One week until Lent

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris
Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

Lent starts in a week (unless you’re Eastern Orthodox, in which case it starts in five days).

The question of Lenten discipline inevitably arises, whether simply in one’s own mind, or in conversation with friends.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” everyone asks.

Chocolate? Alcohol? R-rated films? Smoking? Coffee? Sweets? Meat?

Sure. Any of these will do.

The point of Lent is not the giving-up-of-things.

The point of Lent is disciplina, the training/teaching of ourselves, the preparation of our spirits for the Great Feast of Easter — the Chief Feast of the Christian year. We want to draw nearer to God. So we fast or abstain or pray more or study a particular book of the Bible or another work of spiritual edification.

I read James W. Kennedy, Holy Island: A Lenten Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne one year. Another year, it was Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. Once I read Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. My Lenten reading seems to have been as eclectic yet predictable as ever.

One year I prayed BCP Compline every night. That was 2004. I fell in love with the BCP that year. Maybe this year you’ll choose to journey with us through the daily office over at The Witness Cloud.

Even if you belong to a church that has canonical demands for Lenten discipline (that is, observant Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), spiritual discipline — Lenten or otherwise — is not one-size-fits-all. I know one Cypriot Orthodox priest who gives up sweets for Lent because he does not eat a lot of meat, so the canonical discipline is not so demanding.

Thus St Mark the Monk/Ascetic/Hermit:

There are many differing methods of prayer. No method is harmful; if it were, it would be not prayer but the activity of Satan. ~ch. 22 in ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’, in The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, p. 111

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, provides us with similar insights, in particular from the introduction to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living in Appendix I.

What matters is not which discipline you take on in Lent. What matters is ordering our hearts and minds to the greater love of God and neighbour. So think carefully and prayerfully this next seven-day as to what you may do.

(And so I seem to have come around to Cassian and ‘purity of heart’ all over again.)

Saint of the Week: John Wesley (Pt. 1)

Today is the feast day of John and Charles Wesley  in the Anglican calendar.  John Wesley (1703-1791) is the more famous of the two famous Wesley children.  He is quite famous these days for being an “Arminian”, and thus figures in the endless theological debates you will find out in the internet.  Nevertheless, just as Calvin was more than predestination, so Wesley was more than freewill.  So if you are a Calvinist, read on.

John Wesley studied at the University of Oxford and was ordained to holy orders within the Church of England in the year 1728.  He spent a brief time helping out his father, also an Anglican priest, before returning to Oxford.  At Oxford, he discovered that his brother Charles had begun a “Holy Club.”  It is my understanding that this club consisted of young men who met together to read the Greek New Testament and to life lives of holiness.  Their standard of holy living was set so high and their lifestyle so reflected a holy method of living that they were called “Methodists.”*

John Wesley’s “method” of life ran thus:

  1. Begin and end every day with God; and sleep not immoderately.
  2. Be diligent in your calling.
  3. Employ all spare hours in religion as able.
  4. All hollidays [should be devoted to religion].
  5. Avoid drunkards and busybodies.
  6. Avoid curiosity, and all useless employments and knowledge.
  7. Examine yourself every night.
  8. Never on any account pass a day without setting aside at least an hour for devotion.
  9. Avoid all manner of passion.

At Oxford, the Wesleys also encountered the Church Fathers, classical literature, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and the recent bestseller A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law (see my post here).

In the Fathers, Kempis, Taylor, and Law, the Wesleys will have found a high call, a call to live holy lives centred upon Christ and his love for us, lives of faith that produces good works.  In his sermon on fasting, we see that John Wesley strove to steer a course between the extremes of those who believe that good works are nothing and those who believe they are everything.  He believed that they were the result of faith but that faith is what saves us.

After graduation, he went to Georgia where he met with little success.  In 1738, after his return to Britain, he started hanging out with the Moravians, and at a Moravian Love Feast on May 24, his “heart was strangely warmed.”

Wesley now knew that none of his holy living, no amount of partaking of communion, none of his prayers, none of his theology, no success as a missionary would or could save him.  All that could save John Wesley was Jesus Christ and his gift of grace freely given.**  He was truly converted to Christ.

And so, from 1739 to the end of his long life in 1791, John Wesley was committed to evangelism, to bringing this Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of England, and to waking up the Church of England.

More on John Wesley to come . . .

*I have also heard people say that Wesley was called a “Methodist” because of his method of organising the movement he started.  Somehow that is less convincing.

**To people who want to argue against Arminianism with some Augustinian arguments about grace being inescapable and therefore freewill illusory — not here.  Not now.  Embrace Wesley as a brother, see how much like you he is.