In The Apostolic Tradition, the author (Hippolytus? of Rome?) writes at the end of the baptismal rite:
And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety. (21.38, trans. Stewart-Sykes)
The phrase that struck me as I read this was ‘progressing in piety’. One of the features of ancient, medieval, Byzantine Christianity is its belief that the ongoing life of faith involves progress. We are not simply ‘saved’ and baptised, but, now that we are made right with God and adopted as His children, we have the opportunity to ‘progress in piety’.
The standard of perfection, for example, is God. And God is eternal and infinite. Therefore, argues St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) in the passage excerpted by Richard Foster in Devotional Classics, the human pursuit of perfection is endless and infinite as well. We will never arrive; even in eternity we will have room for limitless growth in glory.
In some Protestant circles (usually the Reformed), a fear of ‘works righteousness’ and the legalism or false sense of personal achievement that attend it have led to a rejection of the idea of progress in holiness — although they acknowledge that something like it occurs, as Spurgeon did when he rejected the phrase ‘progressive sanctification’ as unscriptural, speaking of growth in grace instead.
St John Climacus’ Ladder is all about this progress, after all. Indeed, the ascetic literature, while it can at times tend towards legalism of the harshest kind, is piercingly aware of growth in holiness, portraying it as a ladder or an ascent or steps towards God. Simultaneously, there is an acknowledgement of the necessity of grace for this growth in holiness. (St Theophan the Recluse, the nineteenth-century Russian always comes to my mind when I think about this.)
We are commanded to progress in piety, but we need the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will empower our spiritual disciplines so that we can strive for the heights of John Wesley’s Christian perfection. (A concept, when rightly understood, I am not opposed to — but I do wonder if anyone ever received so much grace.) This is synergeia, synergy, and it is not a rejection of grace but a way of viewing how it operates.
According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:
A few days at the guest house for the persistent
Two months as a novice
Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
Another four-month testing period.
The three central (famous!) vows:
In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.
This is a radical commitment.
Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.
What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.
That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.
What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.
What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.
What if we were this radically invested in our churches?
Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.
In chapter 55 of the Rule, we read that the clothes of the monks are to be simple and plain, as well as few in number:
When the brothers receive new [clothes] they should always hand in the old ones at once, so that they can be put away in the clothes room for the poor. (p. 87, trans. White)
The clothing is not of importance itself. It is not to be hoarded, but the excess in the monastery’s life is to be used in acts of charity (caritas = agape = the highest form of love). They are only to have two tunics and two cowls.
The teaching on clothing should be tied in with the teaching on food — simple fare with little wine. It should also be tied in with the vows of stability, poverty, and obedience (ch. 58). Again: stability = a simple life, not roving about. Poverty = a simple life uncluttered by possessions and the administration of property. Obedience = simplicity in choosing how to live.
The (ideal) life of the Benedictine is simple. Pray and work with the hands. The complicated round of prayers that characterise Lanfranc’s Constitutions is not what Benedict originally intended. The complicated tasks of administering large landholdings are not, either.
This desire for simplicity drove many of the late eleventh- and early twelfth-century monastic reform movements, such as the Tironensians (on whom I’ve blogged here) and the Cistercians. The Cistercian life was meant to be simple and austere. They were to be free to perform Benedict’s liturgy of the hours. They dress simply, they live simply.
Their minds are to be simply devoted to God. Cistercian manuscripts are rarely of secular or pagan authors. Instead, they are Bibles, biblical commentaries, liturgical texts, and the Fathers. The earliest Cistercian manuscripts tend not to have figural decorations but, instead, have lovely marginal illustrations of plants and herbs. Their churches were originally not to have steeples. They are to be simple and austere.
The title of this post is taken from a book by Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity. In this book, he charts the biblical vision of how we are to treat possessions and live in the world, as well as practical steps we can take to live more simply. According to Foster, such a life is ultimately freeing, if only we continue to pursue. It is a very Quaker approach, but the monastics would agree.
So, let’s think on how we can simplify our lives and find true freedom in Christ and gospel-centred living.
What activities can you cut out of your day, week, month?
What expenses can you reduce?
What temptations do you have in the area of food and drink?
What can you give away?
Is your devotional life cluttered with too many books, too many ideas, too many options, too many practices? Which might be the most helpful for you to love God more? Focus on these.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)