may have been provoked by his esteem of the Roman see because of his visits there as well as Gregory’s having sent Augustine (saint of the week here) as a missionary to Canterbury. However, we should also note that the Pastoral Care is also one of the only works from the Latin Fathers to have been widely translated and disseminated throughout the Greek world. That is to say, it was  world classic of Christian thought as well as being of practical value for Alfred’s clergy.

Now, to say that Alfred’s organisation of learning and translation throughout his kingdom was a particularly Christian thing to do is not to say that no pagan monarch ever did such a thing (see the Ptolemies at Alexandria), but I still think it a more noticeably Christian action than the defence from attack. Christianity has always been a religion of the book, and so learning has always been held in high esteem by all Christians — at least basic literacy, even amongst some anti-intellectual Franciscans.

In later centuries, it would be Christians like John Knox who would promote universal education on this island. I believe that King Alfred, although his emphasis was on clergy and nobility, stands within that same Christian tradition of education. Furthermore, the Christianness of his translations is further proof of how Alfred is engaged in the task of educating as a Christian king — we have Boethius and Gregory, not Virgil and Horace here, after all.

For More on Alfred and Anglo-Saxons

Besides Asser’s Life of King Alfred, check out the following:

Alfred the Great, ed. and trans. Simon Keynes. This Penguin Classic includes Asser’s Life as well as relevant selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various documents illustrating the reign of King Alfred, including some of his own writings.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland. This anthology includes not only the complete Beowulf in Crossley-Holland’s translation but a variety of Anglo-Saxon and Latin documents from the Anglo-Saxon world, both Christian and secular, poetry and prose.

Anglo-Saxon Christianity by Paul Cavill discusses Christianity in Britain in the days of the Anglo-Saxons, showing the union of Mediterranean religious values and ‘Germanic’ cultural traditions that occurred here in those days long ago.

BBC History website about the Anglo-Saxons, 410-800. This site includes discussions of Christianity.

BBC History website about Alfred the Great.