‘Sins are to be regarded with hatred, not men’ (musings on Cadfael and Leo the Great)

I recently read the Brother Cadfael mystery novel The Raven in the Foregate by Ellis Peters. Set at Christmastide 1141, in this novel, the people of the Foregate — the parish area just outside the abbey of Sts Peter and Paul and the town of Shrewsbury — get a new priest after their old priest, Father Adam, passed away. Fr Adam had been a kind and indulgent man, aware of the weakness of the human spirit and always ready to welcome a penitent sinner.

The new priest, Father Ailnoth, was an entirely different species of priest. Ailnoth had hitherto been a bishop’s clerk and knew little of the ways of parish life, the faults and foibles of ordinary people, their sins large and small. In his first few weeks, he strikes young boys with his staff for playing ball games against the wall of his house; he refuses to baptise a sickly infant on the spot because he is in the middle of praying the office — the infant dies, and he refuses to bury it in the churchyard because it was unbaptised (!!); he alleges that a man in his service was villein, not free; he drives away from him a young woman of the Foregate who slept with a lot of men, but would inevitably feel compunction for a spell and repent before, eventually, turning to the company of whatever man next asked. She, in fact, was found drowned after he refused to hear her confession. Oh, Ailnoth also accused the baker of his measure being short.

In sum, a strong and unbending man of mighty will with little care for the dignity of others. A man with a sense of his own virtue so strong it blotted out his compassion on those weaker than him.

Vainglory, according to Cassian, Evagrius, and Climacus, is a sin reserved for the virtuous.

It can harden the heart, as it did Father Ailnoth.

Father Ailnoth reminded me of a historical event that Leo the Great discusses in letter 167.

This letter was sent to Rusticus, Bishop of Narbonne, in the second half of the 450s, and is most read and recopied for the series of questions the Roman Bishop answers for his Gallic colleague. In the preface of the epistle, however, Leo address some more specific concerns of Rusticus’. The first of these had to do with two Narbonnais presbyters who had been tried by local ecclesiastical and secular men of rank, and found guilty for being overzealous in their duties of reproving sinners (in this case, adulterers). Leo encourages Rusticus not to be too hard on them, ‘since they have of their own accord removed themselves from the disputes they had begun’. He reminds his Gallic colleague that spiritual medicine should be applied to heal, writing:

you should act mildly with those who in their zeal for chaste behaviour seem to have exceeded the limit in vengeance. One should not let the Devil, who has deceived adulterers, rejoice in the punishers of adultery.

All of this unseemly business has left Bishop Rusticus wishing to retire. Leo proceeds to reprove him for this desire, and in the midst of this he puts forth one of his pithy statements, one that has always stuck with me:

Odio habeantur peccata, non homines.

That is:

Sins are to held in hatred, not men.

You could say ‘people’ or ‘human persons’ for ‘homines’, but ‘men’ is so nice and short, it keeps the saying pithy. Besides, etymologically ‘man’ has the same gender inclusive overtones as ‘homo, hominis’.

Father Ailnoth with his own unbending vision of virtue seems to have forgotten this adage of Leo’s (which was certainly known in England by 1141 through Lanfranc’s canonical collection of the 1070s). To the modern ear, Leo may often sound harsh and unbending, but I believe that he is flexible as a pastor — he will not bend on what he believes the truth is, but the penitent sinner or heretic is always welcome back into the catholic fold if he or she gives proof of a true change of heart and/or mind.

Father Ailnoth was not so flexible.

We should keep these examples in mind as we go into the world today and interact with a culture that in many areas does not live up to traditional, biblical standards of morality and ethics — whether we speak of such standards from a more ‘right’ or more ‘left’ position.

The ‘liberal’ convictions of a theological conservative

Thomas Guthrie, DD, theological conservative and social reformer

This July in Paris, a ‘hippie’-ish friend from BC was in my French class. One day in class, we were discussing what we would change if we held the reins of power in government, and he said that he would stop extracting oil from the tar sands, that northern Alberta has become a moonscape. Apparently, this was said not only out of conviction but also to see my response, since I was raised in Alberta. However, I agree. Extracting oil from the tar sands, even if done cleanly, is destroying a unique ecosystem that will ultimately vanish forever, at best replaced by more boreal forest. But it’s not done cleanly, as the evidence of tumors in fish in the Mackenzie River demonstrates.

When he told this story to another friend (himself a theological conservative like myself; a Californian), this other friend jokingly remarked, ‘Guess Matt’s not as conservative as we thought!’

But, of course, I am. My commitment to responsible environmental stewardship stems precisely from my commitment to biblical ethics and theology. This second friend, before you get the wrong idea, is also in favour of wise treatment of the natural world, and sometimes expresses surprise that fellow evangelicals so rarely make a noise on the issue.

The other day, I was chatting with this Californian friend, and he noted that in the USA, I would be thought of as ‘liberal’ by many (not all) conservative evangelicals — apparently because I believe in such radical things as treating creation well and free health care provided by the government. He went on to observe that he doesn’t understand why more evangelicals aren’t in favour of free health care, since it would exist to benefit the poor, and the second most recurring theme in the New Testament — after the Gospel — is to care for the poor.

These two incidents are worthy of note. I must now say that I am a theological conservative. There is no way around it. I believe in ridiculous things like the Trinity — which, scandalously, comes with a wholehearted trust that the ‘historical Jesus’ of Nazareth was, in fact, God in the flesh pitching His tent among us, having been born of a virgin and rising from dead before leaving this plane of existence to Heaven in a fashion resembling ascending into the sky. Despite respect for the conservative Cyrillian camp (those ‘Monophysites’), I find that conciliar orthodoxy (including two natures and two wills in Christ as well as right use of icons) is the most philosophically coherent and biblically faithful account of the broad sweep of Christian theology. I also believe in the 39 Articles — I may even believe in the predestination one (but with some hedging around the edges).

I also, therefore, believe the Bible. Frankly, you can’t believe all that crazy stuff about the hypostatic union and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being homoousios without the Bible. I believe that the Bible is God’s primary, normative means of revelation to us and that, at least from Abraham to the Apostles, it provides us with a historically reliable account of His interactions with the human race — including the miracles and visions and prophecies.

Finally, as a theological conservative I also hold some very unpopular views on ethics and morality. Just ask me the hot button issues, and I’ll probably disappoint all my liberal friends, Christian or otherwise.

However, this belief in Scripture and tradition as the standards for Christian belief and ethics means that I believe in looking after the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien. I think the Church should be on the front lines of the battle against the social ills associated with these things. In my experience in Canada and the UK, it is, even if people don’t realise it.

My church growing up ran the local food bank (honestly, this means it was my dad, a hero of the faith, if ever there was one). In Toronto, Jennie and I helped out at Toronto Alliance when they served a hot meal to the local poor of the community (they also had a food bank, clothing room, and a nurse to look at people’s feet). In Edinburgh, my church recently took up a collection to help Syrian refugees in the Middle East; they are involved in helping refugees come to Scotland; they also help the Bethany Christian Trust run its care shelters for the local poor throughout the year; our Sunday School does the now traditional act of service by supporting two children through overseas charities. All of these churches fall under the heading of ‘theologically conservative’.

My theologically conservative aunt and uncle have lived in Angola for decades providing free health care to the poorest of the poor and have built a hospital there. Their hope and dream is for there to be a team of local Angolan doctors and nurses to run this hospital without them. This is what the Gospel calls us to do.

In the nineteenth century, churches were on the front lines in providing free education and health care to the poorest of Britain’s poor, as, for example, in the Ragged Schools Movement. Thomas Guthrie, the founding minister of our church here in Edinburgh (St Columba’s Free Church), was also the founder of a Ragged School. Our church in Toronto (Little Trinity) had also been involved in the running of schools for the nineteenth-century poor. When education became freely available through the organisational skills and financing of the government, this was in part because of the activities of Victorian Christians. The same goes for the establishment of free health care in Canada and Britain in the twentieth century.

The government has far more resources than the Church, especially today as our numbers fall. So it makes sense that we support them in their efforts to ensure that there is free education and health care available to all — in this way, we can help the most vulnerable in society. And we can turn our attention to other social ills that plague our cities, things that governments, perhaps, are less well-equipped to deal with.

It boggles the mind to think that there are Christians who are not involved, whether with their time or money, in caring for the poor. If we look in Scripture, we will see passage after passage, on page after page, telling the people of God to care for the poor. If God has a bias, it is for the poor (somebody said that somewhere, but I forget who).

This has run on too long, but I can assure you that my ‘liberal’ convictions concerning environmental issues stem also from my conservative reading of Scripture and the traditional doctrine of creation. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. We humans were given a responsibility to tend the land, not pollute it, destroy it, burn it; not to turn it into desert, not to bring the bounty of animal species made by God to the brink of extinction. That doesn’t sound like good stewardship to me…

Saint for now: St. John Climacus

Things are busy with writing my own papers and marking other people’s papers right now, so no saint went up last week. So today, since I have time on Sundays, last week’s saint will come up this week; whether this week will have its own saint remains to be seen. And on to our saint, a mystic, John Climacus (who is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church today).

St. John Climacus (c. 579-649 and thus a contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor) was a monk of the monastery of Sinai, at the foot of the Mount of God, the mountain which Moses ascended and where the Lawgiver entered the Cloud, saw the back of YHWH, and received the Law of God, from which Moses descended with shining face from his encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The spot is pregnant with meaning.

At this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John, aged sixteen, took preference for the semi-eremitic life — a life halfway between the ‘total’ seclusion of the hermit/anchorite and the total community of the ‘coenobite’ (most Western monastics — e.g. Cistercians and Benedictines are ‘coenobites’ living in a coenobium). All three forms of monasticism were practised within the walls of this monastery, founded by Justinian (556-57).

In this middle way, one pursues the monastic life of prayer and stillness under the supervision of an elder; John’s was one Abba Martyrius. Abba Martyrius, after John had demonstrated his worthiness over a few years of pursuing the monastic vocation, took John up the Mountain of God and had him tonsured, admitting him into the fullness of the monastic life.

Shortly thereafter, Abba Martyrius died, and John pursued the life of the hermit, entering into seclusion to enter hesychia and the stillness of God’s presence. He retired to Tholas and spent 40 years there, admitting the occasional visitor who came for spiritual guidance.

At the end of his 40-year stint he was elected to be abbot of the coenobitic community. In good monastic form, he resisted (one also typically resists being ordained priest or consecrated bishop if a monk), but was overcome by the brethren. He lived out the rest of his life as abbot of the monastery at Sinai. Whilst abbot, he wrote down his famous work Scala Paradisi, The Ladder of Paradise.

As with our last mystic (Bonaventure here), it is not the exterior as found in these details but the interior that matters; it is the mystic’s encounter with God and the things of God that really matters.

From John’s Ladder we learn of the ascent of the soul to God. As with many mystics, this ascent is gained through askesis, or asceticism, through the training and labours undertaken by the one seeking God in order to purify the soul/mind/heart so that union with God and the vision of God are possible, so that the contemplative can see Him clearly (though never in His fullness or essence, as God is ultimately incomprehensible).

The thirty steps of the ladder’s ascent unto God are divided into three sections (this is also common, as we saw Bonaventure’s six levels divided by two into three; it is at least as old as Origen — cf. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition 58-59).

The first seven steps are about acquiring general virtues that are necessary for the ascetic life (cf. Origen’s ethike or ethics). These days, I think few Christians are inspired to climb any higher than these seven. I believe that we need to reclaim holiness and see a life beyond simple virtue. John Climacus can help.

The second series of steps runs from 8 through 26. These nineteen steps are about even greater ascent in virtue as the ascetic learns to overcome the vices and acquire virtues in their place. Indeed, cultivation of virtue is the only way to fully extirpate vice and cleanse the soul so that we can draw near to God and theosis, deification.

The final steps are the higher virtues. How many in our day even draw nigh to these virtues? I know not. I think they tend to be those imperturbable people who seem to radiate peace, calm, and a certain gentleness of spirit. They are also often wise. If you haven’t met such a person, it is your great loss.

At the top of the ladder, we go beyond everything we do, everything we know. We encounter the living God. He is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And he alone is all we want and all we need.

NB: I haven’t yet read John Climacus (I wanted to, but the copy in the library is missing), so if there are any inaccuracies, I gladly welcome critique in the comments! 🙂