Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

36. Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law. For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

St. Maximos sees sufferings as pain we are granted to counter the sort of pleasure that draws us away from God, which means its the sort of pleasure that draws us ultimately toward a non-existence we are powerless to achieve. The sufferings freely embraced I think describe ascetic practices. I do think this is one of the widespread problems in most of Protestantism. And to some extent it seems to have spread to the modern Catholic Church as well. The ascetic disciplines (fundamentally fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) have to a large degree been abandoned within much of Christianity. But the disciplines are part of our synergy with God. If we do not engage in them, we provide God less and less room to change and transform us. Moreover, if we do not fast, we forget how to feast properly in thanksgiving. When the Church abandons basic ascetic disciplines, it gives its members over to the passions. That’s not to say that every person should live like a monk. Most people are not called or equipped by God for such a life. However, it seems that many people today seem to think that if they are not a monastic, that means they don’t need to practice any ascetic disciplines at all. And that’s not only inconsistent with the history of the Church and the Holy Scriptures, it ignores the reality of what it means to be a human being.


The Didache 34 – Watch For Your Life’s Sake

Posted: July 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately. Today we reach the end of the Teaching and the conclusion of this series.

Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come. But come together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you are not made perfect in the last time. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate; for when lawlessness increases, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth: first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet. And third, the resurrection of the dead — yet not of all, but as it is said: “The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.” Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

Watch for your life’s sake. Is that truly our attitude as we go about our business each day? Oh, not in fear and not in ways that cause us to withdraw from those around us. And not in obsessive ways that we see in some trying to calculate the moment or constantly looking for signs. But simply ready for we do not know the hour. I remind myself that I also do not know the hour of my death. I’m reminded of the parable Jesus told of the man who made plans to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold his wealth of grain. He was a fool for he had no time left at all.

I like my modern luxuries and wealth very much, thank you. But it is easy to be lulled into comfortable rhythms and complacency. It is so very simple to stop watching. My tradition has abandoned the disciplines (church calendar, set prayers, corporate fasting, etc.) that maintain rhythms in our lives that are different, that remind us that we are not governed by anyone or anything other than Christ, that act for our healing so that we might work out our salvation in fear and trembling, the salvation that flows from Christ, that we might participate now in the Kingdom of Christ.

This also affirms once again the resurrection of the dead, which Paul defended so eloquently in 1 Corinthians 15. If the dead are not raised, then our faith is meaningless. We are not looking forward to some disembodied existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. Our spirits and bodies are inextricably intertwined and interdependent. Only in that union are we living souls. Death is the ultimate enemy Christ had to defeat for our salvation. We were enslaved to death and through death to all sorts of powers, evil, and sin. But Christ has “trampled down death by death” and we in him we find life.

Thanks to those who have meandered through the Teaching with me. I hope you’ve found something interesting somewhere in my reflections on it.


The Didache 24 – Pray This Way

Posted: July 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory for ever..

Pray this three times each day.

Once again, we see the Jewish influence in the Teaching. Set prayers three times a day were and remain an important feature of Jewish daily life. Those who attempted to trap Daniel knew he faithfully prayed three times each day. The Amidah is the prayer used today and when possible it is said communally (in groups of at least ten men), but can be prayed individually. We see this rhythm of set prayers repeatedly in the Gospels and Acts. The above is the prayer Jesus gave his followers when they asked him to give them a prayer like John the Baptist gave his followers prayers.

The Christian practice of set prayers is a rich and deep tradition that began centered on the prayer above and probably the Shema as Jesus changed it. As a rule, Christians faced East to pray. (Satan and evil were associated with the west while Jesus was associated with the east.) Churches tended to be built with the altar in the east. The tradition of prayer has not yet declined as much as fasting has, but in the West at least it has become a shadow of what it once was. Most people seem to only know of intercessory prayer, which while part of the reason and purpose for prayer, has traditionally only been a small part. And people seem to take Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing as hyperbole rather than something we should actually work to accomplish.

Prayer is a mystery of communion with God. When we pray, we are mystically connected to God whether we “feel” anything or not. The rhythm of prayer is for our healing so that we come again and again to God, shaping ourselves into people who seek God, until one day we find that we do not desire to depart. That is, of course, what it means to pray without ceasing. Throughout the course of our day, we do not turn from God. We are continually aware of his presence with us.

But this is hard to do. And I would say impossible if we do not establish rhythms of prayer in our life. I know that I’m not very good at this at all. But I’ve had a thirst to become someone who prays for a long time now. The Orthodox have a saying. One who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays. I reflect on that and it seems to me there is a lot of truth in it. What better way is there to learn to know God (for is that not the goal of the theologian?) than to stand with him and commune with him?


The Didache 23 – Fasting

Posted: July 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The “hypocrites” in this context would be those Jews who do not give Jesus of Nazareth their believing allegiance and obey his commands. The usage here echoes the way of using the idea of hypocrite in Jesus’ woes, which was a somewhat novel usage at the time. We know that some of the Rabbis around the time of Jesus (and the Teaching) had established Monday and Thursday fasts. While fasting in modern day Judaism has declined as it has in much of Christianity, sometime to little more than an observance of Yom Kippur, that was not the case when Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount or when the Didache was recorded.

I will note that pretty much only the Orthodox still fast as a community on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Most Protestants have little knowledge and less practice of fasting. And Roman Catholic practice in the U.S. has declined in my lifetime. However, it had already been reduced to a Friday fast of sorts long before the present era. I think we’ve lost a great deal and it truly shows when you explore something like fasting.


The Didache 22 – Baptize This Way

Posted: July 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The first thing that jumps out at me in this part of the Teaching is the phrase “Having first said all these things”. Those of us who were raised within a literate culture sometimes have a hard time grasping the way in which an oral culture works. It was and is normal for someone in an oral culture to memorize large blocks of oral tradition and be able to recite it verbatim. Oral teaching tends to be trusted more than a written text because you know who is teaching you, but you don’t where a written text came from or who might have changed it before you received it. A literate culture tends to relinquish that capacity for memorization and tends to trust a written text over a purely oral teaching. This phrase, of course, means that the one being baptized was expected to recite the entire Teaching before their baptism. That seems surprising to us only because we were not shaped within an oral culture.

However, it does point out that from very early on the church tried to make sure when possible and reasonable that people had some grasp of what they were doing in baptism. Even in the case of the Ethiopian eunech, we see Phillip cramming as much teaching as he could beforehand. On balance, I think most Protestant traditions do less baptismal teaching than is healthy. The expectation seems to be that people can learn what it all means after they do it, which seems a little backwards to me.

Next we see the Trinitarian formula, already established in the first century. Today, I believe the Orthodox are the only tradition who continue the triple immersion, but most Christians do baptize in the name of the Trinity. Those who don’t tend to have deeper theological issues.

The focus on “living” or running water is very Jewish in its nature, as one would expect since Christianity, flowing from Judaism, is inevitably shaped by the Jewishness of its Lord. However, we see all sorts of accomodation for different situations even in this short section.

I have to confess that even after all these years among them, I still don’t understand the strange relationship modern Baptists have with baptism. On the one hand, it doesn’t “count” unless done by immersion following a “valid” (how do you know?) confession of faith. While on the other hand they insist that baptism doesn’t actually mean anything or accomplish anything, that it’s “just” a symbol and does nothing in reality. And most don’t even seem to see how odd those two assertions are when joined together.

Finally, we see that the baptizer, the baptized, and everyone in the community who could were expected to fast before the baptism. Fasting, an important topic obviously to me, permeated the early church. I’m trying to imagine everyone in my church fasting together before performing baptisms and I’m not having much success. Baptists are known for many things, but fasting is not one of them. 😉

Perhaps that’s our loss?


The Didache 21 – Do What You Are Able

Posted: July 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 21 – Do What You Are Able

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able. And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.

Once again we encounter the idea of being perfect, this time in connection with being able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord. All who follow Jesus are called to the same yoke, the same rule, the same way. Whether it be love, prayer, ascetism, or vocation, we are all called into the fullness of life. When you read the gospels, the yoke of Jesus can sometimes seem overwhelming. It permeates every aspect of our lives and is so foreign to what we often consider “natural”. And yet there is also boundless mercy, especially in the recognition that we are to grow in faith and practice through the presence and activity of God in our lives. We are not expected to instantly be perfect, in any sense of the word. That would be a crushing weight indeed.

And here we see that reflected here in the very early tradition of the church. Do what you can. Receive the grace of God, which is to say receive God himself, and swim in the mercy of God. Move. Act. Live. And do all that you are able in the yoke of the Lord. This is reflected even today in the life of the Orthodox Church. There is one rule for everyone within the church: monastics, presbyters, deacons, and that first order of the royal priesthood often call the laity. And yet there is economy whenever needed. If in the demands of your work, you cannot pray all the hours and have not absorbed the Jesus Prayer or other prayers to the point that you pray without ceasing, pray those hours you can manage. If for health or other reasons you cannot keep the full fast, work with your priest to find a fast that you can follow. If you are fasting and are given a meal in love and hospitality by one who does not follow the same fast, thank that person graciously and eat the meal. The person is more important than your fast.

We don’t often encounter meat sacrificed to idols in our part of the world these days. It can be hard for us to recognize how prevalent that was in the ancient world. In some markets at some times, it could be hard to find any meat that was not a remnant of a sacrifice. The tension here is the one Paul addressed many times and which the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts faced also. Paul largely dealt with the love expressed to one who offers you a meal when he wrote not to ask and to share in hospitality. Paul wrote that we are free, but that some might remember their worship of those other gods and be drawn back toward. The Council was establishing rules that would allow Jewish and Gentile believers to share the same table.

It might be interesting if we attempted to identify our “meat sacrificed to idols” today. What do we blithely consume today that is in service to dead gods?


And If I Don’t Heal?

Posted: June 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I prefer the best and most accurate information I can obtain. At all levels and circles of my life I try to interact with reality as it is rather than as I desire it to be. That does not mean that my understanding of reality does not adapt or evolve. It is constantly doing both — anything less would simply be another form of hiding from reality. I think I understand some of the reasons I am shaped that way. Some of it probably has something to do with developing some sense of control in situations where I often had very little.

But sometimes reality can be a little disheartening.

I’ve read this article, When Celiac Disease is Diagnosed in Adulthood, Intestines Don’t Always Heal Completely, several times now. The article reports on two studies presented by two different research teams at a recent medical conference.

The Irish study is not too bad — though I do have a lot of Irish in me, so that catches my attention. In it, at least two-thirds of those who did not have intestinal healing at the two to three year mark also had poor compliance with the gluten free diet. They did not stick to the fast. That stresses the importance of strict adherence to a gluten free diet over the long haul, but I had already absorbed that. Believe me, I am taking this seriously.

The Mayo Clinic study, though, does not share that problem. Most of their participants had good adherence to a gluten free diet. But their percentages were not markedly different.

In one presentation, Dr. Alberto Rubio-Tapia and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota described their study of patients whose celiac disease had been diagnosed (and confirmed with a biopsy) during adulthood and who later had additional biopsies to determine whether or not their intestines had healed.
— Of 141 adults who had been gluten-free for less than 2 years, only 79 (56%) had healed intestines.
— Of 65 adults who’d been gluten free for 2 to 5 years, only 37 (57%) had healed intestines.
— Of 27 adults whose intestines were examined more than 5 years after they became gluten-free, only 14 (52%) had intestinal healing.

It seems that my odds are about even that my small intestine will heal completely. I can do everything I’m supposed to do and it still comes down to a flip of a cosmic coin. I do not appreciate the irony.

It seems that two of the factors that appear to influence recovery are age when diagnosed and the extent of villi damage. Neither of those are in my favor. I’m a middle-aged guy in my forties and my villi were basically gone when I was diagnosed. Visually, instead of white shag carpet, my small intestine looked like pink tile. Under the microscope, my doctor said it looked like my villi had been mown down by a lawnmower on its lowest setting.

On one level it doesn’t really change anything. I have to continue to develop the rythms and patterns of a life free from gluten. I will continue to work to shape my life with the rythms of prayer, not because I believe it is some form of magic or that I can somehow manipulate God, but simply because I know I need help to maintain this fast. It goes back to that integration between body and spirit I’ve discussed elsewhere.

I’ve already seen some of the acute symptoms, including ones I had no idea might be related, subside. And as I maintain the fast from gluten, I will heal at least some. And some healing has to be better, even if I remain at greater risk for complications associated with celiac. And who knows? My particular coin might still be heads. I might heal completely. If these studies had not been done, I wouldn’t even know that it’s something we need to monitor.

Still, I would be lying if I said the study didn’t bother me. I had more of a sense of control before I read it. And at least when it comes to my closest circle, the circle of my mind and my body, I strongly dislike loss of control. I suppose I find it threatening.

Oddly, I’m already doing as well as I know how on the gluten free diet. I will try to make it even healthier to the best of my ability. And I will continue to learn more. But there is little more I can do in that arena.

I can, however, do much better at developing and maintaining the rythms of my practice of prayer. Perhaps a place to start?


The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

Posted: June 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts.

This line has always confused me since it’s dropped in the middle of the section on the way of life and does not seem to relate to either what came before or what follows. It just sits there. What does it mean? There is a translation of the Didache which may offer some insight on this line.

Refrain from the impulses of your selfish nature and the self-serving world.

But while I think there is some aspect of that involved, judging by the unity in the various other translations, I think that one misses the earthiness of the actual language. It does not seem to be as neat or sanitary as the above translation makes it seem.

Here celiac, since it is primarily a fast, helps me understand this a little better, I think. In order to follow the way of life with celiac, I must curb my impulses and desire to eat or drink gluten. If I am to remain in the way of life, I must abstain. It makes little difference what other good or positive or helpful things I do. If I do not abstain from gluten, they are all for naught.

Perhaps there is something of this dynamic in the way of Jesus? There are things from which we must learn to abstain, desires we must quench, or it will spill into all the other areas of our lives? Is this a parallel to the Orthodox perspective on the passions? If we allow them to rule us rather than learning to rule them, we cannot progress in theosis?

Perhaps so. Or perhaps I’m on the wrong track. Nevertheless, the line in its context is an odd one.


The Didache 3 – Fast for Those Who Persecute You

Posted: June 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 3 – Fast for Those Who Persecute You

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.

What does it mean to love the other? We find the injunction to bless those who curse us, to pray for our enemies, to do good to those who intend us harm repeatedly in the Holy Scriptures. We see it lived out in the lives of the saints. But very often we do not do it. I know that, at best, I manage feeble, faltering steps in that direction.

Today, I want to reflect on the phrase I never really noticed before. My eyes, for some reason, tended to slide right over it.

fast for those who persecute you

I am developing some idea what it means to use my words and my body to bless the other. I’m slowly developing some understanding of what it means to pray. But how do you fast for another? How can our fast in our own bodies be offered up for the benefit of another human being? For surely this is what the saying means. I do understand that in the Holy Scriptures, fasting and prayer are often tied together. I have some grasp how to intercede for another through prayer. I’m less certain how I can intercede for another through fasting — how my fast can be for their good. And yet there seems to be some aspect of that here.

I don’t yet have an answer to this question. If you’re expecting answers in this series or from me in general, you probably have set yourself up for disappointment. I tend to always raise more questions than find pat answers. I even tend to find questions within such answers as I already have. But this question is important to me.

If I am going to live a lifelong fast, I would prefer it to have meaning.


The Didache – Series Intro

Posted: June 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache – Series Intro

I’ve mentioned the Didache: The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations a number of times in past posts and even reflected on its rules on fasting in my series, Not the Fast I’ve Chosen. It’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving written Christian writings other than those writings which were later recognized as the Holy Scriptures. In fact, the Didache and another early work, The Shepherd of Hermas, were even on some of the early canon lists. The written document dates to around the end of the first century and appears to record in writing a long-standing oral tradition.

I’ve read the Didache many times over the course of my journey within Christianity. It’s a writing that keeps drawing me back in and I leave each time with new or renewed insight, not because the words have changed, but because I have changed. These last two months since my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that it strikes me often in ways that are different from the way I remember reading it before I knew I was a celiac.

I’ve decided I feel like writing a series walking through the whole of the Didache. It will be as many parts as it ends up being. Some days I may cover section. Other days I may reflect on a sentence. These will be my thoughts, though shaped of course by everything and everyone I’ve encountered and read over the years. I’m not an authority of any sort on ancient Christian writings. If you’re looking for scholarly analysis or insight, go elsewhere.

I’ll be writing because it’s a document that has meant a lot to me over the years and it still provokes new thoughts. I’ll be using the translation I linked above not because I think it’s the “best” translation. Frankly, I couldn’t judge that at all. I’m using it because it’s the translation with which I’m the most comfortable. I don’t really have any goal or point to this series other than to walk through the document and see what it spurs me to write. We’ll start tomorrow with my initial post in this series.