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.

Christian ethics isn’t about becoming a “real” man – it’s about getting yourself killed

I have recently revisited St Boniface, about whom I’ve written before, as a potential model for church leadership today — leading the disciplined monastic life and making disciples. And as I write my new Thing About Boniface, I see lovely words spilling forth from my fingertips about how the disciplined life, combined with articulate presentations of the Gospel, may make disciples.

Or …

It may get us killed.

Like St Boniface.

This is an important aspect of the Christian walk we do not consider much in our society. In Wild at Heart, Eldredge has a passage where he talks about how he told his son in grade one to get up and punch a bully back. And then he explained that our usual way of reading “turn the other cheek” ends up making passive men who run away.

He may be right, but his response is possibly wrong, too.

I think the scary, daring part of this teaching from Our Lord is that it’s an act of defiance. You stand back up and say, “Hit me again.” Non-violence is not about running away. It is not about being passive. It’s about literally turning the other cheek, saying to the perpetrator, “What about this cheek?”

These are big words on my part. I avoid conflict of most kinds. Nonetheless, I wonder what would happen if more of us truly took non-violence to heart and resisted evil by suffering.

Maybe we’d make more disciples.

Maybe we’d get killed.

But what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

St Francis – Wild at Heart

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

So, the men’s Bible study I’m part of just discussed chapter 10 of Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I’ve always been skeptical about the book, but it gets helpful at chapter 6 when Eldredge moves beyond describing what he thinks a man should be and diagnosing our wound to discussing practical strategies for living in this world. Chapter 10 is called “A Beauty to Rescue.” As a chapter with some helpful tips for married men, this was good. One of the other guys observed, however, that if he were single he’d be pretty upset at the whole thing.

Indeed, this is one of the problems I have had with Eldredge — at times, he enshrines our own cultural attitudes as “real” masculinity. As someone with very dear and close friends and family who live full, healthy, spiritual lives and who happen not to be married, I take issue with the idea that every man has a beautiful woman to fight for. The preamble to the chapter shows that Eldredge needs to work through C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love as well as sort out some ideas about ancient literature. Like, is Helen really a damsel in distress there to be rescued? Not only that, but romantic love is not the driving force of the Iliad, honour and prestige on the one hand and male friendship on the other are instead.

Nonetheless, most men fall in love with someone or something, something to die for, live for. In the Middle Ages, when the whole dominance of romantic love began to take hold in western literature, the ideal was of a woman of higher social rank than you, to whom you were not married, and who was your domina, your lady in the feudal sense. We get a lot of stories such as Lancelot being told by Guinevere to prove his love for her by purposely losing in jousts; Menelaus or Achilles would never have done such a thing.

The history of this idea is traced in the aforementioned Allegory of Love. It is called courtly love, and it was a main theme of the troubadours. Troubadours were the classy type of singer-songwriter of mediaeval France. Courtly love was a Big Deal in the 1100s. I’ve already written on this blog about how I think Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is an antidote to this idea.

Another antidote comes a few decades after Aelred in the person of St Francis of Assisi. As a young man, Francis showed himself to be your average, normal Italian young man, joining local wars and suchlike. After recovering from his wounds, Francis was overcome by the Holy Spirit and had a powerful conversion experience wherein he rejected his wealthy, middle class upbringing and decided to become a hermit.

I won’t recount the whole story of St Francis (did that already). Francis, like most people in the broad-ish category of “monastic”, was a monomaniac for God. But he still had a beauty … well, not to rescue. It’s more like she rescued him.

Lady Poverty.

(Not Clare.)

St Francis and his band of little brothers (fraticelli) called themselves jongleurs de Dieu — jesters for God. Troubadours were the classy singer-songwriters. Jongleurs were not. They were common. So it was only fitting that these young men, many of them sons of wealthy merchants, sons of nobility, who have embraced Lady Poverty, would consider themselves and their preaching not as the artsy-fartsy troubadours but as the spiritual equivalent of the ribald jongleurs.

Poverty lay at the heart of Francis’ expression of the Christian faith. A complicated, sad story about mediaeval economics and human weakness will tell you about the Franciscans after his death. But while Francis lived, the ideal was that not only would no individual Franciscan own property, neither would Franciscan communities or the order.

The term we give for these friars and their comrades, the Dominicans, is mendicant. This is a word for beggar. In a world where wealthy men grew wealthier off the backbreaking labour of their unfree dependants, where merchants grew wealthy off charging unfair interest, where people went to war for the honour of their own city, where some lived in palatial grandeur while most lived in dirty hovels — in such a world, radical poverty such as St Francis modelled was a powerful statement of freedom from the world, the flesh, and the devil, a statement of the great freedom found only in Christ.

Embracing Lady Poverty was wild.

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Last night we had our second meeting about John Eldredge, Wild at Heart. We were discussing Chapter 2, which is about the wild heart of God, especially as it is manifested in Jesus. At one point, Eldredge says that all the images of Jesus we have around are limp and passive — at least, all the ones he’s seen in churches are.

And I thought, ‘Well, clearly he’s been to all the wrong churches.’

So I went through my postcard collection to bring a few non-limp Jesuses to show the other guys. These aren’t the exact postcards, but here are the images of Jesus I brought to study last night:

San Marco, Venice

Sacré-Coeur, Paris

A twelfth-century piece of Limoges work of Christ in majesty now in the Musée de Cluny, Paris

The stained glass window of the Last Judgement from St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Inverness

Jesus and Apa Mena, a sixth- or seventh-century Coptic icon now in the Louvre

The dome of Machairas Monastery, Cyprus

The Cross as Tree of Life from San Clemente, Rome

The apsidal mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Triumphal Arch and apsidal mosaic of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The images of Christ we see inevitably influence us and our faith, they affect how we view our Lord and Saviour. This is part of why the Reformed reject them — they can skew just as easily as uphold a right faith in Christ. And it must be admitted that Eldredge is not wrong about so much Protestant religious art.

One of the guys last night said that so much Protestant art is sappy and sentimental because it’s made for children, to illustrate a story or make the Bible accessible. It is not art for adults. He is probably right, which troubles me — my toddler likes Art of the Byzantine Era, Pauline Baynes’ illustrated Nicene Creed, and the occasional bookmark of the Sistine Chapel right alongside his Dr. Suess, Paw Patrol, and Beatrix Potter.

Why do we sell our children short and underestimate them?

What sort of messages about Jesus are we communicating to them and ourselves through this art?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

against which Wild at Heart is reacting.

I think John Eldredge wants,

Mighty Jesus, fierce and wild.

The art above, most of which is medieval (with one each of modern Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican items), presents us mighty Jesus, King of Kings. He sits enthroned, passing judgement. He reigns as he dies, bringing life to the world. He can certainly be your Friend. And he blesses us from his majesty. Loves pours forth from his Sacred Heart.

Christ the King, throned in glory — this is the great theme of so many medieval mosaics and frescoes.

Yet he is the upside-down king, and here is why the Reformed are concerned about these images. Christ in glory — certainly true. But not wholly true.

One image I did not bring but wish I could have was the crucifix from Vercelli:

Christ is standing on the cross, in power. As King. Not hanging in weakness as in the later, Gothic crucifixes. At the moment of his greatest human weakness, at the point of his death, Jesus is at his most powerful. Some Byzantine crucifixion icons have the inscription, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Glory,’ to emphasise the point.

Whatever our position on any of these images in particular or images of Christ in general, Eldredge has a good point — the carpenter of Nazareth Who refashions the crooked timber of humanity into something beautiful was neither limp nor passive.

The Way of a Pilgrim – Wild at Heart

So the men’s Bible study has moved on from my studies about ‘biblical manhood’ to the book Wild at Heart. Although I have some methodological concerns about Eldredge’s book, I have decided to like it. My brother told me that it is good at what it does. I told him I would give it a shot and try to integrate with my Orthodox books. He says that they do very different things.

He’s probably right.

The first chapter of Wild at Heart — all that we’ve made it through at study — is basically clearing the field to be able have the rest of the book happen. Men, argues Eldredge, are ‘wild’ — we are not tame, domesticated. Adam was made outside the Garden, and the Sons of Adam crave adventure and wildness, going into the unknown, pushing new frontiers.

I recently finished The Way of a Pilgrim and am now reading The Pilgrim Continues His Way in the translation by Helen Bacovcin (Image Books — both in one volume, as is normal). This, if you’ve not heard of it, is a nineteenth-century Russian story of a ‘pilgrim’ who wanders all over Russia seeking ceaseless prayer, praying the Jesus Prayer, looking towards the self-activating prayer of the heart and the union of the mind with the heart.

I’ve decided that the Pilgrim is wild — but his wildness isn’t anything so tame as enjoying boating on the Gulf of Mexico or tracking elk in the mountains. Certainly, he fulfils some of the exterior wildness chapter one of Wild at Heart enumerates: he avoids cities, he spends lots of time in the woods and the steppe. He grows restless when he spends too much time in one place. All of that sort of thing.

The driving force, though, is prayer.

The story begins with the Pilgrim in church, where he hears the verse, ‘Pray without ceasing,’ (1 Thess. 5:17). He wants to know how this can be, so he begins visiting churches and listening to what preachers have to say. He hears a lot about prayer and the blessings of prayer and how to pray, but no one talks about ceaseless prayer.

He is already a wanderer (a disability prevents him from working, so he goes from town to town begging for a living), so he makes it his mission in his wanderings to ask any holy men — laymen, monks, priests — if they can teach him about how to pray without ceaseless.

His strivings bring him to a holy elder (staretz — akin to Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov or Archimandrite Sophrony in Essex) who teaches him about ceaseless prayer and the prayer of the heart, specifically the Jesus Prayer:

The elder gives him a prayer rule of praying the Jesus Prayer (sometimes called just ‘the Prayer’) a certain number of times per day over a period of time, and then increasing the number of prayers, all with the goal of the prayer becoming ‘self-activating’ — that is, that the Pilgrim would awake with the Prayer already in his heart and on his tongue. I believe he increases the number of Jesus Prayers to 12,000.

The Pilgrim is given a copy of The Philokalia — specifically, the one-volume Russian version often called ‘The Little Russian Philokalia‘ — and he reads it assiduously. One of the reasons he avoids other people is so that he can read and re-read his Philokalia and his Bible, and so that he can practise the Jesus Prayer in peace.

After his holy elder’s death, the Pilgrim acquires the elder’s chomboskoini (which Bacovcin translates as ‘rosary’!), his prayer rope. Like a rosary, this is a physical aid to prayer. With it, the Pilgrim is able to count his prayers more carefully. It also, in my experience, focusses the mind to have something in the hand, something to do.

Anyway, the Pilgrim pushes the frontiers of prayer throughout this book, has visions, sees healings, meets many people who have been richly blessed the the Jesus Prayer, and more. It is a fascinating and compelling book, as well as being a great introduction to the Jesus Prayer.

Men are wild at heart, and the least tame thing about us should be our faith in Jesus Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,

have mercy on me, a sinner.