Help your church survive the future by rediscovering the past

Chapter 5 of The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is ‘A Church for All Seasons’. In this chapter, Dreher takes on the fact that not only is our culture around us shifting and changing and rejecting Christianity, but our churches are shrinking and have, frankly, something of a limp witness to the Triune God Who made all the things.

This chapter is in many ways perfectly in tune with the spirit of St Benedict’s Rule, and some of the recommendations are definitely from the Rule. Others, I think, are simply the way pre-modern Christians did things. I don’t think they are special to Benedict, and sometimes he wouldn’t even have thought there was a question about doing church this way.

The sub-headings are: ‘Rediscover the Past’, ‘Recover Liturgical Worship’, ‘Tighten Church Discipline’, ‘Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty’, ‘Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom’. He doesn’t actually argue that any living American Christian is going to be martyred, but he does recommend preaching, teaching, and living the path of suffering in our churches rather than self-fulfillment.

I am broadly in agreement with all of this. It’s basically what this entire blog is about. By rooting ourselves in the Great Tradition, by seeking beauty and God wherever we can, by learning the history of theology, by singing old hymns and praying old prayers and engaging in ancient disciplines, we forge an identity that is connected to that of our forebears in the faith and radically different from the world around us.

Last week, a friend and I were talking about how we need to communicate historic Christian truth afresh to each generation. For the Roman Catholic to say, ‘Ah, we have St Thomas for that,’ simply isn’t enough. Yes, read St Thomas Aquinas. Get filled up with him. And then express him, urgently, beautifully, winsomely, in a way that will communicate the best of Scholastic theology for today’s Christian.

I admit to being the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, the best book about the Council of Chalcedon is the translation of the acts by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis.’ I mean, it is — but what normal Christian is going to put up with three volumes of arguing bishops? Better even a 6-page pamphlet that someone will actually read and which gives Leo in a nutshell, Cyril in a nutshell, who Eutyches was, why Nestorianism was rejected, who dissented the results of the council and why as far as the life of the local church and normal human Christian is concerned.

Of course, of course, of course — we should challenge our brothers and sisters to read, if not conciliar acta, at least books like St Augustine’s City of God or an abridgement of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or St Athanasius On the Incarnation or the Rule of St Benedict or Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer or Bellarmine/Luther/Lancelot Andrewes/Calvin (depending on your tradition).

But perhaps we academics should also help the local church get plugged into the Great Tradition, through book studies or lectures or our own writings or, I dunno, blogs?

Anyway, rooting ourselves in the tradition through beautiful worship and rich theology and the pursuit of holiness will help keep us moored in the midst of liquid modernity.

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Suffering (St Mark the Monk and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)

An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…

Holy Saturday.

Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.

Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.

The day before, Good Friday.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison!

Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.

There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.

In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.

At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.

Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.

Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):

42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.

65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.

66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.

67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.

If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.

The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.

So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?

There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.

I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.