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.

Praying on the Tram

I just finished a few days of research in Leipzig. Leipzig is an interesting city, with contrasts between beautiful and less-so, between ultra-modern and Baroque, between the boarded-up buildings in some quarters and the shining skyscraper in the city centre.

My first full day was May 1, and May is the month of prayer, as discussed in this post. Besides continuing with Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, my journey into the disciplines involved journeys into Leipzig.

Every morning, after scuttling from my hotel to the tram, I had a 25-min tram ride ahead of me. And so, when better to pray? My spiritual mentor has recommended I spent no fewer than ten minutes and no more than twenty praying the Jesus Prayer. A 25-min tram ride is perfectly suited for this. So out would come my prayer rope, my fingers slipping along each knot:

 Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I have been told that one can also pray for others in the cycle, so sometimes I would insert my wife or a friend who was on my heart instead of me, me, me. Sometimes I would also replace me with everyone on this tram.

I think it is a rule that should be more widely observed that commutes are excellent times for prayer. We should never, of course, abandon the recommendation of our Lord to go into our secret place and shut the door (Mt 6:6). Yet why not redeem the time spent between A and B through communing with our God who is everywhere and fills all things?

Here are some other commuting prayer ideas:

  • Imagine Christ walking through the bus/tram/train and blessing everyone, resting his hand on their heads and blessing them or standing beside them. Maybe even giving someone who looks really sad a good hug.
  • Pray for the people around you more consciously – this is something Richard Foster recommends in Celebration of Discipline. Ask God to impact the people around you. So pray that the guy across from you on the train will know that he is deeply loved, more than he can imagine. Pray that the sad-looking lady may know that there is joy available that will never run dry. That sort of thing.
  • Pray for safety for the vehicle and alertness and wisdom for the driver.
  • Pray for the neighbourhoods you pass through – for all who live and work there, that they would know the truth of God’s real blessings in this life, and in the life to come everlasting joy.

These are but a few ways we can all try to bring the Spirit of the living God with us on the way to work. What suggestions might you have?

Living discipline regularly

Athonites at prayer
Athonites at prayer

One of the important insights Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines repeats time and again is the necessity to live the disciplines as part of our regular life. If we want Christ to transform us, if we want to live the kind of life He lived, if we want to be able to have Gospel responses to the stimuli that surround us, we need to engage in regular patterns of disciplined living.

Otherwise, the disciplines are just for show (they could be, either way, of course). Otherwise, we will not have the inner strength of character to turn the other cheek, bless and not curse, control our thoughts, resist unhealthy food/books/images/etc, not lie, and so forth.

Engaging in disciplines does not mean we are holy — but it is the only way to get there.

Apparently, my minister back in Edinburgh (I’m in Germany at present) was saying this same thing about prayer this past Sunday. If we only ever pray in times of crisis and danger and fear and worry, we will not have that inner peace that we all want, that cool head that we wish to have when we encounter difficulties and problems in this world. We will not have a resolute trust in God that He is doing the best we wish.

So, let’s start with the most promoted discipline (certainly amongst Evangelicals) — prayer.

Pray today. Whether it’s supplication or the Jesus Prayer or the BCP or praising God for the beauty of spring or entreating God for the end of winter. Whether it is long or short. Pray.

And tomorrow, pray more.

Let’s make prayer the foundation of our lives.

Each month, starting this month, I’ve been wanting to spend conscious time and study on one of the twelve disciplines in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. April has been the month of meditation (I’m not so good at that one).

May will be the month of prayer. Will you join me?

Simplicity: Freedom from avarice and anxiety

In his book Celebration of Discipline, the first ‘Outward Discipline’ Richard Foster discusses is Simplicity. I am not the greatest practitioner of Simplicity, but ever since I really discovered St Francis of Assisi as an undergraduate, I have wished to be. As I look around at my multitudinous books, Playmobil, CDs, DVDs, cluttered schedule, I want to be unshackled. I want what Evagrius calls ‘Freedom from Possessions’.

Foster maintains that anxiety is the opposite of simplicity. I agree. I also believe that avarice is one of the great problems confronting and confronted by Simplicity. To cultivate Simplicity, to seek first the Kingdom of God, to dress like flowers and eat like birds, he gives three inner attitudes:

Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes. If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety. This is the inward reality of simplicity. However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have is not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live ‘the simple life’. (p. 77, 1st UK ed.)

The focus of our material possessions, and — I maintain — earthly relationships is turned from us maintaining and controlling to God maintaining and controlling. This can only be healthy.

But Simplicity is an outward discipline. What sorts of things can w do to live such a life? Foster gives ten principles; I give you the outdated page number for each in case you happen to also have the first UK ed at hand:

  1. buy things for their usefulness rather than their status (78)
  2. reject anything that is producing an addiction in you (79)
  3. develop a habit of giving things away (79)
  4. refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (80)
  5. learn to enjoy things without owning them (80)
  6. develop a deeper appreciation for the creation (80)
  7. look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and serve to deepen your bondage (81)
  8. obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech (81)
  9. reject anything that will breed the oppression of others (82)
  10. shun whatever would distract you from your main goal (82)

Many of those are painfully obvious, but we do not live by them! Many we can think of friends or even ourselves being entrapped by such un-simplicity (e.g. ‘Must – have – iPhone – 5 …’; I know a guy with $25 000 of consumer debt). Number 8 is refers to, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no, no.’ How often do we just say what is necessary and what we mean without trying to justify ourselves or our answers? How many of us can even give an unqualified apology?

Our main goal — the Kingdom of God. Cassian (Conference 1) points us to ‘Purity of Heart’ as the earthly goal to attain this heavenly end. Kierkegaard’s book title (referenced by Foster) tells us that Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. It is Simplicity.

For More on Simplicity

Besides Celebration of Discipline, I have been challenged (and sometimes changed to whatever degree I am simple) by these two modern books in particular:

Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J Foster. He goes into ever deeper detail in this book. Well worth reading and re-reading.

The Lessons of Saint Francis by John Michael Talbot. Gives various lessons on daily living with Christ through the lens of the life and teachings of the jongleur de Dieu.

From the ancient and medieval writers, check out John Cassian, The Conferences and Benedict of Nursia, The Rule.