Blogging Benedict: Service

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In chapter 35 of the Rule, St Benedict writes:

The brothers should serve one another and no one should be excused from kitchen duty, unless he is sick or is busy with something particularly important, for by serving one another the brothers gain a greater reward and become more loving. (p. 60, trans. White)

This is, I think, something vitally important in our communal life, in homes, churches, workplaces, other communities. No one is above works of service. Service is love.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a monk who visited one of the monasteries, and they invited him to join them in their manual labour, and he remarked that he was there simply to pray. They took him to his cell and left him there. Eventually, after several hours, he grew hungry, and he was wondering when they would eat, for no one had come to get him. Growing curious, and a bit concerned, he left his cell to seek out the abbot and asked him about when supper was. The abbot remarked that they had not called him for supper, since he was so spiritual that he did not need to work with his hands, clearly he did not need to eat carnal food, either.

There is more to say about manual labour in RB later, of course. But no one is exempt from the service of others in the Rule. One of the reasons why St Basil the Great (of Caesarea) favoured communal life over hermits was because how can you fulfill Christ’s commands to love and serve each other if you are hermits?

In our communities, this means that elders, wardens, pastors, priests, deacons, deaconesses, et al., take their turns in the mundane aspects of church life. My minister in Edinburgh was often invisible in the kitchen at events. In Durham, my minister helps set up and take down equipment before and after services. Growing up, my dad (a priest) spent a lot of time at the food bank that ran out of our church unloading and distributing food.

Whether you hold an official post in the church, service, which leads to humility and is an act of love, can (and should!) be part of your Christian life. Wash dishes, cook food, take care of babies in creche, organise Sunday School storage cupboards. This all serves the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Saint of the Week: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

We’ve just missed the feast day of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (or “the Theologian”, a title he shares only with St. John the Evangelist — although a case may also be made for St. Symeon the New Theologian), but he is a saint worth looking at.

St. Gregory (329-390) is one of the famous Cappadocian Fathers, a trio of theologians from Cappadocia in modern Turkey who were an important influence upon the development of Trinitarian theology in the last stages of the Arian Controversy. The other members of this trio are the brothers St. Basil of Caesarea (Saint of the Week here) — a good friend of St. Gregory’s — and St. Gregory of Nyssa (Saint of the Week here).

St. Gregory’s father, a convert from paganism, was bishop of Nazianzus. He and Gregory’s mother had an impact upon the young Gregory, some of which psychoanalysts would probably love to get their hands on. Following the path of the Late Antique man of letters, Gregory went to school in Caesarea, Palestine (not the Caesarea of Basil which is Cappadocia), with Basil, for education. He and Basil met up again in Alexandria.

Gregory was headed on his “worldly” career path when he went from Egypt to Athens. When his ship was struck by a storm on the way, he chose to devote his life to the Gospel and the work of the Church. In Gregory’s case, this meant a life of quiet retirement and ascetic rigour back home in Cappadocia.

However, back in Cappadocia, he found himself being lassoed into a more active role in Church service by Basil. He rose to challenge, finding himself unwillingly bishop of what amounted to no more than a service station on the highway.

Yet from there his fortunes were truly to rise, as he was translated to the see of Constantinople, where he presided over the Second “Ecumenical” Council in 381 which produced this creed, commonly called “Nicene” and recited in churches around the world today.

Most Nicenes consider Constantinople I a great victory for the orthodox position. Gregory did not. He resigned partway through the event and went home to Cappadocia in disgust at Church politics, for that famous creed does not explicitly affirm the full deity of the Holy Spirit, one of the important dogmas that he and his fellow Cappadocians had fought for in the last stages of the Nicene controversy.

Not that his time in Constantinople was a total bust. It produced a good number of excellent sermons, including the Five Theological Orations that, besides simple statements like the Athanasian Creed, were my introduction to Trinitarian Theology and which Christopher A. Hall used as the basis for his discussion of the Trinity in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (reviewed here, with a discussion of Greg Naz here).

He spent his last years in quiet retirement writing poetry and refining his Orations. His poetry, when read in conjunction with his dogmatic theology, escorts us into the world of the mystical theology of the Eastern Church (to borrow the title from Vladimir Lossky).

In St. Gregory, we Western Christians have the opportunity to see the happy union of the apophatic — we can only speak of God by uttering what He is not — and the cataphatic — through revelation we are able to speak truths about God. We see that theology is a task that is not to be taken up lightly but soberly, that it is the ascent of the soul to the living God, into Whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall.

With Gregory, we see clearly the divinity of all three Persons of the Trinity, we see some of their attributes, then we ascend the Mount and enter into the Cloud of Unknowing where we fall down to worship the Triune God in the beauty of holiness.

And it is worship that binds all Christians together, for worship is our purpose. As John Piper says, mission exists because worship does not. So take some time to worship God with thrice-holy cry like the Seraphim; spend some time thinking on things heavenly; spend some time with the Fathers.

And then write about it in dactylic hexameter — or whatever your creative outlet is. Just like St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory the Theologian.

Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.

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.

Apocatastasis?

Icon of the Last Judgement: note the bishops going to Hell (on the right)

Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.

Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:

Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.

My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.

David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.

I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.

Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they  run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.

Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.

*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.

**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.

Who is the rich man who will be saved?

There is abroad today a pernicious pestilence that believes that, while not every rich man is saved, every man who is saved is rich, for Christ came to give us, of all things, material prosperity.

As in, stuff. Good health, nice car, pure-bred dog, big house, ridiculously expensive clothes.

All you need is faith.  If you trust in Jesus, your problems of health and wealth will go away. If you see a big house on a hill, don’t say, “Too bad I’ll never live there.” No, indeed, according to Joel Osteen, that is the thought-life of defeat. You need, instead, to say, “I will live there.” Put your faith in God that He will provide you with the house. And He will.

This is the sort of idea one would expect, say, Charlemagne to comfortable with. I’m pretty sure that King of the Franks attributed his military success to the favour of God (and possibly the turning of the Wheel! of! Fortune!). And I’m certain the William the Bastard (aka Conqueror) directly attributed his conquest of England to God’s favour. The successors of Mohammed were known to say, do, and think similar things.

Of course, this isn’t the Middle Ages, anymore. So the modern prosperity heretic instead says that God will give you a big house and a nice car, not the better portion of Germany or North Africa. Same falsehood, new guise.

I’m being blunter than usual. This is because this teaching, this so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth Gospel” is pernicious and terrible and, quite frankly, pisses me off. And that’s righteous pissed-offness, if you’re wondering.

There are two issues we need to address here, my friends. One is: What is the “biblical” (orthodox? true?) view of wealth? What is the “b”(o?t?) view of salvation?

When trying to figure out a proper Christian view of something, the best place to start is not only the Bible, but the words of Jesus therein. What does Jesus say about wealth?

The core text for Jesus and money is Mark 10:17-31. This is the famous story of the Rich Young Ruler, a guy who wants to know how to be saved. Having told Jesus that he was good at fulfilling the law, he’s told that he lacks one thing: selling all his possessions and giving to the poor. If he were to do that, then he could go and follow Jesus.

Wait. According to Joel Osteen and his ilk, following Jesus makes me rich. But according to Jesus, this particular person should, necessarily, be poor. This doesn’t add up. I can understand people who rationalise this commandment, arguing that rich people can be saved, even if it be more difficult than a camel traversing the eye of a needle. The earliest known account of this is St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who wrote the beautiful treatise from which I stole this post’s name (at CCEL).

St. Clement demonstrates the uneasiness early Christian had with wealth, but encourages the wealthy to salvation nonetheless:

let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy.

And also:

a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened.

St. Clement’s treatise encourages all Christians to live lives of virtue, seeking the wealth and riches of good deeds and pure hearts rather than the temporal wealth of the world. And well he should, for the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But wait, if we are only to serve God and not Mammon (Mt. 6:24), should we be desiring a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger paycheque? Isn’t this just serving two masters (also Mt. 6:24)? And doesn’t it sound a lot like the Law of Attraction (The Secret)? And what about all that stuff about having your treasure in heaven? I’m not so sure Jesus will make us wealthy. In fact, as we’ll see in a later post, Jesus promises us something quite … different.

Rationalisations of Clement’s that allow Christians to have wealth usually work on me. This is no big surprise, since I am, on a global scale, wealthy. So, probably, are you. However, when we see Jesus has lots of things to say about money — and actual money, parables not counting as they are analogical and allegorical — I get a little worried. Maybe you should worry, too:

whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!)

I think Mr. Osteen has found a way to pack the pews, but not the path of righteousness.

If the evidence of the Fathers well allowable (I mean, besides St. Clement), the verdict against the Prosperity Gospel would be damning, for many of them were ascetics. St. Antony heard the call from Matthew’s version of the Rich Young Ruler and went and became a hermit. Similar stories for the rest of the Desert Fathers, really. The great theologian of the Trinity, St. Basil, was an ascetic as well. So was St. Augustine of Hippo. And St. Ambrose. Really, do I need to list them all? I know that sometimes the Fathers have wacky ideas, but I don’t think, “Lead a disciplined life and seek Christ through prayer and fasting — and avoid accumulating stuff,” is amongst them …