Lent is almost here!

Happy Quinquagesima! (That is, the last Sunday before Lent.) On Wednesday, many of us will have our foreheads adorned with ashes, remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The great preparation for Easter will commence.

What do you plan for your preparatory acts, your Lenten disciplines?

This year, I am going to read Saint Bernard Abbot of Clairvaux: Selections from His Writings, rendered into English by Horatio Grimley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910). I picked this up the year I got hired to be a mediaevalists but failed to read it. Since I like to keep a little balance in my spiritual reading, and I just polished off two Russian Orthodox books, I decided St Bernard it would be for Lent this year.

Are you going to read a Lent book?

I am also going to give up Facebook, not only because it can be a waste of time but because it turns into a waste of mindspace even when I’m not on it. I realise that my friends there will miss such things as posts of pictures of Charles “the Hammer” Martel with the phrase, “Stop! It’s Hammer time,” but I think they’ll make it to Easter, anyway.

Are you giving anything up?

May we all have a holy and blessed Lent!

This year’s Lent book: Scripture As Real Presence

As you may recall, I made a poll for 2018’s Lent book. Two books were nominated, but I had a year-long rule of only reading books I own in my spare time. Well, now it’s 2019, and that rule is up. So I have chosen one of those two books, Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence, on the grounds that I live a 15/20-min walk from Regent College where he teaches.

Also, I need to get better at reading the Bible. This book should hopefully do that; it is a study of patristic exegesis.

There is always the general desire to read the Bible more consistently. But I think that I am bad at reading the Bible. Either I don’t invest enough attention or I don’t really get it. I’ve already read Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, a book that laicises the work of Graeme Goldsworthy. But somehow, situating a passage from the Old Testament in salvation history doesn’t always help.

So this Lent, I want to read the Bible more.

And it strikes me that being equipped to read the Bible better will help. It will also help to re-learn discipline and humility, of course.

I’m hoping Boersma will be part of that better reading. I mean, I already know a lot about the topic, but what I really want isn’t just information about how the Fathers read the Bible but how I can follow in their footsteps. This book will hopefully help with that. I’m on chapter 4, about Melito of Sardis and Origen’s allegorical reading of Exodus. The introductory sections of the book were inspiring and meaty, and the chapter on Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine’s literal reading of Genesis was thought-provoking. In chapter 3, about Origen and Chrysostom on Abraham’s theophany at the Oak of Mamre, we encounter two different styles that are to be held in tension with each other but not necessarily strictly harmonised.

The underlying conviction of this book, and one that the ancient and medieval exegetes also held, is that Scripture itself needs to be theologically and holistically, and Jesus Christ is at the centre of all true exegesis. God makes Himself manifest to us through Scripture, and we need to prayerfully apply ourselves to it. What I want to know is how Boersma now interacts with his former influences, such as the Reformed tradition and N T Wright.

But I do hope his trajectory through the Fathers into Anglicanism will not end with him Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, as happens to so many.

This is a readable book, and so far I can heartily recommend it for Protestants who want a taste of the riches of Scripture beyond the sort of historical exegesis touted almost everywhere else.

Philokalic Friday: Encouragement from John of Karpathos

This season has not been the best.

This past Saturday I received a rejection letter from a two-year postdoc that was the position I most wanted this coming year. And yesterday I was rejected by a one-year postdoc that I also fervently desired. My current job ends at the close of August, so academic work is not simply a matter of building my career or living my dream but of survival for my family. This is not an easy season, Lent or not.

Lent hasn’t really been working very well, either. We were travelling the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, and I had a lecture to finish preparing and then to deliver that evening, so I missed any Ash Wednesday service. Besides the Lent Book Poll resulting in finishing off The Philokalia, Vol. 1, as my Lenten reading, I didn’t really pray or think about a discipline or abstinence of any sort. So I’ve felt a bit off to begin with.

This reading of The Philokalia has brought me to John of Karpathos’ writings encouraging monks in ‘India’ (apparently actually Ethiopia) who wanted to throw in the towel. So:

The demons try to undermine your inward resolution by buffeting your souls with an untold variety of temptations. Yet out of these many tribulations a garland is woven for you; Christ’s power ‘comes to its fulness in us in our weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). It is usually when our situation is most gloomy that the grace of the Spirit flowers within us. ‘Light has shone in darkness for the righteous’ (Ps. 112:4 LXX) — if, that is, we hold fast to our confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firmly to the end (Heb. 3:6). (Ch. 19)

When you are being tested by trials and temptations, you cannot avoid feeling dejected. But those who till the hearth of hardship and tribulation in their hearts are afterwards filled with great joy, tears of consolation and holy thoughts. (Ch. 30)

Whatever you’re facing, may you have strength to carry on today.

Philokalic Fridays

Since I’m going to try and make a dent in the second half of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, this Lent, I’ve decided to share with you some of the wisdom I’ve found each Friday because I enjoy the alliterative title ‘Philokalic Fridays’. That is, I’ll be sharing on Fridays specifically because of alliteration. I missed yesterday because my social calendar was full of visiting some truly awesome people. I’ll be sharing at all because, although not wise myself, wisdom is worth sharing.

And what is wisdom?

Well, I’ve already come across some prodding on that question in The Philokalia this week, as it turns out! I am reading St Neilos of Ancyra’s ‘Ascetic Discourse’. He is discussing how both Jewish and Greek quests for wisdom fail in different ways, and he gives a definition of philosophy (philo-sophia, love of wisdom, literally), writing:

For philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality. Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected the Wisdom (sophia) that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching. For by the purity of His life He was the first to establish the way of true philosophy. … (201)

Wisdom!

Let us attend!

And the winner is …

Thanks to those of you who voted in my Lent book poll. The results are in, and the winner is The Philokalia, Vol. 1, with 6 votes. Runner up is Living Wisely with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall with 5 votes. Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer only got one vote, which tells you something about the audience of this blog, I guess.

I am also interested in reading all three recommendations, each different in its own way:

Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

In 2018, setting aside what I read for work, I’m trying only to read books I own and not buy new ones, and I don’t own any of these or need them for work (although I could probably justify Boersma’s at some level), so, d.v., they’re on hold for 2019!

Let’s see what wisdom I meet in the rest of The Philokalia, vol. 1.

Blogging Benedict: Food

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

It is fitting that today, the second day of Lent, I am blogging about food. For most people, Lenten discipline involves food in some way — giving up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or all sweet treats; fasting once or twice a week. In the Rule of Benedict, chapter 39, the abbot is to have discretion about the quantity of food to give the monks. They are to avoid over-indulgence.

The idea of discretion is in John Cassian, where it is considered foundational for the ascetic life. Many ascetics go too far and make themselves ill, for example. This is not merely theoretical or exemplary but a historical fact. John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi all damaged themselves through excessive fasting. Possibly Anselm of Canterbury as well, but I’m not sure (I forget).

For most of us, however, the danger is not excessive fasting but overeating, or, in Cassian’s vision, gluttony, which includes not just too much food but the wrong food or food at the wrong time. Hence why so many of us give up some delectable treat for Lent.

In chapter 40, alcohol also comes up:

We read that wine is not a suitable drink for monks, but since monks nowadays cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to excess, because wine causes even sensible people to behave foolishly. (p. 67, trans. White)

Interestingly, this is close to what Odysseus says about wine in Homer’s Odyssey, that it makes wise men say foolish things. Anyway, this is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes, for those of us with something of a straight-laced past for whom discovering ancient Christianity and the wider tradition has been liberating, alcohol can be a danger. I know some post-evangelicals who say things like, ‘I’m an Anglican because we can drink!’ Well, I’d have hoped the BCP or the poetry of John Donne or something like that would be better reasons to be Anglican. And sometimes, people not only drink to excess but start swapping the same ridiculous stories as those ‘in the world.’

I occasionally wonder if moderation is the harder route, and if it is easier either to be a lush or a teetotaller. Perhaps I’m too hard on everyone else?

Anyway, let us remember the words of Benedict about wine, as well as the Bible, which does, after all, call wine a mocker and strong drink a brawler. Christian freedom includes alcohol. Christian holiness restricts its amount.

Monastic life is always Lenten

For Ash Wednesday, I give you selections from the Rule of Benedict, chapter 49:

The life of a monk ought at all times to be Lenten in its observances but because few have the strength for this, we urge that in Lent they should maintain a life of complete purity to make up, during these holy days, for all the careless practices throughout the rest of the year.

In other words he must cut down on food, drink, sleep, talkativeness, joking, and should look forward to holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing. (trans. Carolinne White)

May you have a holy and blessed Lent as we look forward to Easter.

What book should I read for Lent?

Okay, folks, it’s Lent in a week. What should I read this year? I am pondering Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, making progress with The Philokalia, Vol. 1, or Christopher A. Hall, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Here’s my first-ever blog poll:

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.)