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


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.
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