What if seeking your heart’s desire grinds you to dust?

Right now I’m writing from a place of bitterness (not my usual abode when blogging). I have finished Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. It ends with one of those middle-class exhortations to go out and find an adventure to live, to seek what your heart really desires, take risks, and then — then you’ll really start to live.

I do wonder how my working-class ancestors in the North of England would have felt about such advice.

Well, what have I always desired? Writing, teaching, learning. I love these things. I love literature, history, languages. I also believe the study of the humanities is an important part of a well-functioning society. Oh, hey! I know!

Why don’t I become a university professor?

Well. Golly. Here’s a career that I actually love. I’ve taken “risks” other men wouldn’t have taken. I’m holed up in my in-laws’ basement pursuing it. This is my dream. Teaching at a university and doing academic research is actually my dream, and from what students and colleagues say, I seem to be good at it.

So, why is that, having had my viva voce examination (“viva”) for my Ph.D. in August of 2015, I have had four one-year contracts since then and have been unemployed since August 31? For how long am I to continue this existence? How long should I drag out unemployment?

Am I betraying my true heart, giving up on adventure, letting the poser within or the world without crush the real me, every time I apply for a non-academic job?

Oh, John Eldredge. You took risks. And they paid off.

People like to say, “Jeremiah 29:11, brother. ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…'”

Well, let’s consider plans God has had for His people. For me, I keep circling back to the Russian Revolution, probably because I’ve read things by some of the Christians it exiled, like Archimandrite Sophrony and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

I’m willing to see that God could use Bolshevism for the outworking of His providential plan for His church, for the purification of the soul of Russian Orthodoxy or something (?). But I’m not sure that it’s the sort of adventure Eldredge was writing about. Just think of the adventure Anthony Bloom got to live, being exiled from his native country in the 1920s and growing up in Paris!

Of course, Bloom did seek out his adventure. He became a monk, left a career in medicine, then became a priest and ultimately Metropolitan.

But he lived through the Russian Revolution first.

I am not pursuing academia for the money (no one does). All this crap people write about vocation says this is a place I could be happy.

Why will it not then take me into its warm embrace, provide me with employment and some money for my family?

Now, perhaps I need to rethink where and how I teach and write and learn. Perhaps. And perhaps I actually have to get a job that does not involve those things and make them my hobbies. That’s fine. My working-class ancestors wrote articles about fishing in a local magazine in the late nineteenth century. You can do more than one thing.bu

But please stop telling men that if they chase their dreams they will come alive.

My dream is crushing me like a millstone.

‘it has always been my delight to learn or to to teach or to write’

Job applications and fatherhood make you think about what kind of person you want to be and are. Earlier today, I was reminded of — and struck personally by — this passage from the Venerable Bede’s autobiography that he appended to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

I have spent all my life in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures; and, amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write. (HE v.24, trans. McClure and Collins, p.293)

It is that final clause that gets me: it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.

I am no Bede, certainly, but this is what delights me. Learning history, learning theology, learning philosophy, learning about poetry, learning from books, learning from conversation, learning from documentaries, learning from lectures. Teaching — I’ve done less of this! — teaching from pulpits, teaching in lecture halls, teaching undergraduates, ‘teaching’ informally around a table with friends, teaching through small group study. Writing this blog, writing academic articles, re-writing my thesis so it becomes a book, writing journals. Formerly — writing poems, writing stories.

I am no Bede, but here I find a consonance with that monk buried 5 minutes away in Durham Cathedral. This is what I want to spend my life doing, both for the delight it brings and for the greater glory of God.

John Cassian in The Philokalia – Purity of Heart

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)First things first — my brother has blogged at our shared blog about how Cassian has shifted his paradigm for ministry as an Anglican priest. This is what these blogs are all about — that one is about our dispersed community that prays the office and strives for holiness. If you want to find at least a digital community that seeks prayer in these old ways, check us out — we’re called The Witness Cloud (and this link is our homepage).

Reading the Fathers, studying Scripture, getting down and dirty with monks, thinking through theology — the point of all this endeavour, as far away as it may seem sometimes, is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to be converted, conformed to the likeness of the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Not that this is actually easy, mind you.

I am not a monk. I am not a priest. I am not, professionally, a theologian.

I am a classicist and ecclesiastical historian, an ancient historian. I interpret texts and study their manuscripts.

This is not the same thing as living them.

My job and my devotional life do overlap, but this means that sometimes, although I can wax poetic and prosodic about the spiritual world of ancient Christianity, and exhort my readers even to take up their challenges, much of the time the challenges are unmet — even unattempted — by me.

I first read John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus for a Master’s dissertation (I am, however, now reading them devotionally); saints’ lives were likewise for graduate study. My work brings me into contact with bishops of Rome from the fourth through sixth and seventh centuries — and beyond. For my research I read Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Severus of Antioch. For my teaching, I read Eusebius of Caesarea, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus.

It is easy for it not to change the way one lives.

To turn, then, to the second selection of Cassian in The Philokalia, what can this do for me, here and now?

It’s kind of like doing to Cassian what he claims to have done with the Desert Fathers — take their teachings from one setting, one time, one culture, one language, and transplant them to a new one. Adapted from the hot desert of Egypt to the somewhat colder world of southern Gaul to the long, dark nights of an Edinburgh winter.

Well, straight up, what does this selection present us?

Questions of our purpose, our goal, our end. For Cassian and Germanus, what is the purpose of the monastic life? For us, what is the purpose of Christian living, of my lay spiritual life in the 21st century?

Germanus says to Abba Moses: The Kingdom of Heaven.

Abba Moses says: But what closer goal can you reach?

That closer goal, in Cassian’s rewriting of Evagrius, is purity of heart.

I’ll leave this discussion here for now. But this moment in Cassian’s Conferences is one that has challenged me every time. What is purity of heart? How do I live it here, now? How much frivolity is too much? Is this life I’ve chosen really worth the effort? Could I make something more of my life for the sake of a pure heart, for the sake of the Kingdom of God?