Blogging Benedict: A Wake-Up Call

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The Prologue to the Rule of Benedict is not so much a setting out of what will follow as it is a call to wake up, although it does touch on one of the most important themes of the Rule, one that is distasteful to our modern ears: obedience. Let us begin with the wake-up call (avoiding Petra references).

“Let us open our eyes to the divine light and listen carefully to what the divine voice tells us to do…” (p. 2 English)

As the verse says (Ro. 13:12), “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” Or, as my mother felt the Lord say once, “Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity.” What are we doing now about salvation? Christianity is not an exercise in passivity. It is a matter of finding the truth and living it.

For Benedict, the truth is found in the Scriptures, it is found in Christ, it is found the writings of the Fathers. We cannot be slack or lazy or put off to tomorrow the holiness to which we are called today. Christians in many (all?) ages have been tempted in two ways: cheap grace or legalism. Sometimes (for example) I think it is easier to be a teetotaller or someone who drinks to excess than it is to drink in moderation. Benedict will read to many people like legalism, even though he is far more lenient than some of his contemporaries. And the thing that we will chafe under most is obedience.

Very quickly, it is worth here reminding ourselves of the modern notion of freedom as the pure, unrestrained activity of the will of the human individual. Or nation-state, at a higher level. Anything that conflicts with my desires is seen as necessarily bad. This vision of freedom is in direct contrast with the pre-modern West, where true freedom was found by living according to your own nature, or the nature of the universe (Stoicism); it was found by seeking the summum bonum (Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas), or the beautiful (Plato’s Symposium) and then living in accord with that. It is choosing to restrain our wills to something bigger and better than the fleeting pleasures of a moment.

What we tend to consider ‘freedom’ today is really just slavery to the passions. We should instead seek to be freed from the passions, or seek to rule them and guide them in accordance with nature, reason, the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one (Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). If we do not control the passions, do not subvert them to the greater good, we are not free, for we cannot choose rightly.

While many Christians would agree with all of this, there are still concerns about obedience as Benedict lays it out. The Benedictine monk is to give absolute obedience to the abbot. This, in fact, is common to many Late Antique ascetic/monastic texts, whether in Sinai with John Climacus, Egypt (Palestine?) with Mark the Monk, Luxeuil with Columbanus, Monte Cassino with Benedict.

Our concern about giving any human such obedience is not ungrounded. We live in the age after Jonestown, after all. We have seen what personality cults can do in a less murder-suicide manner, anyway. Nevertheless, for Benedict, responding to the call to holiness starts with obedience.

Here, in the Prologue, obedience is first and foremost to Christ. Let us keep that in our mind when we consider other parts of the Rule and the rest of obedience. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not the abbot. But our disordered wills should perhaps submit to the wisdom of our elders in the faith. Otherwise, is it not like undergraduates determining pedagogy, as though 18-22-year-olds know what’s best for them, how best to educate themselves?

At the root of both ethics/morality and discipline lies the reality of God as creator and sustainer. He knows best because he is best. He is Aristotle’s summum bonum, as discussed by Anselm’s Monologion. Therefore, we willfully submit to God’s will and God’s commands in order to flourish. Our lives, as St Paul says, are not our own. We were bought at a price. Let us ever keep scriptural obedience in mind in our reading of Benedict.

We find God’s commands in Scripture. We also, sometimes, add disciplines. There is an important difference between discipline and morality. Discipline is the voluntary activity in which we engage to grow spiritually, but it is, morally, optional. Ivo of Chartres makes this important distinction in the prologue to his canonical collection around 1100.

Discipline is askesis, the word for training an athlete. We need to train ourselves for the fight for holiness in our lives, against the passions and the demons and the external temptations of life.

And so, as we steer clear of the Scylla of cheap grace, which is what Benedict’s Prologue is calling us to do, we feel like perhaps we are veering into the Charybdis of legalism or what Presbyterians call ‘works righteousness’. But what about ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)? The sheep and goats of Matthew 25? Faith without works is dead — the epistle James. Holiness is a calling that we pursue. God acts in us as we act for him.

The ancient and medieval ascetics are thus helpful for us in our simultaneous fear of cheap grace and legalism. They sought to radically train themselves to live in holiness. Even if we are saved by grace, holiness usually seems to arrive after some effort. I saw this as an Anglican, thinking beyond the ancients to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’ve blogged on the latter before. Both of these writers, without denying the necessity of grace, believe in the disciplined life. One of the points made by Taylor, and reproduced as an appendix in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is the fact that specific disciplines are not necessary to all Christians — that each of us needs to train for holiness in the way that works for our soul.

And so, finally, when we think on obedience and discipline and the serious call to holiness, we cannot forget grace. St Benedict believes in grace, intimately united to duty:

Those who fear the Lord and do not allow themselves to become proud because of their good works realize that the good that is in them does not come from their own abilities but from the Lord. (p. 4)

Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in his tabernacle, and we have heard his instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to his instructions. If our natural abilities do not allow us to do something, we must ask the Lord to grant us his grace to assist us. (p. 5)

All the great ascetic writers acknowledge the union of grace to our effort — that we cannot be holy without God making us so, that we cannot even performs virtuous acts of ascetic labours without grace. This union of God’s grace with our discipline is found in Theophan the Recluse (19th c. ), Prosper (On the Call of All Nations), Augustine (variously), Mark the Monk, and Cassian (Conference 13) in the fifth. Mark the Monk writes:

First of all, we know that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. -‘On the Spiritual Law’, 2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 110.

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. -‘No Righteousness by Works’, 18, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1

In ‘No Righteousness by Works’, St Mark goes into this discussion more extensively. He also has high expectations of his ascetic readers.

We have been called out of the darkness and into the light. We have been shown by the Scriptures what holiness looks like. Christ and the apostles fasted and prayed. The apostles searched the Scriptures. They performed acts of mercy. They called us all to obedience to God as well as mutual submission to one another.

“And so, clothed in faith and the performance of good works, let us set off along his path using the Gospel as our guide.” (p. 3)

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Suffering (St Mark the Monk and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)

An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…

Holy Saturday.

Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.

Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.

The day before, Good Friday.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison!

Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.

There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.

In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.

At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.

Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.

Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):

42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.

65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.

66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.

67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.

If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.

The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.

So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?

There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.

I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.

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.)

Why I’m not Orthodox

Seraphim of Sarov

I try to avoid polemic on this blog. I’d rather discuss those things from the Great Tradition and various other traditions of Christianity that most of us can benefit from, or those things that really just tickle my fancy. However, today I have a burning desire to write something less than irenic.

I write this post as a result of the fact that I dare to pray for other people when praying the Jesus Prayer. This, according to one commenter, is the height of arrogance, and is based on my proud assumption that I am already saved. And, apparently, I have made this assumption because I’ve read a lot of books and think I can pray:

Or you already apriori decided that once u have read and learn anything and “think” u can pray u r saved?)

I don’t know why the random parentheses are scattered across said commenter’s comments.

This brings me to the heart of why I am not Orthodox: salvation.

Reconcile me to the Virgin, the saints, the necessity of kissing icons, the Orthodox view of church history, Palamite hesychasm, the Eucharist, and so forth. I’m willing to be convinced. But I will be much harder to convince because of how this tradition approaches salvation.

At its best (and I try to look at all non-heretical Christian groups at their best), the Orthodox tradition wilfully refuses to parse salvation, saying that simply praying the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough to be ‘saved’, that salvation is found in the ongoing life of faith that follows.

At its best, Protestantism says, ‘Yes. That moment of conversion by faith is when we are initially justified, and then we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the ongoing life of faith that follows.’

The whole bundle is ‘salvation’ for the Orthodox, while we parse the different bits.

Each catches a bit of the truth.

But this leads to difficulties for many of the eastern tradition, going back at least to Mark the Monk, a fifth-century Greek monk who lived in the Egyptian desert (maybe; it’s a common name, so all the sayings attributed to Mark the Monk may not all be by the same monk named Mark). If you read the selections from said Mark in The Philokalia, one of the things that will become apparent to a Protestant reader is that Mark has no assurance of salvation.

Mark the Monk, for all the various pieces of wisdom on prayer and the spiritual life he has, lives in the fear of Hell.

This may not be the best of Mark the Monk, and it may not be the best of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is not uncommon.

Indeed, is this why many Orthodox pray the Jesus Prayer? For me, it is a way of drawing nearer to the Saviour who I know has saved me. If it is ‘salvation’, it is the ongoing purification from the presence of sin or the tendency toward sin in my life, not escape from Hell.

This is why it’s not so bad that we Protestants tend to parse salvation, even if we may go too far sometimes.

This concern of self-salvation is prominent in my Orthodox commenter’s concerns, evident when she quotes Seraphim of Sarov (but possibly attributing it to the Desert Fathers?) in the form:

Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.

This seems to be a popular version of the quotation, although I have hitherto only encountered it as:

Keep your heart at peace, and a multitude around you will be saved.

And I immediately hear Fr John Romanides yelling in my ear, ‘Keeping your heart at peace, acquiring peace in your nous IS salvation, Protestant!’ And I respond, ‘It is a result of salvation, given by grace and usually after years of the walk of faith.’

If I save myself, if I keep my heart at peace, that is a terrible burden. I cannot lift that.

Is this not the entire point of the Gospel of Grace? God became man so that man might become like God? We are, each of us, beset by sin on all sides. We cannot, of our own accord, save ourselves. We, God’s beloved creation, are tending towards destructin. So he becomes one of us, and by the power of that Incarnation, and then the death of One of the Most Holy Trinity on our behalf, and then when He destroys death with the lightning flash of his Godhead and rises again, He gives us the grand gift of salvation from the penalty of sin.

And as we accept this gift of grace, he empowers us to live holier lives, day by day, lives of grace. If we accept his daily grace and walk with Him regularly and engage in the disciplines, we become holier and holier. This is the life of salvation, but all of it is grace.

Grace. The great scandal at the heart of the most ancient strand of the Christian tradition. The great incomprehensibility lying in wait for us in the Scriptures (read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians). A power so mighty that even those who claim the strongest ties to the ancient church live much of their lives as though salvation depended on themselves, not on it.

Maybe this is arrogance on my part. Maybe it is arrogant to say, ‘I have read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers and much of the Tradition. The earliest strand and truest strand and the strand most consonant with the Scriptures is grace.’ If it is, God have mercy on my soul.

And I know — to forestall certain comments — that Vera is not the Orthodox position, and that there is a diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that there are shades of meaning in ‘salvation’ in Orthodox discourse, and that what I describe is not indicative of the experience of a great many Orthodox, and so forth. I have no doubt. But I have witnessed it with my own eyes — all the more, then, do I grieve for this state of affairs.