The Desert Fathers and Anglican Devotion

Launcelot Andrews (1555-1626)

It’s pretty easy to make an argument for any Protestant to read the Church Fathers at large. Do you believe in the Trinity? Recite the Nicene Creed? Well, then, read St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Augustine. Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man? Well, then, read Sts Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus the Confessor. Grappling with the question of religious images? Read St John of Damascus. Are you pondering why God became man? Well, then, read St Irenaeus of Lyons. Want to read the Bible better? Read St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana.

From the perspective of Anglican devotion, St Augustine’s theology of grace gives us good insights into the theology of the Prayer Book collects. Sts Hippolytus and John Chrysostom show us something about the history of our Eucharistic liturgy — as well as the “Prayer of St Chrysostom”. At the heart of the Anglican daily office lies the Psalter: Here, Sts Athanasius and Augustine are a great help.

Spending time with these Fathers will only help us do a better job of being Anglican, Protestant, whatever.

But what about the Desert Fathers? What do we gain from celibate men and women who cut themselves off from normal society, were consciously sleep deprived, ate only once a day, and were professional pray-ers? What can ancient monks do for the devotional lives of Anglicans? And lay Anglicans, at that?

This question is particularly strong for people of my generation who grew up in Anglican churches, at least in Canada, that had a strong Sunday liturgical tradition of Holy Communion and even hymns, but whose devotional world, Monday-Saturday, was the same as that of the Baptist down the road. A lot of room to be truly healthy and holy, but not a lot that was specifically Anglican. At a certain level, hey-ho, that’s fine! Holiness is the goal, not Anglicanness.

But if a standard, evangelical “quiet time”, maybe with some charismatic elements tossed in, is what your devotional life is used to, then the Desert Fathers can be quite foreign, I can assure you.

They can also be quite reassuring and challenging in a good way, though. When I was an undergrad, like a lot of young people, I briefly flirted with the idea of not being purposely and consciously Anglican. And yet whenever I came up against something with which I disagreed, whether from Roman Catholics or evangelicals, I found myself simply Anglican. So I read the 39 Articles again and decided that, regardless of what it meant for other Christians to be Pentecostals, Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, or Free Methodists, I was, quite honestly, Anglican. It was silly to pretend otherwise.

Thus, one Lent I chose for my devotional exercise the praying of one office from the BCP (1962) every day. This ended up being Compline, and this time also ended up being my time of “conversion” (if you will) to the Prayer Book. Anyway, that was the same year I met the Desert Fathers and fell in love with their wacky monomaniacal devotion to the Triune God.

This compline-desert confluence is where the Desert Fathers help out the Anglican. The daily office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, is fairly central to the Anglican devotional tradition. At the heart of the office, alongside the set canticles common to each day, are a monthly rotation through the Book of Psalms and a yearly cycle through the Bible.

Reading the Desert Fathers and learning about their rule of prayer is actually, at base, a simply encouragement for an evangelical Anglican who wants to discover the divine office, for here you will meet the antiquity of your own devotional practices. Not in a “Ha ha, Alliance Church!” sort of way, but in a reassuring way, that this is part of our own heritage and bigger than any single Christian tradition.

At the heart of the devotional life and prayer of the Desert and the tradition that flows from it, whether Benedictines and Cistercians in the West or Mount Athos and St Catherine’s, Sinai, in the East, is the Psalter, coupled with trying to live the words of Scripture. I’ll share some of the Desert Fathers’ wisdom on psalmody later, but their approach to the Psalms can really help transform the impact Psalmody has on the praying of the divine office.

I confess to not having read all of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, but it strikes me that one central aspect of his book is intentionality in what we do, as well as not attempting to seem holier than we really are. A large quantity of desert literature deals in this question of intention, using the term “watchfulness” (check most of Philokalia, Vol. 1). Watch your thoughts, watch the reasons you choose to do things, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts, watch your actions, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts. Seek purity of heart. Clear the mind of all but Christ.

And if you do decide to get down with the Anglican divines, you’ll discover that ascetic practices (fasting, regulating sleep, etc) are there in William Law and Jeremy Taylor, and the spiritual sense of Scripture peaks through Lancelot Andrewes. The Desert is not so far, after all.

Protestants and the Desert Fathers

Earlier this summer, I was blessed to be raised to the rank of Professor of Christian History at Davenant Hall. During the interview, which was one of the best live (alas, not in-person) theological conversations I’ve had in a very long time, one of my colleagues remarked that he thinks it’s cool that we, a Protestant theological college, are offering a course on the Desert Fathers. (Sign up here!)

But, of course, the question is always: How do I sell this to my fellow Protestants?

Why study the Desert Fathers with me? Or at all?

For some people, the Desert Fathers and the entire monastic movement that flows from them represent something in Christianity that is unnecessary at best, Pelagian at worst. Isn’t asceticism an unholy hatred of the body? Don’t the Desert Fathers teach works righteousness?

If we want to answer these questions, we must quickly (if briefly for a blog post) go to the sources (ad fontes! in good Reformational fashion). What is asceticism? What do the Desert Fathers believe about grace? Can we today learn things from them?

Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which is the Greek word for “training”, like athletic training — askesis is the word St Athanasius uses to describe the lifestyle and path of St Antony the Great. It is, then, more like “spiritual training” than hatred of the body. However, the entire human life is lived in the body. Therefore, the training of most Christians in history has involved embodied aspects — and, when healthy, no hatred of the body. Fasting, for example, is simply, well, expected of us by our Lord. And simple eating, simple living, are themselves caught up in various Scriptural injunctions, not to mention St Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus.

Here is the lifestyle of St Antony as described by St Athanasius:

All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. [2 Thes 3:10] He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. [See Mt 16:6 and 1 Thes 5:17] Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.

Life of Antony, 3.5-7, trans. Vivian and Athanassakis

Somewhere, either Evagrius or the Life of Antony, the mean between abuse of the body and its indulgence is counselled in the wisdom of the Desert. The Desert Fathers do not hate the body.

Oh, and before addressing grace, look at where St Antony’s inspiration for askesis came from: Scripture. Indeed, he seems to have lived a life saturated with the Bible, doesn’t he? This is their ideal. In the first monasteries that shared a common life, besides a regular round of praying the Psalms and other Bible-reading, they had major Bible teaching twice a week.

What about grace? The Desert Fathers, after all, expend a lot of energy teaching about, well, expending a lot of energy. One of the famous sayings is that prayer is hard work until your last breath. Where, then, does grace fit in? Here’s what Evagrius says in his short work On the Eight Thoughts:

A great thing is the human being who is helped by God; he is abandoned and then he realizes the weakness of his nature. You have nothing good which you have not received from God (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). Why then do you glory in another’s good as if it were your own? Why do you pride yourself in the grace of God as if it were your own possession? Acknowledge the one who gave it and do not exalt yourself so much. You are a creature of God; do not reject the Creator. You receive help from God; do not deny your benefactor. (8.12)

In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, p. 88.

Evagrius goes on, but I think you get the point.

Finally, there’s a historical reason to study any of the pre-Reformational monastic texts. As Dallas Willard notes in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, the best books about the spiritual disciplines from Benedict onwards (if not from St Antony onwards…) were written by or about monks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and apply their wisdom to our own situation.

Indeed, we learn Trinitarian theology, Christology, the doctrine of God, ethics, morality, theology of the human will, semiotics, political theology, demonology, diabology (is that the word?), angelology, and (depending on your tradition) church order, liturgy, and canon law from the Fathers.

Why not the spiritual disciplines?

And if so, why not the fathers who were devoted to nothing else in their undivided pursuit of God?

So, come, learn with me this Fall.

I’m teaching the Desert Fathers this Autumn!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love the Desert Fathers. They are my first love in patristics, beginning with Athanasius’ Life of St Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. As I say on the product page where you can sign up:

How do we reach up to God? How can we pray without ceasing? What even is prayer? Are we really meant to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? What is the place of fasting in the Christian life? Questions like these drove a great movement of men and women from the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, into the wilderness or desert, beginning in the fourth century—a movement so large it was said that these men and women made the desert into a city. These earliest monks of the Christian Church sought to live the Scriptures and fill their lives with prayer, seeking after God with a single-minded, wholehearted devotion. The monastic desert cities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria became the foundation of the spiritual disciplines as practiced through the long centuries to our own day. Their legacy is found not only in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, not only from Ireland to Iraq, but also in the spirituality of St Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ has been read and beloved by Protestants of every generation, and in John Calvin, whose own spirituality bears the mark of St Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this course, we are going to dive into the sands of the desert, moving chronologically from the life and letters of St Antony of Egypt, the reputed “first Christian monk/hermit”, in the early 300s and whose life was recorded by St Athanasius, up to the letters of Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s. Along the way, we shall spend time with the famous sayings of the Desert Fathers—short, pithy quotations or anecdotes with a deep meaning similar to the Proverbs of Scripture—as well as the work of Pachomius who was the first abbot of a community of monks; the lives of various Desert Fathers recorded by Palladius of Aspuna; the ascetic and mystical work of Evagrius Ponticus; and the life of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar in the Syrian desert. I promise that we’ll meet a lot of behaviors and some teachings that are weird to us. I also promise that we’ll be challenged to go deeper in our own devotion to God, our own study of the Scriptures, our own pursuit of pure prayer. To study the Desert Fathers well is not simply to study the history of Christianity but to open up yourself to the transformative power of the same God whom they met in huts and caves on the banks of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Orontes.

So sign up today!

What separates me from an Athonite monk

Athonites at prayer

One of the remarkable things about the tradition of ancient monasticism, from the Egyptian Desert to Jeremy Taylor to Mt Athos, is its concern about oversleeping. I recall reading about a monastery amongst the Desert Fathers where the monks were purposefully prevented from getting what we call “a good night’s sleep.” It was believed that the ascetic with less sleep was more able to fight demons.

When I mentioned this fact to my father, he remarked that he found himself less equipped to fight evil with less sleep. I feel the same way — more irascible, more likely to skip prayers, more likely to eat that which I should not. More likely to snap at my kids. That sort of thing.

And yet the life of St Silouan the Athonite, as recounted by St Sophrony, tells us of the opposite. St Silouan (St Sophrony’s spiritual father on the Holy Mountain of Mt Athos) would spend hours in the night sitting up praying. Sometimes he would get as little as two hours of sleep. Sometimes he would have vigils.

Yet St Silouan, despite his lack of sleep, was regarded as an even-tempered, loving man, more upset at his own sins than those of others.

And here’s what separates me from an Athonite monk:

Prayer.

What am I doing if I’m up late? Well, sometimes I’m working. Or doing chores/errands for the household. Sometimes I’m reading for pleasure. Or watching shows. Or just mindlessly surfing the worldwide web.

Now, I think for most of us a good night’s sleep does a lot of good.

But so would a good night’s prayer.

I’ve been in hospital the past few days for hernia surgery. The down time has enabled me to reset morning and evening prayer. Let’s pray the Lord gives me the blessing of duration in devotion.

Living Scripture

In the Coptic Life of the fourth-century Desert Father Pambo, we read this story:

When he came to the brothers he went and found an old man and said to him, “Teach me a psalm,” for he was illiterate, and the old man began to teach him this psalm: “I said, ‘I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue.'” [Ps 38:2 (LXX)]. And after the old man had given him the beginning of the text, Pambo stopped him, saying, “My father, since I haven’t yet learned the beginning of the text, I will not learn the rest.” And when Abba Pambo went to his cell, he spent eight years putting into practice the saying that he had learned, for he came into contact with no one, saying, “Unless I first master my tongue, I will come into contact with no one lest I fall into sin on account of my tongue.” After eight years, he went and paid a visit to the old man who had given him the psalm. The old man said to him, “Pambo, why haven’t we seen you until today? Why didn’t you come to learn the psalm?” Apa Pambo said to him, “Since I hadn’t learned the first verse, I didn’t return to you to get the second since God had not given me the grace until now to learn it. In order not to act as if I despised you, I have come to visit you, my father. For if I learn the first verse, I will come to see you again.” And when he returned to his cell, he stayed there another ten years and did not come into contact with anyone. -Trans. Tim Vivian, Four Desert Fathers, pp. 58-59

This story is a perfect example of what may be called the Desert hermeneutic — Scripture is not learned or interpreted correctly unless it is lived. It is an approach to the Bible that is common not only to fourth-century Egyptian monks but to The Philokalia as well, as discussed by the chapter by Douglas Burton-Christie in the edited volume, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality. It’s an idea I first heard articulated in Christopher J. Kelly’s book Cassian’s Conferences, for it is a perspective shared by John Cassian.

Most of us, when we think about “learning” a Psalm probably think how I expect Abba Pambo’s spiritual father was thinking in the story: Pambo will memorise the Psalm and learn how to sing it. And if we think about interpreting a Psalm, we’ll think about dissecting it in various ways: its original poet and audience; its later use in the Temple and Synagogue; its theological significance at the time of composition as well as today; how it can inform our own life of prayer and worship.

For Pambo, the Scriptures are not learned unless they are lived.

He hears, “I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue,” and determines that unless he is unable to sin with his tongue, he has not learned the Psalm. So off he goes to practise.

This is similar to Antony who hears, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” (Mt 19:21 NIV) and, rather than relativising or contextualising it as we all have since Clement of Alexandria, he did exactly what the Scripture commands.

It is interesting that this lived hermeneutics, this mimesis or imitation as interpretation, also typifies the Pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim; he hears 1 Thess. 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” and will not rest until he learns the secret — and The Way of a Pilgrim is a book steeped in The Philokalia, a great popularising text of Philokalic spirituality.

I also think this slow approach to the Bible is interesting. I find I have trouble doing things in bits and bobs. Give me a different large-ish chunk to read every day, and I’ll try and read it. Give me one verse to read and meditate on every day, and I’ll get sick of it. I want to blitz through a text — the Bible, a novel, a book of theology. If I divide something up into small bits, it becomes disjointed in my mind.

But for Abba Pambo, internalising the Scripture so that it becomes a characteristic of his own life requires dealing with it one bit at a time.

I have to admit that I’m not the greatest Bible reader. I miss days, sometimes weeks and months, in fact. Sometimes I read quickly and digest nothing. I’d rather be reading a science fiction novel or watching Frasier or Star Trek much of the time. But I am also stirred by high, lofty ideals. Imagine internalising Scripture. Just spending time in it, verse by verse, little by little, learning how to live it, really and truly live it.

It would require grace. I think it may also require a spiritual father — or, at least, a spiritual friend.

As the great Abba Antony said:

Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved. –Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Antony 3 (trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 2)

Desert wisdom about staying home

Abba Antony said:

Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.

He said also:

He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication. –The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony the Great, sayings 10-11 (The Greek Alphabetical Collection), trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 3

Before I really get moving with this post, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not staying alone even if I am staying home. My household includes at present four adults and two preschoolers. I eat three meals a day with other people, besides bathing two of them (the kids, of course), dressing them, playing with them, reading with them, praying with them. COVID-19 has not increased my solitude; if anything, it has decreased it because my evenings find themselves populated by online gatherings or phone calls to keep in touch.

But I do know others who are alone — single people with no roommates, the widowed. While I think the wisdom of the Desert about staying put is timely for all of us, it to those who find themselves physically extraordinarily alone I particularly pass these thoughts along.

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

The Desert Fathers have a lot to say about staying in the cell — the first saying of Antony the Great above is perhaps the most famous. The second reminds us that when we are alone, we still bring ourselves with us. John Cassian observes that if you suffer from anger, solitude will not cure it, for alone in the Desert your own angry self comes along. The only place to cure anger is the company others who make you angry.

Evagrius also recommends the solitude of one’s cell:

The one who guards against these arrows [of the logismos of fornication] does not frequent public festivals, nor will be go around agape on feast days, for it is better to stay at home, passing time at one’s prayers, than to become an accomplice in the work of one’s enemies by thinking that one is reverently observing the feast days. –On the Eight Thoughts 2.7

The evil thought that is most likely to drive a monk from his or her cell is akedia, listlessness, despondency, dejection. Boredom, perhaps? Called “the noonday demon”, misrepresented in English as “sloth”. The restlessness associated with akedia is doubtless relevant to all those in these strange times who want to go out, see people, walk around, shake hands with a neighbour.

In On the Eight Thoughts, 6, Evagrius writes of akedia:

5. The spirit of acedia drives the monk out of his cell, but the monk who possesses perseverance will ever cultivate stillness.

6. A person afflicted with acedia proposes visiting the sick, but is fulfilling his own purpose.

7. A monk given to acedia is quick to undertake a service, but considers his own satisfaction to be a precept.

8. A light breeze bends a feeble plant; a fantasy about a trip away drags off the person overcome with acedia.

9. The force of the wind does not shake a well-rooted tree; acedia does not bend the soul that is firmly established.

10. A wandering monk is like a dry twig in the desert; he is still for a little while and then is carried off unwillingly.

-Trans. R. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 84

The Desert tradition believes that staying put alone in the cell is good for you. Their main goal is, of course, hesychia, as I discussed yesterdayHesychia — inner calm, stillness, quietude. Maybe our goal should be, too. So maybe corona quarantine will be good for us.

If you’re wondering what the Desert tradition expects of you trapped alone all day, the answer is: Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Eat one meal around 3 PM. Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Weave a rush mat.

This is essentially the lifestyle of Evagrius as described by his disciple Palladius in the Lausiac History. He probably also read other spiritual works — Gregory of Nyssa who was his spiritual father or Origen, for example — and he spent time writing down the fruit of his prayer and meditation.

Maybe now is the time to get down with the daily office …

‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

Philokalic Friday: St Neilos of Ancyra

I am publishing posts each Friday this Lent as I work my way through the latter half of volume 1 of The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware. If you wish an introduction by me, read here; by Kallistos Ware, here.

At present, I am reading St Neilos (or Nilus or Nilos) of Ancyra’s (modern Ankara, Turkey; he died around 430, we think) ‘Ascetic Discourse’, on pages 199-250 of the English translation of The Philokalia, vol. 1. The text begins with some insights into wisdom and the philosophic life, as I blogged last Saturday. From here, Neilos moves into a discussion of how the monastic profession and ascetic life has fallen from its original ideals. Monks attach themselves to wealthy people and live in cities. They own property and are as undisciplined as anyone else.

It sounds rather high mediaeval, if you ask me! St Neilos is in the era of what I think of as the ‘second generation’ Desert Fathers (he’s not in the desert, of course), after the Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century, when Antony, Pachomius, et al., are now ideals to pursue rather than the living embodiment of the monastic call. He is a contemporary of Shenoute of the White Monastery in Egypt and St Simeon the Stylite in Syria, as well as Sts Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian in Marseille.

Monasticism in St Anthony’s day sort of began partly as a protest movement against a perceived ‘worldiness’ taking over the church after her alleged ‘triumph’ in the conversion of Constantine. Those who entered the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Judaea with high ideals did so because they felt that the pure, high calling of the Christian life, the pursuit of Godmanhood, had been compromised by life in the city. So they went to the Desert and did battle with demons.

But 100 years later, it seems that rot has set in. The renewal and reform movement must be renewed and reformed.

Ecclesia semper reformanda — it’s not just a motto for Protestants.

St Neilos’ initial complaint is the amount of property monks and monasteries own. From St Anthony to Evagrius and Jerome, property was to be renounced by monks, family was to be forsaken, status to be shunned. St Neilos has some wise words about status we should consider wisely today, I think.

St Neilos’ concern with status is not worldly status but ‘spiritual’ status. Too many people are becoming spiritual directors too soon. These are men who have learned with their minds the teachings of the Fathers but have not lived the ascetic life, they have not experienced and enjoyed and endured the contest and the training in the battle for the human soul, the fight for purification. When I read this, I think about this blog and realise my own inexperience. I am certainly not qualified to be a spiritual director!

After warning people from seeking out spiritual headship, Neilos discusses what to do if it falls to someone anyway:

First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness. He must take care that, through copying him they do not obscure the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of sin. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples’ salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. (p. 223 English)

Later, Neilos writes:

Since warfare against the passions requires such knowledge and experience, anyone who assumes the task of spiritual direction should realize how much he needs to know in order to lead those under his charge to ‘the prize of the high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and to teach them clearly all that this warfare entails. He should not pretend to gain the victory by shadow-boxing, but must engage in a real battle with the enemy and inflict deadly wounds upon him. This struggle is far harder than any gymnastic contest. When an athlete’s body is thrown to the ground, he can easily get up; but in the spiritual warfare it is men’s souls that fall, and then it is very difficult for them to rise once more. (p. 227 English)

Now, I do not want to sound critical of contemporary spiritual directorship. But it is a different creature from what St Neilos describes. Having people take the enneagram or lead them on guided meditations inspired by St Ignatius Loyola or helping them find what spiritual gifts they have or using modern psychological analysis to help them find the wounds in their hearts that Jesus needs to cure or whatever — this is not the desert tradition of spiritual directorship by any means.

The tradition of the desert, that lives today among the Orthodox with the Russian word staretz for the spiritual elder, is about wrestling for the salvation of the disciple. It is sitting and talking to learn the disciple’s thoughts and heart and mind. It is praying. It is about obedience. It is about life lived together, life shown as example, not a half-hour sessions every fortnight to help us ‘grow’ spiritually. It is about the transformation of the human heart into the likeness of the Godman, Jesus Christ.

It is about theiosis, deification.

It is about grace, for no one is qualified for this job.

Blogging Benedict: Service

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In chapter 35 of the Rule, St Benedict writes:

The brothers should serve one another and no one should be excused from kitchen duty, unless he is sick or is busy with something particularly important, for by serving one another the brothers gain a greater reward and become more loving. (p. 60, trans. White)

This is, I think, something vitally important in our communal life, in homes, churches, workplaces, other communities. No one is above works of service. Service is love.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a monk who visited one of the monasteries, and they invited him to join them in their manual labour, and he remarked that he was there simply to pray. They took him to his cell and left him there. Eventually, after several hours, he grew hungry, and he was wondering when they would eat, for no one had come to get him. Growing curious, and a bit concerned, he left his cell to seek out the abbot and asked him about when supper was. The abbot remarked that they had not called him for supper, since he was so spiritual that he did not need to work with his hands, clearly he did not need to eat carnal food, either.

There is more to say about manual labour in RB later, of course. But no one is exempt from the service of others in the Rule. One of the reasons why St Basil the Great (of Caesarea) favoured communal life over hermits was because how can you fulfill Christ’s commands to love and serve each other if you are hermits?

In our communities, this means that elders, wardens, pastors, priests, deacons, deaconesses, et al., take their turns in the mundane aspects of church life. My minister in Edinburgh was often invisible in the kitchen at events. In Durham, my minister helps set up and take down equipment before and after services. Growing up, my dad (a priest) spent a lot of time at the food bank that ran out of our church unloading and distributing food.

Whether you hold an official post in the church, service, which leads to humility and is an act of love, can (and should!) be part of your Christian life. Wash dishes, cook food, take care of babies in creche, organise Sunday School storage cupboards. This all serves the Kingdom of Heaven.