Blogging Benedict: A School for the Lord’s Service

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.

Before moving on to the first chapter of the Rule, I want to pause for a moment to consider this phrase and what it might mean for us today — our understanding of discipleship and our worshipping, witnessing communities.

Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici scola servitii.

The idea of the Christian community as school should help us shift our thinking about what the worshipping community is up to. For example, a few months ago a friend expressed his displeasure at a post that had done the rounds on his Facebook feed all about why Millennials aren’t going to church anymore. And, even if some of the criticisms were valid, the entire spirit of the piece was, ‘We don’t go to church because church isn’t doing things for us/the way we like it.’

Elsewhere, you’ll read about church growth tactics, using coffee bars to lure people back. Or manipulating emotions with lighting during worship (this is a thing I read in a catalogue from a supplier of church electronic equipment). We are told to make church relevant to the (felt) needs of congregants. To make worship an unforgettable, subjective (emotional) experience.

For monks, all of this is meaningless.

What do I know about what is good for me? Have I not sacrificed my temporal pleasure and temporal good for the Kingdom of Heaven? I have forsaken all to gain everything in St Clare’s Laudable Exchange. The monk has given up all rights to earthly materials, earthly goods, family, inheritance, social position. St Antony the Great made sure his sister had enough to live on, then completely abandoned his inheritance, giving it all to the poor.

Aren’t we supposed to be like that guy in the parable, who found a treasure in a field, so he sold everything and bought the field?

Forsaking everything for Christ means opening ourselves up to suffering. It means looking at church not as a place where we go to feel good or to have our needs met, but to encounter the risen Christ. It means enrolling in a school of the Lord’s service.

After all, Jesus’ followers in the New Testament are called disciples — an English word from the Latin discipulus, a learner, a student, an apprentice, translating the Greek mathetes. I remember how it startled me to recognition about the word in a Bible study with a Greek Cypriot friend who kept calling the disciples Jesus’ students.

What if all of the inward-focussed church programmes (so not evangelism or serving the wider community) took themselves seriously as a school for the Lord’s service — a school where we learn to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that our churches would look different. And healthier.

And maybe, for a while, smaller.

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Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…

St. Francis and Why You Like Him

Re-post from elsewhere in 2008.

St. Francis of Assisi by Count Berthold von Imhoff

Despite real, living human beings like one old woman in Chasing Francis who declared in horror, “Isn’t Francis of Assisi a Roman Catholic Saint?” many people love St. Francis, Christian and otherwise. Among the Christians, friends of Francis are found across denominational and theological boundaries, with “Low” and “High” Anglicans loving him, “liberals” and “conservatives” being inspired by him, “evangelicals” and “progressives” chasing him.

So let’s get Francis to cut through all the barriers and labels and help us see what a real Christian looks like!

Ecologists love St. Frank because he was green. He preached to animals and rejoiced in creation, seeing it as a vehicle for the beauty and glory of the Creator. If he were to see what we do to the planet today, he would be shocked and appalled. He would call out for us to stop, to take a look at Sister Earth and her moaning, to see that the majestic trees are our fellow creatures, made by the same loving God! Yes, the earth is ours to till, to use, but not to abuse or destroy! We must be stewards of creation, not overlords.

Evangelistic evangelicals love Francis because he was a gospel preacher before he was a creation-lover. He and his friars would preach to poor that they had to repent, that the Kingdom of Heaven was nigh. They cared about and for the poor spiritually in a time when many reserved the gospel of salvation for the rich and noble. They preached a gospel of the extravagant love of God in an age of hellfire, brimstone, Crusades, and indulgences. St. Frank believed that everyone had a chance of heaven, and he wanted them to have that chance. He loved Jesus and he wanted everyone else to see why Jesus was worth loving.

Social activists love St. Frank because he bathed the lesions of lepers. Once, when the brothers gave him a cloak because it was a cold evening, he gave it to the first freezing beggar that he saw, then proceeded to thank the beggar for giving him this opportunity for generosity. The message of repentance the little brothers brought to the rich and powerful was that of mammon, of money and its grip on life. Sometimes they didn’t use words, and this was effective enough for many rich young men to sell all they had, give to the poor, and go join the little brothers. At other times, if the brothers were at prayer and a rich man rode by in his carriage, one would stand and preach about the evils and money and the deception on wealth while the others continued at prayer.

Mystics love St. Francis of Assisi because he was one. He would spend days in prayer — spontaneously. Once he was walking with some of the brothers and became overcome by an urge to pray. A friend had a place nearby, so they went there, and St. Francis spent the next three days in prayer. Another time, when he and St. Claire were deep in conversation for hours and their spirits were caught up in the heavenlies, the locals ran to the building because it looked like it was aflame. But when they went in, they saw that the light was produced by a gathering of the saints with Francis and Claire. St. Francis had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the stigmata. The event that started his ministry was a vision of Christ.

Why do you like St. Francis of Assisi?

Saint of the Week: St. Clare of Assisi

Adapted from a post originally situated here.

St. Clare of Assisi was probably St. Francis’ (saint of the week here) best friend. She, like Francis, came from a wealthy family in Assisi, and abandoned it all for the Gospel — which for a woman in thirteenth-century Italy was a lot harder than for a man; she had to run away from home basically and escape out of an arranged marriage.

Having made the Laudable Exchange (blogged here), she joined up with Francis. Since the Church of the Middle Ages did not have a place for women in the wandering, preaching work of mendicants, she and her sistren who also abandoned the world lived the cloistered life. The order she founded is the Poor Sisters of St. Clare, the nuns who are the female counterparts of the Little Brothers.

Now, the thirteenth century was still the Middle Ages, and Sts. Francis & Clare were out to change the Holy Catholic Church from within, not start a hippie commune (as it looks in Brother Sun, Sister Moon) with Donovan leading the Gregorian Chant. The Poor Clares lived separately from the Little Brothers; mediaeval monastics, no matter how counter-cultural, knew well the temptations and lusts of the flesh. Having large quantities of unmarried men and women living in close community is not necessarily conducive to righteous living.

St. Clare is another reason we love Franciscans. St. Francis treated her as an equal, as a friend, as a sister. Many great things there are about the Middle Ages, but the treatment of the average woman by the men around her is not one of them. That Francis and Clare were such good friends is a testament to the power of the Gospel to transform lives. Their friendship is also one of those beautiful spiritual bonds that many of us long for, such as between St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. They would meet and discuss the things of Christ into the wee hours, unconscious of the passage of time. Their conversation and prayers would get caught up into the heavenly realms as these two mystics sought the glorious Trinity together.

So, here’s a collect for St. Clare’s Day, as found over at the Daily Office blog:

Collect of the Day: St. Clare of Assisi, 1253

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.