‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

The poets and artists leading the way

Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.

As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.

I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).

Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?

But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —

The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)

But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.

I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.

Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.

I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.

I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.

Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.

Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.

May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.

(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)

Steve Bell’s website is here.

Malcolm Guite’s is here.

John Michael Talbot’s is here.

Blogging Benedict: Visiting Monks

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Visiting monks, according to ch. 61, should live as the rest of the monks and can opt to join the monastery if they wish. However, if they spend their time criticising the monastery and its mode of life, they can be kicked out if annoying. If they do wish to join, the abbot must first make sure that they have the approval of their own abbot when possible. This requires a vision of unity.

It’s the ‘no sheep stealing’ rule.

Kicking out annoying visitors doesn’t sound very hospitable, but I wonder if it may not at times be required for the peace of the community. And the good of the annoyer!

No sheep stealing is something we should think about. And as we do so, if our own denomination or congregation has been a victim of sheep theft, rather than judge the thieves, we should ask: Why are our sheep ready to be stolen? (So says John Michael Talbot to Roman Catholics bemoaning Brazilian Catholics becoming Pentecostal.)

Review of The Ancient Path by John Michael Talbot

The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life TodayThe Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book will most appeal to Roman Catholics and fans of John Michael Talbot. I read it because I am a JMT fan, having listened to his music my whole life, and having read three of his other books (The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily LifeThe Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life, The Music of Creation: Foundations of a Christian Life, and Reflections on St. Francis) — and I am a Patristics scholar. I was interested to see what this Francisco-Benedictine musician had to say about the Church Fathers. Oh, and I was pretty sure the book deserved better than a single one-star review on amazon.co.uk!

However, I can see why someone might be disappointed by this book. It honestly does not do what it is advertised as doing, not even what the Foreword by Cardinal Donald Wuerl says. It is not an introduction to the Church Fathers. Not by a long shot. This is part memoir, part invitation to the Fathers, part personal and devotional discourse on the Fathers. Furthermore, the sayings and teachings of the Fathers have been digested thoroughly by Talbot’s own life experience as a modern Roman Catholic; this results in them sometimes being taken at face value, and the book often reads, for example, as though he unproblematically assumes that Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop the same way John Chrysostom was a bishop 300 years later.

What we do see as we read, though, is a vision of the historic Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as being the successors to the Fathers. Talbot is aware of the ‘development’ of tradition — he believes, then, the fullness of the Patristic trajectory is found in Roman Catholicism. Therefore, what he is finding in the Fathers is not always the same things their ancient readers or hearers would have found. Instead, what he finds is wisdom for today that speaks to the Roman Catholic soul, finding either timeless gems or modern readings that are themselves worth pondering.

That may sound patronising or damning with faint praise. I hope not! I, myself, read the Fathers in my own context for their wisdom. Certainly, the great historical analyses of the Fathers that expound what they meant in their context, what the causes and effects of their tradition were, are of great value. That’s what some of us get paid to do. But all of us, as Christians, should also ask: What is the perennial wisdom and value in the Church Fathers? This is what Talbot offers. Furthermore, you can tell that Talbot, too, has profited from historical-critical research into the Church Fathers.

The book begins with the story of the fire of 2008 that destroyed the main building of Little Portion Hermitage, including the library and archives and monuments to Talbot’s recording career. And thus a rediscovery afresh of the community’s, and Talbot’s, own fathers. Then we learn a bit about how Talbot came to Roman Catholicism, and his time amongst Franciscans before founding the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, and taking us through various themes of his life and career to today, when he is an itinerant teacher. Throughout, he offers some of his favourite teachings, fathers, and texts and discusses how they have influenced his life and spiritual journey as a Roman Catholic.

In this book you’ll be introduced to the Didache, St Ignatius of Antioch, St John Chrysostom, St Diadochus of Photiki, St Cyril of Jerusalem, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Irenaeus of Lyons, as well as a host of others more cursorily. I had hoped for more discussion of the content of Chrysostom, as well as of mystagogy — his chapter on mystagogy is more of an example of mystagogy for the Mass as celebrated in the USA today. I had also hoped for a wee bit more on St Benedict (I guess I’ll have to read his book Blessings of St. Benedict for that!

In the end, I would recommend this to a Catholic friend or fellow fan of JMT (as I said at the top) who is curious about how we can live in the light of the Fathers today. Demonstrating that point is something that JMT has done admirably, and I hope we can all come to a place where we have become so suffused with Scripture and tradition that the Fathers come naturally to mind at any time.

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The Jesus Prayer and me 1: Some books, and a little practice

My four-part discussion (starts here) of why I take issue with Timothy Keller’s severity towards mystical prayer in his book Prayer stems largely from the fact that I, in fact, pray the Jesus Prayer, as I discuss in the last of the four. The Jesus Prayer is:

I first encountered this prayer through The Way of a Pilgrim, in the translation of Helen Bacovcin. I’d picked up a used copy at an event in the summer before my fourth year of undergrad; sadly, I lost it along with my copy of The Poems of St John of the Cross on the bus one day. And, while I think it worked out well for me at the time to seek elsewhere for devotional reading, I have since replaced both in the same translations. The Way of a Pilgrim is a classic of nineteenth-century Russian spirituality; it recounts the story of a Russian pilgrim (wanderer?) who meets different spiritual elders and people in his journeys — and learns the art of the Jesus Prayer along the way.

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim learns from his spiritual father to pray the prayer many times a day, increasing the number of Jesus Prayers he prays until he attains what is called the ‘self-actuating prayer of the heart’ and prays the Jesus Prayer without ceasing. He also reads The Philokalia, as it turns out (my quick intro to that anthology here).

I believe I next met the Jesus Prayer through the work of John Michael Talbot, the summer following graduation. I read The Music of Creation, and it challenged me in various ways. My interest in the mystical/contemplative paths had been piqued by St John of the Cross and Talbot’s work on St Francis already. I’m not actually certain that the Jesus Prayer comes up in that book, but Talbot’s work is where I first met the term hesychasm, and I’ve a feeling I met in that book the idea of praying the Jesus Prayer by inhaling on the invocation, and exhaling with the petition.

Anyway, this was the cusp of leaving for Cyprus, where I spent a year having various adventures and doing evangelistic work amongst the international students. I was loaned vol. 1 of The Philokalia by the dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia, I read the whole of The Way of a Pilgrim, and I learned much about the Jesus Prayer and icons and the Orthodox tradition from the priests I befriended there, as well as Richard Foster, Prayer, which I was loaned by my team leader. This was an important time — serving others, praying, delving into Scripture. The Jesus Prayer was not yet really woven into my devotional world, though.

However, one way in which Cyprus is important for the Jesus Prayer and Me part of my spiritual journey is the fact that I met the Orthodox and Orthodox liturgy and read Orthodox books and haven’t really stopped since. And that has kept the Jesus Prayer part of my consciousness ever since.

For most of my time after Cyprus, the Jesus Prayer was a sometimes prayer. For a period of time, I would pray it in the style of the rosary, replacing the ‘Hail Marys’ with the Jesus Prayer. As Kallistos Ware says in The Power of the Name, it is a good prayer for waiting in queues or walking down the street. It is a way to use our minds in idle moments, turning those moments to prayer and Almighty God.

And then came the terrible day when anger got the better of me.

What is The Philokalia?

In conversation over Skype recently, I held up my copy of The Philokalia, vol. 1, as a way to signify who Kallistos Ware is. ‘Ah yes, that book you’ve been blogging about,’ is an approximation of the response. Which is fair enough. I realised that I’ve not actually told the reading public what The Philokalia is. Since it is what my brother and I are slowly wading our way through (and hopefully becoming better pray-ers as a result), here we go.

The Philokalia is a multi-volume anthology of Greek spiritual texts on the subject of prayer. The authors range from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. So far, the English translation includes four out of a proposed five. The inescapable, inimitable Met Kallistos Ware (for many of us, our first introduction to Orthodoxy, through The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) is one of the translators. The collection was assembled on Mt Athos, the monastic/spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, in the 17th century by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios.

You may recognise some of the authors they included: Ps.-Antony the Great, Evagrios ‘the Solitary’ (aka ‘Ponticus’, in the original attributed to St Neilus of Ancyra), St Maximus the Confessor, St Makarios the Great, St Gregory of Sinai.

This multi-volume anthology is not a comprehensive guide to the entire ascetic life. As I said, it is about prayer. Thus, the external aspects of Christian spirituality, such as fasts and vigils, are lacking. In fact, it is not even about the entire life of prayer. It is about ‘inner prayer’, about the inner kingdom, about the prayer of the heart. I believe that in its later volumes (they arranged roughly chronologically) it is more specifically about The Jesus Prayer (I’ll discuss that prayer soon, I think).

The goal of this inner prayer is the encounter with God through purity of heart, through seeking hesychia — peacefulness, stillness. The Greek spiritual movement associated with the word hesychia is called hesychasm, and its monastic practicioners are hesychasts. The Francisco-Benedictine musician John Michael Talbot described hesychia as being like sitting on the edge of a pool, and letting the detritus subside. When it still and clear, you can see to the bottom and see both the good and the bad. (See The Music of Creation.)

The bad can thus be removed.

It is an approach towards intimacy with God.

Of course, all the texts were selected by hesychast monks for monks and written by monks to begin with. Not everything here will suit all readers, but much wisdom is to be found for the prayerful, attentive reader. A guide, a companion, will help. We are reading vol. 1 straight through, but I’ve discovered a piece by Met Kallistos that has a series of recommended texts to start with. I close with his words, then:

Sometimes I am asked: in what order should the writings of the Philokalia be read? Should we start at the beginning, on page one, and read straight through to the end? Probably that is not the best method. To one who is unfamiliar with Hesychasm but who has a serious and deep longing to discover its true meaning, I sometimes suggest the following sequence of texts:

i. St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesy-chasts (Philokalia IV, 197-295, English translation Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, 164-270) (27).

ii. St Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness (Philokalia I, 141-73, English translation I, 162-98).

iii. Evagrios the Solitary (alias Neilos the Ascetic: i.e. Evagrios of Pontus), On Prayer (Philokalia I, 176-89, English translation I, 55-71).

iv. A Discourse on Abba Philimon (Philokalia II, 241-52, English translation II, 344-57).

v. St Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion; On Stillness; On Prayer (Philokalia IV, 66-88, English translation IV, 257-86) (28).

But here I strongly recommend readers not to attempt the physical technique mentioned by St Gregory, unless they are under the direct instruction of an experienced spiritual teacher.

Quick review: Reflections on St Francis by John Michael Talbot

Reflections on St. FrancisReflections on St. Francis by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I found this slim volume for 5 euros, I snatched it up since I am a fan of both St Francis of Assisi and John Michael Talbot. I assumed at the time of purchase that this book would largely be a recasting of material from Talbot’s early book The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life. I was wrong – this an entirely new volume of a different nature from that earlier work. Whereas that earlier work was largely a culling of particular lessons from the saint’s life and work as represented in his biographies, the ‘little flowers’, and his texts, this volume is a collection of brief reflections of three elements of St Francis: the story of his conversion and then two texts, The Rule of 1223 and the Testament from 1226.

The writing style in this book is like St Francis – simple and straightforward. Talbot is not trying to trick us with rhetoric or to be fancy the way a writer like myself would. He writes his thoughts and writes them in quick, simple sentences. He also repeats himself at times, which is actually a helpful tool in bringing home a point and instilling it in the mind. This is all, I believe, part of Br John Michael’s technique, for his other books that I’ve read (besides Lessons, The Music of Creation), his online articles, and his music demonstrate a depth and power that this book hints at. This is good, for it is obvious to me that the whole point of this wee book is, on the one hand, to encourage those new to the Franciscan tradition to wade in the water, and, on the other, to get the rest of us to take ourselves less seriously and rediscover the joyful simplicity of the early thirteenth-century spirituality of St Francis.

The biggest departure from most books on St Francis is Talbot’s treatment of the conversion. Usually, as in Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi or the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, we are presented with the sudden tale and snap conversion of Francis from young, gallant knight to fraticello in a moment. Br John Michael takes us through the long story, however, showing us the different stages in Francis’ conversion, from capture to Crusade to illness to penitent to hermit, etc. We are reminded that our own story, even if there is a great moment where we turn from our old ways to Christ Who is the Way, is itself a gradual series of turning posts and transformations. We are still being converted.

His reflections on the Rule discuss generally what a Rule is and how it binds the brothers, and how all of us can benefit from our own rules and constitutions. He relates about the rule and constitutions of his own community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. Talbot goes through the rule and Testament, highlighting specific passages and ideas for comment, reminding us of St Francis’ commitment to Gospel-centred living, to Jesus Christ, the church, the sacraments. Here we are called again and again to Jesus, to simplicity, and to prayer. Talbot encourages us to live the disciplined life, to pray the Divine Office, and to seek out true charity for our neighbours.

If you want your affection for St Francis renewed, or are looking to introduce St Francis to a friend, I highly recommend this book.

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