The Way of Life That is Christianity

This coming June will mark ten years since I wrote a series of blogposts looking at Christianity as a philosophia, a way of living, generally similar to the various ways of living as the various ancient “schools” of philosophy (Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and so on). I first had to deal with the modernist notions of philosophy as some academic subject limited to the classroom and dusty books no one reads. Rather, in the ancient world, philosophy was a way of understanding the world, and of living in light of that understanding. Stoics didn’t just believe certain propositional claims, but, rather, lived their daily lives in way that was unique to their belief-system. Indeed, in the ancient world, Sophists were generally despised because the were considered disingenuous, making certain claims for money, but not from conviction or from a way of life.

At the time, I had read, and clearly was strongly influenced by, Pierre Hadot’s work (his collection of essays Philosophia as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy?). Although, in contradistinction to Hadot, I don’t see Christianity (that is to say, ancient Christianity) as the catalyst for the demise of the connection between philosophical inquiry and a way of living.

Lately, I have been returning in my thoughts to the content of these essays and considering re-envisioning them, though on a somewhat larger scale. I would like to re-write them in a more wholistic project. I don’t know if that will happen, but I thought I would at least collect all the blogpost links in one convenient place for later reference. I would also like to revise certain comments and lines of thoughts. At the time, I was anticipating the birth of my younger daughter (and in fact, she was born prior to the completion of the last couple of blogposts (on marriage and fatherhood, and the concluding post), so these are grounded in that reality. My life has changed somewhat since then, so it may well be that I have other things to say ten years later.

Christians: Grammarians or Philosophers?
The Way: Christianity as Philosophia
Philosophia and the Modernist Myth of Objectivity
On the Earliest Christian Understanding of the Faith as Philosophia
The Transmission of Christian Philosophia
The Life That is Philosophia
True Philosophia: Christian Way of Life in Opposition to the Schools of Antiquity
Christianity as Philosophia versus Christianity as Grammatike
True Philosophia and the Offense of Christianity
Christianity as Philosophia and Modern Society
Christianity as Philosophia and Evangelization
Christianity as Philosophia and Thoughts on Marriage and Fatherhood
Christianity as Philosophia: Some Concluding Thoughts

Formation, Knowledge and Desire

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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Saved Through What Is Given

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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Joy is the Thing

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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Godparenting 101

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)

The Third Kind of Monks

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.

St Benedict, Stability, Discontentedness and the Goodness of God

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.