Blogging Benedict: Hospitality

One of the characteristics that a bishop (episkopos) is meant to have, according to St Paul’s letter to Titus (1:8), is to be a lover of hospitality. Although all monasteries, Benedictine ones included, are a kind of retreat from the world, they are nevertheless places of hospitality. We read in chapter 53:

All guests who arrive should be received as if they were Christ. (trans. White, p. 83; Mt 25:35)

This should be enough for us to want to be hospitable. In the Lives of Eastern Saints by Benedict’s younger Syriac contemporary, John of Ephesus, this ideal drives the many encounters the monks and hermits of Mesopotamia have with others. In chapter 5, the monk Simeon the Recluse receives his guests thus:

he himself would run and prepare a footpan and bring water, and would prepare a towel and put it round his loins, in the manner which our Lord also taught; and thus he would wash them whether they were one or many, not allowing them to speak nor to refuse. (Patrologia Orientalis 17.86-87, trans. E. W. Brooks)

At another monastery, John of Ephesus tells us that the poor were received as if they were Christ.

When a guest arrives at a Benedictine monastery, first they pray together. Then they share the kiss of peace. Then they are welcomed as they were Christ. Fourth, there is more prayer and reading of Scripture; ‘after this all kindness should be shown him.’ (trans. White, p. 84) Like Simeon, they wash their feet.

The Desert Fathers often talk about how you can break certain rules for the sake of love and hospitality. For example, if a monk had a personal rule of not eating until, say, the ninth hour, but guests came and wanted lunch, he would serve and eat lunch with them. Or if he has a rule of eating no meat but is offered meat, he is to eat it. Love is the rule above all rules.

A very important aspect of hospitality is discussed by Benedict — care for the poor:

Special care and attention should be shown in the reception of the poor and of pilgrims because in such people Christ is more truly welcomed. When it comes to rich people, we are more likely to show them respect because we are in awe of them. (p. 84, trans. White)

Caring for the poor is an ongoing concern for Benedictines. In Lanfranc’s Constitutions (reviewed here), a lot of time is spent detailing how the alms are to be distributed to the poor and how the abbot and other monks are to wash the feet of the poor, all of this because Christ is in the poor. How do we welcome Christ in the face of the poor in our lives?

In chapter 56, we read that the abbot’s table is a place of hospitality for visitors who are thus not required to eat in silence with the brothers, since they are not bound by the rule. Visiting monks, who are bound by a rule, should live as the monks do. They can opt to join the monastery, in fact. However, if they are annoying and endlessly critical of how the monastery runs itself, they are to be kicked out and sent back to their own monastery.

Hospitality should mark the Christian community, whether that is a congregation, a private home, or a community such as a monastery. How can we open up our tables to others? Whom could we invite for dinner? Who are the lonely and isolated in our communities? How can we show hospitality to them?

Thoughts on Climacus’ Ladder, Step 4

I am partway through Step 4 of John Climacus’ (Saint of the Week here) Ladder. Not being a monk, I find a lot of his wisdom wasted on me. Still …

A lot of people these days are really stoked about “narrative” and “narrative theology” and suchlike things. I remember once at a party a guy who worked for the Canadian Bible Society remarking that the Gospel could never be put into propositional statements because Jesus taught in parables. Given that that was a propositional statement, I was amused. Given also that the content of the Gospel is not Jesus’ parables but his life, I was a bit irked.

A lot of people try to pit narrative against proposition, though. This is wrongheaded, as Edith M. Humphrey (once Anglican, now Orthodox [yes, I’ll mention that every time I mention her]) notes in her book Ecstasy and Intimacy. We need both. We need balance. In Step 4, about obedience, St. John Climacus, Father of the Church, demonstrates the usefulness of both ways of presenting truth.

Approximately half of this Step on the ladder to paradise is occupied with stories about a monastery John once visited in Alexandria. He was filled with wonder at what he saw there. The monks lived in obedience to their abbot to a very high degree. To test them, he would make them lie on the ground for undetermined lengths of time just to see if they would do it. Once, to see if a postulant was worthy of admission, he made this man, a former fornicator (with both humans and animals), thief, and liar confess in detail his deeds before all the brothers at Divine Liturgy. Brothers who were disobedient enough were cast out or sent into the Prison where they only got bread and raw vegetables for food.

The monks were also obedient to one another and sought to outdo each other in virtue and in bearing one another’s burdens, claiming the sins of others for themselves to help brothers avoid punishment.

The result of this radical obedience was great virtue. John writes, “If they had to speak, what they talked about all the time was the remembrance of death and the thought of everlasting judgment.” (95, Classics of Western Spirituality translation) The advanced brothers were so humble that, when asked about hesychia by John, they claimed to be merely corporeal men with no knowledge of such things.

These men were calm of heart, humble, meek, pure. The longer they lived in the monastery, they less they were involved in backbiting and prideful actions.

Now, I’m not sure if I can handle such radical obedience. But imagine if we tried to do things for people without grumbling or complaining (cf. Philippians!). Imagine if we tried to be the servant of all (cf. Mark!). Imagine if, when asked to do something that is largely indifferent, we did it, seeing it as a way of learning humility. Imagine if we saw everyone around us as Kings and Queens. Or, to take another image, imagine if we saw them as Christs (cf. Matthew! Also, John of Ephesus, Lives of Eastern Saints, Chapter 5 about Simeon & Sergius, Patrologia Orientalis 17, pp. 84-89) rather than as nuisances.

Anyway, Climacus pairs this narrative teaching technique with propositional statements such as this:

Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, and unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. (91-92)

I like this technique, this balance between narrative and proposition. Western preaching has swung too far to the propositional, but I do not think it should be lost. We should find, however, a place for deep and meaningful storytelling in our teaching, as we see St. John Climacus doing in Step 4.

In the words of my friend Fr. Ioannis, “How clever the ancients were!”

Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony

In Frank Peretti’s bestselling thriller This Present Darkness there is a scene wherein one of the characters engages in physical combat with demons in his living room. No joke. This sort of presentation of demonology, while it certainly entertained me as a teenager, draws attention away from the real fight with the demons, a fight that usually has as its great champion Christ.

Even if you don’t believe in demons, I think the lessons we have to learn from the ancient demon stories are applicable. So please, keep reading.

A very good description of the real fight with demons, a fight that takes place at the level of temptation, not at the level of wrestling matches, is John Cassian’s in The Institutes when he deals with the Eight Thoughts (precursors to Seven Deadly Sins). However, hagiography does give us some interesting demon stories, so I’m going to give you three posts and three stories battle with demons: St. Antony (below), St. Savvas (here), and St. Columba (here).

Other saints who have similar stories are St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), one of John of Ephesus’ saints whose name escapes me, and some other tales from the Desert Fathers. This is probably literary borrowing, not historical truth, but I believe it has a lesson inside.

What can we learn from patristic and mediaeval hagiography? I mean, we’re not likely to wrestle with demons Peretti-style, nor are we likely to be tempted Antony-style. So what on earth can these ancient demon stories say to (post)moderns in the 21st century?

Case One: The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

This is the locus classicus of monastic hagiography as well as the battle with demons. Evagrius and Cassian may give us the more nuanced, psychological vision of how we combat the tempters, but here Athanasius gives us a very vivid picture of St. Antony’s temptations from demons and the fight against them. I’ve posted on this before here.

This time, rather than focussing on the strange menagerie comprised by the denizens of Hell, let us focus on what actually happens to St. Antony.

If you read this encounter of St. Antony with the demonic, which we can find at 8.7-10.9 of the Life which is pp. 14-16 of White’s translation in Early Christian Lives and available through the CCEL here. In some ways, this account is Frank Peretti-esque, especially with the Devil and his minions beating St. Antony up.

Despite being beaten, however, we see that Antony continues to inhabit the tombs and prays continually. He also recites verses from the Psalms against the temptations that assail him. Ultimately, regardless of everything the adversary throws at him, he prevails in the combat.

At the end of it all, he is granted a vision of Christ.

St. Antony immediately asks why Christ didn’t help him. Apparently Christ was testing him, but then goes on to assure him that he will be present with Antony through the rest of the saint’s testing with demonic powers.

What can we learn, then? I mean, we aren’t likely to be beaten. And those of us who even believe in demons don’t tend to dwell on them and often live as though they don’t exist. Is there any edification for today’s reader, then?

I think so. (No surprise there.)

First, as I mentioned when I first posted about the Temptations of St. Antony, our saint does battle with prayer as his chief weapon. We should never forget this piece of our arsenal when we are beset by temptations or evil in any of its forms, be it within ourselves or in the unjust world we see around us. Prayer is a walkie-talkie for the battlefield of Christian life (I think J Piper said that).

Second, St. Antony quotes Scripture at the demons. We need to hold the Scriptures in our minds. We need to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible. We need to memorise it, pray it, study it, read it, recite it. If you want to have a biblical mindset, you need the Bible in your mind (this is part of the advice Abba Chaeremon gives Cassian in one of the Conferences).

Third, Christ was there all along. He is our champion. This role becomes very important in other monastic encounters with demons, from Palestine to Ireland. Hagiography is essentially Christocentric; Jesus is the reason the saints can do the great things that they do. We need to remember this, as well as the Old Testament name YHWH Nissi — YHWH is our banner. He fights our battles.

A collection of … hagiography?

I am the proud possessor of a small but growing collection of saints’ lives. My first was a remaindered copy of the Penguin Classic Early Christian Lives by Carolinne M. White, picked up for St. Antony but also containing the delightful lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus by Jerome, Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, and Benedict by Gregory the Great. These are lives that helped establish the genre.

My interest in Desert monasticism drove my next hagiographical purchase, the Cistercian Studies translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto called The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This is an interesting travelogue that visits a bunch of the fourth-century monks and tells their stories. It is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

My third was a grab at a used book shop of another Penguin Classic, Lives of the Saints by J. F. Webb, containing the Voyage of Brendan and the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid. I bought it because of the Voyage of Brendan but greatly enjoyed Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. I have yet to read Wilfrid, but this volume contains lives that show us the world of Early Mediaeval Britain and Ireland, the saints of the “Celtic” and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Worth a read. This is, I have learned, no longer published, but the material available has been expanded in the Penguin Classics volume The Age of Bede.

My most recent acquisitions take us back to the desert, one being Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, translated by R. M. Price for Cistercian. This is a collection of seven monastic biographies by Justinianic (sixth-century) Palestinian monk Cyril. It tells the stories of some of Palestinian monasticism’s founders, such as Sts. Euthymius and Sabas. These are lives of men approximately contemporaneous with Brendan and Benedict but living on the other side of the world in the desert. Very informative about the world of sixth-century monasticism.

At the same time as Cyril of Scythopolis, I got Cistercian’s translation of Besa’s Life of Shenoute, telling the life of one of the most important figures of Coptic monasticism, Shenoute, archimandrite of the White Monastery in the first half of the fifth century. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s bound to be good.

I’m thinking of getting my own copy of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. We’ll see about that.

If I could, I would certainly add John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints, but the only English translation is that by E. W. Brooks in PO 17, 18, 19. Alas.

So many saints. Because of its chronological and geographical breadth, I’d recommend White’s Early Christian Lives if you wish to start reading hagiography yourself! The genre is introduced at the beginning of the volume, and each life contains a brief introduction to the subject. The translation is highly readable, which is always a blessing.

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.