Seeking the incomprehensible life

I posted this quote to a group I’m part of on Facebook. It’s a group started by a friend who works for a mission organisation; his job is to help encourage, ignite, and equip disciple-making movements around the world. The group is largely focussed on how poorly we seem to be doing at this in the white Anglophone world. Part of the problem, my friend has postulated, is that we keep focussing on having “new wineskins”, but we’ve lost sight of the wine (Jesus the Christ) and keep offering Kool-Aid in new packaging.

Anyway, my contribution was the following passage from Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite:

Strange and incomprehensible to the world is the Christian life. Everything is paradoxical, everything contrary to the ways of the world, and there is no explaining it in words. The only way to understand is by doing the will of God — by observing Christ’s commandments. The way He Himself indicated. (p. 45)

I wrote that this passage “makes me wonder if we Protestants have spent too much time making ourselves comprehensible to the world and too little time pondering Our Lord’s commands.”

My friend who started the group pointed out that observing Christ’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount means moving our focus not only from murder to anger but as far as actively seeking reconciliation. I’m pretty sure that’s radically countercultural. I’m pretty sure most people tear into their enemies with anger or just avoid them. (I’m an avoider.)

Archimandrite Sophrony shows an example of this incomprehensible life in the all-consuming love for others that came upon St Silouan as a result of grace. St Silouan would weep for those who would end up in hell, and pray even for them. He once met a hermit who happily spoke of how the atheists would suffer in hell. St Silouan expressed his grief at this — how is this love for others, to rejoice at their suffering? (I’m sure David Bentley Hart would have some things to say about this, but I’m not one for debating about universal salvation.)

This feeling of sorrow for those who are outside of Christ, this all-encompassing love for others — this is what characterised St Silouan in his outward life. This was the result of his tireless pursuit of prayer, of God, of Christ our God.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author says that the increase of love for others is a result of contemplative prayer. The closer we are to Christ, the more we love other humans.

As the Internet increasingly polarises us, we must find ways to live out the radical commandments of love that Jesus gives us. Meditating on the Sermon on the Mount, as my friend suggests, is a place to start. Praying, praying, praying, as St Silouan did, is another.

Gregory of Tours and the need for real discipleship

My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)
My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)

So I’m reading Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks right now, and not for any insight into mission and discipleship or disciplines but for insight into the culture and society of Merovingian Gaul. Nonetheless, as a Christian reader I cannot turn off my personal perspectives and thoughts while reading.

This passage seized my thoughts the other day, and I thought I’d share with you:

Chilperic was the next to fly into a rage. … He continued to advance with his troops and invdaed the Limousin, the district of Cahoors and other territories near by, all of which he ravaged and sacked. He burned the churches, stole their holy vessels, killed the clergy, emptied the monasteries of monks, raped the nuns in their convents and caused devastation everywhere. There was even more weeping in the churches at this period than there had been at the time of Diocletian’s persecution.

48. To this day one is still amazed and astonished at the disasters which befell these people. We can only contrast how their forefathers used to behave with how they themselves are behaving today. After the missionary preaching of the bishops, the earlier generations were converted from their pagan temples and turned towards the churches; now they are busy plundering those same churches. The older folk listened with all their heart to the Lord’s bishops and had great reverence for them; nowadays they not only do not listen, but they persecute instead. Their forefathers endowed the monasteries and churches; the sons tear them to pieces and demolish them. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4.47-8, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics), p. 244

A brief historiographical note. As I’ve mentioned before, I often read the sources for Christian history in two ways — one is what this post is about, which is a more devotional approach that seeks to see what insight a text/image/story might have for my own personal life and faith. The other is the more critical approach that sets something within its context.

Grégoire de Tours, Histoire des Francs, livres 1 à 6, page de frontispice.jpg
Gregory’s History of the Franks, Frontispiece from Paris, BnF Latin 17655 fol. 2. Late 7th c.

In Gregory’s case, we should read passages such as this with some caution; he is not a pure, accurate, unbiased observer. He is, in fact, a bishop deeply invested in the culture, politics, and religion of his world. So when he imagines that the days of Clovis (d. 511, recounted in Book 2) are better than today, we need to keep in mind that Gregory is a bishop first, historian second. Gregory’s description of the earlier days may thus be rosier than the truth (I’m inclined to think it is), and his description of his own days may be gloomier, but both are there to encourage piety in the reader.

Back to my original thought. What Gregory of Tours is concerned about here is sort of like a multigenerational vision of a lot of evangelistic outreach events. That is, people heard, received, and ingested the (Catholic) faith with vigour, but before too long they were just as bad (or worse) than before. For Gregory, this is something that happened over generations. Eighty years before Gregory’s day, they were on fire for their new faith, and accordingly built churches and sought the evangelisation of their people. Now, in Gregory’s lifetime, they are raping nuns and pillaging churches — worse than the last great persecution of the pagan emperors carried out by Diocletian!

It is my belief, as a promoter (but, sadly, bad practicioner) of Christian discipline and the formation of disciples, that what (supposing Gregory to be accurate) transpired was a failure of disciple-making. The kings of the Franks after Clovis were not, it seems, brought into the deep fellowship with Christ and surrender to His will as Lord and King that true discipleship calls for. The above story about ransacking churches aside, they continued to deal treacherously with one another, commit adultery, murder people, and engage in unprovoked war. The bishops may have had converts, but over the generations of life in Frankish Gaul, they neglected to make disciples.

This makes me think of big evangelistic rallies that often have no system of follow-up. 1345 people came to Jesus! How many stayed with Jesus? Or, closer to home, how poorly we raise the children in our congregations to be confident, joyful disciples of Jesus Christ. Of the children to whom I taught Sunday School as a teenager, I can think of none who is now a churchgoer or actively involved in the life of faith. Or those people at church camp who had dramatic conversion stories but who now call themselves agnostic.

How many young people ‘graduate’ from church at Confirmation or at the end of High School? A friend of mine said that several young people who were in the group who got baptised with him disappeared after the baptism — they had dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to make it into heaven, hadn’t they? Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?

‘The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.’ (Acts 11:25)

We should pray and seek the face of God so that we may see fewer failures of discipleship and disciple-making.

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.