Blogging Benedict: Tools for good works (chapter 4)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 4 of The Rule of St Benedict (RB) is about the ‘tools for good works.’ We have already set aside concerns about legalism, so hopefully we can read Benedict for wisdom about discipline — about being disciples, students, in the Lord’s service, and seeing these tools as the means by which we grow spiritually and become truly virtuous. Much of this chapter is simply a catalogue of commands, some moral, some more ascetic/disciplined.

A few for reflection, then.

“put a high value in fasting.” (p. 16 — page references to the Little Black Penguin translation by Carolinne M. White)

In the churches I have attended, the only two disciplines regularly discussed are read your Bible and pray every day. They are probably the two most central. The ancient ascetics always bind in this third — fasting. And, indeed, our Lord fasted. John the Baptist fasted. St Paul fasted. Esther fasted. Fasting has been an integral part of Christian discipline, east and west, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the whole history of the Church. Well, until recently. Not being a historian of the modern church, I don’t know when the change occurred. But I know that it was practised and advocated during the Reformation and by such figures as William Law and John Wesley.

In our food-obsessed culture (see my post on gluttony), fasting can be truly counter-cultural. It can also challenge us to re-think our priorities. As Benedict says in this chapter:

“Do not be guided in your actions by the values of this world, and do not value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” (pp. 16-17)

That, of course, includes fasting. Fasting, recall, is a tool, not an end in itself. To use these tools wisely, we need discretion, we need purity of heart, we need to cultivate what Hesychios the Priest (fifth-century) calls ‘watchfulness’ in The Philokalia. RB:

“As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ.” (17-18)

This not only draws my thoughts to St Hesychios but to St John Cassian as well, whose allegorical reading of Psalm 137, which advocates infanticide, I have blogged about. Twice, in fact. Cassian’s reading says that the Babylonian children are to be considered our vices; C. S. Lewis gives the same reading in Reflections on the Psalms.

Watchfulness as advocated by the ancients is almost impossible. How can we actually pay attention to every single thought we’re having? Thinking about thinking is really weird, isn’t it? In this regard, one non-Benedictine discipline that may help is the Examen, a Jesuit practice whereby you prayerfully go through the day and examine your heart. Where was God? Where did you sin? I’ve not read extensively on this discipline; Richard Foster treats it in his book Prayer.

When Benedict closes his discussion of these moral and ascetic tools, he writes:

“These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. … The workshop where we diligently work at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery, in the stability of the community.” (p. 19)

We see here some truly Benedictine ideals, particularly stability and community. Too many of us — myself often included — try to go it alone. No wonder we fail. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ (Gen. 2:18) And when things get tough in one circumstance or community, we often leave, rather than wonder if the problem includes ourselves. You will never be able to outrun your own sweat.

Advertisements

Burchard of Worms on the distracted mind

From the preface of Burchard’s Decretum (ca. 1012-1023):

I was unable to proceed [with this project] for two reasons: because of various and inevitable ecclesiastical obligations, which emerge daily just as waves of the sea, and, moreover, because of responsibility for secular affairs relating to imperial commands. These greatly blunt the mind of one zealous and striving toward higher things, because the mind of anyone, while it is divided among very many things, will be weaker for each one. (Trans. Somerville & Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, p. 100)

This final clause is exactly the result of spending too much time on social media and not enough time in deep reading and personal interactions.

Makes me seriously consider taking another techno-fast, or getting off Facebook & Twitter altogether…

Extract from Burchard’s Decretum, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Fasting – because Lent is only a month away

StJohnCassian_vice4We’ve just cleared the Christmas season, today being the First Sunday After the Epiphany. You might be thinking that now it’s time for your church leaders to kick back and relax. You’d be wrong, though! Even if all they’re doing is Lenten liturgies, and not organising special studies or thematic sermons, your clergy and lay leaders are probably already engaged in preparing for Lent. Easter is early this year, March 27, so Lent is early, too. Ash Wednesday comes on February 10. One month away.

My friend at the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, which I’ve mentioned before, graciously included me in their Lenten preparations, asking:

do you have some resources you would suggest for a six week preaching series on the role of fasting, and how it relates to Lent- even some crucial, often overlooked aspects- or simply put, what would you focus on?

I’ve been too busy preparing for a job interview to have given it a lot of thought, unfortunately. The interview has passed, though. So here I am, blogging about fasting. I still have to think more about this for my friend, though…

The first resource I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is my dear friend John Cassian (d. ca 435). In Book 5 of his Institutes, John Cassian discusses the ‘Spirit of Gluttony’ as part of his analysis of the Eight Deadly Thoughts/Spirits (these are an adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus that will be modified by Gregory the Great into the Seven Deadly Sins).

One of the themes running through both of Cassian’s major works (The Institutes and The Conferences) is discernment. Discernment is central to the disciplined life. It keeps you from doing more ascetic things than you can reasonably handle — a problem for ancient monks — as well as from being too lax (if a discipline is doing you no good at all or is really, really easy, is it really evidence of your sanctity?). Discernment is also helpful in our relationships with others — we cannot judge others if their rule of fasting or prayer is different, or if they are sore tempted by things we barely feel.1

Therefore, the first rule of fasting that comes out of Cassian is not to obsess over what others do. The second is related to it — set a fast that will challenge you (one meal, two meals, three meals, 24 hours, two days, a week, 40 days, or maybe two days out of a week or whatever). On a few occasions in Book 5 of the Institutes, the difference of the rule of fasting in different monastic or ecclesial communities addressed, as is the issue that a lot of monks break their rule of fasting in order to show hospitality to Cassian and his friend Germanus as they travel around the famous ascetics of Egypt.

The third rule is to remember what the purpose of fasting is.

Fasting is not an end in itself. As Cassian discusses in the first Conference, the point of all ascetic effort, of all the disciplines, is purity of heart. The goal of purity of heart is to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). In Institues Book 5, the argument is set forth that we cannot attain to spiritual purity until we have learned to control our bodies. The spirit of gluttony lies at the root of many of our problems; if we can tame the stomach, we can start to tame the thoughts that run through our heads.

We need to remember that we humans are, indeed, spiritual beings, but that we are also a psychosomatic unity. Everything we do is embodied. The embodied reality of human life means that Christian disciplines are not simply spiritual and intellectual — prayer, Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, praise of our God — but they are also physical — fasting, kneeling, prostrations, Eucharist, baptism, sexual purity.

As Sergei Bulgakov says, we mortify the flesh in order to gain a body.

I hope these thoughts help as we look forward to the Lenten season.


1. One of the stories out of the Egyptian desert is about a young monk who was struggling with the spirit of fornication to a very high degree. He went to seek the advice and wisdom of one of the elders, and explained his thoughts and desires and temptations about fornication. The elder had never really suffered from strong temptations to fornication and was horrified at what he heard and berate the young monk so such an extent that the younger monk was on the verge of giving it up. An angel was watching and was not well-pleased, so he opened the elder monk up to just a small fraction of what temptations the younger monk was suffering, and the elder monk could barely handle it. The moral of the story is that you don’t know another person’s suffering and temptations; what they need from you are your advice, your prayers, and your love, not your judgement. That’s the role of discernment.

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.

Fasting and Almsgiving

As I mentioned in this post, each month I’m spending some of my devotional energy on one of the spiritual disciplines discussed by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Last month was prayer, and the next chapter is fasting, so June has theoretically been the month of fasting.

Fasting is an interesting discipline, and can be hard to talk about. It is very seldom practised today, and has in the past been used as a demonstration of feats of devotion to Our Lord that lead to pride. So when people talk about their own fasting, they may feel pride. Or they may feel proud that they aren’t proud. Or they may feel proud about their honesty that they struggle with fasting. Or … and so forth.

For many, fasting is a source of spiritual breakthrough. No doubt it would be so for more, if only more of us actually fasted with some semblance of regularity.

But is fasting enough?

No.

Mortifying the flesh is never enough. This is the mainstream patristic consensus. We may have to mortify the flesh in order to gain a body (Sergei Bulgakov), but if fasting or vigils or standing on pillars or wearing hair shirts or inverted hedgehog vests is not combined with other disciplines, it is meaningless.

As one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (found here) relates:

A brother said to an old man: “There are two brothers. One of them stays in his cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man replied: “Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.” Here we learn that love is above fasting, that we must not presume to put our fasting above “the more excellent way,” the “new commandment” to love one another.

The Western Fathers, you will be pleased to know, agree. Leo the Great believes that fasting can help cover our sins (and whether you agree with that theology or not, the second half is important), but only when connected to acts of charity and compassion for the poor.

St Augustine is similar, maintaining that of the two, it is acts of mercy and charity that are more important. If you give alms without fasting, that can still be a good work. But fasting without the other virtues is mere flesh.

I do not write today’s post to discourage fasting. Far from it! Would that many more of us observed both fasts from all food and abstinences from others on a regular basis! But when we fast (as Our Lord says it, not if) we should ever be seeking the Giver of good gifts as well as to do good deeds ourselves.

One recommendation I read somewhere (I think it was in something by Richard Foster, but it seems not to have been Celebration of Discipline, so that could be a false attribution) was to pray about a specific topic when we fast. Say, a temptation that has besetting us. Or maybe you know of someone who has a big test or an important meeting at work — you could fast and pray for them that day. Or fast and pray for persecuted Christians.

And then, let us give up of our material possessions even as we give up eating. Leo, in fact, recommends his congregation to give what they did not eat to the poor. Imagine that, if we fasted, and reckoned what we saved, and either donated the money to a charity or the food to a food bank! That would be the sort of fasting the Lord wants to see:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6 NKJV)

Friday’s Failed Fast

Because it’s Lent, and because it’s a good habit I’d like to re-acquire, I fasted last Friday. Until lunch time.

That would be a fast fail.

To ease my body into the world of fasting, I was only going to skip lunch, you see. All went well at the beginning. Every Friday is Bacon Roll Friday, so after I’d finished my bacon roll, I was set to go foodless until supper.

I went to work, and sat down at my desk, where I was reading a book about Leo the Great. After a couple of hours, I got a little hungry. That’s the way I am, but even when not fasting I’ve been making myself either hold out until lunch, anyway, or eat portions of my lunch throughout the day so as not to overeat. Tall, ectomorphic men can be overweight without looking it.

Anyway, this was fine. I was brushing up on my fifth-century history.

But around noonish, the problem went beyond hunger.

I have been a student for most of the past 11 years. I sit hunched over desks and tables for a living. Well, I’m not supposed to hunch. But it is hard not to. Especially if you are hypermobile like me. This means that not only am I really flexible (an asset when I was a dancer), and not only do I hyperextend most of my major joints, it is also really easy for me to slouch, and when I slouch my slouch goes farther than that of the average man.

So I started getting a pain in my left shoulder blade, extending down through my entire arm. This happens. I have exercises that, in the long term, will make it better, but nothing can make it go entirely away in an instant, even if I sit with good posture.

One thing does help, though. Ibuprofen.

But I checked the Internet and the box of the Ibuprofen, and you’re not supposed to take it on an empty stomach, especially if you take it fairly often. It can give you ulcers.

And then I got  headache.

So that was enough of that!

The pain and the hunger were making it impossible for me to focus. So I closed the book about Leo (it’s not an especially good one, anyway), and off I went home to have some lunch, Ibuprofen, and then worked from there for the afternoon.

I tell you this story because very often people like me blog about triumphs. Or we don’t even blog about our own triumphs and struggles, but about the theory or the advice of others. Rather than telling of my own weaknesses in the spiritual life, I make myself appear an authority by providing for you the wisdom of the Desert Fathers or John Cassian or Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica or John Wesley or Leo or Ambrose and so forth.

But I am, as stated in my last post, just a patient in a hospital discussing remedies with fellow patients.

And some of the remedies I haven’t really tried that often. And sometimes, things just don’t work like they do in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. And we need to realise that, chances are, the Desert Fathers faced these same issues, too.

(Actually, they probably didn’t face the issue I face because they spent their time either praying or in manual labour, and I have been informed by physiotherapists and I’ve even seen a book on the subject, that if we use our bodies — without breaking them or abusing them — a lot of the back issues such as mine will go away. It is the indolent, modern westerner who has so many back problems, not the active, ancient Coptic farmer.)

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.