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Archive for the ‘True Philosophia, the Way of Life’ Category

A bewildering array of semi-professionalized terminology awaits anyone who simply wants to know how to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples. Formation. Paedagogy. Spiritual direction. Ascetical theology. This doesn’t even touch on methodology. Cell groups. Class rooms. Home studies. But one thing you can be sure that nearly all of these “programs” and “methods” will be chock full of: information. Information is reproducible (I won’t be so cynical as to say marketable, but there you are). One thing you will not find so much of is twelve men shuffling dusty through the Galilean countryside. That’s a problem.

The way we train and educate fellow Christians today says a lot about what we believe about the Incarnation.

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A person going through a time of intense personal suffering was counseled that salvation would come precisely through these evil events.  Not salvation in spite of; nor salvation from.  But salvation through these very things. One can intuit that this pastoral counsel did not feel very comforting.

When confronted with suffering, the argument turns immediately and hard to the larger questions, albeit with a personal face watered by tears: how can a good God allow suffering? why this injustice? what good end can this evil possibly serve? But these are questions for philosophers and theologians. And their answers, to the degree such speculative questions can have any answers, do not suture and salve the wounded heart.

These sorts of speculative questions, however legitimate and necessary, however normal as a first existential cry, do not work the sort of transformation necessary to the suffering heart. They are questions whose answers are of the mind and do not, perhaps cannot, satisfy the heart. What the heart needs are asketical answers.

St Philaret of Moscow, in his prayer, asks of God:

O Lord, I know not what to ask of thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on thee. My heart is open to thee. Visit and help me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence thy holy will and thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to thee. I put all my trust in thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill thy will. Teach me how to pray. Pray thou thyself in me. Amen.

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Long ago, before we were married, H. was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) ‘at her elbow,’ demanding her attention. And of course, not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in–I know how one puts it off–and faced Him. But the message was, ‘I want to give you something’ and instantly she entered into joy.–C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

You have put more joy in my heart than others ever knew for all their corn and wine–Psalm 4.7

The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.–Psalm 65.12-13

It is hard not to imagine that when the God-man, Jesus Christ, rose bodily from the dead a mighty shout of joy sprang forth from his human lips as he greeted the dawn.

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To be a godparent is at the same time a great honor and a tremendous responsibility. God asks each godparent to assist in leading souls along the narrow path which leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. For this reason the role of the godparent is not to be minimized or trivialized. It is in fact a role that is holy and needs to be taken seriously.

The task of steering a child along the narrow path, and bringing them up according to the law of God is perhaps the greatest of all things in life. St. Theophan the Recluse says that there is no holier act. What better thing can we offer our children than to lead them to our Lord and teach them to imitate Him in their life.

The challenge of raising up a child in the teachings of God is perhaps far greater today than ever before. We are contending against many negative influences that carry with them great appeal. Due to the fallen state that we are in, and the unhealed passions that remain within us, the things that are most harmful are the things that are most enticing. With the many obstacles and temptations, the parents along with the godparents, must help the precious souls entrusted to them through the course of life . . . .

The role and responsibility of the Godparent can be summed up in the Divine Commandment that is read from the Holy Gospel at the service of Baptism. “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” It is truly an honor to be called upon to be a godparent. May we all live a life close to the Church, seeking help from Christ, that we may fulfill our sacred duty as godparents in a way pleasing to God.

(from here)

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From St. Benedict’s Rule:

The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the sarabaites. These, not having been tested, as gold in the furnace, by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft as lead. In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.

–Chapter 1: On the Kinds of Monks

Sarabaites live in small groups without a leader and without a rule to guide them. Remember, St Benedict distinguishes the sarabaites from the coenobites (the monks who live according to a rule in community under an abbot); the gyrovagues (who, like the sarabaites are slaves to their own wills and appetites, but differ in that they are always on the move, always guests, never anchored); and the anchorites or hermits (who after long testing in the monastery live their lives in solitude and prayer).

St Benedict reserves his harshest approbation for these sarabaites. They are essentially religious consumers, monastics in name only who seek experiences which conform to their preferences. Although they are not like the gyrovagues in their unstable restless wanderings, the sarabaites are as unstable in their spiritual lives not being grounded in a community under a common discipline and godly leadership. They lack any check on their sinful inclinations and habits, their blindnesses and prejudices. Their asketical zeal is unchecked by the wise moderation of the Rule. Their asketical laxity is reinforced by the absence of any external motivation. Theirs is a life wholly contained within themselves. They are the measure of all things. But because they have the outward form of a monastic appearance, they deceive the undiscerning. The gyrovagues are here and gone. Perhaps they will attract one or another to run after them, but they do not linger long in any one place to form attachments. The sarabaites however, appear to be what they claim to be. And therein lies the danger. One of the tools for good works in the Rule is not to be called holy before one is truly holy.

The life in the coenobium, the monastic community, is not an exciting one. It is a regular round of work, prayer and study. Every day the office is prayed, every week the same psalms are sung round again. There is discipline to be endured when one steps outside the way of life ordered by the Rule. Mutual submission and poverty and chastity are not exciting things. Duty is far less comforting than following one’s own inclinations.

But, as the Benedictine way of life demonstrates, it is precisely this sort of ordered constraints on ourselves that we need. Few of us lack the strength of character to hold ourselves to an ordered way of life. And those who do have the strength for such often lack the wisdom. Very few of us would seek out hermitage for ourselves. Some of us may find a life of vagrancy somehow appealing. But given the chance, most of us would choose the sarabaites over the Benedictines, having all the appearance of religiousness under the guise of self-centeredness. But these third kind of monks serve as a warning to us. They are empty vessels caught up wholly within themselves.

The better life is in an ordered community under godly leadership, one of mutual submission, generosity and fidelity.

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Fourth and finally, there are the monks called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than the sarabaites. The Rule of St Benedict, 1.10-11

Thus, we have become acquainted with the coenobitic monks, or monks who live in community, the hermits or anchorites, those blameworthy sarabaites (who live in twos and threes and follow their own wills and desires calling holy whatever they want), and the gyrovagues. St Benedict* will spend the entirety of his “rule for beginners” on the cenoebitic monks. But at the outset he gives this warning. In contrast to the gyrovagues, the Benedictine monk will vow stability: “from this day [of his monastic vows] he is no longer free to leave the monastery . . .” (Rule 58.15).

Why is stability so important for the Benedictine monk? Because it is the external constraint on the monk’s will–which has been freely given in oath–which provides humility. And from humility the monk will learn contentedness.

Not a few times, St Benedict warns the monks against grumbling. In the chapters on excommunication, one of the first faults listed (the others are stubbornness, disobedience and pride) is grumbling. And back of grumbling is discontentedness. Indeed, discontentedness is such a poison upon the soul, that St Benedict proscribes that the beds of the older and senior monks be interspersed in the dormitory among the younger monks, so that on arising, “they will quietly encourage one another, for the sleepy like to make excuses” (The Rule of St Benedict 22.8). I do not think there is any more time of day more conducive to grumbling than awakening at the beginning of the day. (This despite the fact that the psalmist speaks of the noonday demon, which the monks name acedia.)

Discontentedness may arise from faintheartedness. We may be confronted with struggles larger than we have ever imagined, or lasting so long, we grow weary and lose courage. Our eyes begin to wander and look elsewhere. St Benedict is quite strict with monastics who travel from the monastery. If their journey is short, they are not even to eat outside the monastery. But if their journey is long, they are to observe the hours of prayer where they are. And when these journeying brothers return,

they should, on the very day of their return, lie face down on the floor of the oratory at the conclusion of each of the customary hours of the Work of God They ask the prayers of all for their faults, in case they have been caught off guard on the way by seeing some evil thing or hearing some idle talk. (The Rule of St Benedict 67.3-4)

To this faintheartedness, St Benedict does not offer coddling. He is pragmatic and realistic. At the outset he gently warns:

Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road the leads to salvation It is bound to be narrow at the outset. The Rule of St Benedict, Prologue 48

Fundamentally, however, both grumbling and faintheartedness are results of the failure to remember the goodness of God. Grumbling is that pride of heart that says implicitly, I deserve better than this. If God were good to me, or more good to me, I’d get thus and so. It is a failure to see that God is absolutely good and that all that we have are good and perfect gifts from above. The only remedy for grumbling is, I have been told, constant and unrelenting thanksgiving.

Faintheartedness is the failure to remember that God is good now, in this time of struggle. The fainthearted may affirm the goodness of God in the future, may believe that God will bring blessing, that things will get better. But the fainthearted fails to remember that God is always good, even and especially now in this moment of testing. It may well be that one remedy for faintheartedness is to see what is sometimes hard to see: that this struggle one is facing is not a surprise to God, it has not caught him flatfooted. He well knew it long before the world was made. And therefore that he has allowed it means and can only mean that his goodness is in it. This is not calling evil good. It is calling God, Lord. And if Lord, Christ is Victor, and in him we are more than victors.

It may seem impossible to remember that God is good and all that he allows us is for good. More than the seeming impossibility to remember, even more to actually cultivate this state of heart. In the face of these illnesses of the soul, grumbling and faintheartedness, St Benedict reminds us

We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. The Rule of St Benedict, Prologue 40-41

*There is no need for my purposes to discern between critical understandings of the relation between the Rule of the Master and the Rule of St Benedict.

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Although this post was sparked by reading my priest’s, Father Patrick Reardon’s The Trial of Job and by a conversation with fellow parishioner and dear friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes, one should not think that the failures and infelicities of my thoughts here are in any way generated by these two men. Rather, they have served as catalysts to coalesce some of the thoughts I have had on these matters.

When it comes to human suffering, there’s no use beginning at the beginning, because no suffering comes to us in this way. It always catches us in media res, right smack dab in the middle of doing other things. Because this is so, then, I will forego both the elucidation of causes (sin, freedom, the devil and so forth) as well as the justification of God in the face of human suffering (whether the weak form of defense or the strong form of a justificatory theodicy). I can say that I myself have heard often of late the resolute determination, “I will not discuss theodicy with a philosopher.”

There is, it must be understood, a good reason for this. It is simply this: reason is not only wholly inadequate to the task of the understanding necessary for this topic, it is not reason which must be satisfied.

I do not mean to indicate that Christians are not obligated to take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, or to give a ready defense to those who ask. If we are reason-endowed creatures, our reason must be equal to the challenge given us by those who would know how it is that a God omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent can co-exist in a world in which manifest evil acts are accomplished, and humans made in the image of such a God suffer evil. There will be debate as to how best this is to be done, as well criticism of which answers achieve the best and most complete ends. Yet we cannot shut off from this question of human suffering all the powers which human reason can bring to bear on this question.

But, even so, reason is wholly inadequate to this task. It is inadequate for two reasons: both God and the human person are utterly opaque to human reason. Reason can no more get at God–unless God reveal himself–than it can make two contradictory things true (or false for that matter) at the same time. Nor can the human person be subsumed to reason’s extent. The human person is always mysterious. Which is why marriage in a fallen world is even possible. The God with whom we have to do is not the god of the philosophers (and therefore cannot be reduced to the scope of a rational problem), because he is indeed, a person (or, if it’s preferable, a tri-unity of persons).

And since all human suffering is suffering in the concrete, which is to say, all human suffering is personal suffering, reason will always fail to rightly analyze and resolve human suffering. At best it can perhaps shed light on the limits, perhaps reveal the outlines and contours of the problem, but it will never get at it in total because the reality is far greater than reason’s potential.

Since human suffering is not a rational problem but a personal one, then while one ought not shun reason, one would do well to seek elsewhere than reason for satisfaction. I am not talking here fideism, which is just another form of rationalism, but, rather of philosophia, a way of living. That is to say, one must put reason in its place: within the heart. And one can do so only by askesis.

At the risk of repeating others far more experienced in the true philosophia, far more wise and mature than me, I can only say that the book of Job gives us a glimpse of how to begin. On a superficial read, one would think that Job was doing just fine till the philosophical discussions with his “comforters” began and once such dialogue had been given up. But whether this conclusion is justified, we may still take note, it seems to me, that the book begins and ends with worship, sacrifice and intercession. That is to say, in the face of suffering, Job did well and rightly the one thing needful. His life prior to tragedy was one of worship and sacrificial intercession for those he loved. With the horrors of his children’s death and his own disease upon him, he entrusted himself to God and worshipped. And in the end, having gained the audience he’d long sought with God, it was after he’d worshipped and sacrificially interceded for his woeful comforters that he was restored.

We have here, then, a paradigm: there is not so much a set of rational answers we must employ against our doubts and fears in the face of suffering (we must note that God did not address a single one of Job’s questions, but pressed the righteous husband and father with questions of his own), but rather an askesis, a way of life, which is the only thing suitable within which to face suffering. Such an askesis is not directly satisfying to the heart, and less so to the mind, but it is the only means by which we can find true satisfaction: the presence of God himself. Within the heart. If we have done with reason what we should always do, and place it within the heart, then it is there that the presence of God will fill reason not with the answers it seeks but with the One in whom reason’s silence is met with infinite fullness.

I have stated these things in somewhat formal terms. But perhaps I may be permitted a few more personal comments. This question of personal suffering has confronted me at key points in my life–key perhaps precisely because of the aspect of personal suffering. Certain of my family and friends may remember that as a senior in Bible college I was given the opportunity to preach on just this very thing: human suffering as seen through the prism of Job. In nearly twenty years, the questions have not changed, nor have the conclusions. I must also admit, that my understanding of this question has not grown one iota. But if I may be permitted to say so, I have learned one very practical thing. The discipline of prayer, of intercession for others, is perhaps not the only askesis personal suffering calls forth, but it is the only thing by which one may endure such suffering. Because it is the only place in which one may be granted by grace the long-desired audience with God, in whom even silence saves.

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Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another–no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!
The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 72, On that Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have

M. Scott Peck has said, “Marriage is a monastery of two,” and the genius of the Rule of St. Benedict is that it is a layman’s rule for monks, which in so many ways translates so readily–or so it seems to me–to life lived non-monastically, that is to say, “in the world” (as opposed to “the desert”). One example of this felicitous translation is the above, chapter seventy-two of the rule.

The exhortations of the chapter–honoring another before oneself, patiently enduring another’s infirmities, considering what is good for and helpful to another before oneself (that gift of mutual obedience, etymologically, to listen to or hear from another), chaste love for another, the loving fear of God, and the preference for nothing else ahead of Christ–all are simply put the Gospel. The last shall be first. Forgive your brother seventy-times-seven, each time he repents. Serve rather than be served. Take up your cross and follow me. And so forth.

What is interesting, to me, however, is that these exhortations are by way of preserving good zeal, the zeal which rids us of our vices (infirmities of body and soul), and which unites us to God (life everlasting), the zeal which we are to practice with fervent love. (I do not have the Latin near to hand, but note how often love and charity occur in this short chapter.) That is to say, it is not that we have zeal and then fulfill these exhortations. Rather, these exhortations engender that good zeal within us.

This is how it has always been in classic Christianity. We do before (or even if we do not) feel. We do before we know. Classical Christianity knew little of what we think of today when we speak of “authenticity.” In today’s world, led by romanticism, feelings “authenticate” actions, and hypocrisy is a lack of feeling more than it is anything else. But for Christians authenticity has little if indeed anything to do with feelings. Words are authenticated by actions. That is classical authenticity. Feelings are more often than not a temptation rather than a blessing.

In the ancient Church, catechumens went through the initiatory rites of the Church–Baptism, Chrismation and then Holy Communion–and then had these mysteries explained to them. During their catechumenate–traditionally lasting for three years–they were schooled in the basics, but were not given classes in theology and the history of the Liturgy. Their paedagogy was moral: practice the virtues, avoid the vices, fast, say the Lord’s prayer at the three (or five) hours of prayer, hear the Scriptures (they did not have their own personal copies, you understand) and so on. They did not–if you’ll pardon the anachronisms–read St. Gregory Palamas, the Philokalia and the Ladder of Divine Ascent, or contemplate the energy/essences distinction. Doing first. Understanding later.

So, too, with zeal. Consider others before yourself–what is useful to them, what maintains fidelity and loyalty to them, patiently loving them with all their weaknesses and failures. This what makes a good marriage. It is what makes for good friendships. It is what makes for a good parish. It is, of course, simply the constitution of the practical life of the Kingdom. It is what Christians do.

May God enable us to do these things, and in his mercy provide the zeal to carry us forward in these very same things, and into greater union with him, and so also with one another.

Holy Father Saint Benedict, pray for us.

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In a previous post, I cited some ancient Christian teaching regarding the mind and the spiritual battle waged in the arena of thoughts. I want to return to the topic again, this time with some personal reflections.

The past three months in particular have been a rather specific engagement with the notion of spiritual warfare of the mind. Life itself, of course, for the Christian is a matter of continuous warfare, as St. Paul notes in Ephesians 6:12. And that warfare begins first in the mind. As Jesus himself notes, the sin that one does begins first with the thought of it, the dwelling on it in one’s mind (Matthew 5:28). This is why the Christian must be so very careful what he puts in front of his eyes: on the TV, books and magazines, movies; and what he listens to with his ears: talk radio, conversations and music. For what his mind is engaged with will be what he does with his mouth, his hands and his feet.

But not only must the Christian guard what goes into his eyes and ears and into this thoughts, he must also guard to what thoughts he pays attention. Memories of past sins which come to his attention, or thoughts which do not give place for God’s love and providence. The dwelling, for example, on depressive thoughts is for some a most difficult battle. (Here, of course, I am speaking strictly of thoughts of hopelessness and depression. I do not touch on the biochemical component to depression which requires a different sort of therapy.)

As Solomon exhorts (emphasis mine):

My son, give head to my word and incline your ear to my words, that your fountains may not fail you; guard them in your heart; for they are life to those who find them and healing for all their flesh. Keep your heart with all watchfulness, for from these words are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:19-22 SAAS)

Or, in the more familiar King James rendering:

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

This spiritual warfare of the mind is absolutely crucial if one is going to live a mature Christian life. Nearly the entire first volume of the English translation of the Philokalia is about nepsis or watchfulness of thoughts, the guarding of one’s heart.

As Father Anthony Coniaris writes:

Logismoi, thoughts, come to us from both God and from Satan. The church fathers tell us that the best way to discern whether the thoughts come from God or from Satan is to remember that the thoughts that come from God generate peace and joy, whiile the logismoi that come from Satan cause anxiety and turmoil.

Mother Maria said once that she thought she had only one appearance of Christs in her life. It was when she was particularly depressed one day. Christ appeared to her and said, “Maria, take it easy. Relax. It ain’t what you think.” Thoughts that come from Satan cause much turmoil. Then Jesus comes sand says, “Relax. It ain’t what Satan made you think.” Satan will almost always present the worst case scenario. (Confronting and Controlling Thoughts, p. 41)

One of the problems with depressive thoughts is not simply the depths of sadness and paralysis that comes upon one, but that it diminishes one’s faith in God and his loving Providence. I can speak from personal experience here: when one posits the worst case scenario one misses the fingerprints of God that are all over one’s day to day living. A loved one will encourage one to make some connections. Those connections will open new resources and renewed ties. Suddenly what had felt as though the horizon had shrunk to the four walls of one’s room, now stretches that horizon to the immeasurable limits of the Kansas prairie. What had felt impossible to face and a foregone conclusion, now opens up many avenues of response and the realistic hopes of pragmatic and favorable ends. When the present strictures had felt confining and diminishing, now suddenly it seems an exercise, a discipline, the moments before the victory (even if that victory may not be precisely how one imagines it).

This deliverance from such thoughts is always supernatural, but it is usually a synergy. That is to say, one practices watchfulness and does not let such depressive thoughts take hold in one’s mind and heart. But it is also the case that the deliverance is always divine. And that is especially the case when such warfare feels beyond one’s capability. The rescue and relief can be as sudden as the joy on morning’s awakening, when one’s heart is filled with divine songs.

The wonderful thing about such deliverance is the seemingly limitless possibilities. All doors seem open, all bridges remain unburned, but too there are many clear pathways to the future. Even if some of them are painful, they are, too, bittersweet. The years the locust have eaten will be restored, the blessings of Job will come, that which was lost will be restored. And even if that restoration is with new goods and different ends, the joy will be as strong and real.

It is when one is free of the control of one’s thoughts, when one disciplines all thoughts by the remembrance of the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who sees all our moments, our sins and virtues, and with all he is works to draw us to himself if only we will be drawn, then one will see clearly. Then one can face whatever task is required, however impossible it seems, and know that the Resurrection follows the Cross.

Glory to God for all things.

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Nice site over all. This page–The Christian Catacombs of Rome–deals with the liturgy and theology of the catacombs.

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