In The Apostolic Tradition, the author (Hippolytus? of Rome?) writes at the end of the baptismal rite:
And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety. (21.38, trans. Stewart-Sykes)
The phrase that struck me as I read this was ‘progressing in piety’. One of the features of ancient, medieval, Byzantine Christianity is its belief that the ongoing life of faith involves progress. We are not simply ‘saved’ and baptised, but, now that we are made right with God and adopted as His children, we have the opportunity to ‘progress in piety’.
The standard of perfection, for example, is God. And God is eternal and infinite. Therefore, argues St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) in the passage excerpted by Richard Foster in Devotional Classics, the human pursuit of perfection is endless and infinite as well. We will never arrive; even in eternity we will have room for limitless growth in glory.
In some Protestant circles (usually the Reformed), a fear of ‘works righteousness’ and the legalism or false sense of personal achievement that attend it have led to a rejection of the idea of progress in holiness — although they acknowledge that something like it occurs, as Spurgeon did when he rejected the phrase ‘progressive sanctification’ as unscriptural, speaking of growth in grace instead.
St John Climacus’ Ladder is all about this progress, after all. Indeed, the ascetic literature, while it can at times tend towards legalism of the harshest kind, is piercingly aware of growth in holiness, portraying it as a ladder or an ascent or steps towards God. Simultaneously, there is an acknowledgement of the necessity of grace for this growth in holiness. (St Theophan the Recluse, the nineteenth-century Russian always comes to my mind when I think about this.)
We are commanded to progress in piety, but we need the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will empower our spiritual disciplines so that we can strive for the heights of John Wesley’s Christian perfection. (A concept, when rightly understood, I am not opposed to — but I do wonder if anyone ever received so much grace.) This is synergeia, synergy, and it is not a rejection of grace but a way of viewing how it operates.
I have talked with some other ‘young people’ who were raised in the Church who have found that the sort of Christianity we put on offer at our local congregations and in many popular books is merely intellectual(ist) or emotional(ist) or sometimes both. But what about a religion or faith or spirituality that touches the deep chasms of the human soul, the vast interior world of the human heart, itself an image of the infinite simplicity of the Triune God? What about that kind of living, believing, thinking?
When this sort of disillusionment hits, different people take different approaches. One friend struck out into the land of the chemical — MDMA and marijuana led the way to cocaine (and who knows what else). Another friend went the much safer (at least physically) route of exploring Hinduism. Another friend I know has taken an interest in Islamic Sufism.
The drug-free path or a version thereof, from what the Interwebs shows me, seems to be a popular journey for a lot of young people raised in the Church. At some point, what’s being fed to our young congregants ceases to satisfy, so people start hunting for nourishment wherever it is to be found.
I get that.
And I am too immersed in the thought of Justin Martyr and too sympathetic to Augustine’s appreciation of Platonism to think that my friends won’t find Christ’s eyes looking out at them from between the lines of an ‘eastern’ religious text or the power of the Triune God battering their hearts as they enter the path of contemplation under the tutelage of Hindus, Buddhists, or Sufis. (Don’t forget this post on Christianity and eastern religions.)
Jesus Christ is the logos who orders the entire cosmos, who undergirds everything. He is the Reason of God, and each of us, made in God’s image, shares in that Reason. He can draw us all up to himself. The exitus from God has happened in every human heart, and not every guide on the reditus need be a Christian. I have profited from the Stoics.
But we need not look beyond the community of the faithful to find reliable guides on the spiritual journey. My general concern about Christians who become more interested in any philosophy beyond the Faith is whether they will still cling to Jesus and the Trinitarian Faith in the long run. And if we are dissatisfied with what we’re being served, we can explore the depths and riches of the interior world — enter the rooms of the Interior Castle — from within the Christian tradition.
But often, the problem with these spiritual masters of the past for one wishing to sail out into the sea of the interior world is the fact that simply reading them is itself a discipline — and very often it is difficult to apply their lessons to our lives. Or no visible, practical lessons seem to be forthcoming. So where do we go for guides to the spiritual world?
The church does not have a shortage of spiritual guides today, we just don’t always know where to look. I encourage you, if you are disillusioned with the shallowness, intellectualism, and/or emotionalism of your church today, before giving into accedia and going elsewhere, try to deepen your own walk first — perhaps a deeper connexion with Christ will deepen your appreciation of your own church.
Here are some recommended spiritual guides:
Richard Foster. Start with his most famous book Celebration of Discipline. Foster ranges far and wide across the Christian tradition, bringing in ancient, mediaeval, and modern, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, his fellow Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, and so on. Here you will get descriptions and practical tips on how to enter into the love of God and actually live for Him, being transformed, through twelve disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. This is one of the most-purchased and least-read books out there — and, I think, even less applied than read! His book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home helped sustain me while I was a missionary in Cyprus.
Kallistos Ware (Timothy). Foster is probably the most practical guide to the spiritual life I’ve encountered. But Ware’s works, especially The Orthodox Way but also, to some extent, The Orthodox Church, are excellent avenues into the world of Eastern Orthodox spiritual paths and spiritual thinking. He lacks the aggressive anti-western aspects of certain other writers on similar topics (e.g. Lossky, Romanides), but presents so appealing an image of Orthodoxy that you want a taste of that inner world, even if you are hesitant of joining him for doctrinal reasons.
Anthologies of the Masters. Although the lessons are not always easy to apply, reading shorter excerpts from the deep spiritual writers of the Christian tradition can be a good way in — so long as we are willing to go deeper. I have appreciated Richard J Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics, which has a range of authors from St Gregory of Nyssa to John Woolman. I started but did not finish the anthology Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism by Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, recommended by Edith M. Humphrey in:
Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. In this book, Humphrey investigates what she calls ‘spiritual theology’, looking at Scripture as well as those who have gone before (tradition as it is lived, I suppose) and at her own lived experiences as a Christian. She wrote while still an Anglican, but the influences of the Eastern church are visible.
If you read any of these, hopefully a few things will happen: You will be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity. You will pray and meditate more. You will read Scripture with fresh eyes. And you will start to read more of the masters in full, starting with such classics as St. Augustine’s Confessions (in Chadwick’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics, not Pine-Coffin’s for Penguin Classics!) and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and maybe popping in on more recent spiritual guides such as Merton’s The Inner Experience.
And, having started to read the masters in full, may you be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity, pray and meditate more, and read Scripture with fresh eyes.
Perfection in St. Gregory is endless. Following in the Platonic tradition, Gregory argues that evil is essentially non-being. Evil is a lack, the absence of the good. The good, on the other hand, when there is no evil, is boundless. Goodness is never-ending; so also must be the pursuit of it, and that pursuit is virtue.
This line of reasoning also takes Gregory to the doctrine of divine infinity during this passage. God himself is the ultimate good, the highest good, the most perfect being there is. Therefore, he must be infinite, boundless. He has no boundaries upon himself, his being, his action. According to Anthony Meredith in The Cappadocians, this doctrine of divine infinity is a new direction in theology and philosophy. St. Gregory has innovated in both the Patristic Greek tradition as well as in his Origenist/Platonic context. If so, like most of the innovations within Meredith’s book, this has a great impact upon the subsequent tradition as well as being dictated by Scripture and tradition.
Back to our own pursuit of perfection. I agree with St. Gregory. If God is perfect, and God is infinite, then the road to perfection must also be infinite. Thus, St. Gregory says, “For the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.” I believe that this would accord with John Wesley’s idea of Christian Perfection as seen in his Plain Account thereof (for more on Wesley’s teachings on the topic, see the blog A Heart That Burns).
We are not to lose hope, however. Gregory draws our attention to the heroes of the faith, to the people who populate the Bible, especially Abraham and Sarah. Of course, the main thrust of his work is the life of Moses and how Moses’ life is a model for our faith, especially when seen “spiritually”, ie. allegorically.
In our discussion afterward, Liam suggested that perhaps the best thing to do in our journey towards perfection, towards “friendship” with God (St. Gregory of Nyssa’s word, not mine), is to start with regular prayer and Bible-reading. I know, I know. It’s grade three at Sunday School again. It’s every Evangelical preacher you’ve ever met. Well, guess what.
And St. Gregory would recommend it, too. The Bible is where we find the lives of the Old and New Testament saints, where we find the teachings of who God is. And prayer is where we approach the Uncreated Light and enter into the darkness that surrounds His radiance. Would that we all prayed and read our Bibles!
Where do you think we should go from there as we seek perfection and cultivate friendship with God?