Praying and praising in all circumstances

Most of us are having a hard time keeping our spirits up as we deal with government restrictions in light of this pandemic. Whatever we’re going through, I am not sure it is worse than being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, though. And that’s what happened to St Patrick. About his time as a slave, Patrick writes:

After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.

Confessio 16

Perhaps what we’re missing is more prayer?

Blogging Benedict: A School for the Lord’s Service

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

Before moving on to the first chapter of the Rule, I want to pause for a moment to consider this phrase and what it might mean for us today — our understanding of discipleship and our worshipping, witnessing communities.

Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici scola servitii.

The idea of the Christian community as school should help us shift our thinking about what the worshipping community is up to. For example, a few months ago a friend expressed his displeasure at a post that had done the rounds on his Facebook feed all about why Millennials aren’t going to church anymore. And, even if some of the criticisms were valid, the entire spirit of the piece was, ‘We don’t go to church because church isn’t doing things for us/the way we like it.’

Elsewhere, you’ll read about church growth tactics, using coffee bars to lure people back. Or manipulating emotions with lighting during worship (this is a thing I read in a catalogue from a supplier of church electronic equipment). We are told to make church relevant to the (felt) needs of congregants. To make worship an unforgettable, subjective (emotional) experience.

For monks, all of this is meaningless.

What do I know about what is good for me? Have I not sacrificed my temporal pleasure and temporal good for the Kingdom of Heaven? I have forsaken all to gain everything in St Clare’s Laudable Exchange. The monk has given up all rights to earthly materials, earthly goods, family, inheritance, social position. St Antony the Great made sure his sister had enough to live on, then completely abandoned his inheritance, giving it all to the poor.

Aren’t we supposed to be like that guy in the parable, who found a treasure in a field, so he sold everything and bought the field?

Forsaking everything for Christ means opening ourselves up to suffering. It means looking at church not as a place where we go to feel good or to have our needs met, but to encounter the risen Christ. It means enrolling in a school of the Lord’s service.

After all, Jesus’ followers in the New Testament are called disciples — an English word from the Latin discipulus, a learner, a student, an apprentice, translating the Greek mathetes. I remember how it startled me to recognition about the word in a Bible study with a Greek Cypriot friend who kept calling the disciples Jesus’ students.

What if all of the inward-focussed church programmes (so not evangelism or serving the wider community) took themselves seriously as a school for the Lord’s service — a school where we learn to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that our churches would look different. And healthier.

And maybe, for a while, smaller.

Blogging Benedict: A Wake-Up Call

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The Prologue to the Rule of Benedict is not so much a setting out of what will follow as it is a call to wake up, although it does touch on one of the most important themes of the Rule, one that is distasteful to our modern ears: obedience. Let us begin with the wake-up call (avoiding Petra references).

“Let us open our eyes to the divine light and listen carefully to what the divine voice tells us to do…” (p. 2 English)

As the verse says (Ro. 13:12), “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” Or, as my mother felt the Lord say once, “Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity.” What are we doing now about salvation? Christianity is not an exercise in passivity. It is a matter of finding the truth and living it.

For Benedict, the truth is found in the Scriptures, it is found in Christ, it is found the writings of the Fathers. We cannot be slack or lazy or put off to tomorrow the holiness to which we are called today. Christians in many (all?) ages have been tempted in two ways: cheap grace or legalism. Sometimes (for example) I think it is easier to be a teetotaller or someone who drinks to excess than it is to drink in moderation. Benedict will read to many people like legalism, even though he is far more lenient than some of his contemporaries. And the thing that we will chafe under most is obedience.

Very quickly, it is worth here reminding ourselves of the modern notion of freedom as the pure, unrestrained activity of the will of the human individual. Or nation-state, at a higher level. Anything that conflicts with my desires is seen as necessarily bad. This vision of freedom is in direct contrast with the pre-modern West, where true freedom was found by living according to your own nature, or the nature of the universe (Stoicism); it was found by seeking the summum bonum (Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas), or the beautiful (Plato’s Symposium) and then living in accord with that. It is choosing to restrain our wills to something bigger and better than the fleeting pleasures of a moment.

What we tend to consider ‘freedom’ today is really just slavery to the passions. We should instead seek to be freed from the passions, or seek to rule them and guide them in accordance with nature, reason, the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one (Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). If we do not control the passions, do not subvert them to the greater good, we are not free, for we cannot choose rightly.

While many Christians would agree with all of this, there are still concerns about obedience as Benedict lays it out. The Benedictine monk is to give absolute obedience to the abbot. This, in fact, is common to many Late Antique ascetic/monastic texts, whether in Sinai with John Climacus, Egypt (Palestine?) with Mark the Monk, Luxeuil with Columbanus, Monte Cassino with Benedict.

Our concern about giving any human such obedience is not ungrounded. We live in the age after Jonestown, after all. We have seen what personality cults can do in a less murder-suicide manner, anyway. Nevertheless, for Benedict, responding to the call to holiness starts with obedience.

Here, in the Prologue, obedience is first and foremost to Christ. Let us keep that in our mind when we consider other parts of the Rule and the rest of obedience. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not the abbot. But our disordered wills should perhaps submit to the wisdom of our elders in the faith. Otherwise, is it not like undergraduates determining pedagogy, as though 18-22-year-olds know what’s best for them, how best to educate themselves?

At the root of both ethics/morality and discipline lies the reality of God as creator and sustainer. He knows best because he is best. He is Aristotle’s summum bonum, as discussed by Anselm’s Monologion. Therefore, we willfully submit to God’s will and God’s commands in order to flourish. Our lives, as St Paul says, are not our own. We were bought at a price. Let us ever keep scriptural obedience in mind in our reading of Benedict.

We find God’s commands in Scripture. We also, sometimes, add disciplines. There is an important difference between discipline and morality. Discipline is the voluntary activity in which we engage to grow spiritually, but it is, morally, optional. Ivo of Chartres makes this important distinction in the prologue to his canonical collection around 1100.

Discipline is askesis, the word for training an athlete. We need to train ourselves for the fight for holiness in our lives, against the passions and the demons and the external temptations of life.

And so, as we steer clear of the Scylla of cheap grace, which is what Benedict’s Prologue is calling us to do, we feel like perhaps we are veering into the Charybdis of legalism or what Presbyterians call ‘works righteousness’. But what about ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)? The sheep and goats of Matthew 25? Faith without works is dead — the epistle James. Holiness is a calling that we pursue. God acts in us as we act for him.

The ancient and medieval ascetics are thus helpful for us in our simultaneous fear of cheap grace and legalism. They sought to radically train themselves to live in holiness. Even if we are saved by grace, holiness usually seems to arrive after some effort. I saw this as an Anglican, thinking beyond the ancients to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’ve blogged on the latter before. Both of these writers, without denying the necessity of grace, believe in the disciplined life. One of the points made by Taylor, and reproduced as an appendix in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is the fact that specific disciplines are not necessary to all Christians — that each of us needs to train for holiness in the way that works for our soul.

And so, finally, when we think on obedience and discipline and the serious call to holiness, we cannot forget grace. St Benedict believes in grace, intimately united to duty:

Those who fear the Lord and do not allow themselves to become proud because of their good works realize that the good that is in them does not come from their own abilities but from the Lord. (p. 4)

Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in his tabernacle, and we have heard his instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to his instructions. If our natural abilities do not allow us to do something, we must ask the Lord to grant us his grace to assist us. (p. 5)

All the great ascetic writers acknowledge the union of grace to our effort — that we cannot be holy without God making us so, that we cannot even performs virtuous acts of ascetic labours without grace. This union of God’s grace with our discipline is found in Theophan the Recluse (19th c. ), Prosper (On the Call of All Nations), Augustine (variously), Mark the Monk, and Cassian (Conference 13) in the fifth. Mark the Monk writes:

First of all, we know that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. -‘On the Spiritual Law’, 2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 110.

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. -‘No Righteousness by Works’, 18, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1

In ‘No Righteousness by Works’, St Mark goes into this discussion more extensively. He also has high expectations of his ascetic readers.

We have been called out of the darkness and into the light. We have been shown by the Scriptures what holiness looks like. Christ and the apostles fasted and prayed. The apostles searched the Scriptures. They performed acts of mercy. They called us all to obedience to God as well as mutual submission to one another.

“And so, clothed in faith and the performance of good works, let us set off along his path using the Gospel as our guide.” (p. 3)

Struggle: What I learned this Lent

Now that the warm glow of Eastertide is starting fade for most, being a week and a half into the season, I’d like to share with you what I learned this Lent. In short:

I am undisciplined.

If you recall, I decided to set my sights mid-height for Lent 2015 — take on two spiritual disciplines I long to incorporate into my everyday life during Regular Time (you know, when everything at church is green). I wanted to pray morning prayer every day and fast once a week.

Not once did I manage to fast an entire day — some time around lunch I would give in. And then I fell ill, so for the last two weeks of the season I didn’t even skip breakfast. For just over half of Lent I prayed morning prayer. Then the unbearable pressure of feeling like I need to be writing, writing, writing this PhD starting pressing upon me every morning as I breakfasted. I’ve read enough monks to know that this is precisely how the tempters draw us away from prayer — the lure of the ‘important’.

I also wanted to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus (as mentioned here), but found that too difficult to process and apply. The sheer mental energy of my PhD has made spiritual reading a challenge, and sixth/seventh-century monastic texts even more so.

I am undisciplined.

And what is discipline for? It is for making us Christlike, right?

If I can keep Christ in my heart and love those around me as He would, and do so without these two disciplines or reading spiritual books, all the better.

And some days I can.

But most days I can’t.

Then again, not being a monk, I can tailor my daily devotional and discipline needs to my temperament and lifestyle.

So I need to think about what I can handle in the high-stress, time-consuming world of two-and-a-half-months-until-submission(!!!) — and what suits my temperament. Not what I can writer ‘clever’ things about here. Not what everyone else recommends. But what actually helps me and what I can handle without false guilt.

Time to take stock — perhaps you should, too.

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.

Lent: A good time to start to Read the Fathers

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla

I should have posted this before Sunday, when we started reading The Shepherd of Hermas in Read the Fathers, but I was too busy gawking at the art at the Uffizi and taking the train to Milan on Sunday. These things happen. Nevertheless …

Many people in Lent, rather than — or in addition to — giving something up, take something on. Some pray more. Some read more Scripture or focus on a particular book of Scripture. Some people read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. Some people Read the Fathers.

This past Sunday would have been the ideal time to join us. We started reading the mid-second-century text called The Shepherd by Hermas. It’s not especially long, and neither are the daily readings (unlike with Irenaeus). It was very popular in its day, and many people thought maybe it should be in the Bible — as evidenced by its presence in the Bible codex called ‘Sinaiticus.’ But the Muratorian Fragment and a few others said that, while The Shepherd is a useful and interesting book, it is not Scripture.

It’s certainly an interesting read, and a window into a different side of second-century Christianity than Ignatius or Justin provides. This interestingness, with insights into our forebears in the faith is precisely what you can expect if you join (or re-join) us at Read the Fathers — where we are reading through most of the Fathers over seven years!

And Lent is the perfect excuse to start a good, new habit that you can maintain beyond Easter! This is how I’m using Lent this year, something I hope to blog about soon. You see, in Lent we are used to taking on something extra, used to refocussing our spiritual and mental habits. So, if you’ve always wanted to read through a lot of the Church Fathers, if you start now, you can into the habit and keep it going beyond Easter.

Gluttony: Alive and Well

A friend of mine posted a link on facebook to this article from The Atlantic: “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” It’s an interesting article that delves into the world of food writing and the gastronomes/epicureans/gourmets/foodies who write about food.

It is a world that fixates on food, the eating thereof, the production thereof, and so forth. Usually in quantity, often unusual. Ultimately, the various problems concerning this lifestyle and mindset that arise in the article are boiled down to coming from the singlemindedness of the foodie.

This is, at a certain level, what gluttony is (the author of the article points this out).

Gluttony is when we focus too much on the appetitive aspect of our person. It is when we succumb to concupiscence concerning the sensual pleasures of food and drink to an unhealthy degree. It is the dethroning of God by Food.

Of course, John Cassian (our old friend) goes farther (he would). John Cassian tells us that gluttony is not merely eating too much or fixating on food but is basically any misuse of food as we seek to live a disciplined life. Primarily he is concerned with monks who eat at the wrong time — ie. too early — or monks who eat the wrong food — ie. not part of the Rule — or monks who eat too much — the common use of the term gluttony.

Given that John Cassian also teaches us that we shouldn’t eat enough to be satisfied, I don’t think we should simply apply all of his teachings on gluttony to our lives. Nevertheless, I think a few thoughts are worth contemplating in this regard.

First, eating at the wrong time. Or even eating too fast, if you ask me. Our bodies are a gift from God, and our bodily state can affect our spiritual state since we are psychosomatic unities.* Eating too fast means we don’t digest properly and sometimes our body doesn’t even know it’s full. It can lead to accidental overeating. Eating at the wrong time is also interesting because we often eat just whenever we (I) feel a little bit hungry — and eat whatever we can get our hands on first, be it a Mars bar, a bag of crisps, or something else unhealthy. Why not hold out against hunger until you’re home and can eat something healthier and cheaper?

Second, eating the wrong food. I eat the wrong food a lot. Soda pop, Mars bars, other chocolate bars, chocolate flapjacks, crisps, chips, other deep-fried items, greasy pizza, salty popcorn, on it goes. Now, I’m not entirely sold out to asceticism. I think we can treat ourselves to tasty, unhealthy food — but only in moderation. A can of pop or a chocolate bar every day, or even every other day, is not treating your body as it deserves. It is surrendering endurance to the easy, tasty, delectable way out. It is not discipline but laxity, surrendering to the appetitive part of your soul. It is, simply put, gluttony.

Eating too much, the third, is standard gluttony. But it can call out to any of us, at an Indian buffet, or a really cheap fish & chip shop, or the deal at the cinema with the gigantic popcorn, or what have you. This is healthy eating 101, though. We don’t need fifth-century monks telling us we shouldn’t overeat. Overeating when combined with unhealthy eating can lead to obesity and ultimately kill you.

But before that, it can kill your soul.

So let’s be more disciplined with our food intake as to when, what, and how much! Maybe our prayer lives and devotional times will pick up. Maybe we’ll hate it. But I’m pretty sure it will be good for us.

*Or noetopsychosomatic?

Tomorrow Night: Fasting with John Wesley

For the next four Tuesdays of Lent, the Classic Christian small group will be looking at four spiritual disciplines: Fasting, Simplicity, Worship, and Service.  Tomorrow night, we begin with Fasting.

Fasting is a venerable practice engaged in by many of the luminaries of Scripture, from Moses to Elijah to St. Paul to our Lord Jesus Christ himself.  The Didache relates that the early Christians fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Desert Fathers ate one meal a day around three o’clock in the afternoon.  They taught that fasting was essential to the life of prayer — and undivided prayer was their purpose in retreating to the desert.  One cannot pray on a full stomach — and John Cassian recommends never eating so much that you be satisfied.  Fasting and prayer coupled together are the best defense against the demons and the evil thoughts that infiltrate our minds and tempt us to sin.

Fasting continues to be emphasised throughout the monastic tradition, from St. Augustine and St. Benedict through to the Franciscans and the Dominicans.  In course of time, requirements for fasting on particular days and at particular seasons mellowed to abstinence, thus, not eating (red) meat on Fridays or going vegan for Lent.

In most Protestant circles, the emphasis salvation on absolutely nothing but faith in Jesus led to the falling away of fasting over time, even though Martin Luther, the loud proponent of justification by faith, fasted.  In the 1700’s, John Wesley found himself inspired by the ancient Christian witness and practice.  He fasted twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays and required that those wishing to become Methodist preachers themselves fast twice a week.

Fasting has an eminent pedigree.  We who live in a culture obsessed with food, obsessed with consumption, in the thrall of instant gratification, should seriously consider fasting.  We must not allow ourselves to become slaves to anything* — our bellies, our taste buds, food, grocery stores, advertisers, food production companies, restaurants, fast food joints.  Ruling our bodies is a step towards freedom, and fasting is a step towards ruling the body.

If you find yourself stoked about fasting & John Wesley, read his sermon on fasting, the text for tomorrow.

*This would, in fact, include being enslaved to a rule of fasting.