From Medieval English Verse, trans. and ed. Brian Stone (pp. 30-31):
Let us gather hand in hand
And sing of bliss without an end:
The Devil has fled from earthly land,
And Son of God is made our friend.
A Child is born in man’s abode,
And in that Child no blemish showed.
That Child is God, that Child is Man,
And in that Child our life began.
Let us gather, etc.
Be blithe and merry, sinful an,
For your marriage peace began
When Christ was born.
Come to Christ, your peace is ude
Because he shed his blood for you,
Who were forlorn.
So let us gather, etc.
Sinful man, be blithe and bold,
For heaven is both bought and sold,
Through and through.
Come to Christ, and peace foretold:
His life he gave a hundredfold
To succour you.
So let us gather hand in hand
And sing of bliss without an end:
The Devil has fled from earthly land,
And Son of God is made our friend.
Stone writes that this Nativity carol ‘is the earliest in English yet discovered, for it appears in a Franciscan list of sermon outlines written not later than 1350. The words of the refrain clearly convey both the manner of performance and the joy of the occasion.’ (p. 25)
Whilst in Rome I took the opportunity to visit Santa Maria della Concezione. This church is famous for its artfully-arranged crypt full of bones — but I’ll get to that later. What was really worth the money and which I greatly appreciated was the Capuchin Museum connected to the church, since Santa Maria della Concezione is, in fact, the Mother House of the entire order of the Cappuccini.
In the Capuchin museum, you learn about the origins of the order and its habit and its mission as well as some famous Capuchin saints. They are called Cappuccini because of their distinctive, pointed hoods, which they believe was precisely how St Francis of Assisi wanted the friars to wear their hoods, capucci. This sort of extreme Franciscanism is precisely where the origins of the Capuchins lie in the 16th century; they wanted to get back to the centre of Francis’ Rule and the dual, beating heart of Franciscan life — the living dichotomy of the hermit who ministers to the poor and sick. Thus, in 1520, this order within the wider Franciscan family was founded.
Amongst the various artefacts within the museum as well as in the church itself were paintings of different Capuchin saints as well St Francis himself — one of them possibly by Caravaggio, certainly influenced by Caravaggio if not his own. What struck me that day as I sat praying in the church (this church — especially the sanctuary — is not on the main tourist trail so it’s actually a quiet place to retreat for a moment or two) was the focus of the saints in the artwork.
Certainly, the focus of the art is the saint. But the saints upon whom these artists focussed were not focussing on themselves. They were not focussing on other saints. Franciscans in artwork are usually focussing upon Christ. Here is the Caravaggio of Saint Francis in prayer:
The saint is placing a skull at the foot of the Cross. This is not a memento mori (on which later) but, rather, a meditation upon the cross of our Lord where our salvation was wrought, where Christ trampled down death by death. I am given to understand that it also somehow signifies the stigmata, although I do not recall how.
I couldn’t find any that I saw at the church, but below is a painting depicting the story of how once, St Felix of Cantalice was at prayer and the BVM handed him Baby Jesus to play with. A bit odd. Possibly silly even — appropriate for successors to the jongleur de Dieu, then. And the focus is still Jesus, who played with St Felix’s beard.
St Felix also spent a lot of time in the traditional Franciscan vocation of preaching, railing against corrupt politicians and calling young men to repentance and to turn away from dissolute lives. But that sort of thing doesn’t make for cute devotional art.
Very often, as in this painting of St Bernard of Corleone below, Capuchins are depicted praying before a crucifix, meditating upon the salvation wrought for us by Christ the God-Man when he died upon the Tree.
Or they are depicted with a rosary. Here, St Seraphin of Montegranaro has a crucifix, a rosary and a skull, so he’s well equipped:
I’m not goint to get into the details of what the Roman Church actually teaches on the rosary, but I will make a few observations. First, it has a crucifix on it. Crucifix = Jesus = Christocentric piety, as we’ve been discussing. Second, as one recites the Hail Mary’s, one is meant to meditate on the Mysteries of Christ’s life. Mysteries = Jesus = Christocentric piety. Third, every ten Hail Marys get a Lord’s Prayer. Lord’s Prayer comes from Jesus, is directed from the Father is Christocentric if not Trinitarian piety. Fourth, and this is why I’ve never used my rosary ‘properly’, since Mary is only esteemed because of her Son, the Hail Mary is itself an act of devotion to Christ. My brain can’t make that transition, but there you have it.
In sum: rosaries = Christocentric piety.
I finish with one final painting from the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione itself. I took this with my phone, so no guarantees of awesomeness here:
Here we have St Francis being held up by an angel whilst in ecstasy. The emphasis is on meditation, perhaps on mortality, perhaps Christ’s death (hence the skull) — the saint has been transported beyond this world in the spirit, so his body is kept safe by one of the Almighty’s angels. The focus of all Christian meditation is ultimately the Holy Trinity, usually by focussing upon the words, acts, and salvation of Jesus.
What do you focus on? I admit that I am challenged by these paintings. I focus on Anglican controversy. I focus on being clever and solving riddles. I focus on me and what makes me happy or comfortable. The Franciscans challenge us to a better way. Focus instead on the Crucified.
Ramon Llull (1232-c. 1314) was a Spanish (Majorcan) polymath who, after a mystical conversion involving dramatic visions in 1263, devoted the rest of his life to mission to Muslims. He did this largely through a huge corpus of works – 243 confirmed, including some in Arabic – as well as exhorting and equipping European Christians to engage in missionary work with Muslims instead of Crusade and attempting the establishment of missionary schools that would equip friars, especially in the Arabic language. He himself engaged in four missionary journeys, three to North Africa (1292, 1307, 1314) and one to Syria that ended in Cyprus instead where he debated Nestorians and Monophysites.
I originally wrote this post just after handing in an undergraduate paper on Llull that focussed on his reception in North Africa and factors that contributed to both his welcomes, deportations, and martyrdom. The original post continues ... I’m thinking of changing the tagline for this blog to “The Mouthpiece of the Revolution”, given the content of several of the last posts. If so, Llull is a man we can all learn from. Here are a few interesting things from my journeys through scholarship surrounding Ramon Llull. Some are quotations from authors I read, others are thoughts from elsewhere. We’ll see if I put them in order . . .
First of all, Llull was part of a fairly large effort on the part of the Franciscans and Dominicans to convert North Africa in the 13th century, beginning in 1219 in Morocco. It was to die fairly soon into the 13th century, though. Robert I Burns writes:
As time passed the dream of conversion flickered, fitfully dimmed, and died. . . . For a moment of time, nonetheless, influential people had favored sheathing the sword, sitting down in dialogue with the immemorial and hated enemy; for a moment, many men had groped for some common ground that was not a battlefield. The dream failed. It had amounted to a reaffirmation of a traditional, more profoundly Christian approach to the dissident. (p. 1434)
Llull’s main method, both in his disputations in Tunisia and with Muslims in Spain, was that of logical persuasion. Unlike some mediaeval thinkers, such as Ramon Marti, he believed firmly that Christianity could be logically defended and demonstrated, even proven. To this end, he had an Ars given him by God, by which any claim could be examined to determine whether it was true or not. He travelled through several European universities, most notably Paris, that great centre of learning and theology, expostulating and demonstrating this Ars. Many loved it and extolled its virtues – finally, a way by which the infidel could be entirely persuaded to the truth of Christ! And Muslim intellectuals enjoyed disputing with him; some may even have been converted during his first missionary journey.
If the idea that reason alone can convert a person seems a wee bit naive, some factors must be taken into account. First, the mediaeval Christian “assumed that the Muslim intellectual at bottom could hardly take the dogmas of Islam seriously” (Burns, 1433).
Second, Llull himself did not imiagine that Muslims would be convinced by reason alone. E Allison Peers in Fool of Love demonstrates that many of Llull’s works have the unbeliever go through a sudden turn-around during debate due not to logic but to divine Grace. As well, Hillgarth notes that in The Book of the Gentile, the pagan Gentile, having heard the doctrine of a Christian, of a Jew, and of a Muslim, leaves scene undecided, implying the role of grace “in perfecting the work begun by reason” (24).
Finally, similar to the previous point, throughout the Middle Ages, and in Llull as well, is a belief that “miracle rather than rational argument is the best proof of the truths of the faith against its heretical, Jewish, and other opponents” (Goodich, 65).
An interesting aside: Urban II, he who called the First Crusade in 1096, declared 8 years earlier to Bernard, Bishop of Toledo, “strive by word and example, god helping, to convert the infidels to the faith.” I’ve a feeling that the Crusade did not go entirely as the Pope intended . . .
And a note on Aquinas (mostly so I don’t forget after all this). In his missionary handbook, “He admonished his colleagues that, though Muslims were open to argumentation, one could not convert by reason; philosophy served ‘not to prove the faith but to defend the faith.’” (Burns, 1397)
But back to Llull. One of the reasons Llull is notable is because he understood the principle that one had to get under the skin of a culture if one is to reach it for the gospel. Hillgarth expresses Llull’s attitude far better than I can:
Conversion . . . was to be by persuasion and persuasion had to be based on knowledge, on a study of the manners and life, the philosophy and mode of reasoning of the different non-Christian peoples. . . . Lull [is] exceptional for his knowledge of Islam among the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. He understood its psychology, he celebrated the beauty of its liturgical language, the depths of its religious spirit, and he recognized how close it was to Christianity. (25)
We would all do well to be like Llull. He spent lots of time in prayer, especially the contemplative prayer of the mystic. When he wasn’t praying, he was studying about Islam so that he would be able to present Christ to the Muslims effectively; he was writing, either to persuade Muslims the truth of Christianity or to encourage and equip Christians for the work of mission; or he was engaged in evangelistic contact, be it with Muslims and Jews in Spain, Muslims in North Africa, or heretics in Cyprus. If only we were so diligent!
To follow: Ramon Llull in Cyprus . . .
Further Reading on Llull
Read Fool of Love by E Allison Peers for a good introduction to the saint (London: SCM Press, 1946). It’s a short little book and gives insight into Llull as a mystic, philosopher and missionary. If you don’t have time for that, try The Catholic Encyclopedia, although Peers’ book is highly superior.
The Other Works I’ve Cited:
Burns, Robert I. ‘Christian-Islamic Confrontation in the West: The Thirteenth-century Dream of Conversion.’ In The American Historical Review, 1971, pp. 1386-1434.
Goodich, Michael, translator and editor. Other Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Hillgarth, J. N. Ramon Lull and Lullism in Fourteenth-century France. Oxford: Clarendon Prss, 1971.
I just finished reading Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron (as in, within the past hour). It is sending me back into my intense fire for St. Francis (I affectionately call him “Frank”), and with Francis, seeking to fall madly in love with Jesus himself.
I recommend this book. Cron is a first-time novelist; his main job is serving as an Anglican priest in the USA. And while this book may not be one of those masterpieces of English literature with phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that stun you with their beauty or that you want to read aloud as they trickle into your brain, inundating your senses, overwhelming your universe, it has a profundity of a different sort. One of the impressive aspects of the book was when it read as though it were a real pilgrim telling the tale.
But I don’t think Cron was trying to write the Great Twenty-first-Century Novel. He wanted to introduce people to St. Francis, and why God’s Jester (Jongleur de Dieu) is as important and cool and relevant to us in our situation today as he was in the 1200′s.
And Frank is cool.
This is the guy who danced when he met the pope, he was so excited. This is a man who was so serious about peacemaking that he walked into a Muslim city besieged by Crusaders to gain an audience with the Caliph! A bit extreme, but real, genuine, powerful.
When St. Frank preached, he didn’t want merely to produce scholasticism and dry knowledge, dead to lie dormant in the crypt of the mind. He want to blazon the Living Reality of Jesus forth into peoples lives, into their hearts. So he put on the world’s first-ever living Nativity scene. His friars would do crazy, silly stuff, like spit coins out of their mouths into animal dung. If discourse failed, then he would sing. Indeed, this jongleur would take up sticks and pretend he was playing the viol as he danced through the streets singing the songs of the extravagant love of God for a fallen yet beautiful world.
The Canticle of Brother Sun, a version of which I posted as a weekly poem here, is the first recorded poem in the Italian vernacular. The arts remind us of Beauty and the grace of the One who created Beauty, Who transcends all and imbues it with His life, love, and power. The arts can draw us into a world of mystery and mysticism that Lee Strobel never can.
And God, despite the fact that He has chosen to reveal Himself to us, is a vast, beautiful, intensely powerful Mystery. He invites us to enter into the Mystery of Him (this is what mysteries are to be done with), to join in the intimate, ecstatic dance of the Three-in-One, as Father, Son, and Spirit sing the universe into existence.
The world of mystery with a God of power who is also love and holiness and justice and who gives us peace and calls us to care for His good creation — this is an exciting place to live.
And St. Francis wants to draw us into it.
As someone who is part of a church on the verge of explosion, rupture, disintegration, conflagration, and institutional ruin, Francis is calling.
And when I hear his call, there is inevitably another Call, and it is sometimes louder, sometimes gentler than Frank’s.
Listen God is calling,
Through the Word inviting,
Offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy.
–An African praise song we sing at Graduate Christian Fellowship
For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.
St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.
Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.
Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.
He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.
In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.
In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.
St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.
Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.
Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.
The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.
We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.
A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.
How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.
This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.
*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).
**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.
Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child. As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.
Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast? Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?
Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with. They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism. Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week. Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth. She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.” Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer. To Mary!
A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death. Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua. To Perpetua!
Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.” For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!
Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon. May we all have true insight into the world around us. To Hilda!
A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here). This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another). Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them. To Clare!
I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us. May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us. To Julian!
A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table. She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith. To Susannah!
Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed. May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ. To Teresa!
These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast. May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!
To the lassies of Christ! Lang may their lum reek!
St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) has the unenviable position of being the Patron Saint of Lost Things. This means that he is chiefly remembered when other things are not, that many people know his name but little about him, and that myriad prayers are sent up to him by people with little or no attachment to the church at large, let alone the Church of Rome, whenever they misplace the car keys.
But who was St. Anthony? What did he do? Why should we care?
St. Anthony of Padua was noble-born in Lisbon, Portugal, and joined the Order of Austin Canons at a young age. However, inspired by the martyrdom of Franciscan missionaries in Morocco and joined the Friars Minor in 1220. He sailed to Africa to engage in missionary activity there, but was forced to return to Europe due to ill health. In 1221 he was present at the General Chapter of the Order of Friars Minor at Assisi (remember that St. Francis died in 1226).
St. Anthony became a lector in theology at Bologna, Montpellier, and Toulouse, but is best remembered as a preacher. In good Franciscan fashion, he drew crowds so large they couldn’t fit in churches. He preached in the marketplaces, targetting the evils of avarice and usury. Many heard the Gospel call on their lives through the preaching of St. Anthony and came to true faith in Christ and repentance from their old ways of living.
After a few years, St. Anthony moved to Padua, Italy. Here, rather than split his time between theology and preaching the Gospel, he devoted his entire time to preaching. He died at the young age of 36.
Wait. The Patron Saint of Lost Articles was an evangelist? He wasn’t a detective or something?
David Hugh Farmer, in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints believes he gained his patronage over Lost Things because a novice once borrowed his psalter without permission, then had “a fearful apparition” that drove him to return it.
Men like St. Anthony are a reminder to Protestants that the Middle Ages were not some godless vacuum full of “superstitions”. Such a view is entirely untenable. It is true that once being a Christian became fashionable after 312 and practically necessary after 381, the Church has always had a very large population of “pew-warmers.” She has, at the best of times, been aware of this. Thus the evangelists of the Middle Ages, men like St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Cuthbert, and St. Anthony of Padua.
St. Anthony was part of the missionary enterprise both at home and abroad. He sought to bring the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Muslims of Africa. When health issues sent him back to Europe, he devoted the rest of his life to bringing the Gospel to the masses, to the people of Europe who may not have truly heard the salvific story, many of whom had certainly not yet been convicted in their hearts.
He is worth honouring. So, the next time you lose something, think of St. Anthony of Padua. And then think of people you know to whom you could bring the life-bringing news of Jesus Christ. That is, no doubt, how he would best wish to be remembered.
This past Tuesday we discussed Simplicity in our small group. St. Clare of Assisi, friend of St. Francis of Assisi and founder of the Poor Clares, had this to say on the topic to Blessed Agnes of Prague:
What a great laudable exchange:
to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth, to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed and eternal life.
I first encountered the Laudable Exchange via that modern Franciscan musician and spiritual father, John Michael Talbot on his album Meditations from Solitude. Being a big John Michael Talbot fan, I was excited to read the words in the original context, actually aware of St. Clare’s authorship.
This Laudable Exchange is the essence of Simplicity, inward and outward.
The things of time: careers, business, worries, fears, hatreds, loathings, lusts, passions.
The things of eternity: Christ, the Heavens, peace, calm, bliss, justice, equanimity.
The things of time: books, CDs, computers, blogs, extra cloaks, fancy foods.
The things of eternity: abundant life, service, glory, the Spirit, the music of the heavens.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt. While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”. I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.
For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo. As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings. However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony. St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion. The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.
Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt. However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did. Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget). Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?
By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.
In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it). As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s. They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum. Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.
In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences. These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom. For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.
St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule. He recommended that his monks read John Cassian. Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.
In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day. Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.
They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.
In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.
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.