Advent is a time of waiting (especially when you’re two!)

Our Advent Wreath in Toronto

It is a common refrain from those of us who observe the liturgical calendar this time of year: Advent is a time of waiting. We remember Israel’s waiting for Jesus to come. We prepare ourselves for Christmas. We wait for His coming again in glory. It is not an extended Christmas, but a season of its own.

Waiting. Preparation.

Never has this come home to me more than living with a two-year-old!

On the First Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle on the Advent wreath at home.

‘Light the other candles, Mummy?’

My wife explained that we were only going to light one for the week. If only the concept of a ‘week’ were in his vocabulary.

Then the Advent calendar.

‘Open another window?’

Not until tomorrow.

By now, he has adjusted to the progressive lighting of candles. But yesterday, he wanted the Advent calendar more than once. He likes opening the doors, I guess!

Aren’t we all two-year-olds? And I don’t just mean those lead singers of bands at church who greet us with, ‘Merry Christmas!’ on the First Sunday of Advent. We want everything at once, now, immediately. We want our paycheque now. Cooking is an obstacle to eating. We pay extra for Amazon Prime to get stuff quicker. Who wants delayed gratification in a culture of overabundance?

Likewise spiritually. I want to be mature, but I don’t want to go through with the disciplines. I want holiness, sure. But I want it now, not after hours or years at prayer.

The people of God waited 2000 years from Abraham to the Incarnation of God the Son.

And now we have waited 2000 more for His return.

God moves slowly (or so it seems to us).

Maybe we should, too. Let’s take some time this Advent to slow down and wait for God.

Philokalic Friday: The Failure of My Achievement

I did it! Twelve years after my first attempt, and two years after the start of my second, I finished The Philokalia, Vol. 1 this Lent! Well done, me! I mean, how many people can boast that, after all? Sure, people read the Rule of St Benedict, or St Augustine’s Confessions, or, say, the Bible all the time. But, really, to struggle through the difficult content of the first volume of The Philokalia in any language is something of an achievement in the world of devotional reading.

After all, it took me two years.

Off and on, that is.

Mind you, it’s not as though I spend very much time praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s not as though I spend my life in ‘watchfulness’. Given how quickly I grow annoyed or impatient, I don’t think I have that much hesychia. And those eight deadly thoughts (logismoi) that Evagrius talks about so much? Probably all here, not really being resisted that much.

Nonetheless —

I hope it has been good for me to read this book, and reread some sections of it. I think I’ve read Evagrius On Prayer four times now. I am sure I could profit from another read. I know that I do, at times, reflect on teachings from this book and how they’ve helped me.

But the point here is:

Just because I have read a (difficult) devotional book and occasionally apply its lessons does not make me holy.

Practising holiness is what makes us holy.

Oh, wait. No. The Philokalia would only partly agree with that …

The grace of God is what makes us holy.

Philokalic Friday: The monastery and ‘the world’

Today I read John of Karpathos’ second text in The Philokalia, the ‘ascetic discourse’, also addressed to encourage the despondent monks of India (Ethiopia). Frankly, this work is an example of what is wrong with much in the monastic movement. John’s way of encouraging them to stay in the monastery is to argue that life in the world, with marriage and children, is lesser, that has less merit before God, that people ‘in the world’ live according to the passions, whereas the monastery is where asceticism happens and where true blessedness is found.

As a husband and father, I can assure this ascetic that there is an asceticism of marriage and an asceticism of parenthood.

Is not the heart of ascetic labour, ‘Take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and come, follow me’?

How is the married estate excluded?

Now, if you are a newcomer, fear not: I don’t hate monasticism, and I know that not all monks think that they’re holier than us. I have no doubt many of them are, but not because of their monastic profession. Rather, it is their faithfulness in discipleship in their vocation, just as it would be for a holy married person.

But it still rankles when I read it.

The Two Ways — of Life and of Death

Spinning off from my reflections on Friday, I am a firm believer in disciplined living, albeit a bad practitioner. Once, I was on my friend Rick’s excellent and much more practical blog than mine, and there was mention in the comments about learning how to live by the Spirit and follow the Way of Jesus (I suppose in Franciscan terms, that would have been Via Apostolica). As a suggestion, I put out reading the Didache.

My fellow-commenter said that he had read said text in seminary (or Bible college or whatever), and that it had left him dry. He then addressed Rick, tossing me and my lifeless, book-ridden version of Christianity aside, and said that Rick was a man who would understand this sort of question.

Perhaps I don’t.

Nevertheless, I think the Didache is to be recommended on two points. One point is that this document, which is a sort of church handbook from between 90 and 100, is the recorded experience and advice of a Church community, which was so popular that later documents, such as the Apostolic Constitutions, seem to have ripped it off. The wisdom of those who have gone before can help us learn how to live, it can inform our experience.

The second point is the fact that ‘living by the Spirit’, which certainly includes an openness to His movement in our lives in areas besides morality and ethics, is never less than morality and ethics. The foundations of the holy life (which I have extolled here) are upright living and prayer. Something like the Didache or the Rule of Benedict or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life can help us order these foundational aspects of holiness, through which we can keep or make ourselves attuned to the power and movements of the Holy Spirit.

The Didache begins with a discourse on ‘the two ways’ — the Way of Life and the Way of Death. Christians are called to the Way of Life. The Way of Life is a lovely gathering together of much of the moral teaching of our Lord Christ, with a strong emphasis on generosity, along with some proverbial statements and warnings against witchcraft and the like. The Way of Death takes less space, so I quote Andrew Louth’s revision of Staniforth’s translation in the Penguin Early Christian Writings:

The Way of Death is this. To begin with, it is evil, and in every way fraught with damnation. In it are murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, witchcraft, sorceries, robberies, perjuries, hypocrisies, duplicities, deceit, pride, malice, self-will, avarice, foul language, jealousy, insolence, arrogance, and boastfulness. Here are those who persecute good men, hold truth in abhorrence, and love falsehood; who do not know of the rewards of righteousness, nor adhere to what is good, nor to just judgement; who lie awake planning their wickedness rather than well-doing. Gentless and patience are beyond their conception; they care for nothing good or useful, and are bent only on their own advantage, without pity for the poor or feeling for the distressed. Knowledge of their Creator is not in them; they make away with their infants and deface God’s image; they turn away the needy and oppress the afflicted; they aid and abet the rich but arbitrarily condemn the poor; they are utterly and altogether sunk in iniquity. Flee, my children, from all this!

And there we have it. The Didache goes on to discuss baptism, fasting, the Eucharist, apostles and prophets, Sunday worship, local officials, and eschatology. It is an interesting window into early Church life, probably from Syria (as I recall). I find that reading this sort of thing spurs me on to greater holiness.

And if you are Reading the Fathers starting 2 December (as I recommended earlier), read the Didache in the meantime; it is short, and it is not included in that program. I do hope you will read it, and that you will join me and many others on a seven-year pilgrimage from 1 Clement to John of Damascus as we read the Fathers together!

 

Holiness: A Reflection on All Saints’ Day

Typically, in the liturgical churches of Protestantism, we are reminded on All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day (which is tomorrow) that all Christians are saints, based on how St Paul uses the word, not just those who get ‘the big ST’. This is true, but what does that ‘big ST’ mean?

Saint comes from the Latin sanctus and means holy.

There are different ways of looking at holiness, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. One is the typically Protestant way of viewing it, jumping off from Luther’s ‘justified by faith alone’ — we are viewed as being already holy, set apart, by God in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and our putting our trust in Him. Something similar is maintained by Maximus, that we do not merely imitate Christ but become like Christ through faith in him (as blogged by me here).

The other is the idea of our ability to progress in holiness. This is sanctification. We are being made clean or set free from the presence and power of sin in this lifetime, as Bp Eddie Marsh once said in a sermon; justification is our being set free from the penalty of sin; glorification is the final liberation from the presence of all sin on Judgement Day.

This type of holiness is something we are all to strive towards, ever mindful of the need for the grace of God. It is, I believe, what St Paul means when he says to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Resting in the power of God to transform us, we are to lead holy lives, trusting in the grace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to transform our inner person.

The sorts of things that are part of holiness are, I believe, going beyond basic moral virtues as we think of them. We tend to think of morality being a question of the Ten Commandments and attendant actions, of being nice to others, of honesty, of ‘putting ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes’. These are certainly part of a holy life.

But I think Christ calls us beyond that to more, to a holiness where we can actually turn the other cheek, rejoice when others persecute us, never look at a woman lustfully, never gossip, pray without ceasing, pray for our enemies, bless those who persecute us, refrain from speaking and thinking ill of others, and so on and so forth. I’m not espousing Wesley’s ‘Christian Perfection’ here, but I think holiness is a goal we are to seek, what Cassian in the fifth century calls ‘purity of heart’.

Holiness is, therefore, a matter of our hearts and minds. Our thoughts are to be turned to Christ at all times and in all things. As the title of a Serbian Orthodox book says, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. I believe that the classic spiritual disciplines are a valuable aid in helping us pray continually and set our minds on things above.

Besides the obvious discipline of prayer, in his book Celebration of Discipline, evangelical Quaker writer Richard Foster lists meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I am better acquainted with some of these than others, but I can say that days I start with prayer or pray early on, days I fast, days I spend in Scripture or devotional books, days I choose the simple over the complicated and unnecessary, days I actually submit to others and seek to serve — these are the days I feel nearer to Christ and more ready to tune my heart and thoughts to him.

I encourage you to take up a new spiritual discipline as of today. Perhaps fast once a week? Pray at the canonical hours (whether with a liturgy or not)? Start volunteering at a homeless shelter? Spend time meditating on different Scriptural passages throughout the week? If you’re not in a Bible study, can I recommend you join one?

Today I remembered to pray Morning Prayer — a discipline I want to cultivate but frequently forget. What will you do?

Thoughts springing from Benedict

The end of the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict reads:

Thus we must found a school for the Lord’s service. In its design we hope we will establish nothing harsh, nothing oppressive. But if, according to the dictates of fairness, there emerges something a little severe in the interest of amending sins or preserving love, do not at once be frightened by fear and flee the path of salvation, which can only be narrow at the start. Instead, by progress in monastic life and faith, with hearts expanded in love’s indescribable sweetness, we run along the path of God’s commands, so that, never turning away from his instruction and persevering in his doctrine in the monastery until death, through patience we may share the sufferings of Christ and also deserve to be sharers in his kingdom. Amen. (Prol. 45-50, trans.Venarde, p. 9)

I am primarily grabbed by the first line in which Benedict likens his monastery/rule to a school, indeed, ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’  I like this image. For, indeed, Christians are disciples, discipuli, students. We are students of our great Master, Christ. We sit at his feet and learn from him.

And who does Christ tell us to be? Servants of all. Then the monastery — or any Christian community — is a school for the Lord’s service by its very nature. It is a place to learn how to serve the Lord. And since in serving the least, we serve Him, all service is the Lord’s service.

The rest of this passage is not without importance for us today, however.

Benedict, like many Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic authors, thinks of the monastic pathway as ‘the path of salvation.’ Here he describes it as sometimes severe (but only in the interests of fairness and love), and narrow at its start. Yet it is a pathway to be followed through to one’s death, showing us the Benedictine virtue of stability (currently discussed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at Relevant).

By living lives in submission to God’s commands, lives devoted to the Lord’s service, by walking along a narrow path, we hope to become ‘sharers in his kingdom.’

The importance of virtue and holiness is always to the fore in monastic spirituality, as we see here. As I exhort you and myself to live a devout and holy life along the at times severe, frequently narrow path of salvation, take comfort from the earlier portions of the Prologue wherein Benedict reminds the reader that one’s ability to live holy lives and do righteous deeds is based in the grace God gives to those who come to him in faith.

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.

St. Augustine’s pears, St. Sabas’ apples & patristic genres

One of the more famous bits of St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions is the scene where he, as a youth, broke into someone’s orchard and stole a bunch of unripe pears which tasted terrible (the story is so popular there is even a Petra song about it). He and his buddies stole them entirely for the thrill of stealing, entirely for the excitement of sin. They didn’t even want to eat the pears; that wasn’t the point. St. Augustine, it seems, still felt bad about it years later. The story is as follows:

I wanted to commit my theft, and I did it compelled by neither want nor poverty but by a distaste of justice and a feast of iniquity. For I purloined that in which I abounded — and in much better! Nor did I wish to profit in this affair in which I was striving with theft, but only in the very theft and sin. There was a pear tree near our vineyard, weighed down with fruit alluring neither in appearance nor in flavour. To shake this tree and make off with its produce, we no-good youths made haste in the dark night when we had carried on our game in the streets according to our pestilential custom. And we carried off from there enormous loads of fruit not to to our meals but rather to cast before swine; even if we ate some, nevertheless it occurred that it was pleasing to us to do that which was not allowed.

Behold my heart, God! Behold my heart, which you pitied in the depths of the abyss. Now, behold, may my heart tell you what it sought there that I became evil freely and there was no cause of my evil except for evil. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to be lost, I loved my rebellion — not that to which I was rebelling, but my rebellion itself did I love. My shameful soul was jumping from your firmament into destruction, not seeking anything with disgrace but disgrace itself. (Conf. 2.IV, my trans.)

St. Augustine spends the rest of Book 2, chh. V-X, going into depth about the anatomy of sin and the blackness of his own heart. You can read it all in Chadwick’s translation, pp. 28-34, or online here (Latin) and here (English).

In my current research, I came across another story about a saint in an orchard. This was the tale of St. Sabas (439-532) and the apples as told by Cyril of Scythopolis (524-558) in the Life of Sabas, one of his seven Lives of the Monks of Palestine. At some point between the ages of eight and eighteen (probably earlier than later), when he was living in the Monastery of Flavianae in Cappadocia, the following occurred:

Once, when he was working in the monastery’s orchard, a certain desire came upon him to eat an apple that appeared ripe and exceedingly delightful before its regular season. Since he was burning with desire, he plucked the apple from the branch, but, when he had considered it, he prevailed against himself nobly.

So he rebuked himself with a pious reasoning, saying, “The fruit that put me to death through Adam was ripe for looking and good for eating, when he preferred that which appeared delightful to the eyes of the flesh over the intelligible beauty and considered the satiety of the belly more honourable than spiritual enjoyments. On account of this, death came into the world. And so I must not turn away from the beauty of self-control, weighed down with any spiritual drowsiness — for just as a blossom comes before all fruit-bearing, so self-control comes before the doing of good.”

Thus, when he had conquered the desire with this stronger reasoning, he threw the apple to the ground and trampled on it with his feet, trampling his desire along with the apple. From then on, he gave to himself such a rule not to experience the taste of apples until death. (Life of Sabas III, my trans.)

Following his encounter with the apple in the orchard, St. Sabas devoted his life to ascetic labour so as to produce virtue. He went on to found the Great Lavra, a monastic settlement in Palestine.

The difference between these stories about youths encountering fruit trees is striking. One is a tale of woe and sin, of seeking disgrace for disgrace’s sake. The other is a tale of victory and virtue, overcoming the flesh with the spirit. One imagines that young Augustine was more fun than young Sabas — only he seems sort of … neurotic at times, all messed up over those pears. But the real difference is not in the facts themselves but in the genre of writing we find here.

Augustine’s Confessions is among our earliest autobiographical bits of literature (other early autobiography comes from the pen of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and his poetry). This work is written as one long prayer to God, confessing both in terms of the sinful state of Augustine’s soul as well as, after conversion, the power of God and Augustine’s belief in God. Thus, it binds together in a single narrative two types of confession. It is psychological and theological, seeking to show the reality of sin within the depths of the abyss of the human heart as well as the power of God to raise us out of sin and into the virtuous life of the righteous.

The Confessions edifies through telling us what God can do for sinners like us. That is its devotional purpose. Each of us may have wicked inclinations, but God can transform us through His Spirit, through good preaching, good friends, good books, Holy Scripture, and the prayers of our mothers.

Cyril’s Life of Sabas is a different creature. It is hagiography, and as such hovers between the borders of history and myth. At one level, the purpose of hagiography is write down the stories of holy men and women so that these stories will not be lost. Good deeds must perish unless they are sung of (I forget the reference for that quote). That is the same purpose as history as well as of heroic poetry. At another level, these particular stories are written down in their particular order to demonstrate what holiness looks like. The point is not necessarily to show us psychologically real person who is simul justus et peccator (to toss a bit of Luther in). Rather, the point is to show us what a holy life looks like.

We may say to ourselves that holiness is unattainable. Or ridiculous. Why give up apples? But, two chapters after he gives up apples, we see young Sabas walking into a giant bread-oven whilst it was lit and not getting harmed. Holiness is not just ascetic labour but also the accompanying miracles and virtues. The holy men of old gave up the world, gave up their parents, gave up their inheritances, gave up apples (of all things!) to draw closer to God and meet Him where He is.

The point of hagiography is to edify us through these holy examples. We are to stand in awe of the God who can take an Augustine — such as we all are, with our dark hearts full of wickedness, seeking disgrace for the thrill of it — and make him into a Sabas — such as we all hope to be, conformed into the image of Christ. Our worship of God is thus lifted higher and exalted — the whole purpose of theological enquiry, by the way.

And we are encouraged, for it is God who makes the saints holy. Thus we can become holy ourselves. He will effect this change in ourselves. This is the point of hagiography, even if St. Sabas may never have walked through the fires unscathed (even though he may have, if you believe in a God for Whom nothing is impossible).

Thus, both genres are useful. We live in an age when things like the Confessions are more in vogue. We like to know that even good men, great men, have been there, too. Indeed, many people like to humanise our Lord Christ by making him imperfect yet still sinless (else how could he be fully human? — they say). We may find obsessing about our mothers’ teats and our desire to suckle as infants as selfishness a bit neurotic, but overall the Confessions are enduring literature that speak to a need in our souls.

I think hagiography is as well. Hopefully we’ll start to read more of it.

Virginity vs Marriage in the Fathers

Today I read Gregory of Nazianzus’ poem 1.2.1, ‘In Praise of Virginity,’ and it brought home to me one of the great difficulties facing us as we read the Fathers,* and this is the fact that a vast number of them were celibate, all but two of them male. All four ‘Doctors’ of the East and all four of the West were celibate.

They have a very strong preference towards celibacy and virginity as being the better path, spelled out very clearly in GregNaz’s poem.

As a married person, I inevitably react against this sort of thing. Why is virginity better than marriage? For GregNaz it seems that the main goal of marriage is child-begetting.

Clearly child-begetting is not a virtue. All it requires is sperm and an egg in one hot night of passion.

I don’t think anyone has ever imagined that simply producing offspring is what makes marriage a great thing, though.

A better perspective is that the raising of children is a great good. Sure, if virgins live together in monastic coenobia, they will learn the virtues of service and love of neighbour and so forth. But those who spend time with very young children learn a very great amount about sacrifice and service. And about the outpouring of love for a fellow human being. And, while you might hope for thanks from your fellow monk, children are frequently being trained to say thank you, sometimes accompanied with a little bow. Infants cannot say thank you, and I don’t think they always even care.

Of course, sometimes they do. This is certain. As I posted elsewhere, the contemplative as well as active virtues and life can be pursued whilst taking care of the very young.

Furthermore, I think marriage can be a great good for those of us who do not have children. Marriage is a school for souls — this is an observation that Charles Williams makes in The Descent of the Dove, where he laments that a high view of marriage was lost early on in the Church and we have never properly recovered a view that sees marriage in spiritual terms.

Outside of celibacy and complete, utter silence, married people can engage in pretty much all of the ascetic labours. We can submit to others as greater than ourselves, pray continuously, serve in meekness and humility, pray the divine hours, fast, regulate our diet when not fasting, engage in holy conversation, and so forth.

Furthermore, if we look at GregNaz’s family background, we should realise that his father (also Gregory) was raised a pagan but converted to Christianity by his wife, Nonna. The marriage of Gregory the Elder and Nonna did not simply produce Gregory and his two siblings, but the spiritual fruit of Gregory the Elder’s salvation and his leadership of the church at Nazianzus. Furthermore, their three children were raised Christianly and virtuously, all of them committing their lives to Christ.

Gregory says that one has no clue whether one’s children will be Judases or Peters. Nonetheless, one can, by God’s grace alone, work towards raising Peters, as Nonna and Gregory the Elder did.

I doubt these concerns would hold much water with a committed celibate like Gregory. However, I think we can spiritualise and Christianise our view of marriage in response to the ascetic downplaying of marriage. Marriage is a good, as many American Evangelicals will tell you. But how is it to be a good? Perhaps we need the monks to help us form a specifically Christian view of marriage, sharpening our positive understanding against their negative one. Perhaps.

*As well as Mediaeval and Byzantine writers.