Revivifying the tradition

One of the main thrusts of Gabriel Bunge’s book about patristic prayer, Earthen Vessels, is to drive Christians today back to the tradition and its fountainheads for our guidance on prayer. He believes that our faith fails in the West so often because our praxis of the faith — by which he means things spiritual, not naked activism — does not align with our doctrines. (NB: He wrote this while still a Roman Catholic member of the Order of St Benedict.)

What we need, then, are reliable guides to the ancient paths of prayer so that we can walk the Way that is Jesus in a manner compatible with the theology of the ancient faith we profess.

I noted in my post ‘Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?‘ that most of us, especially from within evangelical communities, end up going it alone. Indeed, we lack that living tradition of the contemplative life found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In that post, however, I did mention James Houston of Regent College here in Vancouver.

Perhaps this tradition is starting to return to us.

This morning at church, the Houston effect was felt as a Regent student gave a wonderful sermon all about how to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). My own slightly tangential thoughts about Evagrius, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, The Way of a Pilgrim, and St Athanasius suddenly coalesced when the sermon began discussing a course the preacher had taken at Regent all about prayer, and how one of the pathways of prayer they learned was John Cassian’s invocation of repeating Psalm 70:1 over and over:

O God, make speed to save me / O Lord, make haste to help me. (BCP translation)

I’ve written on Cassian here a lot over the years, although I cannot seem to find a post devoted to this verse specifically. It matters little, I suppose.

Anyway, we were given some of Cassian’s own wisdom as well as the preacher’s own experience of putting into practice this ‘arrow prayer’.

I am encouraged beyond a reminder for my own self (a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer) but also for this wider world of Christian ‘spirituality’: Regent is teaching this sort of thing to its students. Regent is well-respected in the evangelical and academic worlds, both (as much as any evangelical seminary can manage both). And Regent students are sharing this wisdom in congregations.

This is tradition coming back to life!

John Cassian was himself, as has been demonstrated variously, a disciple of the great spiritual master, Evagrius Ponticus, who was a disciple of Gregory of Nazianzus before coming to Egypt, and then of the two Macarii (of Alexandria and the Great) when in the Egyptian desert. The full story of the mediaeval reception of Cassian is not germane today, though.

For Protestants, much of that reception gets cut off in the 1500s.

Nonetheless, we have editions and translations of Cassian’s works.

And so people like Steve Bell come to Regent College, equipped by the good work of (I do hope) Boniface Ramsey’s translation and share the riches of ancient ascetic wisdom to evangelical Christians. And suddenly, a roomful of people is plugged back in.

What we need, though, are the living people beyond well-known Manitoban virtuoso guitarists who prevent Cassian from being relegated to the Reserve shelf at Regent and who themselves take up Cassian’s wisdom and become, to cite the title of a book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer.

The flowering of spiritual disciplines and the rebirth of these traditions may be taking longer than Richard Foster may have thought when he wrote Celebration of Discipline over two decades ago. But more and more people, whether the folks who preach at my church or Ken Shigematsu over at Tenth, or people beyond Vancouver, are reentering these ancient traditions and revivifying them.

That’s good. (Even if it’s not as full-on as Bunge would like.)

To close, here’s Steve Bell doing Psalm 70:1:

Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

Acedia and raising children

Acedia, by Hieronymous Bosch

Today, six months of sleep deprivation got the better of me and I slept through most of the sermon. One of the few notes I wrote was unrelated to what was going on in front of me, but instead what was going on inside of me. I wrote:

ἀκηδία has taken hold

Latinised as accidia or acedia, this is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, often translated as sloth. It is not laziness, but, rather, dejection as Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translate it in the Philokalia, or despondency as in the English title of Gabriel Bunge’s book on the subject, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus on Acedia. Here’s one of a few good posts by Fr Aidan Kimel on Bunge’s book. The pastor at my church calls it spiritual apathy.

In his text, ‘On Discrimination’ (part of The Philokalia), Evagrius Ponticus writes:

All the demons teach the soul to love pleasure; only the demon of dejection refrains from doing this, since he corrupts the thoughts of those he enters by cutting off every pleasure of the soul and drying it up through dejection, for ‘the bones of the dejected are dried up’ (Prov. 17:22 LXX). (ch. 11)

Cassian, the student of Evagrius who brought the riches of Evagrian asceticism to the Latin West, writes:

the demon of dejection … obscures the soul’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. He instils a hatred of every kind of work and even of the monastic profession itself. Undermining all the sou’s salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralysed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts. (From The Philokalia, Vol. 1, ‘On the Eight Vices’, which is a Greek translation of selections from Institutes 5-12)

Acedia is called the noonday demon. Imagine being a monk in the Egyptian desert. If that seems impossible, imagine being a monk in a Toronto heat wave. When else is such dejection more likely to come upon you?

Well, one other time it is likely to come upon you is when you are sleep-deprived because of your 6-month-old up in the night, combined with a toddler who gets up at 6 AM, on a day when you have been baked in the sun pushing the stroller to church and had the toddler reject a perfectly good snack on heaven-knows-what grounds, and you find yourself just wanting to take your introverted self away somewhere, but there is nowhere to go, and church just seems too much.

But you have to stay.

Your kid is in the toddler room.

Leaving church would be like using it as a daycare, wouldn’t it?

So I sat and sang the songs. I did not stand. I slept through most of the sermon. And I fled the church with my son as soon as I could.

Now, my elder son may have been an acedia trigger today, but part of the overshadowing of despondency in that pew is the rest of this life. The lack of work for September and the slowly drying prospects of work in my own field. The general spiritual weariness of anyone fool enough to consider his’erself Anglican. Not knowing where we’ll live in September. Not feeling that excited about my research. Feeling uncertain about this blog (that one being the least of my wearies).

So much. More than that, really.

But when your kid is Sunday school, and the noontide demon tempts you to just run away, you force yourself to stay at least for appearances, maybe with a tiny bit of hope that the Blessed Sacrament is what you believe it is and can do what you say it can do.

In other situations, you simply cannot run away at all. I could have decided not to maintain face and gone on a walk until the end of church. Maybe no one would even have known! But when acedia tempts you to just give up at other times, the toddler won’t let you. You will build the fort in his room. You will play with water on the porch. You will read a book seven times in a row.

And sometimes, you even like it. (Honestly, sometimes you still don’t. And sometimes you fall asleep reading to the poor creature.)

So the relationship between children and acedia is complicated. They can help cause it. They can help cure it.