Blogging Benedict: Obedience (chapter 5)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

This is the chapter that scares our culture the most!

Benedict believes that absolute obedience to the abbot is essential for spiritual growth and growth in humility:

They do not live according to their own desires and pleasures, but progress according to someone else’s judgement and orders, living in monasteries and choosing to have an abbot in charge of them. (p. 20, trans. White)

This, of course, runs entirely to our culture’s belief that each of us should be his’er own master, that each knows best for oneself, and that no one should/can tell me what to do. I have a friend who works in Christian ministry, and one of the student leaders she was working with would take no suggestions and say things that amounted to, ‘Who are you to speak to my ministry?’ The answer being, ‘A sister in Christ.’ And, in that particular case, someone actually in authority over you…

But what if I am not wise enough to sift the path of discipleship on my own? What if there is someone who is better qualified to direct my paths, a spiritual father?

This emphasis on obedience is part of a wider culture of self-denial that we find a few decades later in Sinai with St John Climacus, and many centuries later in St Thomas à Kempis. The former of these two, a former hermit turned abbot and spiritual father, expresses many ideas consonant with Benedictine monasticism, including radical obedience. In St Thomas, we see a belief that we ourselves should put everyone before us and treat them as our betters.

All of this is well and good for the ancients, but unless we are monks, or Roman Catholics who confess to a priest, or Eastern Orthodox who likewise confess or have a spiritual father, what lessons might we take away from here?

I think the spirit of this obedience, in its good sense, can be found in what Richard Foster says about submission in Celebration of Discipline. We choose to submit to others and their requests and their wills not because we know they have better ideas or deserve submission, but because Scripture teaches us to submit to one another out of love. Christ came not to be served but to serve, and to lay his life as a ransom (Mt 20:28).

The obvious objection: ‘Won’t people walk all over me?’

My honest answer: ‘Probably. I’ve never tried this at large.’

Foster notes, though, that if you have already chosen in your heart to submit to your fellow-Christians and obey them, then are they walking on you? I, personally, try (not always with success) to think of my relationship to my wife and son in these terms. That in serving them I love them, that in submitting to their needs, desires, requests, I am acknowledging the headship of Christ in my own life.

A final thought related to this: Let us learn not to grumble in our hearts.

Perhaps as great a lesson, if we ever wish to be content and love our communities, our families, our coworkers, our churches.

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Blogging Benedict: Tools for good works (chapter 4)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 4 of The Rule of St Benedict (RB) is about the ‘tools for good works.’ We have already set aside concerns about legalism, so hopefully we can read Benedict for wisdom about discipline — about being disciples, students, in the Lord’s service, and seeing these tools as the means by which we grow spiritually and become truly virtuous. Much of this chapter is simply a catalogue of commands, some moral, some more ascetic/disciplined.

A few for reflection, then.

“put a high value in fasting.” (p. 16 — page references to the Little Black Penguin translation by Carolinne M. White)

In the churches I have attended, the only two disciplines regularly discussed are read your Bible and pray every day. They are probably the two most central. The ancient ascetics always bind in this third — fasting. And, indeed, our Lord fasted. John the Baptist fasted. St Paul fasted. Esther fasted. Fasting has been an integral part of Christian discipline, east and west, Roman Catholic and Protestant, for the whole history of the Church. Well, until recently. Not being a historian of the modern church, I don’t know when the change occurred. But I know that it was practised and advocated during the Reformation and by such figures as William Law and John Wesley.

In our food-obsessed culture (see my post on gluttony), fasting can be truly counter-cultural. It can also challenge us to re-think our priorities. As Benedict says in this chapter:

“Do not be guided in your actions by the values of this world, and do not value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” (pp. 16-17)

That, of course, includes fasting. Fasting, recall, is a tool, not an end in itself. To use these tools wisely, we need discretion, we need purity of heart, we need to cultivate what Hesychios the Priest (fifth-century) calls ‘watchfulness’ in The Philokalia. RB:

“As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ.” (17-18)

This not only draws my thoughts to St Hesychios but to St John Cassian as well, whose allegorical reading of Psalm 137, which advocates infanticide, I have blogged about. Twice, in fact. Cassian’s reading says that the Babylonian children are to be considered our vices; C. S. Lewis gives the same reading in Reflections on the Psalms.

Watchfulness as advocated by the ancients is almost impossible. How can we actually pay attention to every single thought we’re having? Thinking about thinking is really weird, isn’t it? In this regard, one non-Benedictine discipline that may help is the Examen, a Jesuit practice whereby you prayerfully go through the day and examine your heart. Where was God? Where did you sin? I’ve not read extensively on this discipline; Richard Foster treats it in his book Prayer.

When Benedict closes his discussion of these moral and ascetic tools, he writes:

“These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. … The workshop where we diligently work at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery, in the stability of the community.” (p. 19)

We see here some truly Benedictine ideals, particularly stability and community. Too many of us — myself often included — try to go it alone. No wonder we fail. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’ (Gen. 2:18) And when things get tough in one circumstance or community, we often leave, rather than wonder if the problem includes ourselves. You will never be able to outrun your own sweat.

Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 4: Silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer

Athonites at prayer

So we come to the final post of my meandering thoughts provoked by Chapter 4 of Prayer by Timothy Keller. I have not read the whole book, so maybe some of my concerns will be settled later. And we finally meet the issue that perhaps got me on guard in the first place — the Jesus Prayer.

The analysis of mystical prayer from Davis’s book as delivered by Keller is more open to the Jesus Prayer but also takes it to task. His first concern is, apparently, that many people use the Jesus Prayer to ‘block out all thoughts’. That is not how it is recommended by Kallistos Ware in The Jesus Prayer and The Power of the Name, nor in the Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim. It is not how Fr Raphael has taught me to pray it. Nor is it how western Christians describe its use, whether John Michael Talbot in his book The Music of Creation and on his YouTube channel or Richard Foster in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. And it is not in the spirit of inner prayer as recommended in The Philokalia.

But it is true that inner prayer is meant to help us block out thoughts, and that the Jesus Prayer is recommended as part of that. But the ascetic philosophy of the thoughts, the logismoi (in Greek), is not the blocking out of all thoughts. It is the attempt to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12) and to seek to order our thoughts towards God, towards Christ, and to his kingdom. The inner experience of Christian spirituality, the quest for inner prayer, the resting in silence, is an attempt to quiet the chatter that rules in the hearts and minds of most of us.

Consider, therefore, what Martin Luther said, that one cannot stop birds from flying overhead, but one can stop them from making nests in one’s hair. The Jesus Prayer is a way of keeping irrelevant and even sinful thoughts from nesting in our hair. An entirely salutary endeavour.

In his handy booklet Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster explains that Christian meditative techniques exist to help us empty ourselves so that God and Christ can fill us instead. If we consider that mystical prayer, inner prayer, the Jesus Prayer, are meant to be part of a full and rich Christian life, such as I’ve discussed in the earlier posts of this series (here and here), then there is nothing wrong with seeking to silence our inner chatter.

Furthermore, Davis’s other criticisms of the Jesus Prayer are either about its abuse or entirely unfounded. I agree with resisting the abuse of the Jesus Prayer. However, he complains that it makes no mention of God the Father, in whose Name Jesus asks us to pray, and that it only names us as ‘sinners’, not as God’s justified, adopted children.

The first of these two complaints boggles the mind. I am reminded of a friend who was concerned after visiting an Anglican church with me that so many prayers end with ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’, given that Scripture calls us to pray in Jesus’ name. Scripture calls us to pray in the names of both Father and Son. To reject the Jesus Prayer because it doesn’t mention the Father is a form of biblicism almost as dangerous as the aberrations of the Jesus Prayer Davis criticises.

The second is related. Our primary stance before God is always that we are sinners. Simul iustus et peccator — at the same time justified/righteous and a sinner. The Jesus Prayer draws on Scripture, so the closing words, ‘a sinner’, are actually Scripture, from the parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18. Furthermore, it is not necessary to close the prayer with those words, anyway — some stop at ‘have mercy on me’, others at ‘have mercy’.

The Jesus Prayer draws its words from Scripture, and its invocation of the name of Jesus — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God — encapsulates orthodox Christology, while the plea — have mercy on me, a sinner — grasps biblical anthropology. Christ has mercy on us. We are sinners. This is all biblical truth. Davis’s grounds are almost manufactured, as though he came expecting a fight.

This brings me to my final thought, which is the relationship of our spiritual practices and disciplines to Sacred Scripture.

The Bible is the record of God’s interactions with the human race and his self-revelation to humanity. It is the normative source of all of our doctrine, ethics, and spiritual disciplines. Anything we do or teach in relation to theology and spirituality must be held up to the light of Scripture. If it is contrary to Scripture, we should reject it. If it is commended, commanded, assumed by Scripture, we are to believe it, live it, do it. (I say this as a fairly committed Anglican who usually believes most of the 39 Articles.)

What about the rest? The rest are to be taken on the basis of the lived experience of Christ’s body throughout the ages, the great cloud of witnesses. If something is not contrary to Scripture, but is not explicitly recommended, and if other Christians have found it helpful, I see no reason to reject it.

I, for one, have found the Jesus Prayer to be a very salutary experience. It has helped me grow in virtue, in holiness, in grace. It has cooled my anger, calmed my anxiety, made me more peaceful overall. It has brought me closer to God. Not because it is magic. Not because it is the only way to approach God. But because, through attentive prayer and focus on Christ, I have found His grace ready and available.

I do not think everyone must pray the Jesus Prayer. I don’t think all Christians need to practise inner prayer or contemplative activity. But I think none should be barred from such prayer, many of us have profited from it, and perhaps still others need it just as other Christians need other practices.

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.)

We need to actually put into practice spiritual disciplines

I just read a piece from 2008 by Christopher S. Webb looking back on and celebrating 30 years of Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. In large part because of that book, many of us have been opening up with freedom the writings and teachings of the past centuries of the church. Ideas like fasting, meditating, and so forth, are no longer foreign in many Protestant churches. But how many of us have succeeded in applying these lessons and turning ourselves into deeply committed disciples?

It is a question I ask myself, especially because I blog about classic Christianity. Do I actually live it? Not to be too hard on myself, of course. But these questions need asking. As Webb says in the article:

Writing, preaching, and teaching about the spiritual disciplines is now widespread. The great Christian classics are more available and accessible than ever. The churches have become comfortable with the language of formation and intentionality. But the utter devotion to the way of Christ that lies at the heart of spiritual formation seems to elude too many. The classics are more often bought and quoted than actually read and wrestled with. Too often, our eloquent teaching and preaching far outstrips our practice. And while we might applaud a church for appointing a Spiritual Formation Pastor, it begs the question: what are the other pastors doing? In many churches formation and intentional discipleship remain electives for the enthusiastic rather than requisites of the core curriculum.

May you be blessed in your times of prayer this day, and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to truly live out the faith we have received!

Fasting and Almsgiving

As I mentioned in this post, each month I’m spending some of my devotional energy on one of the spiritual disciplines discussed by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Last month was prayer, and the next chapter is fasting, so June has theoretically been the month of fasting.

Fasting is an interesting discipline, and can be hard to talk about. It is very seldom practised today, and has in the past been used as a demonstration of feats of devotion to Our Lord that lead to pride. So when people talk about their own fasting, they may feel pride. Or they may feel proud that they aren’t proud. Or they may feel proud about their honesty that they struggle with fasting. Or … and so forth.

For many, fasting is a source of spiritual breakthrough. No doubt it would be so for more, if only more of us actually fasted with some semblance of regularity.

But is fasting enough?

No.

Mortifying the flesh is never enough. This is the mainstream patristic consensus. We may have to mortify the flesh in order to gain a body (Sergei Bulgakov), but if fasting or vigils or standing on pillars or wearing hair shirts or inverted hedgehog vests is not combined with other disciplines, it is meaningless.

As one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (found here) relates:

A brother said to an old man: “There are two brothers. One of them stays in his cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man replied: “Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.” Here we learn that love is above fasting, that we must not presume to put our fasting above “the more excellent way,” the “new commandment” to love one another.

The Western Fathers, you will be pleased to know, agree. Leo the Great believes that fasting can help cover our sins (and whether you agree with that theology or not, the second half is important), but only when connected to acts of charity and compassion for the poor.

St Augustine is similar, maintaining that of the two, it is acts of mercy and charity that are more important. If you give alms without fasting, that can still be a good work. But fasting without the other virtues is mere flesh.

I do not write today’s post to discourage fasting. Far from it! Would that many more of us observed both fasts from all food and abstinences from others on a regular basis! But when we fast (as Our Lord says it, not if) we should ever be seeking the Giver of good gifts as well as to do good deeds ourselves.

One recommendation I read somewhere (I think it was in something by Richard Foster, but it seems not to have been Celebration of Discipline, so that could be a false attribution) was to pray about a specific topic when we fast. Say, a temptation that has besetting us. Or maybe you know of someone who has a big test or an important meeting at work — you could fast and pray for them that day. Or fast and pray for persecuted Christians.

And then, let us give up of our material possessions even as we give up eating. Leo, in fact, recommends his congregation to give what they did not eat to the poor. Imagine that, if we fasted, and reckoned what we saved, and either donated the money to a charity or the food to a food bank! That would be the sort of fasting the Lord wants to see:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6 NKJV)

Dallas Willard (requiescat in pace) and the disciplines

I just learned from Miroslav Volf’s Facebook page that Dallas Willard has passed away. He died on 8 May of cancer, having been on this earth for 77 years. We have lost a man whom the Lord God blessed with wisdom, one of the great spiritual thinkers and Christian philosophers of our age.

I started Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy on a long, northbound bus ride in Toronto to the Varley Art Gallery in Unionville for an exhibition of icons from throughout the Orthodox worlds, from Russia to Ethiopia. I haven’t got around to finishing it, but herein Willard put before us the startling reality that the Kingdom of the Heavens is, in fact, right here, right before our eyes. God’s kingdom and throneroom aren’t ‘up there’ — they are in our midst and readily available to us. All of this life and world are to be suffused with the spiritual, for the spiritual is not someplace else.

My second encounter with Willard was his book Hearing God — a very practical, functional book devoted to the simple, profound question: How do we actually hear from God? In this book, Willard did not promote any gimmickry and avoided vagueness, enabling the careful reader who wishes to hear from the Almighty to reach a place of intimacy that makes God’s urgings and Voice felt and heard.

But by far the most important of my encounters with Dallas Willard will prove to be The Spirit of the Disciplines. Indeed, when I compare the importance of this book with the forests of trees pulped and oceans of ink spilled for the production of Christian literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I believe that, paired with Richard J Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, this is one of the most important books for today’s Christian to encounter.

What makes me say that? I do not say it to speak ill of the other books; I have a fondness for a number of current writers, from N T Wright and Miroslav Volf to Kallistos Ware and Nicky Gumble of Alpha Course fame. However, how many of us find books that transform us?

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard tackles the question of why so few Christians lead the lives of holiness and transformation and joy that permeate the characters and promises of Scripture. He approaches our lives and, transforming us through the renewing of our minds, shows us why.

Why? We do not live our daily lives as Jesus and Paul did. It’s all very well to wear a WWJD bracelet and ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ in times of crisis. But how many of us actually live the way Jesus and Paul did? How many of us invest time in serious prayer and fasting, in the deep study and meditation up scripture? How many of us forego pleasures of this world for the benefits of the Kingdom? How many of us seek to serve everyone? How many of us live in submission ot others? And on and on.

These are the daily, habitual actions, lived out in our bodies, that we are called to engage in. The spiritual masters and deep theologians of Christian history, from St Paul to St Thomas a Kempis to Martin Luther to Kallistos Ware practise these disciplines. Do we wish to have the courage to speak of Christ with friends and coworkers hostile to the faith? Do we wish to have the strength to stand up to corruption and the evils of our society?

Then we should live like our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I believe that it is only when large numbers of Christians, besides being properly catechised (itself a discipline), live lives of spiritual freedom through the disciplines that will impact each of us, that we will see increased evangelism and social action taking root and spreading throughout the post-Christian West. Only then will we see more disciples — through discipline.

One final note — Willard does a tremendous job of redeeming the body for Christian life. For this alone, the book is worth reading.