Blogging Benedict: Obedience (chapter 5)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

This is the chapter that scares our culture the most!

Benedict believes that absolute obedience to the abbot is essential for spiritual growth and growth in humility:

They do not live according to their own desires and pleasures, but progress according to someone else’s judgement and orders, living in monasteries and choosing to have an abbot in charge of them. (p. 20, trans. White)

This, of course, runs entirely to our culture’s belief that each of us should be his’er own master, that each knows best for oneself, and that no one should/can tell me what to do. I have a friend who works in Christian ministry, and one of the student leaders she was working with would take no suggestions and say things that amounted to, ‘Who are you to speak to my ministry?’ The answer being, ‘A sister in Christ.’ And, in that particular case, someone actually in authority over you…

But what if I am not wise enough to sift the path of discipleship on my own? What if there is someone who is better qualified to direct my paths, a spiritual father?

This emphasis on obedience is part of a wider culture of self-denial that we find a few decades later in Sinai with St John Climacus, and many centuries later in St Thomas à Kempis. The former of these two, a former hermit turned abbot and spiritual father, expresses many ideas consonant with Benedictine monasticism, including radical obedience. In St Thomas, we see a belief that we ourselves should put everyone before us and treat them as our betters.

All of this is well and good for the ancients, but unless we are monks, or Roman Catholics who confess to a priest, or Eastern Orthodox who likewise confess or have a spiritual father, what lessons might we take away from here?

I think the spirit of this obedience, in its good sense, can be found in what Richard Foster says about submission in Celebration of Discipline. We choose to submit to others and their requests and their wills not because we know they have better ideas or deserve submission, but because Scripture teaches us to submit to one another out of love. Christ came not to be served but to serve, and to lay his life as a ransom (Mt 20:28).

The obvious objection: ‘Won’t people walk all over me?’

My honest answer: ‘Probably. I’ve never tried this at large.’

Foster notes, though, that if you have already chosen in your heart to submit to your fellow-Christians and obey them, then are they walking on you? I, personally, try (not always with success) to think of my relationship to my wife and son in these terms. That in serving them I love them, that in submitting to their needs, desires, requests, I am acknowledging the headship of Christ in my own life.

A final thought related to this: Let us learn not to grumble in our hearts.

Perhaps as great a lesson, if we ever wish to be content and love our communities, our families, our coworkers, our churches.

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Thomas a Kempis on the remembrance of the cross

“Plant in the garden of your memory, the tree of the holy Cross; it produces a very efficacious medicine against all the suggestions of the devil.  Of this most noble and fertile tree, the root is humility and poverty; the bark, labour and penitence; the branches, mercy and justice; the leaves, true honour and modesty; the scent, sobriety and abstinence; the beauty, chastity and obedience; the splendour, right faith and firm hope; the strength, magnanimity and patience; the length, long-suffering and perseverance; the breadth, benignity and concord; the height, charity and wisdom; the sweetness, love and joy; the fruit, salvation and life eternal.”

The Imitation of Christ

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

The implications of Christ as fully Man (Met Anthony)

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayAs a student of Pope St Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon — and, thus, its aftermath — the significance of that Councils’ Symbolon of the Christian Faith, its definition (which I translated here), is often just below the surface of my mind. Thus, I greatly appreciate this from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man:

There is in the Church a vision of man which is not a theory of man. It is not the ideal man, it is not the invented man, nor man as we wish he were, and towards which we aim as a sort of created transcendence. No, we have put on the altar a concrete real man — Jesus of Nazareth — and we must have a look at what is implied. We see in the Creed that Christ was true man and true God. When we say that He was true man we imply two thing: the fact that He was God has not made Him into a man alien to us, a man so different from us that He has only the same shape and the same name while in reality He has nothing in common with us; on the other hand, we proclaim that being the true man means to be a revelation of man in his fulfilment, man as he is called to be, and that in Christ we have a vision — concrete, real, historical — of what we are called to become in our realilty, in our historicity and in our becoming. So when we say that Christ is true man, we affirm that to be united with the Godhead does not annihilate or change the nature of man, and it is only in Him, because man is united in Him with the Godhead, that man is revealed in his full potentiality. Because man as a specimen of natural history i snot man in the sense in which we believe man is truly human. Man becomes truly human only when he is united with God intimately, deeply, inseparably, so that the fullness of Godhead abides in the flesh. I am using terms which are applied to Christ in the Scriptures, but which I believe are applicable to man if we take, for instance, the words of St Peter in his Epistle that our vocation is to become partakers of the divine nature — God’s participators and not just human beings related to a God who remains an outsider to us. But that implies a quite different vision of man, and it also implies something which I believe to be important, a quite different vision of the Church. (pp. 60-61)

True humanity is only fully realised in union with God. This is, at one level, the Adamic state (did not God walk in the Garden in the cool of the evening?). At another level, it is something higher. Many of the Church Fathers believe that the human race was meant to progress in knowledge of God and perfection even without the Fall, but that sin now hampers us (Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, at least). Christ, by uniting humanity to the Divine, has reignited our ability to be who we are meant to be — and to go beyond even Adam.

Here we also have a good description of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Met. Anthony here references 2 Peter 1:3-4:

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

This reminds me of St Leo, in fact; Leo argues that because of the Incarnation and the full humanity of Christ who is also fully God, we enter into the divine relationship — and we have a duty to our human neighbours who are sharers in the same nature as Christ. And Christ is God.

A friend recently expressed doubt about the possibility of theosis reconciling itself with Scripture. Theosis is about union with God where we retain all of our humanity but share in the divine nature by God’s grace. It is based on passages like 2 Peter 1, or Ephesians 4:13, or Romans 8:29, or 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is also, when properly understood (I recommend Met. Kallistos on theosis), an implication or outgrowing of the Church’s dogmatic statements in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Rule of  Faith, and the historic liturgies.

Theosis rests, in western terminology, on both Scripture and Tradition. (So we Anglicans can accept it when it is properly understood.)

This is, of course, the goal of mysticism and asceticism:

Release me, and free my heart from all dependence on the passing consolation of wicked things, since none of these things can yield true satisfaction or appease my longings. Unite me to Yourself by the unbreakable bonds of love. You alone can satisfy the soul that loves You, and without You the world is worthless. -St Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.23, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, p. 124

Let us, therefore, seek the Face of Christ, enter into God’s throneroom, and, resting in the stillness, become partakers of the Divine Life. This is the greatest implication of Chalcedon for the Christian life today. Own it. Live it.

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…

Highlights from Oxford Patristics: Kallistos on Maximus

Many of the papers I went to at the Oxford Patristics Conference a few weeks ago were of high quality — Michele Salzman proving that Prosper was not Leo’s secretary — and thus could not have written the Tome; Bernard Green talking about Leo’s views on Baptism in Letter 16; Paul Parvis talking about water organs in Tertullian; Sara Parvis about the essentially positive view of women in Irenaeus; Samuel Rubenson on the formation and re-formations of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers; and many others.

Not all, I think, will be of particular interest to my readers here.

Kallistos Ware’s paper on St. Maximus the Confessor will, I think; although I am growing hazy on details. The one thing that stood out most and has been flitting through my mind since +Kallistos gave the paper is his discussion of how St. Maximus envisaged our imitation of Christ.

This imitation is not simply a moral imitation as most of us, especially those of us who are fond of St. Thomas à Kempis, may tend to think. No, it goes deeper than that. Our imitation of Christ is, rather than moral, ontological.*

Our imitation of Christ is something that is rooted in our very being. By becoming sharers in His divine life through the sacraments and through prayer, through liturgy and through moral action, we become imitators of his very person. Our character changes accordingly.

I like this idea. It is kind of breathtaking. We are made more and more like him the more we approach him. Our imitation is not simple mimicry. It is a deep and powerful transformational activity that occurs within us. It is not a work that we do or achieve ourselves. Thus we are freed, even here, from works righteousness. It is Christ who transforms us into his imitators.

Thus we go beyond not only mimicry but virtue and morality as the marks of Christianity into something higher and more difficult to imagine, yet deeper, more penetrating.

If we go through imitatio Christi as an ontological reality, that means we are drawn to two things oft-forgotten in contemporary discourse:

  1. Holiness
  2. Deification (theosis)

*Ontological is the adjective derived from ontology the study of being (the -ology of on, ontos). OED for ontology: ‘The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence.’

Hold on for dear life

Things intersecting:

1. Scot McKnight writes:

The gospel is first and foremost about Jesus. Or, to put it theologically, it’s about Christology. Behind or underneath both kingdom and justification is the gospel, and the gospel is the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story. “To gospel” is to tell a story about Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord, as the Son of God, as the Savior.

2. My brother has been blogging about Renewal.  He has evaluated several approaches taken by churches when they see their need for Renewal and is making a call (plea?) for Christocentric Renewal — that we will be renewed and grow spiritually only when we come nearer to Jesus and hold Jesus out for others.

3. Pope St. Leo Great’s Tome.  I’m thick into a paper about St. Leo’s use of classical rhetoric in the Tome.  I have thus been reading a lot about Christology.  And rhetoric.

So the intersecting things are all about this two-natured God-man:

Fresco from exterior of St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus

To be a Christian is to be focussed on Jesus and how he revolutionised the world.  Through this attention turned to him and with faithful reading of Scripture and prayer, we are drawn nearer to him and the most holy and glorious Trinity.  Our thought patterns change.  We raise up holy hands in prayer and worship.  We seek to live lives according that highest Good he set out for us in his life and in the pages of Scripture.

This inevitable fact of Christocentrism helps explain why the Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries could at times be acrimonious.  It also reminds us that the questions they raise are important for our lives.

When we turn to the classics of Christianity — to great theological works such as the Tome of Leo or St. Cyril of Alexandria’s letters to Nestorius or to the great devotional and mystical works such as St. Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ or Lady Julian of Norwich’s Showings or to the great tradition of Christian prayer such as the hymns of Charles Wesley or the 1662 BCP — we are drawn towards Christ.

Hold onto him for dear life.

May this blog and the people and books it points to draw you ever closer to the living reality that is the risen, ascended Christ.

Letters to Malcolm 17: Pathways to Adoration

This past Tuesday at the Christian Classics Reading Group, we read three of C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  This book is a series of  imaginary letters to an imaginary interlocutor named “Malcolm” (naturally).  They revolve around prayer primarily (naturally).  The letters we read were 17, 18, and 19, if you wish to catch up with us.

Letter 17 is essentially about pathways to adoration.  Lewis reminds Malcolm about a time they were walking in a wood and Malcolm recommended him to start where he was to move towards adoration — with splashing cool water from a spring on his warm face.  From there, Lewis discusses the use of pleasure as a pathway to the worship of Almighty God, saying that he finds it easier to move to adoration from tangible pleasures than from thinking about the doctrines of God.

He makes a good point about “bad” pleasures, that it is not the pleasure itself that is bad, only the method of acquiring it:

It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness.  The sweetness is still a beam from the glory.  That does not palliate the stealing.  It makes it worse.  There is sacrilege in the theft.  We have abused a holy thing.

This is important to consider, although Lewis later in Letter 18 does point out that there are pleasures that are actually bad, such as the pleasure derived from nursing a grievance.  Yet by and large, the pleasures of this life are “patches of Godlight”.  As a paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton says:

Life is like a waking up after a shipwreck and moments of pleasure are remnants washed ashore from the wreckage, pieces of paradise extended through time. We must hold these relics lightly and use them with gratitude and restraint, never seizing them as entitlements.

I believe this is important advice to take hold of.  The world is God’s creation — by nature, it is good, even having been pronounced so by the Almighty in Genesis 1.  In Soliloquy of the Soul, St. Thomas a Kempis contends that the pleasures of this world, being transient, are not to be sought, but that we are, instead, to live lives of self-deprivation (a form of the Way of Negation).

Lewis and Chesterton would vehemently disagree.  Yes, there is pain in this life.  Yes, we are destined for the New Country, for the Kingdom of the Heavens, for the New Heaven and the New Earth, for the Resurrection, for the Recapitulation of All Things.  Yet here we are on Earth.  The present life is transitory, but the pleasures of it are not to be shunned.

And Lewis shows us a way forward, a way to enjoy transient pleasures without compromising the future life — these pleasures are from the God of Glory Himself.  They are moments where the Kingdom of the Heavens breaks through into our transitory lives and shows us a bit of His glory.  They are vehicles of grace and pathways to adoration.

We live in a world of pain and sorrow — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where the Church is having something of a crisis around public worship — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists tell us that this material thing is all the reality there is — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists of a different ilk tell us that the value of this material thing lies within the thing itself — pathways to adoration are necessary.

Seek to worship God daily through pleasure, beauty, theology, hymns, Psalms — follow the paths to the adoration of the Majestic One seated on the Sapphire Throne.