The Monkhood of All Believers by Greg Peters

Disclaimer: Greg Peters is an online acquaintance of mine with whom I share at least one friend IRL, and this book was partly payment for professional translation work undertaken for him.

This book is an investigation into, as its subtitle says, ‘the monastic foundation of Christian spirituality.’ Greg Peters looks at the broad history of monasticism, including its critique by Martin Luther, to ascertain what its essence is, and to relate that essence to the life of all believers. As may be guessed, Peters argues, essentially, that we are called to the true essence of monasticism.

Like his book The Story of Monasticism, then, The Monkhood of All Believers, may be considered part of evangelical ressourcement. Indeed, a good amount of ancient Christianity makes its way into the discussion, something that warms my heart, as do eastern Christians, from St Symeon the New Theologian to Paul Evodokimov, stopping off with Dostoevsky along the way.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. What is a Monk?
  2. Asceticism: The Monastic Vocation
  3. The Monkhood of All Believers

The first chapter of Part 1 I found particularly invigorating. Here, Peters considered the definition of monachos as used by different ancient authors, as well as the earliest use of the term monasterion, and here we find that it is not what we meet at dictionary.com:

a man who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order of cenobites living according to a particular rule and under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

If you find the word monk in a book, dictionary.com is the place to go. But if you find the word monachos written on your heart, read Peters. So, what, in essence, is a monachos, a monk? Someone who is monotropes, someone with single, undivided attention to the things of God. As Mark Galli put it in relation to early American evangelicals: a monomaniac for God. This basic understanding of the monk is in Eusebius, Augustine of Hippo, John Cassian, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Basil of Caesarea, et al., whom Greg Peters elucidates, showing the different colouring each author brings to defining the monk.

This discussion accords with John Climacus — earlier today I found a note about Climacus I once wrote that is germane:

John Climacus is concerned not so much with the outward trappings of monasticism as with its vital content. To him the monk is a believer who has undertaken to enter prayerfully into unceasing communion with God, and this in the form of a commitment not only to turn from the self and world but to bring into being in the context of his own person as many of the virtues as possible.

In the second (medieval) chapter, Peters analyses authors who approached the question of the monkhood beyond the cloister and even offered up the idea of marriage as a form of monasticism. Here we get the image of the monastery of the heart (or the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, as the title of one text discussed runs), which leads us directly into the third (modern) chapter, ‘Interiorized Monasticism’, which begins with Elder Zossima and Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov, and then analyses Paul Evdokimov, Raimon Panikkar, and Martin Luther.

To be honest, Panikkar I do not find nearly as compelling as Evdokimov. And I think Luther’s arguments at times go too far — but I know that much Luther wrote was responding to particular abuses in his day.

To move a bit more quickly, I appreciated the idea of ‘natural asceticism’ in the chapter ‘Defining Asceticism,’ which Peters gets from Met. Kallistos ware. Natural asceticism means eating only when you are hungry, or fasting occasionally. Unnatural asceticism means eating only mouldy bread. Natural asceticism means dressing simply. Unnatural asceticism means wearing a chain around your waist that makes your flesh start to rot. That sort of distinction.

Indeed, despite the bad name asceticism has (even with the first edition of Foster, Celebration of Discipline), the disciplined life is basically the ascetic life. It is the regular, measured life. It is the sort of asceticism promoted by Clement of Alexandria and the Rule of St Benedict.

Peters also engages with Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, and I’ll have to finish Fagerberg’s book as a result. The title alone is alluring.

Ultimately, the arguments about asceticism and the priesthood of all believers and monasticism all coalesce with a certain engagement with Luther’s critiques with the arguments that we need to promote and engage in interiorized monasticism, in natural asceticism, since all Christians are monks, and that we still have room for institutionalised monks as a particular calling within the wider monastery that is all of the church.

Since this is largely a work of monastic theology, Peters doesn’t have a ‘Next Steps’ kind of chapter. But I would say: seek moderation in food and dress, as Clement of Alexandria encourages, and order your day around prayer as St Benedict encourages, and hopefully you will begin a true monk, with single-minded devotion to God.

A monomaniac.

St John Cassian

Yesterday (leap day, of all days in the calendar!) was the feast of John Cassian, monastic founder and one of the ascetic fathers of Latin Christianity. Clearly, though, he has something of a mixed reputation to get a feast that comes only once every four years!

Cassian’s reputation is marred by the predestination controversy, in which the Augustinians in Gaul (modern France) were so particular and powerful that an anti-Pelagian such as Cassian could still come under suspicion and find himself labelled “semi-Pelagian”. Cassian’s teaching on this subject is found in his thirteenth Conference. What we find there has been called by one scholar “semi-Augustinian” rather than semi-Pelagian. Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church says that what Cassian writes here is essentially Eastern in spirit, which is no surprise, since Cassian is from the Balkans, lived as a monk in Bethlehem, toured Egypt’s monasteries for about ten years, and spent time with John Chrysostom in Constantinople before moving West.

But Cassian, despite this label, despite so inauspicious a feast day, has had an enduring influence on Western asceticism and mysticism, from St Benedict to Steve Bell. Besides a couple of obvious references in Benedict, if you look through the commentary on the Rule by Georg Holzherr, you will find many passages inspired or paralleled by Cassian.

Indeed, Cassian is one of the great ascetic fathers of the Latin church — hundreds of copies of his main works, the Institutes and Conferences, exist. His teaching about the inner life has found eager readers in every generation. What is the telos (end) of the monastic life? The Kingdom of Heaven. What is the skopos (goal)? Purity of heart. Aim for purity of heart, and you will find the Kingdom of heaven. This wisdom is not just monastic but for all Christians, is it not?

His teaching on discretion is a reminder that true Christian asceticism at its best is not typified by standing on a pillar, tying a chain around your waist, wearing iron underwear, or mortifying the flesh to such extremes that you become ill. It is typified, in Cassian as elsewhere, by the words of Sergei Bulgakov, ‘Discipline the flesh that you may gain a body.’ It is what Kallistos Ware calls ‘natural asceticism’.

Conference 10 on prayer is a classic treatise on the subject — and the reason we say, ‘O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us,’ at the start of the daily office!

It has been a long time since I read all of Cassian in full; in recent years, I have only whetted my appetite with the selections in The Philokalia, Vol. 1. There is a lot of wisdom, as I recall; I’ve blogged about it here. Clearly, being unpopular in your teaching about predestination is not enough to keep you from being read and digested for centuries. In fact, Lossky says that Cassian’s popularity results in St Bernard’s views on grace and freewill being more like the Eastern Church’s than the predominantly Augustinian West (take that for what it’s worth, though; I am skeptical about Lossky because of his misunderstandings of Aquinas on the Trinity).

I am going to be revisiting Cassian in greater depth soon. I think, though, that he is precisely the sort of guide to Christian “spirituality” we need in this age — an ascetic master esteemed in both the Latin and Greek churches who was not fully engulfed by either side of the predestination debate who sought purity of heart for the purpose of finding the Kingdom of Heaven.

As the empires and kingdoms of the human race descend into madness, that is the true Kingdom we all need.

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:

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.

Evagrius and Scripture

I am revisiting my decade-old work on St John Cassian’s reception of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399) in his demonology. One false conclusion I drew then was that Cassian had a stronger commitment, or a higher view, of Scripture than Evagrius, explaining some of their differences. As soon as I saw that I had written that, I knew it was not true.

I just need to demonstrate it.

I also think that, if more Protestants, especially evangelical ones, are to read the monastic fathers, then understanding the monastic and patristic use of, regard for, and theology of Scripture is critical.

One of the first places to look for Evagrius’ view of the Bible is Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos, translated by David Brakke as Talking Back, a book I did not have access to 10 years ago. This handbook for battle with demons and their temptations is a topical arrangement of 498 passages of Scripture for the monk to familiarise himself with to be able to readily pull out ‘the weapons of the spirit’ (Prol. 5) when attacked.

The existence of the Antirrhetikos alone should tell us that Evagrius thinks highly of Scripture. It is the chief weapon of the monk as he fights.

The letter Evagrius wrote to Lucius (rendered ‘Loukios’ by Brakke; Epistle 4) in response to the request for the Antirrhetikos gives some detail. Chapter 5 says:

And so everyone who has enlisted in this army must request discernment from the Lord without neglecting the things that contribute to the reception of this gift, which are, to speak in outline, self-control, gentleness, keeping vigil, withdrawal, and frequent prayers, which are supported by reading the divine Scriptures — for nothing is as conducive to pure prayer as reading. Ascetic practice cuts off the passions by destroying desire, sadness, and anger, but the reading that follows it [ascetic practice] removes even love for the representations by transferring it to the formless, divine, and simple knowledge … (my emphasis)

The references to ‘reading’ in the passage should, I hope, be clearly seen as references to reading the Bible. Pure prayer is what monks aim for, and reading the Bible is the best way to get there. What he implies here, and states more clearly in the Kephalaia Gnostica (‘Gnostic Chapters’) is that the goal of pure prayer is the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity.

Reading the Bible, then, is a short-cut for progress in both the ascetic and contemplative aspects of the disciplined life.

In the Prologue, Evagrius equates the words of Scripture with Christ Himself. We meet Him in the Bible.

In sum, based upon this work, Evagrius has a high view of Scripture, and he also, if you will, puts Scripture in its place. God gave us the Bible for us to get to know Him. Therefore, we read the Bible not simply to gain knowledge about the Bible but as a pathway to encountering God. What matters more than Bible study is knowing God, who is encountered through both prayer and Scripture.

Finally, this is important because Evagrius’s reputation has suffered due to some aspects of his speculative theology as outlined in the aforementioned Kephalaia Gnostica. It is important, then, as we unearth and retrieve the teachings of Evagrius, that we come to understand the place of the Bible on this ascetic master who was so influential — despite his condemnation — on both Eastern and Western Christian asceticism.

The un-sexy demonology of John Cassian

Having finished A New Kind of Christian, the next “book that ‘normal’ people read” I’m going through is Michael Green’s 1981 volume, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (from the ‘I Believe’ series). Obviously not a book that normal people read anymore, but I hope that some normal people read it in the 80s, because it is very good so far.

I have just finished Green’s chapter about temptation, and I am reminded of the awkward conversations I would have about demonology when I was researching John Cassian (d. c. 435). Specifically, the lack of any Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness or The Oath business. Cassian acknowledges this sort of demonology, but he is not going to spend time on it.

It’s a bit disappointing for the sensationalists. Why tantalise us with the idea of demons who wait at crossroads to mug people if you aren’t going to give us any details? Other stories from the Desert Fathers give us great details! I forget the source, but there’s this one time that a guy took shelter in an old tomb, and a bunch of demons turned up, and he overheard them talking about all the monks they tempted. Or there are the temptations of St Antony, wherein he wrestled with the denizens of Hell all night:

Including Funnel Butt:

John of Ephesus tells the story of some demons who made a woman levitate and appear like the BVM and fool some monks into praying to her.

Cassian doesn’t deny the reality of such things. After all, they say that The Exorcist is based on real events. But these sensationalist stories are not his main event.

Cassian’s demonology is all about temptation. How do the demons tempt you to sin? How do they try to distract you from prayer? What sorts of thoughts do they encourage? How much power do they have in terms of temptation? Can they implant an idea in your mind? Can demons really see the future?

Let me tell you, when you follow, ‘I study demonology,’ with, ‘specifically how demons tempt people to sin,’ your rocketing coolness plummets.

But the un-sexy demonology of John Cassian is just the demonology we need. I remember this scene in This Present Darkness (the aforementioned Peretti novel) where some dude is literally wrestling with demons in his living room. Let me tell you — you probably do wrestle with demons in your living room.

The demon of wrath.

The demon of greed.

The demon of gluttony.

The demon of laziness.

The demons of gossip and slander.

The demon of saying that malicious thing.

And so on.

Our passions are disordered, and the demonic prey on that. Their main goal, though, as Cassian’s Conferences would tell us, and which is, I believe, the lesson from St Antony’s battle with Funnel Butt, is to keep us from prayer. Watch out, then, for

The demon of distraction.

He comes clothed as a Netflix of Light.

The Throne of God (What’s going on in Isaiah 6?)

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

One of the most famous parts of Isaiah, one of the few parts of the Bible useful for angelology, and a source for part of the liturgy, Isaiah 6 can be a perplexing place to find oneself, in any language. I was recently reading Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit, and I noticed that the translator did not provide Isaiah 6:2 as I expected. What I expected was what I grew up with, NIV:

Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Instead, where the NIV has ‘their faces … their feet’, I read ‘His face … His feet’. Being smug, I assumed the translator got his Latin wrong and confused the two different Latin words for ‘his’, one which can be rendered ‘his own’, the other which means someone else’s. But I checked Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.160, and found:

et Seraphim stabant in circuitu ejus; sex alae uni, et sex alae alteri, et duabus velabant faciem ejus, et duabus velabant pedes ejus, et duabus volabant

Which is to say that the translator got it right. This is the same text that Vulgate has — the Seraphim are covering the Lord Sabaoth’s face and feet, not their own. My guess is that, since the Geneva Bible, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV have the Seraphim covering their own feet, the Hebrew has the same. The Greek is vague — each Seraph covers the face and the feet, using the definite article and no possessive. (Unless this is a use of the article someone could detail for me…)

Hence the Old Latin used by Ambrose and the later Vulgate version of this verse.

Therefore, we cannot give priority to the Vulgate/Ambrose text, since the Septuagint (and presumably the Hebrew) needn’t lead that direction.

Nevertheless, the Seraphim covering the Lord of Sabaoth’s face and feet pointed to an important point that I (we?) rarely acknowledge, barely grasp:

Isaiah has had a vision of the throne-room of God, and he presumably saw some sort of anthropomorphic figure seated on a throne and surrounded by six-winged Seraphim.

We probably subconsciously shy away from this due to the fact that the LORD has already told Moses that no one may look on his face and live and that 1 John says that no one has ever seen God. And yet in the Gospel of John Jesus does say that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

I think we should confront two possibilities here. I suspect that modern readers who are willing to take Isaiah’s vision as literal (as opposed to those who think it a theological-literary fiction) will go for option number one: God has created an image to project into Isaiah’s feeble, earth-bound, image-driven mind as a means of communicating with the prophet.

The second, and one I do hope has Church Fathers to back it up, is that this is Christ in glory. This one is less popular today either because we don’t like reading the New Covenant into the Hebrew Bible on literary-historical grounds (Isaiah can’t see Jesus because he doesn’t know about Jesus, even if Jesus is the Messiah) or we don’t like the implied supersessionism and appropriation of Jewish Scripture.

But if we actually believe historic Christian orthodoxy, we’ve already appropriated the entirety of Jewish Scripture simply by stating that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah, or that Jesus is Lord. Moreover, we go much further when we affirm Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and say that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.

Throw eternity into the mix, and we are also affirming that the man Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate has also always existed in that body in the throne room of God. Because He is God and exists outside of time.

I find, therefore, a tantalising idea in the throne room vision of Isaiah, and that idea is that Isaiah has seen the risen, glorified Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person if the Trinity, the pre-incarnate (yet incarnate!) Christ, who is the leader of heaven’s armies and will return on a white horse to bring justice to the earth (cf. Revelation).

Several decades after Ambrose, the goal of the monastic life was the vision of Christ-God, the beatific vision, found through cultivating purity of heart, according to John Cassian. And so ascetic-mystical theology, dogmatic theology, and biblical interpretation embrace.