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.


Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

I don’t know how or why our tradition moved away from the practice of, as Scot McKnight puts is, ‘praying with the church in the basilica’, whether physically with other believers or not. I’ll be generous and assume they had what seemed to them to be good reasons at the time. However, whatever the forces that were once in play, we are in the midst of a massive cultural shift. And as someone who was shaped by forces somewhere further along the shift than, it seems, many in our church, I can only say that this strikes me as a more important discipline and practice today than perhaps any time since the days of the early church.

In this chapter, Scot shifts from looking into the scriptural underpinnings of the practice of set prayers at set times and moves into just a few of the specific examples of those practices and prayers. However, he opens with an overview of the idea of prayer books. I like the way he assumes his reader will have absolutely no significant background in the practice. That describes me!

The foundation of every prayer tradition, apparently, are the prayers in Scripture. We call the book of prayers Psalms. And from that all traditions draw a Psalter. Typically Psalters divide the Psalms into cycles of readings that allow you to read them all each month. Naturally, Psalms should be read aloud. Allow the rhythm to permeate your being. With the Psalms as a foundation, the different prayer books are designed to draw on scripture and the lengthy history of the church to pray in the manner Jesus modeled for us and instructed us to pray.

McKnight will take us through four prayer books in the ensuing chapters. He has ordered his presentation in chronological order, which is basically an arbitrary order. That means he will start with Eastern Orthodox, move to the Roman Catholic prayer book, then to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and finally to the modern Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. There are, of course, many others. But from those, we can learn some of the flavors of this rich tradition and practice of the Abrahamic faiths in general and Christianity specifically. He does note that for those without experience in Christian prayer tradition, the ecumenical ‘Divine Hours’ is probably the most readily accessible.

To open, Scot attempts to distill a definition of ‘prayer books’. No single definition fits all, but this is the essence he comes up with. “Prayer books are an ordering of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and various passages of the Bible into worship.”

Scot also notes that prayer books are shaped by the Christian calendar. Do any of you know why we essentially ignore the ordering of time itself as part of our faith in our denomination? As I’ve learned more about the  Christian calendar, that choice has increasingly puzzled me. If there’s a reason, I would like to be able to consider it. But most of what I’ve found seems like essentially mindless reaction against anything that could be considered even vaguely “Roman Catholic.” And frankly, that strikes me as utterly insufficient reason to abandon such formative and central ideas and practices.

Scot then notes that the Psalms (and perhaps many prayers) should be sung or chanted rather than spoken. Paul assumes people will sing Psalms. Jesus and the disciples sang what were very likely Psalms after the Last Supper. Augustine said, “Whoever sings the psalms, prays twice.”  And most prayer books can be spoken, read responsorially, read antiphonally, or read responsively. Prayer books also indicate when the sign of the cross is appropriate, typically with the symbol (+). Christians have crossed themselves from the earliest days. Most Protestant resistance to it seems again to fall into the category of protest against anything the Roman Catholic church ever did. And that’s just nuts.

Scot ends this chapter with a reminder that set prayers do not in any way replace or detract from spontaneous prayers. Both are called for and reinforce each other.


Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

Posted: July 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This chapter opens with the questions Scot assumes most will ask (and that he also asked) about stepping out of our own Portiuncola two or three times a day to pray with the Church in the basilica. “What will we be saying? Did Jesus teach anything about that? Won’t it get repetitive to say things over and over?” His answers are the ones found throughout the history of the Church. “We’ll be using the prayers of the Bible, of Jesus, and the Church. Yes, it will be repetitive but in a good way. Praying with the Church might lead to vain repetitions, but it is meant to lead us away from them.”

In order to understand the guidance Scripture offers, Scot guides us first through the Jewish form of prayer in use at the time of Jesus. We’ve already seen that Jews prayed at fixed hours — “morning, afternoon, and evening. This was the sacred rhythm of the temple and of Israel at prayer together. But what did they say?”

The Jews prayed (usually by singing) the Psalms. They are a collection of 150 (or 151) prayers. These were at the root of their prayers. “Everything Israel and Jesus learned about prayer can be found in the Psalms.” They also recited other set prayers and creeds. The Shema, of course, was recited by any observant Jew at a minimum on rising and on retiring. However, they also did everything Moses wrote for them to do (Deuteronomy 6). Memorize them – ‘Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.’ Teach them — ‘Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.’ Make it physical — ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.’ Publish them — ‘Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ The Shema was so interwoven into the “ancient faith of Israel that it would have been impossible for followers of Jesus not to adopt (and adapt) the custom of turning to God at sundown and sunup.”

In addition, the Jews of that time probably recited the Ten Commandments along with the Shema. We have a document from about a century before Jesus that appears to link the recitation of the two and it also makes sense in the context of the Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler.

And finally, we also know of a prayer that was called by three names, “the Amidah (standing prayer), the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), or the Ha-Tefillah (The Prayer). They had other prayers and certainly also prayed spontaneously, but their sacred rhythms of prayer were formed and shaped by the Shema, the Amidah, and perhaps the Ten Commandments. These “expressed the central dimensions of Israel’s faith and concerns with clarity and aesthetic simplicity.”

Scot has an amusing way to think about it for someone concerned about ‘vain repititions.’ (That’s never been any particular issue for me, so maybe it’s not as funny to someone with whom that is a significant worry.) Repitition can be a mindless routine, but it can also be a rhythm for daily renewal. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider explaining to your spouse that you’ve been saying “I love you” far too often and you’ll have to stop or it might become a vain repitition. I’m sure that will go over well.

However, Scot sees this concern as actually possibly masking a deeper one, a hesitation to use prayers written by others. His section exploring that is a good one, so I’ll just quote from it in closing.

Our tendency is to go to the Bible for something new, to read it in the expectation of a fresh discovery of something we did not know or had not heard or had completely forgotten. As a professor who teaches the Bible, I know the experience.

But the discovery of something new is not the sole, or even the main, purpose for reading the Bible. The longer you look at the idea that we read the Bible to find new meanings, the sillier it becomes. We read and return to the Bible not (just) to find something new but to hear something old, not to discover something fresh but to be reminded of something ancient.

What we find in the sacred rhythm and sacred prayer tradition of Israel is the wise recitation of those passages in the Bible most central to spirituality, passages we need to be reminded of daily because of their importance for how we are to conduct ourselves before God and with others. The reason psalms are repeated in the sacred rhythm of prayer is that they continue to teach us how to pray; the reason the Shema is repeated so often is that it summons us to the central orientation of our heart: to love God with every molecule we can muster.

Jesus was spiritually nurtured by pious parents in a world where the sacred rhythm of prayer shaped spiritual formation. Jesus didn’t adopt that rhythm without reflection or alteration. One might say that Jesus actually re-shaped the sacred rhythmical prayer practices of his world so that they would reflect his own kingdom mission.


My Church History Perspective 7 – So what do I find in history?

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 7 – So what do I find in history?

This question ties together some of my earlier musings. What actually matters to me in all the complex history of the Church? For there are things that do matter deeply to me and go well beyond my long-standing interest in trying to perceive the world through the lenses of different cultures and times. The history of the Church is a deep and rich history that is fascinating simply as a topic of exploration. That’s why there have been and I’m sure are historians who study it today even though they do not hold to the faith themselves. It has threaded its way into more (and extremely different) cultures than any ancient religion, adapting and speaking differently to those within that culture, yet retaining (at least until the modern era) the same perspective on the true nature of reality. There are ups and downs, good things and bad. It’s a deeply human history.

And yet it is also something more.

And it’s that “more” that I truly seek. Christianity is not a story about man seeking God as much as it’s a story about this God who searches for us. We see that immediately in the beautiful story of the garden, as God comes looking for the mankind who is hiding from him and clothes them. If that does not  prefigure the Incarnation of our Lord, then I don’t know what does. The Incarnation is, of course, the ultimate act of the God who seeks to rescue his creation by becoming a part of it, by joining his nature to ours. Jesus is not just a man, he is the true man who stands in the place of all mankind, faithful where we were faithless, but by joining our nature to his, making it possible for us to be true and faithful human beings.

And this Jesus of Nazareth was and is an actual person which means that as with any other person, we relate to him effectively only to the extent that we relate to him as he truly is rather than as we imagine him to be. And here the Christian story takes yet another odd turn when compared to other religions. We are told that the Church, those in communion with Jesus and with each other, form his body. There is a mystical connection and union such that in the Church we can see and know Christ.

No, it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve been driven away from Christianity and Christ by those who say they follow him. But I’ve also been attracted to Christ through and by Christians. I’ve experienced both dynamics first-hand and I see them both interwoven throughout the history of the Church. And in this day and age, we see more, and often contradictory, versions of “Christ” presented than in any other era, making it more rather than less difficult to see Christ in the Church. Nevertheless, it is Christ I seek to find in the Church.

I think one of many factors in the modern fragmentation and almost dissolution of the Protestant strand of the Church is that so much of it effectively turned its back on and walked away from its saints. Without that grounding in and among those who have been faithful, who have known Christ, it is easy to be swayed by the next charismatic leader or sexy new idea. We are the ones who claim that death has been defeated and that we are no longer subject to it. And yet so many modern Protestants seem to reject communion with those whose bodies may now sleep, but who nonetheless are safe and alive in Christ. I’m not interested in a faith or a God that is different from that known by St. Athanasius or St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Columba or St. Patrick or St. Gregory the Theologian or St. Basil the Great or any of the others who have come before me, remembered by name or not.

Now, that does not mean that I’m looking for the right outward form or practice. Those things are not unimportant, I suppose. In fact, I think they can be deeply important. But none of that matters until you answer that penetrating question Jesus asks us all, “Who do you say that I am?”

My interest and knowledge in history does mean I’m shielded in some ways from various trends. For instance, I’m not particularly interested in the house church movement in its modern incarnation because I don’t confuse an ancient Roman (or Greek or Jewish) household with the modern dwelling of a nuclear family. Further, the ancient church was not really rooted originally in households, anyway. Read Acts and read some of the things Paul mentions in his letters. The church initially met in the Temple and then as Christianity spread, in synagogues until the Christians were kicked out. The households (or before persecution became common the public meeting houses) where Christians met for worship carried over elements of that synagogue worship.

I suppose my knowledge of history also means I don’t believe there’s any one right way to do worship. I see how Christianity has threaded its way into different cultures, redeemed elements of the culture, added to its practice, and yet remained distinct from that native culture. However, the fact that worship practice adapted and changed in different cultures and times also does not mean that there are not some things which are, in fact, essential to Christian worship. We worship a particular God, a particular Christ. And that dictates some of what we must do if we are to say that we are Christian.

That’s why I have threads of thought like the one in my series of posts on Baptists and the Eucharist. At the heart of that discussion lies my recognition that by divorcing themselves from any and all historic practice and interpretation, the Baptist tradition (and the large swath of Protestantism that shares similar beliefs) is saying something very different about who Jesus is and how we relate to him. And, frankly, that thread of thought and practice seems inextricably tied to dualism. It’s a denial that we are our bodies. We do not “have” a body. We are our body. We are also more than just our body, certainly. But our identity, existence, and reality cannot be separated from our body.

And when we deny that, we also deny the deepest reality of the Incarnation. Jesus did not wear a body in some sort of spiritual play. That was actually the subject of a number of ancient heresies in different shapes and forms. Jesus became flesh. He remains flesh. And he invites us to make our flesh part of his flesh by and through consuming him and doing so rightly, which does not mean in the correct ritual manner, but with our innermost being and will directed toward Christ. We are what we eat in the deepest sense of the phrase.

I had thought I might explore some of my understanding of and interaction with various periods of Church history. But it didn’t really come out that way and I have the feeling that this is a good and right place to end this particular series.


My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

Posted: December 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

The title of this post flows from the fact that a lot of the discussion within Christianity in the US sometimes seems to revolve around “modernity.” Now, I will not argue that the modern culture in (primarily) Western Europe and the US was not significant for Christianity. It’s pretty much the culture that gave birth to the entire Protestant tradition. And it shaped not only our part of the world, but greatly influenced the rest of the world. That influence was in part positive and in part negative. Our scientific advances have made life better. But Western colonialism and the sense of “Manifest Destiny” (strangely rooted in some sort of a “Christian” ethos) under which we conquered what is now the United States left scars across the world. And the 20th century demonstrated clearly how our ability to improve life went hand in hand with our ability to destroy it.

The 20th century began the “postmodern” turn in Western culture and societies. Although still developing or “emerging“, that’s the culture that largely formed and shaped me. A discussion of that turn is beyond the scope of this series, but obviously that turn highlighted a question among Christians in what is broadly called “the West” today. What would the cultural turn mean for the train wreck that “Western” Christianity had become? Within that somewhat limited context, a discussion of “modern” and “postmodern” Christianity made and continues to make sense.

However, I had a problem when I began to encounter another term: premodern. Whether you are speaking of cultures and societies in general, or Christianity specifically, there is no one thing definably “premodern.” We can speak of Christianity within the culture and context of the Roman Empire (East or West). We can talk about Christianity in the context of western Europe after the city of Rome fell and the Roman Empire essentially contracted to the East. We can talk about Christianity in the early (or late) middle ages in western Europe. We can talk about Christianity in Armenia after it had won its freedom from Persia. We can talk about Christianity among the Slavs following their dramatic conversion. We can talk about Christianity in what we now called the Middle East before Islam, after the development of Islam but before Constantinople fell, or after the fall of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The list goes on and on.

Christianity is not centered on the modern culture of western Europe and the United States and cannot be defined in relation to that one culture. Framing the discussion in terms of modern, postmodern, and premodern seems to try to do exactly that. Even when you limit the scope of the discussion to western Europe, there is no common “premodern” period. There were rather many periods, cultures, and cultural shifts before the advent of modernity.

Further, western Europe was not the birthplace of Christianity. Attempting to center the discussion on the cultural shifts of the west strikes me as … odd. I don’t approach history that way. I suppose I don’t try to construct some sort of unified arc within which I can fit the topic of Christianity. Instead, I approach the history of the Church within each of its cultural settings simply trying to understand what it was and how it operated within that context. Although I’m as prone to generalize and make broad statements as anyone else, when pushed I drop back into the story of the small.


What To Blog Through Next?

Posted: December 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , | Comments Off on What To Blog Through Next?

I have several things already in mind to write, but since I’ve finished On The Incarnation Of The Word, I was wondering if there were any ancient Christian writings that anyone who reads what I write might like to see next? There are many things I’ve read over the years, but I’ve never really recorded my thoughts on those works in writing the way I’ve been doing here.

I was leaning toward the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Dating from the fourth century, they capture the basic teachings and practices of the Church as it first emerged from its initial centuries of persecution. In many ways, these are those same practices the Church developed during that initial persecution. His lectures form one of the most concise windows into that part of the history of the Church.

Or I’ve considered exploring some of the recorded homilies or sermons of St. John Chrysostom. They remain as illuminating today as they were then in many ways, though of course some of the details of life have changed. Still, people are people, so less has changed than you might imagine.

I’ve thought about stepping back further and stepping through the apologies of St. Justin Martyr from the second century. Or perhaps even further back to St. Ignatius of Antioch.

If anyone reading has a particular preference, let me know. Personally, they all have works I have loved reading in the past. I would not mind writing on any of them (and more).

I wouldn’t be comfortable writing at length through any of the writings of Tertullian. I’m aware that he ended his life a schismatic and he held some pretty strange beliefs in places. I’ve read much of his preserved works and I’m simply not comfortable trying to parse what is or is not a reasonable representation of the orthodox thread of faith and practice from which Tertullian strayed.

Similarly, though I’ve read St. Augustine and am aware of the places he differs (sometimes markedly) from the overall theological tenor of his times (probably at times spurred by an over-reaction to Pelagius), I wouldn’t really feel comfortable trying to write publicly about his works. Perhaps I would be more comfortable at some point with St. John Cassian, who seems at times to be offering a corrective to St. Augustine, though he never explicitly says so.

Anyway, if anyone does have a suggestion or particular interest, I would like to know.

Thanks.


Constantine and the Church 0 – Series Intro

Posted: August 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

As I was writing my series on the history of the belief and practice of the Eucharist, I decided I would next reflect on the pervasive modern myth that Constantine somehow subverted or radically changed the Church. This myth surfaces in a wide variety of ways. Some people assert that the dogma of the Trinity was invented under Constantine. Others assert that the Church somehow immediately changed into an entity concerned about worldly power and glory. Others claim that Constantine somehow took control of Christianity. Others assert that previously legitimate Christian beliefs and writings were excised when the Church eventually established a New Testament canon of Scripture. While I don’t think the many ways this idea pervades much modern thought can even be numbered, it’s another common myth about the history of the Church.

I think in looking at the consistency in belief and practice of the Eucharist, I helped dispel the other common myth that the Church somehow “lost” the faith after the Apostles died. In this series, I’m going to tackle the idea that Constantine somehow “corrupted” the faith that the Church under persecution had preserved. There’s no more historical basis for the latter idea than there is for the former.

If you’re reading and there’s some particular version of this myth about which you wonder, please post it in a comment or email it to me. There are so many different versions of this myth that I can’t possibly address them all. So I’m going to focus on the general consistency of the faith before and after Constantine. But I’ll be happy to explore any specific topic if it’s one that is of particular interest to someone.