KB Categories Archives: Christian Formation

The Cathedral of Man

 

Donald Richmond:

We are to see the Temple as establishing, so to speak, a bridgehead for God’s own presence within a world that has very determinedly gone its own way.   -N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms

We are the temple of the living God.  2 Corinthians 6:16, E.S.V.

Body-as-CathedralAs I type these words I am looking at a small Greek Orthodox Church. It could not be any bigger than 12 feet by 12 feet, with a small apse that extends the structure by only a bit. With its white washed exterior, four windows and outdoor icon, this most simple structure humbly yet forcefully proclaims God’s great glory. It feels, at least to me, like Heaven touching Earth.

When I reflect upon this small sacred structure, I am reminded of the human person. Man, referencing both women and men, is a sacred structure — the distinct image of God upon this earth. We are, as 2 Corinthians 6:16 tell us, the temple of the Living God. And, as with this small Greek Orthodox Church, our existence and expression are intended for proclamation.

We, as the church which I referenced, speak of God. In some odd way we also speak as God, albeit only to the extent that both our lips and lives communicate Holy Scripture by the Holy Spirit. It is important, therefore, that our lips and our lives communicate a cohesive and comprehensive Gospel message. To accomplish this, we must embrace transformation before we engage in proclamation. Or, continuing the metaphor, we must have a solid foundation (the transformed person) before we erect the bell tower (the transforming proclamation). The brief words which follow are sustained meditations on how, using the concept of church or temple, the transformed Man can more perfectly communicate God’s transforming message of Jesus Christ.

A HOLY PLACE

The construction of any Temple or Cathedral begins with a plot of earth, dirt, dust. This should not in any way be a surprise. God formed Man, in God’s “image and likeness,” from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:1-9). As well, God breathed into Man the breath of life and placed “them” in a well-cultivated Garden. From dust and Breath, Man became a living soul — holy ground upon holy ground. But, as we also know, human beings chose sin and its consequent separations. While in some way the image has remained, the likeness was in some way lost.

God created human beings as a cultivated field or garden within a cultivated field or garden. It was perfect for planting. It was perfect for production. Unfortunately, the Winter of Sin cast stone and debris within and upon the soil.  The holy ground of our humanity needed to be cleared and cultivated in order for it to yield a crop. From an agricultural standpoint this original intention and primal loss make sense. If you prepare soil for planting, or development, the ground must be cleared. As such, before anything happens, most especially after a hard Winter the farmer must pass through the fields collecting the rocks that the thaw has forced to the surface. Often, especially in certain parts of the country, and in certain climates, this must be done every year. This can be labor intensive and back breaking-work, but it must be done. If neglected, the possibility of planting and harvest are somewhat compromised. (If you have ever tried to plow a field with large rocks and boulders throughout the landscape you will understand.)

One of our responsibilities as Christians is to clear the land of our socio-psycho-pneumatic selves from the stones of sins, separations and passions that resist the planting and purposes of God. Although God “saves” and “sanctifies” us, the labor intensive work of clearing the fields from disordered passions remains part of our responsibility. God “wills” and “works” it (Philippians 2:13), and we are called to cooperate. We can prepare the soil of our souls for planting and production in two ways: By developing humility (as well as other virtues) and by uprooting the weeds of disordered passions (vices). Any Temple or Cathedral must have consecrated and prepared ground upon which to build. The same is true for the Cathedral of Man.

A WORKING PLACE

My wife loves to cook and to bake. My wife also makes a huge mess when she is in the kitchen. After she has finished preparing, FEMA and OSHA often identifies her workplace as an emergency disaster site. I, as might be imagined, am recruited for clean-up and rescue. The Cathedral of Man is also a working place. Like any work under construction, things can become very messy. If you have ever seen the wonderful mini-series Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, you will know how messy a working site is…or can become.

Christians need to understand and appreciate that we are a “work in progress.” Although we have been “saved,” we are also being saved and will be saved. We “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling — not to mention the sweat of our brow (Philippians 2:12, emphasis mine). This can be, and in fact is, a very messy enterprise.

One of the formative documents of Christianity is the carefully constructed “Apostles’ Creed.” Similarly, the Nicene Creed is a beautifully crafted piece of theological literature. However, notwithstanding their beauty and import, controversy and much work went into their (primarily the Nicene Creed’s) construction. Establishing the Nicene Creed was messy business and messy work.

Even the Apostles’ Creed itself hints at the messy business of being and becoming the Church. While acknowledging God’s sovereignty as “Father,” “Almighty” and “Maker” in section one, we are swiftly introduced to the “mess” of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, death and hellish “descent” in section two. This “messy” element is only intensified when we read about, in the third section, the “holy catholic church.” And, of course, we understand that apart from Jesus Christ and his ongoing mercy and grace, the Church is not really “holy” at all. Only the “Holy Spirit,” (the beginning of section three) living in and among us, makes us a holy people.

We are, as discussed by Dr. Larry Crabb, a “glorious ruin.” This said, and appreciating that we are as Christians called to be holy (Matthew 5:48 and 1 Peter 1:15), we must enter the “mess” of building holy lives in an unholy world among unholy people. We are workers and we are a workplace. This means that we are, and we make, messes. A truly Christian life requires always being “under construction.” Christian growth is always a blood-on-the-knuckles enterprise.

Whether a Creed, Council, Cathedral or Man, work is required and a mess is often created. Saint Isaac the Syrian said this: “Be at peace with your own soul, and then Heaven and Earth will be at peace with you.” We must make peace with being a working place for God—  with all of its inherent messes.

A WORSHIP PLACE

Human beings, Homo sapiens, can also be understood as Homo-liturgical. We are inherently worshiping beings. We are made for worship. Every attitude or action we undertake somehow intersects with the first two of the Ten Commandments. This, quite frankly, is frightening. Nevertheless, as worshipers we must ensure that every part of our being celebrates and properly articulates God (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Cathedral of Man articulates this well.

Man as the Doors

One of the most frightening parts of Christian witness is that the Man is the message. I found this out the hard way a number of years ago. Upon taking a family member to the hospital, I found that the medical “professionals” had entirely mis-communicated and mis-documented information. As this family member was almost entirely disabled, I, quite emphatically, chewed out the staff. I was quite clear, and specific, about their medical incompetence. I was not wrong in my analysis. Unfortunately, although I made NO threats, the staff FELT threatened and called Security — as well as a friend of mine on staff who was not a Christian. Hearing me emphatically, and with a moderately elevated voice, challenge the medical staff was hard for my friend who heard this exchange. While we remained friends, I think my witness to him was somewhat compromised.

gates-paradiseChristians are the “doors” of the Church. For many people we will be their only entry to or exit from Christianity. We will be their only entry or exit to or from Christ. We open or close doors for those who seek to enter into our fellowship. As such, by way of metaphorical illustration, we must ensure that the “doors” of our witness communicate Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (right) and do not communicate Doors of Damnation. Like Jesus himself, we too are doors (John 10:9). Are the “doors” of our witness an opening or a closing to Christ’s “good news”?

Man as the Narthex

Question: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist!

I have pronounced, yet biblically-informed, perspectives on worship. Physical space, structure of worship and nature of sound must each and all communicate the sacred. They must each and all communicate the sacramental.

Man can be understood as the Narthex of the Church. Of note is, like the doors, the Narthex can be a point of entry or of exit. Much attention has been given to this for many years. Greeters are (ideally) trained to be welcoming, but not too welcoming. Greeters (ideally) are trained to introduce, but not to intrude. This applies to the Man as Narthex. Christians not only communicate the Person of Christ, but the community of Christians. What we say, verbally and visually, communicates as much about the “saints” as it does about the Savior. As people enter the outermost part of the Church, as they are greeted, what is the response we seek to elicit? Let me offer an example. When I supervised counseling offices I INSISTED that our “sidewalk appeal” be pronounced. I did not want people who saw our building to be met by dirty windows, offset blinds, unopened mail, un-vacuumed floors, flaking paint, and disordered paperwork. Visual appeal (or lack thereof) had (and has) its proportionate visceral reaction. I did not want people to react to our ministry; I wanted them to respond to our ministry.

Let me provide another example more to the point. When supervising I was asked if X should be appointed as another Supervisor. My answer was swift: “No.” When asked why, I told them that the reason I would not appoint X to that position was because X wore shorts to work. They were shocked. “What,” they asked, “do shorts have to do with service?” Again my answer was swift: “If X ‘shorts’ you on professional apparel, X will ‘short’ you on professional service.” A couple of years later I needed to return to this particular office. In short order I was asked what to do about X. Apparently, as I predicted, X was not working well. X was, I was informed, shorting the agency of an “honest day of work.” All I could say was “I told you so.”

How do we “greet” or “look” to those who enter the Church? Are we communicating a “come as you are” ethic? On some superficial level this might be entirely reasonable and acceptable. It might, for a period of time, even be encouraged. However, if taken too far, “come as you are” means little more than “leave as you were.” The Church DOES NOT want people to leave as they were. We want people to encounter Christ. But, to encounter Christ, they will first encounter us — the “outer room” of the Church. Man is Narthex. What are we saying?

Man as the Fount

In more traditional churches a Baptismal Fount is found as you enter the Sanctuary. There is a sound theological reason for this. Baptism is our entry into the Body of Christ, the corporeal community of Christians. To have a Baptismal Fount placed elsewhere communicates a theology that may not entirely be biblical. Jesus entered his public ministry AFTER his baptism in the Jordan. The Apostles entered their public ministries AFTER they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). We enter the Church AFTER we are baptized. This is the biblical, theological and catechetical norm. And, of course, it has physical / structural applications.

The Christian Man, individually and corporately, is the fount into which new believers are baptized. The Christian Man is the (humanly speaking) fount of Christian community. People are baptized into Christ AND INTO THE COMMUNITY OF THE CHURCH. We come from, are born into, and are destined for community. Our first point of entry into the Sanctuary is the Fount of Man.

What does the “water,” also metaphorically called the Church, look like? When I was a child I lived on the banks of the Potomac River just outside of Washington, D.C. Shortly before my mother moved there, the Potomac had caught on fire and burned. The River burned because it was so polluted. Even after we arrived, although far cleaner than earlier, you could almost walk on top of the water because of its collected filth.

Some time ago I met a man who wanted to become a member of a particular church. This was very important to him because of his upbringing and, as well, because of this church’s reputation of antiquity, authority, and apostolicity. After aligning himself, however, and in short order, this man soon found that this particular church was sweltering in sin and pronounced spiritual pollution. In three short months he left this “community,” never returning.

Are the “waters” of our lives, the “waters” of our assemblies, polluted by our frightening failures and our stark sins? Are our communities so thick with socio-psycho-pneumatic poison that any right-minded person would not want to be with us? Are our churches little more than white washed tombs? They, and we, need not be. We can by God’s grace cleanse the waters. How do we do this? We accomplish this through corporate discipline and personal discipleship. We can, in spite of the fact that we will fail, in spite of the fact that mercy and forgiveness must always be practiced, make our fellowships founts of joy, justice, and transformation. We can, and we must, cleanse the founts. Are the “theology” and community we offer turbid or tranquil, polluted or pure?

Man as the Aisle

As we enter the Sanctuary, after the Fount, we reach the aisle. Depending upon the size and theological structuring of this sacred space, there may be one or many different aisles. Traditional more ancient churches tend to face eastward, with all the aisles facing the Altar and Apse which are at the front of the church. Some contemporary churches, constructed after Vatican II, tend to be churches “in the round” with the people facing each other. This, too, is a theological statement. More recently, churches have been built like gymnasiums — as pragmatic and utilitarian industrial complexes. This too, like the others mentioned, reflect a theological perspective on worship and worshipers. Regardless, all of the aisles in a church go to and point somewhere. In some way, and without exception, every church structure moves people somewhere and to a specific place and purpose.

Man as the aisle of God moves people to a particular person, place and perspective. Ideally we move people to the Person of Jesus Christ. Ideally we move people to the place of encounter with God and personal transformation. Ideally we move people toward a Christian, a biblical, worldview. Ideally we move people into a visible and viable community of committed Christians. But, as repeatedly stated, this is ideal.

In practice, as with the Doors and the narthex, the aisle leads in or out. People, through our witness, will either encounter Christ and community or, alternately, endure our meaningless and tedious meanderings. What is being said when both pastors and people have no interest in talking with and about God? What is being said when worship is makeshift or motivated by “relevance?” What is being communicated when words like redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, sanctification, and a great many other words like them, have absolutely no place in our vocabulary? Are our lips and our lives moving people toward Christ and a visible and viable Christian community, or, as I sometimes suspect, are we communicating bridges to nowhere?

Man as the Nave

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the important lessons that Christians must learn is that we are ALL in the same boat. When Jesus got into the boat, the Bible tells us, “his disciples followed him.” If we are disciples, we follow Jesus with other disciples who are also in the same boat.  It is interesting that the place in the church where people worship, the place which the aisle or aisles dissect, is called the Nave. This word, meaning boat or ship, suggests that we are all in this thing called the Church together. Disciples follow Jesus into this Nave, the ship of the Church.

This word, its implication, is quite telling. Upon being instructed by God, Noah built a boat. Those in the boat would be saved from the flood of God’s wrath. Those outside the boat would not be saved. As well, the Bible tells us, seven of every “clean” animal and two of every “unclean” animal were afforded places on the poop deck – the boat.

Now, to be sure, Man is a nave. And, equally as accurate, Man is at times more like an “unclean animal,” a knave, than (as God intends) a sanctified saint. Every boat, as we are keenly aware, has a unique collection of donkeys — not to mention a host of other undesirables. I know because I am one of them.

But this too is the Church. Let’s face it. As people in process, as a work under construction, we are not always going to be or look good. (Can you imagine the stench on the Ark after a few weeks in closed quarters with ALL of those animals!? How, as well, did Noah’s wife feel about having Noah around 24/7!? And, not to be overlooked, how did Noah’s daughters and sons-in-law feel about having Mr. and Mrs. Noah skulking about all day, waiting for the rain to stop? Such is the Church!) However, as a Nave, as women and men who are in the “boat” with Jesus and with each other, we have a wonderfully unique opportunity, through our Baptism, to be and function as a community. Man is a nave, Man is the nave called the Church. We are all in this boat, called the Church, together. Let us, therefore, make and be the best of it.

Man as the Transept

All Christians are in the Church, this boat that is architecturally called the Nave. Having just outlined the (at times) considerable discomfort this may cause, it is understandable why the aisles of the Nave lead to the Transept. In ancient cathedrals the Transept is the front-and-center part of the church building that forms an architectural cross. Every ancient cathedral was built in the form of the cross. This is good Biblical, Moral, Practical, and Liturgical Theology. The center of St. Paul’s Biblical Theology is the Cross. The center of St. Paul’s Moral Theology is the Cross. Liturgically the Cross is at the center of worship and proclamation. The Cross is, as well, central to the Gospel Narratives. The Cross is front-and-center of truly Christian Theology.

The Cross, given the nature of our human condition and predicament, is also at the center of all truly Practical Theology. Because we are all in the close quarters of the Church-as-community, we must learn to embrace the Cross in order to endure each other. There are times when I am not good. As such, you must learn to embrace the Cross of patience. There are times when you are rude. I must, therefore, learn to embrace the Cross of kindness. There are times when we try and “tax” each other. Consequently we must both learn to embrace the Cross of self-control. Embracing the Cross, Christ’s and our own, is simply a practical principle of kingdom living. If we are all in the same boat, we must all learn to creatively and redemptively get along (1 Corinthians 13). The Cross stands at the center of church architecture because the Cross must also stand at the center of Christian community.

Man as the Quire / Choir

Man is the place (Quire) and people of worship (Choir). Upon Man, as on a page in a book but also inscribed upon the heart, the song of God is written. I might say, and I believe this with my heart, that Man is the song of God. Furthermore, through the Holy Spirit living within us, God has one essential and eminently personal life-song for us to sing. We find it in that place between suffering and speech, between Transept and Pulpit.

Caedmon, an Anglo-Saxon Monk, had no gift for song. When the round of singing would begin, or when asked to sing a song or recite a poem (so very central to Anglo-Saxon life), Caedmon would skulk off to the barn to be with the cattle. This was a great grief to him because, without a song, he felt he was not part of the community. His deep suffering led to prayer. One night a miracle occurred and he was able, on the spot, to recite poetry and sing songs — all of his own making. Caedmon is now considered to be one of the greatest singers and poets who ever lived.

But what is of great interest is this: We only have ONE of his songs. Everything else was lost. It is as if he had one song to sing, sang it well, and influenced generations. The sorrows that he converted into supplication resulted in Spirit-inspired (it is believed) song. And what is his only recorded song about? Caedmon’s hymn is about the Cross of Christ.

We too have a song to sing, and our struggles and sufferings are God’s means of tuning us up and keeping us in tune with the human community in which we are placed. The Choir is a place embedded within ancient churches just like our song celebrating Christ is embedded in each one of us. We must sing the Lord’s song, the song God has given and made us to be, in this foreign land among other pilgrims —- before we speak to them.

(An Interlude: I think that organs should be banned and bagpipes should be brought into the Church as THE instrument of choice. The bagpipe is a perfect instrument, metaphorically illustrating how God works with Man, for communicating the vast and varied range of human emotions. Consider: God takes this bag of disjointed pieces and breathes into it. What a wretched sound emerges when you first play the bagpipes! But, with time and talent, the bagpipe “sings” like none other. This is us. God has a song for each of us. In order to get us to sing, God squeezes us. And He squeezes us again. And again! We do not like this at all. We cry. We moan. We squeal. We squeak and make all sorts of unpleasant sounds. With time, and with more squeezing, we begin to sound better. Soon, when we have been properly tuned (because the squeaks have been squeezed out of us), we too begin to sing like no other instrument. Bagpipes are good for births, weddings and funerals. Bagpipes are appropriate to all of life’s seasons. Such is what God wants for Man.)

Man as the Pulpit

Man is the Pulpit of God. Within the Orthodox Tradition, the icon plays the critical role. If you ask an educated Orthodox person about h/er Theology, they will point us to Holy Icons. If you ask an Anglican about h/er Theology, they will point to the Book of Common Prayer. If you ask a Roman Catholic about h/er Theology, they will point to the Altar. If we ask most Protestant Christians about the center of h/er Theology, they will point to Christ as found in Scripture and as preached (by word and deed) through Pulpit. (Of course, it must be understood, that all true Christians will in some way embrace the Evangelical Protestant emphasis and ethos.) When we ask God about the center of His theological enterprise, God points to Man. This is hard to fathom. It is almost beyond belief. Think about it: The Theology of God is Man.

But let’s not take this too far. The Psalmist rhetorically asks this important question: What is Man / that you are mindful of him?” This is an important question. But Man must be defined within the context of God. Man does not stand alone. In fact, Man does not stand at all without God as h/er Eternal Referent.  God is “mindful” of Man for many reasons, one of which is that we are God’s creation. We uniquely share God’s image and likeness. What God creates, God cares for. As well, however, and most importantly, God is “mindful” of Man because of our identity in Christ.

This is made most obvious when the Psalm then identifies “The Son of Man.” Who is this “Son of Man?” The Son of Man is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. He is the Logos, the Word. He is the Word and the Message. Man is Man as identified with Christ. We must be “in Christ” to be truly human. Only by this identification with Christ can we faithfully give articulation of Christ. Man is as Pulpit when he speaks the Word — Living (Savior), Written (Scripture) and Preached (Sermon).

To speak the Word well, we must incarnate God. More precisely, God must incarnate himself in us. Christ took on human flesh, God became man. In order for us to be most effective we must (properly) become like God. This occurs through the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). This original and unique reception of the Holy Spirit was more fully realized in Acts 2. It was only AFTER this, the Disciples’ reception of this “Promise of the Father,” as evidenced especially in Peter, that they were able to properly speak. In short: No Spirit of Christ = No speech from Christ. Christ must reside and rule within and among us before we speak from and for Christ. When God came upon Man through the Holy Spirit He, properly understood, mounted the Pulpit of Man. With this, the Voice of Man became the Voice of God.

Man as the Table / Altar

On his way to be martyred, one early Father of the Church asked God that his own sacrifice become sacramental bread and wine for a lost world. He was, in imitation of Christ, asking God to make his life and his death a living sacrament. This is not a bad way to live and to die (Colossians 1:24).

In Roman Catholic Theology, Eucharist, Holy Communion, is “the source and the summit” of the Christian life. This is not, only, a theological idea. It is, along with this, a lifestyle. Christians are intended, like Christ (albeit only of distant and secondary effect), to become the body and blood of the world. We are to be the life-bread and life-blood of new life for others.

I love and celebrate bread. When I go out to eat, and bread is provided, I frequently take the bread, feel it, break it in half, put it to my nose, smell it and celebrate its existence. Then, after this, I taste it. It is very disappointing to go to dinner and be presented with second rate or stale bread. In some way the bread makes or breaks the meal.

Similarly, wine is very important. The right wine must be consumed with the proper meal. They must match. My wife, like me, is not a connoisseur of fine wines. We have no idea about what goes with what — and why. What we DO know is what we like and what we do not like. For me, as an example, I do not like wine enough to drink it at all. I stopped drinking wine years ago. When my wife was in France she went to a very nice Bistro and ordered a meal with wine.  When the meal arrived, the waiter brought her the “wrong” wine. No matter what my wife said, the waiter REFUSED to bring her ANY other wine but the one he brought. In retrospect, he was not being rude. Rather, as an expert on wine, he KNEW that my wife had chosen the wrong wine for the meal she had purchased. He insisted that the meal and the wine match.

As we now approach the end our journey through the architecture of the Church, from the exterior up through the interior, we are in fact at the beginning. The Christian life begins, and is completed by, our Lord’s matchless offering on the Cross. He, Christ, is the “author and finisher” of our faith and our life in God. But, in imitation of Christ, we too are the Altar of Sacrifice. We too are the Bread that is offered. We too are the Blood that is shed. Sacrifice is central to the Christian life. As we are bread and wine for a lost world, we must make sure that the “bread” we provide is not stale, the “meal” of our life be most perfectly presented, and the “wine” we offer is of the finest quality. That is, in other words, we must ensure that our lips and our lives set the finest “table” of theological, moral, apologetic and practical “victuals” so that everyone will want to sit down and “eat” with us at our Lord’s Table. If such a human table is set, according to Divine appointment, people are then ready, willing and able to receive and offer the Benediction: “Go into the world, in peace, to love and serve God….”

Man as the Cross

At the front of many churches is a cross. This is the focus and the function of Man. With “the Lamb who was crucified from the foundation of the world,” we are called to the crucified life. If the “Son of Man came forth to die,” this should be our intention.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.

I do not always like or live the crucified life. You do not always like or live the crucified life. We do not always like or live the crucified life. The good news is that Christ came to fulfill this calling for us. The good news is that, by the Holy Spirit, this calling can be fulfilled in and through us. We enter the church in stages. We grow in God in stages. If the Cross is central to the “architecture” of our lives, so is mercy and grace.

“…Thanks be to God!”

DONALDPRICHMOND

 

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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Holiness as Life

Donald Richmond:

FOR MY FRIEND, REV. DAVID PENN, CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE (HESPERIA).

holinessWhen we think about holiness, what comes to mind? What frame of reference do we use? To what, or specifically to WHOM, do we appeal in our analysis? These are important, if not essential, questions that must be answered before we can effectively move from a philosophy of holiness into the practice of holiness.

Sanctification – whether crisis, process, or some admixture of both – begins and ends with God. Both Leviticus 19 and 1 Peter tell us that we are to be holy BECAUSE GOD IS HOLY. Our Lord’s words in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) profoundly echo and uniquely emphasize these words when he links perfection to love: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Ezekiel 39 tells us that the Name of God is “Holy.” Mary, in the Magnificat, makes this abundantly clear and provides us with a bridge between the Old Testament imperative and the New Testament (through Christ) fulfillment.

From a strictly human perspective, holiness, sanctification or “perfection” is a sublime impossibility (Romans 3:10 – 12). Between the imperative and the performance falls the perpetual shadow (Colossians 2: 17 and Hebrews 10: 1). We, alone, cannot do what is required of us. We need Christ. We need him to do for us what we cannot do. Without God, therefore, we intend the impossible. (And, it must be added, even our worst and most despicable actions are nothing more than holy-intention in horrific disguise.)

With Christ, however, we are set free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1 -2). In Christ we are righteous (1 Corinthians 1:30). By his Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, the holy impossibility becomes wholly possible (Romans 8:1 – 5).

But what does practical holiness look like for us? The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1 – 11), the foundation of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), provide a framework for Christian holiness.

First, restating the obvious, we must come to Jesus if we are to be holy (Matthew 5:1b). Disciples always come to Christ. Because he has descended to us in his incarnation, we ascend to him in reconciliation.

Second, we must be content to live in a perpetual state of spiritual poverty and mourning (Matthew 5: 3 – 4). Spiritual poverty is not a passing experience. It is, rather, an ongoing and “blessed” expectation and experience of God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:3b). It is mercy meeting our mourning (Matthew 5: 4). Without poverty there is no perfection because it is only in our weakness that Christ’s strength can be revealed (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Third, humility is the “earth” of holiness (Matthew 5:5). If we want to cultivate a holy life we must cultivate a humble life. The Rule of Benedict is clear, echoing our Lord’s own active intention: we must descend in order to ascend. Humility is holiness.

As well, having intimately known the spiritual essentials of the poverty-mourning-meekness paradigm, we are now afforded the true hunger for holiness (Matthew 5: 6). We want to be “pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8). But, as the astute reader will note, there is a gap between hunger (vs. 6) and purity (vs. 8). This is because there is a gap between intention (vs. 6) and reality (vs. 8). To move from the hunger for holiness and the satisfaction of that desire, we must practice mercy (Matthew 5:7). The exercise of mercy, practically speaking, exorcises those destructive and sinful inclinations that militate against sanctification. That is, briefly, if we want to be holy we can only do so in the company of others. Mercy is the bridge between our intention and the fulfillment.

This will mean, as well (and in keeping with a Benedictine emphasis), that we must become peacemakers (Matthew 5: 9). Holiness of life is a peacemaking operation. Note that I did not say “peace KEEPING.” There is no real peace in a Christ-less world. We, therefore, do not KEEP peace at all. We enter the spiritual realm, enemy territory, not as warriors (except in the Ephesians 6 sense) or as consultants but as women and men who are armed to die. That is, like Christ on his Cross, we come with open arms, open hands, and bleeding hearts. Psychologically speaking, this is a crown of thorns. MAKING peace is critical to sanctification.

Finally, this requires that we reconcile ourselves to persecution and pernicious slander (Matthew 5:10 – 11).  We come, again, to mercy. Mercy is a quantitative quality that measures (so to speak) sanctification. We need God’s mercy to be holy. We demonstrate mercy as a means of holiness. We are exercised by the mercy we have ourselves received in order to be and become holy.

What does holiness look like? Turn to Gethsemane, Golgotha and Grave. Look to Christ — the Promise, Possibility and Resurrection Reality of Righteousness. 

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Walking with God: A New Year Revolution

Donald Richmond:

“And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.”      – Genesis 5: 24 (KJV)

enochThe Bible provides us with precious little information about Enoch. Beyond this poignant testimony from Genesis, Scripture is almost silent. Enoch lived (vs. 21), loved (vs. 21-22) and, after “three hundred sixty and five years,” was taken by God. He walked into eternity securing this divinely inspired approbation.

If this text is properly understood and interpreted, however, the sentiment expressed is the desire of every Christian who has been made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian wants to walk with God. Every Christian wants to be holy. This heart-desire is communicated by such diverse thinkers as John and Charles Wesley (Anglo-Methodist), Thomas Merton (Catholic), Monk Moses of Mount Athos (Orthodox), Rowan Williams (Anglican), Matthew the Poor (Coptic), Charles Finney (Presbyterian), Phineas F. Bresee (Nazarene) and a wide-array of Christian writers throughout history. As such, with Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain, we can firmly assert that “not to be a saint is the only sadness because failing to do so is to fail to achieve the very point of life” (The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life).

But how are we to walk with God? How are we to walk the way of Christian perfection? How are we to be the “saints” we, according to St. Paul the Apostle, are called and challenged to be? The Bible provides us with a very clear, albeit not comprehensive, outline of practical Christian perfection.

Entirely bypassing philosophic paradigms, the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5: 3 – 8) radically refocus our attention from issues related to the head (intellect) to the heart and the hands of the matter. If we ask, “How shall we be holy,” our Lord provides a very practical analysis and example.

The Christian life begins and ends with absolute poverty of spirit (Matthew 5: 3). While certainly a crisis, poverty of spirit is also a way of life. It is, so to speak, crisis of experience and process of life. There is no Christian who has not known the utter poverty that our Lord describes. And, if we are entirely honest, there is no Christian who truly walks with God who does not at some time continue to know this poverty. Consequently, poverty of spirit is both repentance and dependence upon God.

The supernaturally inspired outcome of poverty is mourning (Matthew 5: 4). If we really see ourselves as we are, we cannot help but mourn. Sorrow, God-inspired sorrow, is the very substance of sanctification. While sanctification is in fact “the life of God in the soul of man” (Henry Scougal), while it is God’s work of grace, God uses our sorrow as the soil in which He plants the seed of righteousness. Sorrow is the tilling of the soul’s soil through which the Holy Spirit works. Sorrow is the breaking up of the fallow ground of our heart.

The person who sees her or his impoverishment and truly mourns will experience a meekness or humility (Matthew 5: 5) that invariably results in a hunger and a thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5: 6). When we see ourselves as we are, when this insight is God-inspired, we are allowed to see ourselves as we could be — holy before God, loving God and neighbor. Those who are impoverished in spirit, who truly mourn and are (thereby) meek, want to be holy. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. Poverty leads to mourning which leads to meekness which, invariably, leads to a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

And now we might be inclined to think that we have “arrived.” We want God. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. Is there more? Surely, given this God-inspired path we have thus followed, purity of heart (Matthew 5: 8) is ours. Does not hunger produce holiness?

Sadly, while important, it does not. Between hunger for holiness (Matthew 5: 6) and purity of heart (Matthew 5: 8) falls the “hands-on” imperative of Matthew 5: 7. Our hunger for holiness in verse 6 must exercise the mercy of verse 7 if we are to attain the purity of heart in verse 8. The exercising of mercy is the means by which we pass from the hunger for holiness (vs. 6) into the satisfaction of holiness (vs. 8).

Enoch walked with God. We are also called to walk with God. He lived 365 years before God “took him.” We, on the other hand, have “three score years and ten” consisting of 365 days by which God in Christ by the Holy Spirit works in and through us. Each and every day provides us the opportunity to walk with God through the exercises of mercy. The Bible tells us, specifically in the Psalms, that God orders each and every one of our 365 days. Let us, by the grace of God, exercise mercy. Let mercy be our New Year’s revolution. Let us not simply DECLARE righteousness, let us DEMONSTRATE it through mercy.

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

Image above right: “God took Enoch,” illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet.

 

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Now

rule_st_benedict_wideDon Richmond: There is an immediacy expressed throughout the Rule of Benedict (RB). From the very first paragraphs in the Prologue we read words like “here now” and “now.” This emphasis on immediacy, the “now” of God’s expectation, is reinforced with words such as “listen”… “accept”… “practice” … “awake” and “arise.” These words require exclamation: Listen! Accept! Practice! Awake! Arise! Is there any other way of walking with God? As Holy Scripture tells us, “Now is the time…”

But what is it time for? Why is there such urgency? Considering how we as a society are inclined to race and rush, to shuttle from one task to another almost without thought, shouldn’t we seek to slow things down? Should we not attend to the well-spoken word by Dr. C. G. Jung when he wrote, “busyness is not of the Devil, it is the Devil”?

To be sure, there is a real need for us to slow down. The Christo-centric life is in some way a contemplative life. The Christ-centered and ordered life cultivates a life of disciplined withdrawal in order to effectively engage. Jesus himself frequently withdrew, and even encouraged his disciples to withdraw, for the purposes of retreat and refreshment.

And yet, notwithstanding our need for retreat and reflection, Christ also immediately attended to the call of God and the pronounced need of humanity. St. Mark’s gospel clearly and repeatedly references this by its transitional “and immediately” refrain seen throughout the narrative.

As we examine the RB, most especially in the first few paragraphs of the Prologue, the immediacy which St. Benedict references is for the purpose of “obedience,” the “labor” of obedience.  Christians must learn the disciplines of swift obedience. The monastery, disciplined Christian life and RB are each aimed at training us in this painfully exacting art. “Here!” “Now!”

There are several reasons for this orientation. First, Christ is King (RB, Prologue, paragraph 1). Second, we are in the midst of a war (RB, Prologue, paragraph 1). Third, swift service expresses practical gratitude (RB, Prologue, paragraph 2). Forth, Christians are sons and not simply servants (RB, Prologue, paragraph 2). Finally, and no doubt a “hard word” that is in keeping with the tribal and covenantal loyalties a conquering and compassionate King would expect, to not obey is to reject the very LORDship to which we have submitted ourselves (RB, Prologue, cf. paragraphs 2 and 4).

If Christ is King, do we not owe him swift obedience? If we are in a life and death struggle against “principalities and powers,” is not swift obedience the safe and wise choice? If we have been “conquered” by The Compassionate King, should we not express the gratitude of swift obedience? If we have been graced with adoption, should not children be swift to show honor by obedience? Does not loving Lordship generate a responsive “fear” inspiring obedience?

“O GOD, our refuge and strength, who art the author of all godliness; Be ready, we beseech thee, to hear the devout prayers of thy Church; and grant that those things which we ask faithfully we may obtain effectually; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (1928 Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity).

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

 

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In the Monastery: Establishing Benedictine Churches

Don Richmond:

“This ought to be our endeavor, to conquer ourselves and daily wax stronger and make a further growth in holiness.”          – Imitation of Christ, Thomas á Kempis (Moody Press, 1980)

CrossPipesAlthough the Rule of Benedict (RB) centers upon monastic life, its priorities, principles, precepts and practices apply to all Christians. Everyone who is alive in Christ recognizes the authority of Holy Scripture, wants to be holy, is passionate for prayer, expresses concern for the lost and comes from and is destined to community. Although a monastery may be intentionally Benedictine, and a parish may not be, both share pronounced commonalities.

The “Prologue” of the RB establishes the calling (“Listen”), commitment (“obedience” and “among you”) and curriculum (“holy teachings” and “duties”) of a community which is the “school of the Lord’s service.” This community or parish is more monastic than scholastic. It emphasizes living above learning without diminishing the value of either. The Benedictine parish concerns itself with the education of the heart, an education of heart that can only be comprehended in and through a community of prayer. The final paragraph of the “Prologue” promulgates priorities appropriate to monastic and parish life. These are: (1) Sound reasoning, (2) Amending faults, (3) Safeguarding love, (4) Remaining stable, (5) Preserving doctrine and (6) Vicarious suffering. Each encourages prayer and godliness. Without them, prayer and parish are impossible.

SOUND REASONING

Our society prioritizes feeling. Rarely do we hear the words “I think” as an introduction to an assertion. Instead, highlighting an exceptionally dangerous trend, people tend to nuance (if not negate) their thinking with “I feel” pronouncements. We may “feel” that the world is flat, but sound reasoning suggests that it is not.  We may “feel” that established doctrine needs to be changed, but biblical reasoning suggests that it should not be changed. We “feel” that we need to move from place to place in order to be spiritually, but reason suggests stability is a more effective path. We do indeed “feel” many things, but sound reasoning helps us to navigate them wisely. If all thought can be reduced to “I feel” categories, than all philosophies and theologies are on equal footing. If the need to change can be reduced to an “I feel” enterprise, very few people would change.

Benedict introduces “sound reasoning” into this unfortunate equation. If we are to live, love, pray and serve as a community, as a parish, we must learn to properly elevate the mind. This does not mean that head should dominate heart. It does that mean that the intellectual should negate the emotive. Both are needed. The Benedictine parish, however, understands that head informs heart and hands. Sound reason (the head) helps us amend faults, safeguard love, remain stable, preserve doctrine and suffer well. We must have sound reasoning in order to repent of sin and repair our lives. God calls us to reason, and the Benedictine parish will encourage a well-reasoned and prayerfully articulated faith.

AMENDING FAULTS

Repentance requires a reasoned appreciation, albeit not an exhaustive appreciation, of right and wrong. One does not repent of something that s/he does not believe or know is wrong. As St. Paul says, somewhere, “how shall they know without a preacher?” The Bible tells us that God calls His wayward people to “reason” with Him. The re-education of the conscience and the heart requires an informed and intelligent faith. If we are to keep the Ten Commandments, we must at least know the Ten Commandments. If we are to embrace the teachings of the Beatitudes, we must at least know what they are. We must in some way know that we have sinned if we are to know that we need a Savior. And, as well, I must in some way know Christ in order to be saved by Christ. As Thomas ‘a Kempis has written in his Imitation, “He who would fully understand the words of Christ, must faithfully conform himself to the life of Christ.” Even a “General Confession” of sin implies at least a basic awareness of particular sin and an intention to amend it.

This does not mean that Christ and Christianity are only for the intelligent and educated. One does not need an advanced degree to follow God. One of the glories of the Gospel is that it effectively communicates the good news of Christ across all boundaries and barriers. Egg-heads and air-heads (and often there is not much difference) can both know and be known by Christ. Great minds do not always make for good hearts. Nevertheless, head informs heart. Transformation, according to Paul, is by the renewing of the mind.

In order to amend faults we must know what fault is, and what faults need amending. The amending of faults prepares and empowers us to parish life and effective prayer. Confession precedes community and conversation with God. Conviction precedes confession, confession precedes conversion, and conversion of life empowers conversation with the community and with God.

SAFEGUARDING LOVE

The amending of faults, under intelligent “advisement” and sometimes with a bit of “strictness,” helps to safeguard love. Benedict understands these small demands as essential to the narrow way of Christ. This narrow way, the way of living love, is a sweet yet suffering salvation. This means, of course, that the safeguarding of love requires some measure of self-sacrifice. It demands an expansion of heart. Common concerns outweigh personal preferences. To love is the truest amendment of fault. Love is repentance, reparation and renewal.

As with sound reasoning, we often misunderstand love. Love, more often than not, is embraced as a feeling but is rejected in its functional applications. We want excitement without expectation. We want license without limitation.  We want the “yes” of relationship without the “no” it always requires. If we use the marital vows as an example, “I do” has been reduced to “I might” with a whole host of footnotes, appendices and nuances attached.

But a common life requires consistent commitment. Love “maybe” must yield itself to love “actually” (not, of course, referencing the film by the same title). Love must have head, heart and hands. And, as love is so easily misunderstood and transgressed, love must be safeguarded. This will require that we “beg our Lord to provide…that which our nature is unable to perform” (Prologue, paragraph 7). We must be graced for growth. We must be schooled in love. We must be educated in the common life. The Benedictine parish guards the common good just as God calls us to guard the exclusivities and expectations of “I do.”

REMAINING STABLE

This requires stability — one of the foundations of Benedictine spirituality. Amending faults and disciplined stability safeguard love. We stay together so that we can pray together. Stability supports supplication. Community undergirds conversation with God. Community is the means of conversion.

Depth is not attained when we are unstable in our commitments to each other. As John the Divine writes, we cannot love God unless we love our neighbor. If we are always shifting our commitments, church-hopping and church-shopping, we will never be able to live, love or pray well. We cannot say that we love at a distance. We must involve ourselves in the mess of community. We must involve ourselves in the mess of parish life.

Problems certainly do exist. They always, in this life, will. People are people. We cannot get around this. We are human and, even as the Body of Christ, we do not always function as we would like. People say and do things that are contrary to Christian commitment. The pastor is dull. The liturgy is repetitive. The parish cannot sing. The music is bad. The people are, at times, vicious. The ill-behaved child behind you, who is perpetually kicking your chair, is a brat. And yet, facing reality as it is, this is where the real Christ, real community, real change, real conversation and real conversion are encountered, embraced and empowered. The knuckleheads in pulpit and pew make poignant the petitions in the prayer our Lord taught us. Stability affords opportunity for sanctification and supplication.

PRESERVING DOCTRINE

Benedict and his community call us to persevere in doctrine. Given the swiftly shifting theological sands, this is a subject of many books. In fact, many books of polarized opinions have been written. Nevertheless, in spite of the changes that we have seen and experienced, preserving doctrine is critical to the Benedictine parish. A well-preserved doctrine is a well-proclaimed doctrine. We need right information for effective transformation.

Some years ago I heard a pastor tell his parish that they could stand up or sit down according to the beliefs they affirmed or rejected in the Apostles’ Creed. If any member of the congregation thought that a certain part of the creedal statement was true, they were asked to stand. If they did not believe a statement was true, they were asked to sit. As the Creed was recited, the congregation looked like a bunch of misfiring pistons.

This is funny until we understand that I am not referencing misfiring pistons as much as I am referencing misfiring parishes. If the church does not speak the same language in the same way, in dynamic agreement with the past, they will swiftly go nowhere. If we do not have the message, we have nothing to say. If we distort the message we dilute its effectiveness. Truth is not truth if it is distorted truth.  Remember Babel: One cannot construct without using the same language and in the same way.

Of course we must understand that proclamation is by word and deed. We must know right, speak right and do right. In the final paragraph of the “Prologue,” the RB dynamically unites God’s commandments with “His teaching,” “His doctrine,” Christ’s sacrifice (united with our own) and “His kingdom.” Benedict is not arbitrary. His emphasis is firmly fixed. Revelation and relationship are always related. Knowing and doing are connected. We cannot invent our own Christ. We cannot invent doctrine. Both are revealed and received. We cannot be a Benedictine community without being a biblical community.

VICARIOUS SUFFERING

The parish that is Benedictine is a salvifically suffering community. It must always be so. Our Lord was incarnated for the purpose of crucifixion. He is our example. Through his baptism Christ identified with our sin. Through his temptation Christ wrestled with our wilderness wandering. Through his private Gethsemane Christ sweat the blood of our own personal darkness. Through his public death Christ suffered our private rejections. Through his hell Christ entered our hell. As with Christ, so with each and every believer. We must, as Paul asserts in Colossians 1: 24, “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”

The Benedictine community is a community of radical identification with others. This means that, because we are all human and fallen, we must all learn to accommodate ourselves to the weakness of others.  We must be armed with such a purpose. To enter the Benedictine enclosure opens us up to every human frailty and failure. This requires the purpose, petition and power of forgiveness.

The Benedictine parish is a patient participation in the sufferings of Christ. The Prologue of the RB makes this quite clear. It is, before the promise of the kingdom, the very last word before we really get down to the business of being a community of prayer. To open our mouths requires that we open our hearts.

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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The Rule of War

Benedict

Donald Richmond: The Rule of Benedict prioritizes a discipline that has almost been forgotten in the contemporary Church: War. Saint Benedict tells us, from the very outset of his Rule, that disciples must be armed with the “bright weapons” of war if we are going to make significant spiritual progress (“Prologue”). This warfare is waged through obedience. As the Psalmist has written, “Blessed be the Lord my God / Who trains my hands to war and my fingers to fight.”

Such warfare is waged on at least three fronts. We must engage ourselves in the battle of the mind. This, I believe, is the front line of spiritual engagement. We live in a fallen world that is infested with temptations of both the flesh and the devil. If either can overcome the mind, all is lost. Saint Paul urges both the renewal of the mind (Romans 12) and the application of the “helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6) as defenses. How very necessary both are!

As well, we must engage ourselves in the battle of the heart. On some level this is the battlefield itself. The heart is the battleground. If Christ has captured our hearts, if Christ is our passion, the battle (while at times fierce) is already won. As Christians who are “born again” by the Holy Spirit, we have “Christ within us [who is] the hope of Glory.” He, if we are alive in him, has our hearts. We are, by supernatural action, turned from sin to the Savior. We are turned from improper lusts to the Lord of Life. Our hearts are now properly ordered towards God and his priorities, principles and practices. One sure test of the changed heart is to ask a simple question: Do I hunger for holiness? If we do not want to be holy it is reasonable for us to question our salvation.

This, however, does not mean that there will not be struggles. Struggle is essential to the Christian life. The “bright weapons” of war are always required. This is why Saint Paul tells us to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Ephesians 6). This piece of armor covers the heart, the center of our lives. This is why the biblical Wisdom Literature urges us to “Guard [our] hearts because out of the heart flows the wellspring of life.” As Christians our heart is with and for God. We must strive, struggle and wrestle to keep it that way.” “Fight the good fight.”

Finally (albeit not exhaustively) we must also engage ourselves in the battle of the body, asking God in His great mercy to free us from all “defilement of flesh and of spirit (emphasis mine).” Many Christians throughout history have taken a rather misinformed and dim view of the body. The “flesh” has been viewed with suspicion and, in misguided efforts to rid ourselves of “passions,” we have subjected it to a host of abuses. We have sought to scourge the sensual from the temple of our lives.

This is unfortunate because God has given us bodies that are sensually (in the best sense) oriented. Sacraments, as just one example, are to be sensually experienced and appropriated. We TASTE Bread and Wine. We HEAR music and liturgy. We SMELL incense. We SEE liturgical action. We TOUCH each other (in true fellowship) and the entire “architecture of heaven” when we participate in the “things of God.” We are embodied beings. This is to be celebrated.

WarCARTOONBut Satan also has his imitations. If we have proper passions, we can also have “disordered passions.” We can sensually experience and express the wrong things. Saint Benedict and Saint Paul therefore petition us to practice bodily disciplines and moderation — like good soldiers. These disciplines need not be excessive. Rather we can discipline our bodies through the practice of moderation: a little less food, a little less coffee, a little less artificial stimulation (TV, Radio, Discs), a bit of fasting (even partial fasting), a little more discipline in prayer, a little more sitting in silence — “waiting on God.” Wars are won along the front line of the “little.” Thomas ‘a Kempis hints at this when he tells us that if we were to rid ourselves of one vice per year, we would soon be perfect people.

The Rule of War is, by God’s grace, to rule ourselves — both through delights and denials, feasts and fasts. Let us put on God’s armor, guard our hearts and minds and practice military moderation.

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

Image above, right: Saint Benedict. c. 1495. Alvaro Di Pietro (Pietro Perugino).
Image above, left: War. Cartoon. Don Richmond.

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On Being Saints

Donald P. Richmond:

Poet Robert Lax

The true and only vocation of every Christian is to be a saint. This rather unusual assertion was pointed out by the poet Robert Lax to Thomas Merton, Lax before his Christian conversion, and Merton long before he entered Gethsemane Abbey. As they were walking down the street, Lax looked at Merton and asked him what he really wanted to be. In response, rather uncommitted, Merton said that he supposed he wanted to be “a good Catholic.” In a flash, Lax told Merton that his response was unacceptable, and that his only true calling was to be a saint. Merton was stunned.

And it is likely that we, also, will be stunned. It is possible that we will begin to think of St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, St.Augustine, Mother Teresa, of martyrs such as Bilney, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer (not to mention Thomas More or Edward Campion), or of authors such as Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, J. C. Ryle, A. W. Tozer, E.M. Bounds, Andrew Murray, or Thomas Merton, and we will assert that we are not in any way like them — men and women of great passion and commitment. To be sure, we are not these men and women. We are who God has made us to be, and, according to the Holy Scriptures, we are called to be saints.

The question is “how?” Lax suggested to Merton that it was simply a matter of will. Lax is correct. But sainthood is not achieved, nor is it in any way a matter of self-will.

Over the past several decades there have been a great many books about self-help that have been published. Within certain contexts this may be well and good, but not in regard to spiritual awakening, growth, and formation. Flying in the face of monastic tradition (which in most ways I embrace) I am as suspicious about John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent and St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility as I am about modern texts that seek to provide the reader with twelve easy steps to Christian maturity. Rarely, if not always, does such an approach lead to anything but pride or frustration.

Of course we must be disciplined. There are priorities and practices (such as Bible reading and meditation, private prayer, public worship, and participation in the Sacraments) we must observe. But this does not mean that we should support any form of “cookie cutter” spirituality — one size fits all. Such an approach is little more than a Christianized form of Babel. One Greek Elder had to remind one of his spiritual disciples that what the Elder said only applied to that particular disciple and to no one else. Luke Timothy Johnson, in Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making In the Church, tells us that “freedom is the most rigorous of all asceticisms.” These are wise words, and it is to the theology of individual freedom in Christ that we must look for help in our quest for sainthood.

St. Paul writes, “All things are permissible, but all things are not profitable.” The committed Christian, the monk in the world or in the monastery, takes this statement seriously. As those who are called and challenged to be saints, we seek to live our lives from the position of profitability and not from permissibility.

But we must be very cautious in this regard. We need balance. People tend toward extremes, and we will often be too “hard” or too “soft” upon ourselves. I am a perfect example. As a child, in imitation of St. Dominic Savio, I slept on sticks in order to mortify my body. Not a wise choice, most especially at ages 7 – 9, because I had no idea what true “mortification” really meant. As an adult, as another example, I have always sought a spiritual guide who would “[spiritually] beat me up as an old world Jesuit.” God has never seen fit to provide me with a director who was hard and harsh. Invariably, my directors were (and are) the most gentle of persons. I sought holiness, I sought to be a saint, but I did not have the insight to be able to bring God’s desire for and in me to fruition.

The insight and inspiration we need requires self-awareness. Most frequently this requires objective insight, an insight that can only be provided by another person who, with us, listens to both the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures as they intersect with the context of living our lives. The Celtic Christian Tradition has said that “a person without a spiritual director is like a body without a head.” We need a spiritual director, a spiritual mentor or guide, to help us along our path of freedom and sainthood —- or freedom to sainthood.

But I must be blunt: I am not talking about accountability groups among peers, as useful as these may be. I am not talking about Bible Study, Cell Groups, or Catechesis — as helpful as these may be. I am not referencing transformative worship. I am not talking about pastoral counseling either. What we need is an Elder (the classic spiritual “Elder” of antiquity), a Starets (of the Russian Tradition, and found in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov), a Soul Friend, or “Anam Cara” (of the Celtic Tradition), a Spiritual Director. We need a mature believer who knows God, the Bible, Church Tradition, human psychology and the traditions of spiritual guidance, to help us navigate our freedom in Christ, our pathway to sainthood.

In his wonderfully inspiring book for young people (gorgeously illustrated by Caryll Houselander), My Path to Heaven, Father Geoffrey Bliss writes these words, “All the roads go to Heaven and to Hell; and they go through all sorts of places with the names of the different kinds of lives. Sometimes I can choose my own road; but generally God chooses it for me, if I keep in the right direction” (emphasis mine). A Spiritual Director helps us to keep our choices profitable, providing us the safest and surest way to God and the grace (SHEER GRACE) of sainthood.

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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