Matching up Lactantius and liturgy

Today’s (12 September) passage from the Fathers over at the Ancient-Future Faith Network’s Chapel is the following from Lactantius (c. 240-320):

What is the most righteous way of worshiping God? For no one should think that God desires victims, incense, or valuable gifts. Since He doesn’t experience hunger, thirst, cold, or a desire for earthly things, the things presented in temples to earthly gods aren’t useful to Him. Just as physical offerings are necessary for physical beings, so spiritual sacrifices are necessary for a spiritual being. Since all the world is under God’s power, He doesn’t need the things He gave people to use. Since He dwells in the entire world, He doesn’t need a temple. Since the eyes and mind can’t comprehend Him, He doesn’t need an image. Since He kindled the light of the sun and stars for our sake, He doesn’t need earthly lights. So then, what does God require from us? Pure and holy worship of our minds. For those things that are made by hand or outside of people are senseless, frail, and displeasing. But true sacrifice isn’t from the purse but from the heart. It is offered not by the hands, but by the mind…. What’s the purpose of incense, clothes, silver, gold, or precious stones if the worshiper doesn’t have a pure mind?

First, I would say that I agree with the essence of Lactantius. Thus, automatically one asks how liturgical worship fits into this — especially the lush, lavish and beautiful worship of the Orthodox Church, the Anglo-Catholics, the Tridentine Catholics.

The really simple answer is that liturgical worship, when offered up in humility and love for God, is the outward manifestation of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Another strand of patristic theology will remind us that we are neither disembodied spirits nor entrapped ones. We were created by God to be psycho-somatic unities. The human person is, by nature, both body and soul; flesh, spirit, and mind. A united whole.

Worship of the mind at Notre Dame de Paris

Therefore, we must ‘offer unto [God] ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice’ (The Book of Common Prayer). Everything we do is embodied; a good (evangelical!) Protestant discussion of such embodied Christianity is Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. The result of our embodiedness is that our spiritual worship, our worship in the mind, will involve action.

Thus: Sitting, standing, kneeling. Genuflecting, making the sign of the cross. Orthodox prostrations. Lighting candles. Smelling the incense. Walking in processions. Singing with our lungs full to bursting with gusto. Closing our eyes in silence. Opening our ears to an organ voluntary. Tasting the bread on our tongues, feeling the warmth of the wine down our throats.

All of these, while offered with ‘the hands’, are means for our minds to offer unto God the sacrifice of pure and contrite heart. And the words we utter help us focus our thoughts, directing our minds to the truths of God and His salvific activity in the world.

Worship of the mind must be worship of the body.

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Lay piety – Augustine and Dallas Willard

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Last night I was reading the Introduction to Kate Cooper and Julia Hillner’s volume, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300-900, and learned one of the developments in Augustine scholarship of the 20th century was R A Markus’ work that presented a development in Augustine’s thinking in the 390s through the bishop of Hippo’s reading of St Paul. In this view, significantly also followed by Peter Brown (and if Brown and Markus say so, who am I to argue?), Augustine rejects the image of a two-tiered church — a decidedly anti-Manichaean move — and re-evaluates the place of the married faithful, ‘arguing that the ascetic elitism of a Jerome or an Ambrose could only be counter-productive.’ (Cooper & Hillner, 10)

They quote Markus, who says that Augustines asserts:

Both sorts of faithful belong within the one Church and both are called to serve God in faith and love. All who seek to follow the Lord are within his flock: ‘and the married are certainly able to follow His footsteps [vestigia], even if their feet do not fit perfectly into the footprints, yet following the same path’. -R A Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 46

This runs counter to the popular view of Augustine as a not-fully-recovered Manichaean who promotoes spiritual elitism partly out of guilt over his own sexual deviance. Augustine certainly sees celibacy and the committed ascetic life as better than lay married life, but, as in On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Coniugali), the difference is between two goods:

Therefore, just as what Martha did was good when she was busy attending to the saints, but what her sister Mary did, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words (Lk 10:39), was better, so too we praise the excellence of Susanna in her married chastity, but value more highly the excellence of the widow Anna, and even more that of the virgin Mary. Those who attended to the needs of Christ and his disciples, and did so out of their own resources, did something good, but those who gave up all their possessions, in order to follow that Lord without that encumbrance, did something better. With each of the two good ways of acting, both in the latter case and in the case of Martha and Mary, the one that is better is not possible without forgoing or abandoning the other. -8, 8, trans. Ray Kearney (as The Excellence of Marriage)

I am not saying I agree with Augustine, but it is important to attempt at least a balanced view of his teachings. He is not solely responsible and even, I imagine, helped mitigate ascetic elitism through the wide success of his writings (contra Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism). Unfortunately for the subsequent history of Christian discipleship, even if marriage was esteemed and encouraged by the church as a good thing where virtue can certainly be cultivated, not even Augustine’s teaching went far enough to stop the creation of a two-tiered spiritual world — a world promoted to a greater or lesser degree by the teachings of Jerome and Gregory of Nazianzus and Ambrose, for example.

One result of this two-tiered world, a result lamented by Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, is that the really good handbooks for the disciplined life of piety were all written for monks. Preaching to the laity has tended to lean simply towards basic doctrine and inculcating Christian morality and virtue. The disciplined life was sequestered off in the cloister — or practised by odd-ball mendicants (although the Franciscans tried to help out with the Tertiaries).

Therefore, Willard recommends the great monastic texts for those who wish to lead a more disciplined life. It’s true that for non-celibate married folks with jobs, some of the recommendations are simply not practical, feasible, or desirable. But many of them are. Askesis is training for virtue and holiness, and it’s not just monks anymore.

Dallas Willard (requiescat in pace) and the disciplines

I just learned from Miroslav Volf’s Facebook page that Dallas Willard has passed away. He died on 8 May of cancer, having been on this earth for 77 years. We have lost a man whom the Lord God blessed with wisdom, one of the great spiritual thinkers and Christian philosophers of our age.

I started Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy on a long, northbound bus ride in Toronto to the Varley Art Gallery in Unionville for an exhibition of icons from throughout the Orthodox worlds, from Russia to Ethiopia. I haven’t got around to finishing it, but herein Willard put before us the startling reality that the Kingdom of the Heavens is, in fact, right here, right before our eyes. God’s kingdom and throneroom aren’t ‘up there’ — they are in our midst and readily available to us. All of this life and world are to be suffused with the spiritual, for the spiritual is not someplace else.

My second encounter with Willard was his book Hearing God — a very practical, functional book devoted to the simple, profound question: How do we actually hear from God? In this book, Willard did not promote any gimmickry and avoided vagueness, enabling the careful reader who wishes to hear from the Almighty to reach a place of intimacy that makes God’s urgings and Voice felt and heard.

But by far the most important of my encounters with Dallas Willard will prove to be The Spirit of the Disciplines. Indeed, when I compare the importance of this book with the forests of trees pulped and oceans of ink spilled for the production of Christian literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I believe that, paired with Richard J Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, this is one of the most important books for today’s Christian to encounter.

What makes me say that? I do not say it to speak ill of the other books; I have a fondness for a number of current writers, from N T Wright and Miroslav Volf to Kallistos Ware and Nicky Gumble of Alpha Course fame. However, how many of us find books that transform us?

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard tackles the question of why so few Christians lead the lives of holiness and transformation and joy that permeate the characters and promises of Scripture. He approaches our lives and, transforming us through the renewing of our minds, shows us why.

Why? We do not live our daily lives as Jesus and Paul did. It’s all very well to wear a WWJD bracelet and ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ in times of crisis. But how many of us actually live the way Jesus and Paul did? How many of us invest time in serious prayer and fasting, in the deep study and meditation up scripture? How many of us forego pleasures of this world for the benefits of the Kingdom? How many of us seek to serve everyone? How many of us live in submission ot others? And on and on.

These are the daily, habitual actions, lived out in our bodies, that we are called to engage in. The spiritual masters and deep theologians of Christian history, from St Paul to St Thomas a Kempis to Martin Luther to Kallistos Ware practise these disciplines. Do we wish to have the courage to speak of Christ with friends and coworkers hostile to the faith? Do we wish to have the strength to stand up to corruption and the evils of our society?

Then we should live like our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I believe that it is only when large numbers of Christians, besides being properly catechised (itself a discipline), live lives of spiritual freedom through the disciplines that will impact each of us, that we will see increased evangelism and social action taking root and spreading throughout the post-Christian West. Only then will we see more disciples — through discipline.

One final note — Willard does a tremendous job of redeeming the body for Christian life. For this alone, the book is worth reading.

Praying on the Tram

I just finished a few days of research in Leipzig. Leipzig is an interesting city, with contrasts between beautiful and less-so, between ultra-modern and Baroque, between the boarded-up buildings in some quarters and the shining skyscraper in the city centre.

My first full day was May 1, and May is the month of prayer, as discussed in this post. Besides continuing with Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, my journey into the disciplines involved journeys into Leipzig.

Every morning, after scuttling from my hotel to the tram, I had a 25-min tram ride ahead of me. And so, when better to pray? My spiritual mentor has recommended I spent no fewer than ten minutes and no more than twenty praying the Jesus Prayer. A 25-min tram ride is perfectly suited for this. So out would come my prayer rope, my fingers slipping along each knot:

 Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I have been told that one can also pray for others in the cycle, so sometimes I would insert my wife or a friend who was on my heart instead of me, me, me. Sometimes I would also replace me with everyone on this tram.

I think it is a rule that should be more widely observed that commutes are excellent times for prayer. We should never, of course, abandon the recommendation of our Lord to go into our secret place and shut the door (Mt 6:6). Yet why not redeem the time spent between A and B through communing with our God who is everywhere and fills all things?

Here are some other commuting prayer ideas:

  • Imagine Christ walking through the bus/tram/train and blessing everyone, resting his hand on their heads and blessing them or standing beside them. Maybe even giving someone who looks really sad a good hug.
  • Pray for the people around you more consciously – this is something Richard Foster recommends in Celebration of Discipline. Ask God to impact the people around you. So pray that the guy across from you on the train will know that he is deeply loved, more than he can imagine. Pray that the sad-looking lady may know that there is joy available that will never run dry. That sort of thing.
  • Pray for safety for the vehicle and alertness and wisdom for the driver.
  • Pray for the neighbourhoods you pass through – for all who live and work there, that they would know the truth of God’s real blessings in this life, and in the life to come everlasting joy.

These are but a few ways we can all try to bring the Spirit of the living God with us on the way to work. What suggestions might you have?

Living discipline regularly

Athonites at prayer
Athonites at prayer

One of the important insights Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines repeats time and again is the necessity to live the disciplines as part of our regular life. If we want Christ to transform us, if we want to live the kind of life He lived, if we want to be able to have Gospel responses to the stimuli that surround us, we need to engage in regular patterns of disciplined living.

Otherwise, the disciplines are just for show (they could be, either way, of course). Otherwise, we will not have the inner strength of character to turn the other cheek, bless and not curse, control our thoughts, resist unhealthy food/books/images/etc, not lie, and so forth.

Engaging in disciplines does not mean we are holy — but it is the only way to get there.

Apparently, my minister back in Edinburgh (I’m in Germany at present) was saying this same thing about prayer this past Sunday. If we only ever pray in times of crisis and danger and fear and worry, we will not have that inner peace that we all want, that cool head that we wish to have when we encounter difficulties and problems in this world. We will not have a resolute trust in God that He is doing the best we wish.

So, let’s start with the most promoted discipline (certainly amongst Evangelicals) — prayer.

Pray today. Whether it’s supplication or the Jesus Prayer or the BCP or praising God for the beauty of spring or entreating God for the end of winter. Whether it is long or short. Pray.

And tomorrow, pray more.

Let’s make prayer the foundation of our lives.

Each month, starting this month, I’ve been wanting to spend conscious time and study on one of the twelve disciplines in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. April has been the month of meditation (I’m not so good at that one).

May will be the month of prayer. Will you join me?

The vital importance of discipline

Although I have long been drawn to/inspired by the lives and teachings of such ascetic/spiritual masters as St Francis of Assisi, the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, St Benedict of Nursia, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, St Thomas a Kempis (and so forth), I do little to actually set out on the road of discipline, that road marked with suffering that follows both the commandments and example of our Lord and His Apostles, a road characterised by fasting, long times of prayer and meditation, solitude, simplicity in possessions, service to all and sundry, and so on and so forth.

However, right now, reading The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, I am realising that I probably should get on to such living. And, furthermore, such living is part of the liberation and freedom that I intended to explore on this blog — a freedom from the urgency of modern and postmodern thinking, of being set free from fundamentalism or liberalism and rediscovering the morality and teachings of the Great Tradition, and entering into the joy of living in the Lord.

Yet the disciplines and their practice should be a major component of this endeavour, should they not? Look at those men and women to whom I turn for theology (in the order they come to mind):

  • Martin Luther may have liked his beer, but he was still a man disciplined in the Augustinian lifestyle;
  • John Chrysostom may have left the caves of monasticism for the city, but he lived in Antioch as a poor man serving those around him, leading a life of disciplined simplicity;
  • Augustine of Hippo was strongly committed to the disciplined life, and the ‘rule’ he wrote was what Luther lived by before turning Protestant;
  • John Wesley was a regular faster, would pray for hours every day before beginning his tasks, and received Holy Communion as often as possible;
  • St Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar, living his life according to the Dominican discipline, which included St Augustine’s rule;
  • The Cappadocians were also all ascetics — Gregory of Nazianzus preferred that lifestyle to the episcopacy;
  • Athanasius of Alexandria gave us the monastic biography par excellence in publishing about St Antony, great monastic founder;
  • although I am not a strong follower of all of his particulars, John Calvin was also a man of great discipline of lifestyle;
  • Anselm of Canterbury was a monk before he was a bishop, and he never gave this lifestyle up;
  • Bernard of Clairvaux was the great stirrer-up of the Cistercian order;
  • Hugh of St Victor was also a monk;
  • and, amongst the living, Kallistos Ware, Andrew Louth, and John Zizioulas besides, of course, Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, and probably Thomas C Oden.

These men were all giants in the world of theology or exegesis. They were also all practicioners of the path of discipline, the way of prayer and fasting, the trail of tears and suffering, the dying to self daily that Our Lord calls us to.

If we would be inspired by their theology, ought we not to live by their examples?