29 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (7)

The Walk

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

The last post was on the purpose, or end, of the monastic life. This post begins a look at the means employed by monastics in achieving that end: the monastic disciplines.

For most of Protestant and Reformed Christians, apart from Sunday worship and, perhaps, mid-week services and Bible studies, the fundamental discipline is the quiet time. This is that time of day, typically (or so it appears) in the morning, when we do our daily Scripture reading and prayer. But in my experience, most Christians still find themselves hungry for more than that. It helps in many, important ways, but it doesn't fill other of our needs. This hunger, satisfied wrongly, explains most of the sins Christains commit. But I don't intend taking that up, not directly.

What to do? Here is where the desert fathers and mothers are at their most helpful. Contrary to what, again, seems to be the majority report among many Prostestants and Reformed Christians, the desert fathers and mothers affirmed Scripture reading and prayer, but they also recommended other practices that many of us won't consider, or at least not to the extent that they would, and did, endorse. I can speculate as to three reasons: love of pleasure; laziness; and a mis-placed fear of legalism.

Most famously, monks engage in fasting, solitute and silence, meditation, confession, spiritual "parenting" -- all in addition to church worship and availing of the sacraments. I will delve into these in future posts, but for now the question is: How would you describe your psychological style? Creative, delighting in the aesthetic? If so, then you will bring this to the living out of your spiritual life. You are edified by the visual and musical aspects of worship; and your worship style leans in that direction. Perhaps for you the preaching of the sermon is what really grips your attention in worship; perhaps theology is your thing -- then your psychological style is intellectual and, again, this is reflected in your worship. If you are really on the quiet side, then the quiet time, alone with God is your preference. Others find their style expressed in social work, working among the poor, the sick -- cooperating with organized charities.

The fact that we are different and that our differences play a significant role in our spiritual lives was not lost on the desert fathers. They understood very well that this variety of spiritual temperament required a diversity of spiritual disciplines to cultivate our relationship with God and others.

The idea of "cultivation" is important. If we naturally incline to one or two specific disciplines and avoid others, it is to those others we should devote more time and energy. Disciplines which are easy for us simply do not strengthen us; in a meaningful sense, they aren't really disciplines at all. So if Bible study and prayer come easily to you, then you may actually need solitude and silence. In my experience, most people, even most Christians, really cannot handle too much in the way of silence, or solitude. They must always have some noise, almost regardless the type or source, including music which is listened to "just for the beat" or a television which is turned on, but not watched, regardless what the show is, just to have some noise, just so that there not be silence. Some must always be hanging out with friends; some are so averse to solitude that they seem to exercise poor judgment in making friends, simply so as to have someone -- anyone -- to "hang" with. On the other hand, if you enjoy solitude, then the discipline for you may be something like regular attendance at corporate worship, group Bible studies and the like. Most of us will need the advice of another, more mature, to help us discover which are the disciplines we should concentrate upon most.

Finally, there are two things to keep in mind. First, this walk never ends, not in this life. We never arrive; we keep walking. Second, the test of "progress" is not our facility with the disciplines. You may find silence and solitude become easier and easier to endure. You may find it easier and easier to pray consistently. You may read the Bible through several times a year. But the only meaningful test of "progress" is whether you are growing in love for God and others, and dying more and more to sin (and not just the obvious ones). Answering the question, "Am I growing in love for God and others?" requires painful honesty with oneself, an honesty which is very difficult to achieve. This is why one of the disciplines (as I mentioned above) employed by monastics is spiritual parenthood. Reformed and protestants call it counseling. Frankly, monastics would find our "counseling" a little on the wimpy side, I'm afraid.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

Part 6, Goal of the Monastic Life

20 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (6)

Goal of the Monastic Life

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

What were the desert monastics up to? What was the purpose of their asceticism? Why so much emphasis on fasting, prayer, silence and meditations? Among those of us in the Reformed Communion, the answer given is usually simple: They were pursuing a life which would justify their claims to perfection, or at least to being holier and more righteous than non-monastics. To a certain extent this criticism is justified, especially since this was very much the case in the west at the time of the Reformation.

But then, church history doesn't begin with the Reformation. And Calvin had a higher view of the monasticism of earlier times than he did the monasticism of his day:

"[I]t is to be observed, that the ancient mode of living in monasteries was very different. The persons who retired to them were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity and patience. The discipline practised by the monks then resembled that which the [Spartans] are said to have used under the laws of Lycurgus, and was even much more rigorous. They slept on the ground, their drink was water, their food bread, herbs, and roots, their chief luxuries oil and pulse. From more delicate food and care of the body they abstained. These things might seem hyperbolical were they not vouched by experienced eye-witnesses, as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. By such rudimentary training they prepared themselves for greater offices. For of the fact that monastic colleges were then a kind of seminaries of the ecclesiastical order, both those whom we lately named are very competent witnesses, (they were all brought up in monasteries, and thence called to the episcopal office), as well as several other great and excellent men of their age. Augustine also shows that in his time the monasteries were wont to furnish the Church with clergy." (Emphasis added.)

In this posting, I explained the radical problem which, to the monastics, required a radical solution. The situation among monastics in the east was for the most part much different from the west.

In asking what is the goal of the monastic life, we could ask, as well, what is the goal of the Christian life? For the desert monastics, the goal of the ascetical practices was the same as the goal of the Christian life. Often, I think, this fact is lost on us precisely because of the asceticism itself. We cannot see the forest for the trees (those ascetical practices). Moreover, the aforementioned loathing of ascetical practices and easy dismissal as works-righteousness also hinders our vision. We Reformed and (by virtue thereof) non-monastics don't engage in such practices and we're living the Christian life; therefore, the monks, having added to the requirements as it were, are attempting acts of supererogation and, for that reason, not living the Christian life. They are in fact sinning greatly.

What in fact compelled the monastics to go into the desert was the command of Jesus to "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5.48). Jesus's words there, seeming to suggest that we must have a completely, flawlessly obedient life, might depress us, given what must surely be our knowledge that we cannot be perfect. But the message from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5.48 isn't about flawlessness; rather, they are a restatement of the Two Great Commandments: (1) that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Deuteronomy 6.5) and (2) that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19.18) (cf. Luke 10.27).

What Jesus is asking of us is a life of perfect love, for God and for others. We were created to give and receive love. God created us for love; and he redeemed us for love. Love characterizes the Holy Trinity. The fundamental relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is love. Out of that love relationship, we were created and redeemed. And for the sake of that love relationship, we were created and redeemed. The center of all things is that love which exists in and among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The life of the Godhead is an eternal love life with each other. As the church fathers have put it, the members of the Trinity interpenetrate each other (perichoresis). Or, better, as Jesus himself put it: "I am in my father and my father is in me" (John 14.10) and "...you are in me and I am in you." (John 17.21).

What's the point? God created us and redeemed us out of his eternal trinitarian love life. And he calls us to enter into that very love life; he calls us to live life with him. As the Catechism puts it, our whole purpose is "to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever." However much we (or some of us) Reformed Christians may criticize the means, this life with God is the end or purpose of the monastic life. They, no less than we, seek to glorify God and enjoy him forever, specifically by growing in love for God and our neighbor.

There is a story by the 6th century monk Dorotheus which is highly illustrative of the relation between love for God and love for neighbor.

"Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centerpoint is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center. The straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. Let's assume for the sake of this analogy that to move toward God, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God the closer they become to one another. And the closer they are to one another the closer they become to God."

For those of us who eschew works righteousness, Dorotheus's analogy is powerful. He does not argue that in order to become closer to God we must love each other more, so that closeness to God becomes something like a reward for loving others. He says that we must love God. As we do so, we come closer to him and, since we are all moving from the circumference (i.e., our lives) to the center (i.e., his life) we also come closer to each other. Growing in love for each other; growing closer to each other -- these cannot happen by focusing on them. They can only happen by focusing the attention of our hearts upon God. Don't worry about loving me; worry about loving God.

So the goal of the monastic life, including their ascetical practices is love. The praying; the fasting; the silence; the meditation -- all are intended to draw the monk closer to God. Before we think that monks properly think of themselves as superior to non-monks we should recall Chrysostom's admonition: The only difference between the monk and the married man is that the monk has no wife. Nothing is demanded of a monk which is not also demanded of a married man. Nothing is demanded of a married man that is not also demanded of a monk. We all "must rise to the same height."

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

11 April 2011

Prepare to get schooled in my Austrian perspective

Sixteen months on YouTube, and still generating comments like it was posted yesterday.

05 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (5)

St. Anthony

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In my last post I mentioned that Pachomius had studied for a time with St. Anthony of Egypt. In this post I want to write a bit about St. Anthony.

Anthony was not the first Christian monk; neither was he the first to go out to the desert. But he is certainly the one most responsible for putting desert monasticism on the map of the Christian life. He is hailed as the father of the monks because of his impact on the movement as a whole.

Most of our knowledge of Anthony comes to us by way of St. Athanasius, the well-known defender of Nicene orthodoxy. During the time of the persecution of Nicene Christians, Athanasius went into the desert, and it was there that he met Anthony, who made such an impression on Athanasius that he decided to record Anthony's life (i.e., The Life of Anthony), one of the classics of Christian antiquity. (Well, I think so, anyway.)

Anthony was born in 251 and died in 356--105 years. When he was between eighteen and twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him their property and the care of his little sister. One day in church, Anthony heard the gospel reading in which Jesus says to the rich young ruler, "If you would be perfect, go so sell all your possessions and come follow me." To Anthony God on that particular day intended him to understand that passage as addressing himself, personally. So he sold most of his possessions and gave them to the poor. Later, he went to church and heard a story that induced him to sell everything he had; he did precisely that, taking up residence on the edge of the city under the direction of an old man who had been practising the ascetic life for some time.

What are we to make of this? Upon reflection, it is clear that Christ's command to the rich young ruler, was primarily for the rich young ruler, not to all, the point of the narrative being that at least one who would not follow Christ did so because he preferred the enjoyment of his wealth. Jesus does not call all of us to sell everything. Apparently, as far as Anthony was concerned, he was of a type with the rich young ruler. Very likely, upon hearing the gospel passage, he realized that he too preferred the enjoyment of wealth to the riches found in Christ. We would do well not to confuse our call with the call of others; otherwise, among other things, we'll all be vying for church pulpits! That being said, although he may not specifically require that we sell all our possessions, Jesus does nevertheless want us to be detached from the things of this world just as Anthony was detached. This detachment, however, must be first of all internal in nature. Anyone, really, can divest himself of all goods, and still be attached to the things of this world. Perhaps, unlike the rich young ruler we do not prefer the enjoyment of wealth, but rather the enjoyment of sex. If we are not prepared even to consider the celibate life, we may be no more ready to follow Christ than the rich young ruler. For some others, it may be neither sex nor wealth--alcohol, carousing with friends. Believe it or not, as innocuous as it may seem, if you cannot tolerate long periods without the company of friends, you may not be as ready to follow Christ as you think. On the other hand, if solitude is your preference you are in the same predicament. We must examine ourselves, and face up to what we find there.

But recall that the purpose of this detachment is not detachment for its own sake. The purpose of detachment is to free us up to serve Christ whole-heartedly. There is little good in detachment if, in your detachment, you are not serving Christ whole-heartedly.

Athanasius also informs us that St. Anthony went from place to place learning from others how to live the ascetic life. According to Athanasius, "He observed the graciousness of one, the eagerness for prayers in another. He took careful note of one's freedom from anger and the human concern of another. And he paid attention to one while he lived a watchful life, or one who pursued studies as also he admired one for patience, and another for fastings and sleeping on the ground. And having been filled in this manner he returned to his own place of discipline, from that time gathering the attributes of each in himself and striving to manifest in himself what was best in all."

St. Anthony didn't learn only from his observations of other ascetics, but he was also devoted to the Scriptures. "Not a word of holy scripture fell to the ground, but found ready obedience in the heart of Anthony." What sort of lessons can we take from this? First, Anthony learned from others, emulating those he thought superior to himself and he learned from scripture, putting into practice what he heard from it.

I doubt many, even many of us who are Reformed, truly compare favorably with Anthony. Many are content to learn the faith, meaning, specifically, learning theology in the academic sense as if this were the sum total of the Christian life. Oh, and obeying the Ten Commandments, barely. In most discussions faith and practice means theology and worship (meaning, the worship service, that is, Sunday mornings and, for some, evenings, and maybe Wednesday evenings). Expound a bit too much on practice (especially fasting) and you run the risk of being dismissed as a legalist. Suggest that regular times of church-wide fasting be observed (but not required) and you'll likely be warned that you are violating Christ's command about fasting in Matthew 6.16. After all, if everyone is fasting then everyone knows that everyone is fasting and that means everyone is practicing their righteousness before everyone else. Huh? You mean like in church when we're all praying and singing hymns before each other?

But I digress.

The fact is, for the most part, we learn for purposes of discussion, not obedient action. We may even prefer discussion to obedience. We may actually prefer to hear, rather than to do. In that case, Anthony teaches us an important lesson: that the goal of knowledge is wisdom, that is, putting truth into practice.

It should come as no surprise that Anthony (who was illiterate, by the way) became known throughout the empire for his wisdom and holiness. Once, the Emperor Constantius invited him to the capital for a visit. Anthony, honored by the invitation, nevertheless declined because he had asked another man for advice. His advisor, Abba Paul (who was also Anthony's disciple), said, "If you go, you will be called Anthony. But if you remain here, you will be called Abba Anthony". Incredible: Anthony asks his disciple for advice.

What does Abba Paul mean by saying that Anthony will be called, "Abba"? If Anthony were to have gone to the emperor, then the interview would have been on the emperor's terms. Anthony's presence would have been a show for the court, no doubt, a show in which Anthony, at the emperor's request would have done something wonderful or interesting, fascinating the court with his holiness. (In all probability, the audience would have been respectful, but in the end also aware that Anthony had come at the behest of Constantius.) If, on the other hand, the emperor were to come to Anthony the situation would have been quite different, but not contrary: Anthony would not have been entertained by the emperor's presence. The emperor would have a proper understanding of Anthony's motives. I mean, the emperor, not Anthony, would be the one to undertake the long journey into the desert, humbling himself in the process and being in the proper frame of mind to listen to anything Anthony might have for him. As opposed to entertaining him, Anthony could really help the emperor, if the emperor was willing.

I can't help but wonder how I would respond to an invitation from the White House. I know some people who "worked" their respective networks to meet and have their photographs taken with two presidents. It would be nice (not to mention self-flattering) to think I'd turn down the offer. But in my experience, most of us don't know how we'll act in a given situation until we find ourselves in that situation; and we're likely to disappoint ourselves and others. (I will admit the invitation would be particularly tempting if were extended by, say, President Ron Paul.)

I recall having the opportunity, a specific invitation in fact, to meet the men in the band, Petra. At the last minute, I thought better of the offer and didn't take the opportunity. I'd like to say it was due to my having achieved a certain amount of the detachment we should have. Perhaps to a certain extent it was. I'd been contemplating becoming either a Benedictine or a Jesuit and, in addition to the Scriptures, had been steeping myself in classics of monastic literature. Detachment was the goal and I was taking a serious stab at it. But, right at the moment of declining the offer, I actually was pleased with myself for having done so. I thought I had achieved some level of detachment; but all I really did was appear to have done so. (This is one of many themes C. S. Lewis deals with in The Screwtape Letters.) Like I said: we disappoint ourselves.

There is a certain "glitter" which surrounds superstars, whether we're talking superstars in politics, the academic world, or the arts. And rubbing shoulders with them, for almost any length of time could possibly give us a high. If these are "spiritual" superstars then, of course, the high is a "spiritual" one. Perhaps, some sort of spiritual high is what Constantius sought in a visit from St. Anthony. To be sure, Constantius probably had some admiration for Anthony; but if he were to learn something from Anthony, then his going to visit Anthony was the best way. For one thing, a visit to the desert removes all the distractions of court life.

Perhaps Anthony's greatest example is the way he died. Says Athanasius: "It is worthwhile for me to recall what the end of his life was like. For even his death has become something imitable." Anthony learned from God that he was soon to die and made preparation. He entrusted himself to two of his disciples and as he lay on his death-bed, he "lifted his feet and as if seeing friends who had come to him and being cheered by them (for as he lay there his face seemed bright) he died."

It's easy for us in the West, especially if we are Calvinists, to dismiss this sort of thing as undue focus on humans rather than God--works righteousness, even. But Athanasius sought to inform the world about St. Anthony because, as he saw it, Anthony was evidence of the power of the gospel to change lives: "The Lord chose those who are his men like lamps to everyone so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life and may gain zeal for the way of virtue." In other words, God made Anthony's life known to the world then and now so that people could know that the gospel has power to transform lives and inspire zeal. God's power can transform lives and inspire zeal. The gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

Anthony often makes me wonder about the extent to which I myself have been transformed by the power of God and the extent to which the gospel makes a difference in the way I live. Of course, he's not the only one who makes me wonder about those things.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
View my complete profile

Blog Archive