Who Am I?

The Didache 7 – Ask It Not Back

Posted: June 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 7 – Ask It Not Back

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

If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts).

Obviously, this is largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. Still, the balance of the repeated phrase, ask it not back, stands out to me. In the first instance, it is paired with take, in the second with give. In the first there is a sense of force against you and indeed helplessness on your part for you are not able. In the second you are in the position of power, with the ability to demand back that which you have given.

But it is the Father’s will that we give from our blessings to all.

Give.

All.

Those are tough words. I love some enough to give to them. I do not love all that much. And yet that’s the sort of love God has for us. All of us. The loved and the unloved and the hated are all loved by God. We who live and move and have our being in the overflow of that love have no excuse for doing less.


The Didache 6 – Be Perfect

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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

If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect.

This line of the teaching haunts me. It echos Jesus in its call for us to live the way of love and by so doing to be perfect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches (Matthew 5:43-48) that as we learn to love our enemies (and thus have no enemies) we will be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.

And again, a rich, young, devout man comes to Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22) seeking life. He has followed the way of Torah faithfully, yet recognizes that something is still lacking. Jesus’ answer begins with “If you want to be perfect …” Being perfect, then, is connected to receiving life and involves sacrificing to care for the poor as we follow Jesus.

James adds another layer (James 1:2-8) to the mix. If we’re going to be perfect, it seems we must have patience. And patience comes through trials and suffering. If our faith is never tested, it seems we would have difficulty becoming perfect. Some of the things we suffer, then, are for our salvation. I can look back on my life and see that pretty clearly at times.

There is a strain within Protestantism that holds that even if you never struggle to actively love your enemies, care for the poor, remain faithful through trials, or visibly ever change from the person you were into a person shaped and colored by Jesus of Nazareth, nevertheless you can somehow be “saved” if you give some sort of mental assent to some ideas about Jesus. It’s as though they believe the God who has freely allowed them to shape and form themselves into the person they desire to be will suddenly, after their death, magically change them into the person they should have been, but never tried or desired to be in life.

I have to confess, I don’t understand that perspective. I see a God who created us to be shaped and formed by the way of love, the way of life, the way of Jesus. But I also see a God who allows us to shape ourselves into whatever sort of creature we desire to be. And while I see much evidence that in our death and resurrection God will complete our transformation in ways we can hardly fathom or imagine in acts of new creation, I see no evidence that he will contravene our will and shape us into something other than what we desired to be in life. In the new creation we will become in truth and outward reality what we have desired to be in our heart.

For good or ill.


Fasting and Humility Redux

Posted: June 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fasting and Humility Redux

I wrote a few days ago about Fasting and Humility as I’ve struggled with the necessity for being “out there” with your condition that celiac imposes on you when you have it. Since then, I’ve encountered the following quote by St. Isaac the Syrian. It’s caused me to pause and reflect a bit more.

If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for
humility.

This is, of course, exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. We do not practice any discipline or virtue for the purpose of achieving some desired goal or reward. We cannot manipulate God or other human beings in that way successfully or without ultimately dehumanizing ourselves. It is only as we learn to serve our Lord in humble obedience that we begin to see any benefit from anything we do.

Yet true humility is perhaps one of the most universally difficult things for us all to achieve, even fleetingly. I do not wish to be quietly humble. To the extent they notice me at all, I want others to notice my excellence, not my failings. We want to be first, not last. Even when we try to turn that upside down and say we are seeking to be last, we make the pursuit of “lastness” a competition unto itself. Humility itself does not seem to me to be something you can actually try to achieve. It seems to me that if it can be achieved, it is only achieved by emptying yourself of the things for which you are striving and filling yourself with God and the loving service of other unlovable human beings in whatever way God desires. That’s speculation on my part, of course, since I’ve certainly not done that at all. But it seems to me that it’s at least part of what I’ve seen in the few I’ve encountered who are humble.

If this fast can in some measure teach me humility, so mote it be.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

Posted: May 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

As my efforts to understand this Christian faith within which I found myself continued, I kept reading both the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings from the first millenium. Nowhere could I find a change from the core communal practices of fasting, set prayer, and care for the sick and poor (at the very least through almsgiving). Other spiritual disciplines and practices were refined over the centuries, certainly.  But those, which seemed to flow directly from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (which is recorded historically from the late first century and early second century as being the first gospel written), always seemed to form part of the core of the life of the Church. (We won’t discuss Eucharist and Liturgy right now.) There continued to be a monumental disconnect between the church of Scripture and the entire first millenium and what I personally saw and experienced around me.

In an entirely separate journey from my own, my mother converted to Roman Catholicism. She was and is heavily involved with the Carmelites. Somewhere along the way, she shared Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God with me. If you’ve never read or listened to that book (audio is online from several sources), I highly recommend it. Brother Lawrence greatly influenced me and continues to influence my practice of the faith today. Moreover, he is an early modern practical mystic who has much the flavor of the ancient writers I was struggling to connect to the present day church. In order to connect the dots in the middle, I began to explore ecclesial medieval history in the West. I already knew a lot of the non-ecclesial history of Western Europe from the fall of the city of Rome through the medieval period. I didn’t even realize there was this huge gap in my knowledge until I began to explore it. What happened to the Western or Latin Church after the fall of the city of Rome and the rise of Islam drove a wedge between the eastern and western church?

As Rome declined and fell, the order it had imposed in the West gradually vanished. (The Roman Empire, shifted to the capital of Constantinople, continued in the East until the 13th century, of course.) No surprise there. And no real surprise in the work done in the monastic communities preserving the ancient works and serving as centers of light and order. What I saw by looking directly at the church, though, was that during this period more and more of the activities, such as fasting, that had been the work and practice of the whole church, came to be seen as largely more centered in the monastic calling. Rather than being an expression of the fullness of the Christian life to which all believers are called (well, except for celibacy), the monastic calling came to be seen as a higher calling, a different calling, following a different rule of life. And as this happened over time, the practice of the “laity” doing things like consistently and broadly observing the rule of prayer and fasting began to decline. One rule of faith developed for the laity while a different rule of faith developed for monastics.

Then, of course, at the Reformation, many such practices that were deemed too “Roman” by the reformers were simply discarded and a rule of individual choice of discipline and spiritual practice — which quickly devolved into very little actual practice at all — began to replace them all. That which the Reformation began, the Radical Reformation with its deep iconoclasm (an ancient first millenium heresy) soon completed. The Christian church in the West, by and large, became focused purely on the “spiritual” and began to treat the body and the “natural” mind as though they were divorced in some odd way from a person’s body.

I did eventually run into Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines which seeks to correct some of that decline. And his work helped me at least understand the disciplines in a modern context better than I ever had before. And though he writes at length about fasting (which I may explore on the blog at some point), I never actually adopted the practice for myself even though I agreed in theory with everything he wrote.

That’s the first sign of the truth behind my confession at the start of this series. By this point, I knew that fasting and prayer were deeply embedded and intertwined in the practice of Christianity from its very beginning. I knew it was likely an essential spiritual discipline. Yet I did not even try to fast, even in the clumsiest of fashions.

In the next in this series, I’ll close the loop of this journey with the last bit of knowledge about current Christian practice that I was still missing.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

I ended my first post in the series with the confession that I might never have chosen truly to fast. The reasons are many and complex and I’m not sure I even have them all worked out. It is true, however, that I am a product of our present American culture. And by and large, we do not fast. In this post, I’ll weave through aspects of my formation and journey that seem relevant to me at this moment.

I’m not certain, but I believe I first encountered something of the idea of fasting in practice (as opposed to literature) when I attended a Roman Catholic school a block from our home in Houston for 6th through 8th grade. Even then it had faded as the practice has faded across the board in Roman Catholicism in America. But there were some adults who, for instance, did not eat meat on Fridays. It was discussed in Religion class. And even though the practice of Lent had largely become one of each individual selecting something for themselves to ‘give up’ from Ash Wednesday to Easter, it was still a definite practice and fasting was discussed.

I was not Catholic and I did not participate in any of the fasts. In truth, my attention at that time, to the best of my recollection, was primarily focused on the practice of Transcendental Meditation, numerology, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and a number of similar avenues of spiritual exploration. But I did pay attention. I was interested in all things spiritual. I would not say I understood on any visceral level. But I was aware.

Flash forward now through the twists and turns of close to two decades, soon after the time when the idea that I was acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord and my God and attempting to follow him had become a core piece of my identity. (The word ‘conversion’ always seems inadequate to me. Plus, in a sociological sense, I probably had many ‘conversions’ both toward Jesus and away from him over the course of my life. All were ‘real’. That’s the best way I can describe what finally happened to me.) A lot happened over those years, some of it probably tangentially related to this discussion, but not central to what I want to explore right now.

Given my longstanding interest in history, especially ancient history, it did not take me long to begin reading ancient Christian writings and history in addition to the Holy Scriptures. Most particularly, it did not take me long to run across the Didache, a teaching and apparent baptismal confession recorded in the late first century and likely capturing an established oral tradition spanning back decades, very likely to the period of time when Paul and Barnabas were engaged in their early missionary journeys both together and separately. It’s a rich and haunting document, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on this excerpt.

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 is clearly a reference to Matthew 23 and those to whom Jesus was speaking. And we know it was the discipline in Judaism at the time to fast on Monday and Thursday. This is part of what Jesus is referring to in the Sermon on the Mount in the section when he discusses how not to act and how to act when (not if) you fast. The assumption was that everyone fasted and his point was not to act in a manner that you drew attention to your fasting or the recognition of men would be all you would receive. In order to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving Jewish communities (and for theological reasons) the church from a very early time moved its days of communal fasting from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday and Friday. They did not cease observing days of communal fasting. They moved them to days that related to Jesus.

The Holy Scriptures, of course, speak often of fasting. You encounter it everywhere in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of it. James speaks of it. It’s littered throughout the New Testament, where it frequently seems to be almost taken for granted rather than explained. I saw how the communal form of the practice quickly developed in the church. But I hadn’t really seen fasting like that anywhere in my life. And I saw no fasting anywhere in my particular community of faith. Feasting? (Or maybe gluttony, since I’m not sure you can properly feast if you never fast.) Oh yes! So much so that it was a topic for jokes. (When we meet, we eat!) But no communal practice of fasting. The only place I had encountered something close was in the Roman Catholic church. But even there, it was more a memory of the recent past than a present practice in the form I encountered.

This brings us up to the mid to late nineties and this post is more than long enough. We’ll continue this journey in the next post in this series.