Going to church with wicked people

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

Related to Blogging Benedict: Punishment, today I read Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115), Ep. 186. In this letter, Ivo responds to a query from a monk named Laurence on questions of living with wicked (mali) people. The long and short of it, with testimonia from St Augustine and Pope Gregory VII (pope, 1073-1085), is that you must put up with them, by and large.

Receiving communion alongside a person whom you know (or think) is a sinner is not entering into communion with their wickedness but into communion with Christ. It is God who will judge such people. Our job is to love them. If their sin is privately known, you cannot refuse communication with them. If, however, they are impenitent, public sinners, then they should fall under excommunication from the proper orders within the church. Not, that is, you. Your job is to love them. Or, if they are excommunicate, to avoid them.

Remember the Augustinian line taken from the parable of the tares: If we try to pluck out the tares before the harvest, we may accidentally cut down some of wheat along with them.

Also, you shouldn’t receive gifts from the excommunicate on the grounds that, well, they are excommunicate. The earth, says Ivo (Augustine), is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. God doesn’t need their gifts. He wants their repentance.

Placing this letter in the wider context of Ivo’s thought, we need to remember that he argues for the discipline of the church as being a remedy. The goal of excommunication, as with penance, is to heal the sinner and help him’er not sin anymore.

The main point for us today is not to spend our lives sitting around in judgement of fellow churchgoers. It’s pretty easy sometimes. Perhaps you suspect someone of heresy. Or of drinking too much. Or of judgementalism due to being a teetotaller. Or of greediness. Or of any manner of personal/sinful deficiency.

It is not our role to sit in judgement on them. The merciful God is who rich in mercy, abounding in compassion whilst also perfectly just and wholly loving will do that, is doing that. Our job is to love others.

Mind you, I fear that the clergy may sometimes have to excommunicate, and I say that not just because Ivo does (for who is Ivo to me?) but because Ivo cites the apostles on the matter. Nonetheless, it is a grave thing and to be done with much prayer and for the goal of healing the broken Christian and the broken community, not in a spirit of vindictiveness and retribution.

Blogging Benedict: Punishment

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Here are the notes I wrote down while reading the chapters of the Rule, 23-30, about punishment:

23: Corporal punishment sounds harsh. I’d say it is, but in RB’s context, many other rules are much freer with the rod.

  • Note that excommunication is here rooted in biblical principles, Matthew 18.

24-26: Cutting people off from community probably very harsh in the communal world a monastery, of the sixth century. But sin damages community. Excommunication gives time for the community and the sinner to heal before restoration and reconciliation. We want these matters to be instant, but what if they cannot be, due to our own timebound nature? Then, indeed, we will need periods of separation for spiritual healing.

27: The abbots goal with the excommunicated is to heal them. Penance and consolation are both remedies. Ivo of Chartres:

Indeed all ecclesiastical discipline chiefly has this intent: either to tear down every structure that raises itself up against the knowledge of Christ, or to build up the enduring house of God in truth of faith and honesty of character, or if that house of God be defiled, to cleanse it with the remedies of penance. The mistress of this house is charity, which sees to the welfare of our neighbours, commanding that it be done for others what one wishes to be done for himself. -Prologue to the Decretum and Panormia, trans. Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 133-34

The abbot ‘must bear in mind that he has undertaken the care of weak souls, not a tyranny over those who are strong.’ (p. 52 English trans.)

GRACE – Example of Christ the Good Shepherd.

28: If all else fails, expel the unrepentant from the monastery.

30: Beating the young vs. Anselm. [Anselm argued against beating the youths in monastic care but sought their shaping through love instead.]

What takeaway might there be? First, a good abbot/spiritual leader seeks the spiritual health of the individuals and the community. Second, sometimes this might mean a period of separation with the goal of reconciliation. Third, assigning penances is not simply a matter of purgatorial satisfaction but rather a means of helping our souls grow stronger.

How do our communities deal with unrepentant, repeat offenders who tear at their fabric? How do we balance grace and justice, mercy and the need to protect the community from destructive behaviour?

Do ‘rules’ and ‘order’ stifle the Spirit?

St Ignatius of Antioch

For my two tutorials this week, the assigned texts for one were about the earliest evidence for church orders, ie. bishops, priests, deacons (and apostles and prophets). The other was about St. Francis of Assisi. Reading these, I’ve been thinking about rules and order and whether they are as stifling as some people say.

For example, the Didache (ca. 90-100) teaches about how to go about baptising people and the Eucharist, and talks about receiving apostles and prophets. Clearly the latter group has some sort of charisma from the Spirit; the point of rules here is to help people discern between false and true prophets. I do not believe this is a way of stifling the Spirit but, rather, practical guidance for people in real situations.

By St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 117), the ecstatic, charismatic role of the prophet seems to have melded with that of the local bishop — at least in Ignatius’ case. He asserts his authority through stating he has been given certain knowledge in a vision. This prophetic episcopal role will persist, as visible in St. Cyprian of Carthage’s statements regarding his own visions and dreams from the Spirit in the mid-200s. The Spirit has chosen to work with the people in the episcopal hierarchy — this is an observation regardless of whether or not episcopal hierarchy is the best way to run a church. The Spirit will blow wherever he pleases.

The bishop, the hierarchy, seem to be taking on the role of mediating the gifts of the Spirit to the people. Unfortunately, the only evidence I know of for this period of lay charisma is Montanism (discussed here), which the hierarchy branded as heretical. So perhaps the hierarchy was stifling the Spirit somewhat — although, if we take Cyprian and Ignatius at their word, the Spirit seems to have got around the issue and is still communiting the Divine Will to the Church through the members of the hierarchy.

And just when we think this state of affairs may solidify in the fourth century, the monastic movement begins — lay people outside of the official hierarchy of the Church claim direct access to God and special knowledge and mystical experiences. This potentially unstable element does not start to be tamed until the Early Middle Ages, after Benedict, and in the Carolingian age when Benedict’s Rule (discussed here) is used to regularise Western European monasticism.

And so we have entered that long, large, and largely passed-over middle half of Christian history. Did the mediaeval hierarchy with its various developments, its liturgies, its monasteries, its canon law — in all their various manifestations throughout the centuries and places of Western Europe — stifle the movement and action of the Holy Spirit? St. Hildegard, St. Bernard, readers of Dionysius, Lady Julian, St. Catherine of Siena, the miracle-workers of visionaries of insular Christianity (vs. the tendentious romance of ‘Celtic Christianity’), seem to say to me no.

Let us look at St. Francis of Assisi.

Talk about someone with rules. Rules about what you eat and when, what you pray and when, how you get your food, how you deal with money (don’t), about preaching and working and so on and so forth.

But look at the sheer whimsy of the man. Running off to become a hermit. Rebuilding San Damiano and Santa Maria di Portincula because of a vision. Singing songs of love to God in the streets. Abruptly preaching to birds, leaving his companions on the roadside. Abruptly leaving his companions on the road when he went to pray on an island for 40 days. Jumping off the dock to catch a boat to Syria. Climbing Assisi’s church steeple to ring the bell so the Assisians could enjoy the beauty of Sister Moon.

Blown by the Spirit, indeed.

But Francis respected the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Pope, the priests, the Eucharist, all of that sort of thing. His was not an anti-clerical revolution. His charisma and openness to the the movement of the Spirit was not in opposition to how things were meant to be ordered — although undoubtedly opposed to how things often operated.

We must not mistake anti-clericalism for ‘openness to the Spirit’ and a desire for order for ‘stifling the Spirit.’ If the Third Person of the Trinity truly blows where (s)he wills, then it is not a matter of how we order our churches but a matter of our hearts. Are we open for the next adventure, even if that adventure is the mundane task of growing vegetables in the monastery garden? Or if the adventure is cleaning a leper? Or if the adventure is preaching yet another sermon on the magnificent love of God to a congregation who couldn’t care less? Or if the adventure is running off to be a missionary in Morocco?

If God pervades everything, our openness to his Spirit is not dependent upon our Church structures — be they allegedly anarchist or congregationalist or episcopal or presbyterian — but upon our hearts and those of our leaders. Same goes for Sunday morning worship.