The Ecclesial Dimension of Christian Discipline

It can be very easy to think of spiritual growth and the disciplines solely in terms of what each of us is and does individually. Indeed, the history of the disciplines feels like it is full of loners — hermits and monks, the lone missionary in a heathen land, Susannah Wesley hiding under the table for her private devotions, The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, medieval books of hours, et cetera.

This is an illusion. For example, Richard Rolle the hermit of Hampole (1305-1349) was, for want of a more western term to come to mind, spiritual father to a group of nuns. Carthusians in their silence work together, pray together, occasionally eat together. All monks who live ‘in community’ gather with one another to sing praises to God multiple times a day. Susannah Wesley inevitably spent time teaching her children about God and Christ. Lancelot Andrewes was a royal chaplain and Bible translator. When a French nobleman was done with his book of hours, he would be part of the eucharistic community, gathered under one roof.

Not only this, but when we are alone, we are never alone. Christians are united to one another the mystical body of Christ, after all. It is telling that the Lord’s Prayer begins ‘Our Father’, and if you use the Prayer Book for private devotions, you will find yourself reading many prayers in the first person plural, ‘O God make speed to save us!’

One of the moments in ecclesiastical history that seems most replete with Lone Ranger spirituality is the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy of the 1300s. This was a dispute about the monks of Mount Athos and what it was they were experiencing when they claimed, after a lot of time literally navel-gazing and praying the Jesus Prayer and such, to have seen the Uncreated Light. Their great champion, Gregory Palamas, said that it was the energies, or better activity, of God manifesting itself to them, the same light that transfigured Jesus on Mount Tabor in the Gospels. His opponents felt that they were wrong and this was, in our terms today, a purely psychological phenomenon. God in his absolute transcendence is inaccessible. The light seen can in no way be considered the Uncreated Light and God’s energies.

I’ve blogged on Palamas before.

Anyway, even this dispute about men who spend much of their day praying in silence, is about the Church. We are reminded this by Gregory Palamas himself:

Through God’s grace we are all one in our faith in Him, and we constitute the one body of His Church, having Him as sole head, and we have been given to drink from one spirit through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and we have received one baptism, and one hope is inall, and we have one God, above all things and with all things and in us all. (Homily 15, quoted in George Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man, p. 57)

So I guess today’s reflection and exhortation from the history of God’s people is simply this: Do not neglect the body of believers, not simply by going to church and mid-week events, but also keep them wrapped up in your heart as you pray, for we all pray together and are all bound together. No Christian is ever alone.

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Saint of the Week: Charles Wesley

This week’s saint is Charles Wesley (1707-1788), given that the day for his and John’s commemoration was two days ago (John Wesley was saint of the week here and here). Charles is the less famous of the two famous Wesley brothers, and I think this is a bit of a shame.

Charles Wesley was as much a man of action as his elder brother. He, too, was a founding member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford, meeting with friends to read the Greek New Testament and to transform their lives. He, too, lived a disciplined life — a discipline with method, thus Methodist and Methodism.* He, too, was an ordained priest of the Church of England. He, too, was involved in the evangelical revival and preaching the Gospel amongst the poor of England. He, too, went to preach the Gospel in Georgia. He, too, sought Christian Perfection.

Charles, however, was not merely a man of action like unto his brother. He was also a man of action in opposition to his brother. An example of such opposition was when he burst in on John’s first wedding and dragged his brother out, explaining to the elder Wesley that he wasn’t exactly suited to marriage. My understanding is that John’s second attempt at getting married succeeded but without happy product — proving Charles right.

Unlike John, Charles was happily married, to Sarah Gwynne. Sarah Gwynne, like their mother Susannah Wesley, probably counts as one of the many intrepid women of the Faith, for she accompanied her husband on his evangelistic journeys.

Charles eventually ended his itinerant lifestyle, which probably helped keep his marriage a happy one. He looked after the Methodists of Bristol from 1756-1771, then relocated to London, where his ministry included Newgate prison.

Charles also differs from John in virulent opposition to any schismatic activity on the part of the Methodists. He wished to keep Methodism a movement within the Church of England, and thus he wrote a hymn against the event of John ordaining Coke rather than celebrating it.

Hymn-writing, of course, is what we best remember Charles Wesley for. He wrote over 5500 hymns in his lifetime, so, although his prose works are few (are there any?) compared to John’s, his own literary output is not inconsiderable. Amongst this enormous corpus are such favourites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Despite confusing moments such as when he writes in “And Can It Be?” that Christ “emptied Himself of all but love,” these hymns demonstrate Wesley as one of the great devotional minds of the English language. Indeed, the nearness of the Divine in these hymns their clarity of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian life make them among the works of wondrous, clear theology. They are praise of God worth singing, the sort we encounter far less often in the newer songs of today.

Charles Wesley was also a clever man in his hymnography, for his words could be set to the tunes of drinking songs. This made them very memorable for the poor, drunken souls for whom the hearts of the Wesleys burned. And so Gospel truths could be sung and remembered as cast in the simple poetry of Charles Wesley. This is a very great gift to the English people, and one not to be underestimated.

So, to close, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*I’ve heard it said that the terms actually come from how John organised the movement; yet I have also heard that it was a nickname applied to the Holy Club back in their Oxford days, so I think that it’s probably both — certainly the latter is more likely to be what people think when they hear, “Methodist.”

An Alternative “Toast tae the Lassies”

My more traditional option here.

Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child.  As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.

Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast?  Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?

Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with.  They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism.  Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week.  Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth.  She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer.  To Mary!

A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death.  Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua.  To Perpetua!

Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.”  For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!

Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon.  May we all have true insight into the world around us.  To Hilda!

A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here).  This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another).  Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them.  To Clare!

I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us.  May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us.  To Julian!

A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table.  She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith.  To Susannah!

Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed.  May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ.  To Teresa!

These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast.  May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!

To the lassies of Christ!  Lang may their lum reek!