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.

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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.