KB Categories Archives: Church Fathers

Augustine and Preaching Piety

Marc Brown: Augustine’s Bible was a Latin translation. In Augustine’s time, there were several old Latin translations, commonly referred to as Vetus Latina.[1] When compared to the polished prose of writers like Cicero, none of them were particularly elegant. This quality contributed to some educated converts, such as Augustine, perceiving the scriptures as “clumsy, clunky Latin”[2] Even though the Scriptures struck Augustine as literarily unattractive, “he came not only to love the broader biblical message and the epic biblical narratives; he even came to savor the Vetus Latina’s often odd and ungainly turns-of-phrase”[3] Using these Scriptures Augustine prayed, thought, and studied Scripture in order to understand the truths of Christianity and how best to apply them to the questions and issues of daily life. As he studied the Scriptures and contemplated the meaning of piety, he came to these conclusions: ‘“Piety,’ again, is commonly understood as the proper designation of the worship of God.”[4] Concerning his understanding of piety as worship, Augustine also wrote:

The common people, too, use it of works of charity” (same) “we, on the other hand, cannot express either of these ideas by one word. This worship, then, which in Latin “servitus”, but the service due to God only.” We cannot express these things in one word, but call it the worship of God – this, we say, belongs only to that God who is the true God.[5]

Augustine’s piety is ultimately about worshiping the one true God – both in the gathered assembly and through the words and actions of everyday life. One of the main congregational benefits of corporate worship is gaining Christian formation through instruction and the most basic mode of this instruction came through preaching. For Augustine, preaching and piety are forever linked.

Please click here to continue reading Dr. Brown’s work.

 

[1]William S. Harmless, ed, Augustine in His Own Words (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 157.

[2]Harmless, ed, Augustine in His Own Words, 157.

[3]Harmless, ed, Augustine in His Own Words, 157.

[4]Saint Augustine, The City of God, Translated by Marcus Dods (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc. 2006), 366.

[5]Saint Augustine, The City of God, 366-7.

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How the Early Fathers Teach us to Read Scripture

D.H. Williams:

Ancient-Future Faith Network member and distinguished professor D.H. Williams  recently gave an address at Wheaton College. Dan is professor of patristics and historical theology in the Department of Religion at Baylor University and specializes in Patristic Literature and Theology; History Christianity, Religions of Late Antiquity; and Sociology of Religion.

 

How the Early Fathers Teach us to Read Scripture

Nowadays a fervent acknowledgement has gripped conservative Protestants and our brethren in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy who openly admit that a re-engagement with the ancient legacy within our present churches is a necessity and just as much a challenge.  New forms of ecumenism have begun to emerge characterized by a surge of books about reading the Bible theologically.[1]  Retrieval theologies  have come into the academic limelight largely because of the limitations of the historical-critical methods, which have been entirely invasive in graduate programs, has left too much of a gap between the Church and the academy by failing to unite exegesis, doctrine and the life of the non-academic Christians.[2]  For a long time we have been faced with a hegemonic pretense of this “modern” approach to the study of Scripture, along with the assumption that writing biblical commentaries is almost exclusively the province of scholarly biblical exegetes.[3]

In a quest for a more flexible and capacious hermeneutic, we look to patristic forms of Biblical exegesis as uncovered in hundreds of sermons, commentaries, and theological works.  Even the most experienced researcher of patristic exegesis will admit that ancient Christianity left us with a vast ocean of texts that can elude our best attempts to comprehend them.  It is neither easy or self-evident to grasp what the early fathers have said on many subjects, but especially when it comes to the pages and pages of Biblical interpretation.  There is also a prevalent illusion among some Evangelicals that patristic writers from different centuries or geographical contexts all spoke with one voice.  The Greek Orthodox theologian George Florovsky rightly observed that while we have seen a renewed emphasis on the authority and return to the early Fathers, it must be a “creative return.”  This implies an element of self-criticism, but also that any such retrieval will be what he called, a Neopatristic synthesis.[4] In other words, the thoughtful reader of the ancients has to reassess both the problems and the answers of the Fathers in such a way that does not violate the ancient context by grabbing bits and pieces of text that will only serves to abstract them from the total perspective in which only they are meaningful and valid. But instead of a neopatristic synthesis, John Behr prefers to speak of a patristic “symphony”for hearing the different voices of the Fathers, whether it be the second or any other century. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Basil did not speak the same voice. These are different voices. And there are different voices through time. So, the point of reading the Fathers is not to synthesize all their knowledge into one definitive solution but it is like going back to the earlier scores of the symphony. You have to learn their parts in order that you are harmonized to the melody to sing your part today.[5]

Of course, the ancient writers were not purposely trying to be opaque; just the opposite, in fact.  When it came to explaining the Bible, those that wrote to provide elucidation were doing so to be understood by as many Christians as possible.  Our present quandary has more to do with the fact that a great majority of ancients did not explain the structure or the logic with which they are expounding the text.  However much we wish to retrieve the riches of patristic theology and exegesis, we cannot deny that a historical, cultural and philosophical gulf stands between us and them. And we are not happy that they do not make the kinds of distinctions that we think they ought to make.  We’d do well to respect this distance in our treatment of the primary sources, and avoid what Jarsolav Pelikan called a “tyranny of epistemology”[6] that has dominated especially Protestant hermeneutics since the Enlightenment. We often forget that the patristic interpreters stood much closer to the apostolic era and ought to mirror the writers of the NT much more closely than we do.

This being said, we are not faced with an impossible return to the past, as some have argued.[7]  As we consider reading ancient Biblical exegesis, it is not improper to ask what expectations should have; What marks some of the key differences between the way we read the Bible and how they read it?  And if a degree of retrieval—perhaps a high degree–of these sources is possible, what does that look like when it comes to understanding them?

Let me begin with some mechanics of what one encounters when reading the ancient Fathers and then we’ll look at certain strategies they used for reading Scripture:

 

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The Christian Tradition of Suffering: An Exhortation to Contemporary Protestantism

D.H. Williams:

sufferingOne cannot read the New Testament and a great many patristic texts and not discover that a common denominator to all who followed Christ was the experience of suffering; whether in the forms of rejection, hatred, deprivation, or some sort of persecution.  Beginning with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10), the imperatives for a blessed life offer us a self-portrait of Jesus, who is himself the Blessed One.  This portrait shows an identification with poverty, gentleness, grief, hunger, and thirst for uprightness, mercy, purity of heart, a desire to make peace, and the signs of persecution. At the same time, Jesus promises, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).  What is the disciple’s response?  “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (or hurt you), so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

From the gospel accounts to Acts to the earliest records of Christian executions, the church was born into a tradition of persecution and martyrdom that formed its identity.  The faith of the “chosen people” was essentially a religion of suffering and martyrdom.  The twin aspects, suffering and bearing witness went hand in glove.

Thus far, surveys of retrieval theologies make no mention of this issue, which is a serious omission, since there is a superfluity of literary evidence to show that suffering for and with the Christ who suffered through persecution was a central part of the early church. This facet of Christian experience is just as much a part of the theological inheritance as any other theology.  In all the presentations and dialogues on theological retrieval taking place, westerners who rarely suffer on account of their faith, are in danger of forgetting this elementary feature of the church’s distinctiveness.  But what is meant by such a retrieval unless we are in the midst of a church enduring some form of persecution?

 

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The Concretization of Spiritual Ideals

D.H. Williams:

DHWilliamsThe following is an address that Dr. Williams gave to the June, 2016, conference sponsored by the Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient-Evangelical Future at the Trinity School of Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It is presented here by permission by the author. Dr. D.H. Williams is Professor of Religion in Patristics and Historical Theology at Baylor University, Co-Director of the Center of Ancient Greek Studies at Shandong University, and a Sustaining Member of the Ancient-Future Faith Network.

It is no great observation to say that the Protestant experiment with ancient tradition is still in process. Given the ecclesial diversity within evangelicalism, it is hardly surprising that a predictable hallmark of those communions drawing on the ancient church is its unpredictability.  Reading from the common lectionary, incorporation of certain liturgical elements and the attraction to patristic interpretation of Scripture, using quotes from patristic theologians– these figure most prominently across a broad spectrum of churches, many of which are looking for a centering of Christian faith and practice.

One result of evangelical openness to a broader and deeper historical awareness has been an acknowledgment that the construction of the Christian life must go beyond the re-experiencing or renewal of conversion. Another is that there are ancient “tools” or approaches available in realizing the journey to holiness.  While there is much to gain from patristic spirituality, it will nonetheless have points unfamiliar to us. For instance, at the time in which Christian spiritual practices were becoming generally established in the fourth century, the premier role model for Christian men was not the good husband and father, but the faithful celibate living at home or in the desert as frugally as possible.  Asceticism, not the family, was the best ground for growing in Christ.  Jesus himself set the higher standard in literal form: “Whoever loves father or mother (or a son or a daughter) more than me is not worthy of me.”[1]

For the early church pertinent material for spiritual formation was found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  In this, Augustine says, “one will discover in it a perfect pattern of the Christian life designed after the highest standards of conduct.”[2] Among the dozens of commentaries and series of homilies on this gospel, the Beatitudes took priority as the treasury to which one should search for the language and precepts of walking gracefully.[3]  We are supposed to “burn with an inward desire of hungering and thirsting after righteousness;” that is, actively “seeking for righteousness, as opposed to some mere longing or fleeting desire of wanting it.” [4] So too, only the pure of heart may see God,” which Gregory of Nyssa couches as “the divine image formed in us through the purity of our lives.”[5]  As a kind of epitome of all the Beatitudes, Matt 5 concludes, “Be perfect (τέλειοι) as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48).  Since the term “perfect” in Greek derives from the word for goal (ends, means), human actions are understood in relation to ends; an understanding inherited from Greek thought.[6]  It is what the early church and ancient moral philosophy called the final or highest good (summum bonum).  To strive after the “perfect,” was meant, not only as an ideal, but also as an obtainable goal, as Paul clarified it: “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (II Cor 7:1).

It is instructive to see how Christianity, despite its many theological differences with classical Paganism, shared a certain amount of philosophical infrastructure within Hellenistic rationality.  The rise of intellectuals within Christianity in the second century inform us through their texts that there was already in place a well-developed system of moral formation in the Graeco-Roman world.  Christian apologetic texts often played on a shared expectation of justice and wisdom.  Athenagoras made his argument that victimizing Christians with false accusations does not comport with justice.[7]  Likewise Justin stated directly, “Justice mandates that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is.”[8]

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Don’t Just Tell Me What You Believe: Lex Orandi-Lex Credendi and its Implications for Evangelical Worship

Marc Brown:

lexEvery week I plan worship for my church’s worship services. Our church has four of them; one is traditional, led by choir and orchestra and the other three are modern, led by band and vocal teams. We are, for the most part, unburdened with the conflict that seems to arise in churches when more than one style of worship is present. Our church members and attendees don’t seem simply tolerant of the other’s worship service choices; they are supportive – despite our differences. I believe our services share several qualities that aid in this unity: each service shares the same space; each service shares the same (for the most part) leadership and no matter the style, each service shares the same doctrine. You may assume that the same doctrine is expressed in each service because they are all located in the same building. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the case. While emotional unity is one of the most important qualities to monitor in churches that offer worship services in different styles, it is likely not the root of most disunity. I believe that the primary reason for my church’s unity is found in our common doctrinal beliefs – and the key to doctrinal unity may not be as rooted in preaching as you might think. Rather, the key may be found in a theological principal that has been around since the 5th century: Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi. A loose translation of this phrase could be, “the way you worship shapes the way you believe.” Many churches may suffer from a lack of unity because they do not understand the power of this principal.

Written sometime between 435 and 442, Prosper of Aquitaine’s original phrase is, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. This translates to “that the law of praying establishes the law of believing.” Prosper was a student and follower of Augustine and originally wrote this to support Augustine’s fight against Pelagianism, or the belief that people are born without a “sin nature.” Pelagius thought people were born innocent, without the curse of original sin via Adam and Eve.  In 325, the Council of Nicaea settled this and other issues when they adopted the Nicene Creed. The Council of Bishops knew that belief in original sin is crucial to understanding Christ’s role in the redemption of creation. Though his efforts to champion orthodoxy, Prosper promoted the awareness that prayer and worship are the believer’s first expressions of faith; the church’s teaching (credendi) is made tangible through the church’s prayer and worship (orandi).  Simply stated, the way a church worships not only reflects its beliefs, worship actually shapes a church’s faith and doctrine. According to Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, faith gives birth to and “shapes” worship, but it is worship, that by fulfilling and expressing faith, “bears testimony” to faith and becomes thus its true and adequate expression and norm: lex orandi est lex credendi.

In Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Christians are encouraged to ask God to reveal where He is at work. From that point, when the praying believer becomes aware that God is at work, this awareness becomes God’s invitation for the believer to join in His work. Blackaby writes that whenever the praying Christian becomes aware of God’s invitation, a crisis usually manifests that must be overcome in order for the person to fruitfully comply with God’s invitation. As individual Christians (and by extension, worshiping congregations) successfully navigate these cycles of revelation and response, a greater depth of discipleship is achieved and more fruit is produced for the Kingdom. Simon Chan shows the same holy dialogue is found in corporate worship. He wrote that when God reveals Himself to us as the church, worship is the best response. In worship we can actually participate with God.  Our worship either shapes us into disciples or something less: Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Primary Theology

Many times Protestants don’t agree with Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi because they understand worship as something that naturally flows from a believer’s faith and doctrine. There are biblical and historical precedents for both. My purpose in writing is not to promote one over the other, but believers, especially evangelicals, must realize that no matter which concept they want to be right, both regularly occur in every church. Therefore, it is extremely important that we plan, structure and lead our worship services with the greatest intentionality. The concept of Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi is instrumental in creating the primary theology for worshiping communities. As opposed to the academic study and discourse of theology (secondary theology), worship actually does theology. If this is right, then the theology and doctrine of our churches could be expressed as Lex Orandi Lex Credendi et Agendi: Worship shapes our belief and action.

Assuming our worship does shape our faith, in what ways is this accomplished? How can we learn about worship’s effect on our faith as we think and express it?  In most evangelical churches, the primary way to understand our purpose as the church is through the lens of the Great Commission. My church reads this together at the end of every worship service. Historically and liturgically, this functions beautifully as the “sending” portion of our services.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -Matthew 28:18-20 ESV

Many evangelical churches go to significant lengths attempting to use their worship services as a means to fulfill the Great Commission. The consensus among many is that we must make our congregational worship more “attractional” to those with little or no understanding of church culture – we don’t want to do anything that inhibits the lost from hearing and understanding the Gospel. Sometimes, in using the church’s corporate worship as a tool to fulfill the Great Commission, churches take shortcuts. These shortcuts often have unintended side effects. Theologian E. Byron Anderson believes that as we seek to capture the attention of the unchurched, there is a growing tendency to dispose of or hide our often unexplored worship traditions (Anderson uses the words “liturgical” and “sacramental”). Continuing, Anderson states, “Replacing these traditions are patterns and practices that more readily express the unfaith of the seeker than an invitation to the particular ethical way of God in Jesus Christ.”  In other words, whatever our worship most resembles is where we will be leading our people.

Is This Just an Opinion?

Isaiah 6A biblical perspective of Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi can be found in Isaiah 6. The first eight verses are referred to as Isaiah’s call and are commonly used as a biblical structure for planning worship. The framework for this worship sequence looks like this:

1) We come into God’s presence and being in His presence compels us to worship Him.

2) By worshiping God, we see Him for who He is.

3) Then we honestly see ourselves for who we are.

4) This leads us to confession and repentance.

5) When we repent, God mercifully forgives us, cleanses us and declares us clean.

6) Now we are fit to hear Him speak.

7) He speaks, calling us to join Him in His work

8) As we respond in willingness, He commissions us to go.

The biblical understanding of Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi comes in the rest of Isaiah chapter 6 where God gives Isaiah the message he is to bring to Israel; it is not a pleasant message. God asks Isaiah to bring a message of judgment to Israel. Israel’s chief sin is Idolatry. It seems that as Israel’s corporate worship became more inclusive of and accessible to other cultures, the values of these other cultures crept into Israel’s worship. These values included the worship of idols. Psalms 115 and 135 are examples of where the impotence of pagan idols is described:

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of a man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see; They have ears, but they cannot hear; They have noses, but they cannot smell; They have hands, but they cannot feel; They have feet, but they cannot walk; They cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts them. -Psalm 115: 4-8

After generations of idol worship growing in practice and influence, God calls Isaiah to tell Israel,

Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand. Render the hearts  of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and turn and be healed. -Isaiah 6:9-10

This passage doesn’t, as some believe, demonstrate doubt of God’s everlasting kindness and grace. Rather, it’s an example of what happens when an entire people group continues to willingly walk away from God. If Israel longs most for the idols they worship, then God will deliver them over to the desires of their hearts. The people worship things that are blind, deaf and mute and God allows them to assume the qualities of those things they worship.  When we insert things into our worship that are more of culture instead of God, these become the things we most desire. God will then deliver us over to the desires of our heart and we will assume the qualities of those things we worship; Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Church history also demonstrates that the way we worship creates doctrine, and in turn faith. One of these examples comes through perhaps the most defining action in Christian life, baptism. Baptism has always been a tangible evidence of God’s grace through Christ Jesus. In the Patristic age of the early church, evidence for the life transformation of each baptismal candidate was formally vouched for by the candidate’s God-father or God-mother. These individuals were the church representatives who served as the candidate’s one to one faith mentor through the duration of their pre-baptismal discipleship process; a process that could last up to three years. Even though baptism was never meant to achieve the “work” of salvation, its status was so revered that it was considered necessary for the demonstration of salvation. This is evident in the early church in the writings of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem that in the late 4th century:

“Great indeed is the Baptism offered you. It is a ransom to captives; the remission of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy seal indissoluble; the chariot to heaven; the luxury of paradise; a procuring of the kingdom; the gift of adoption”

“The bath of Baptism we may not receive twice or thrice; else, it might be said, Through I fail once, I shall go right next time: whereas if thou failest once, there is no setting things right, for there is One Lord, and one Faith, and One Baptism: none but heretics are re-baptized, since their former baptism was not baptism.”

Infant mortality was much greater in the 5th century than today. It is easy to see why the worship practice of infant baptism gained popularity as a worship practice when believers understood the only path to heaven goes through the waters of baptism. Even though Tertullian strongly cautioned against infant baptism at the turn of the 3rd century, 40-50 years later Hippolytus accommodated the practice in his Apostolic Traditions:

“You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves, their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family should speak.”

Two hundred years later, the practice of infant baptism had become so widely practiced in the church that Augustine wrote, “This doctrine is held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.”  Somewhere along the line, churches began the widespread worship practice of baptizing infants without articulating a theological reason. Through worship practice alone, infant baptism had become so accepted, that even Augustine tried to make a theological argument by simply pointing to the pervasiveness of the practice. Have today’s churches also adopted doctrinally dangerous practices in worship based more on felt needs than solid theological grounding?

Can I Get a Witness?

Examples of how Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi impact churches don’t have to be negative ones. As I wrote earlier, my church, as the closing act of worship, reads or recites together the Great Commission. My Pastor instituted that change to our worship order over a year ago. At a recent staff meeting, while discussing the many changes that have occurred in our church over the last year or so, our Executive Pastor brought out the point that before our entire worshiping congregation (four different weekly services) began saying these words, the direction and attitude of our church was quite different. Since the advent of this new worship practice, our church has changed its goals and vision in a way that has made off campus ministries and starting new churches a prime directive. It seems that hearing Christ’s charge in our own mouths for countless weeks actually changed our primary theology and in turn, the values of our church. Something that was formerly of less value became primary. Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Turning the spotlight on yourself is always harder than turning it on other people. While discussing the content of this article, my Pastor asked me if my own faith and values have been changed through intentional changes in personal and corporate worship. After reflecting, I realize the past few years of considering Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi have increased my regard for using the Psalms in personal and corporate worship. As a worship planner, Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi has motivated me to spend much more time considering scriptures than songs. When I choose songs, the lyrical content is usually of much larger concern than the music itself. The greatest change I recognize in my faith is that now, rather than wanting to get away from people to spend “quality time” with God, I am much more interested in finding “quality time” through worshiping God with others.

Questions to Consider

  1. Are you as intentional as you want to be when planning or entering corporate worship?
  2. In what ways does Lex Orandi Lex Credendi motivate you re-examine your church’s worship services?
  3. How is God revealing Himself to you over this concept and how will you respond?
  4. In relation to the way you worship alone or with others, are there any changes you would make?

Resources Cited

Anderson, E. Byron. Worship and Christian Identity: Practicing Ourselves. Collegeville, Minnesota. A Pueblo Book. The Liturgical Press: 2003.

Bass, Ralph E.  What About Baptism: A Discussion on the Mode, Candidate and Purpose of Christian Baptism – Revised Edition. Greenville, South Carolina. Living Hope Press: 2010.

Beale, G. K. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology or Idolatry. Downers Grove, Illinois. IVP Academic, 2008.

Blackaby, Henry. Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. Nashville, Tennessee. LifeWay Press, 1990.

Chan, Simon. Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. Downers Grove, Illinois. IVP Academic, 2006.

Cyril, St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: The Procatechesis of the Five Mystical Catecheses. London. S.P.C.K., 1960.

Hilgartner, Rick F. “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Word of God in the Celebration of the Sacraments.” Catechetical Sunday Newsletter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. September 20th, 2009.

Hippolytus. On the Apostolic Tradition. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001.

Kavanagh, Aidan. On Liturgical Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota. The Liturgical Press, 1992.

Schmemann, Alexander. Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann, ed. Thomas Fisch. Crestwood, NY. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990.

Wainwright, Geoffrey. Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life. New York, NY. Oxford University Press, 1980.

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Benedictine Stability: When the Going Gets Tough, Stay!

Stace Tafoya:

There has been growing interest in the last few years in St. Benedict.  Benedict was born about 480, at Nursia in central Italy, and was educated at Rome. The style of life he found there disgusted him. Remember Rome had fallen and was at this time overrun by various barbarian tribes.  It was a shell of its previous glory.  The period was one of considerable political instability, a breakdown of Western society, and the beginnings of barbarian kingdoms. Benedict’s disapproval of the moral chaos of Rome led him to a vocation of monastic seclusion. I believe the urge to steal away to follow the precepts of the gospel is an urge for apostolic living.  A living picture of the life of Christ.

St Benedict at Subiaco Workshop of Fra Angelico c 1400

St. Benedict at Subiaco. Workshop of Fra Angelico, c. 1400

Benedict withdrew to a hillside cave above Lake Subiaco, about forty miles West of Rome, where there was already at least one other monk. Gradually, a community grew up around Benedict. However, initially he was too strict in his Rule, so much so that some of the monks tried to poison him.  He had to retool and reevaluate his methods and disposition.  Sometime between 525 and 530, he moved South with some of his disciples to Monte Cassino, midway between Rome and Naples, where he established another community, and, about 540, composed his monastic Rule. He does not appear to have been ordained or to have contemplated the founding of an “order.” He was simply trying to follow the call of Christ.

Benedict’s “Rule,” is a manual for monastics which covers a variety of topics, not unrelated to what you might think of when you think of monasticism: chastity, obedience, simplicity, prayer, etc.

Perhaps Benedict’s most compelling contributions are what he says about learning, listening, conversion and stability.

What is stability?  Benedict talks of those monks to beware of, those who go from place to place looking for the next greatest thing but who have no roots and are unable to commit. What is needed, is the monk who will stay put, to commit oneself to a particular place.

Stability is not just for monks or nuns in Benedictine orders.  It is for all Christians.  We are called not only to follow Christ as individuals, but also as those deeply rooted in community.

We are a transient people.  We get bored, things get stale, people are bothersome.  What we need more and more is to see the situation that we find ourselves in, and the place where we are— in family, neighborhood and in Christian community– and to stay put.

There is nothing idyllic about this— we know the reality of existing with more than one person. Esther de Waal puts it this way:

“[In community] some are stubborn and dull, undisciplined and restless, others negligent and disdainful (there are of course the obedient and docile and patient).  There are the stupid and the lazy, the careless and the scatterbrained, and those who are always getting in the way, only too familiar in any group or organization or parish.  We know the picture only too well.”

So why stay put?  Why stability?  Because we need that person next to us or across from us or in our home to help us be who we need to be in Christ.

Thomas Merton said, “The real secret of monastic stability is, then, the total acceptance of God’s plan by which the monk realizes himself to be inserted into the mystery of Christ through this particular family and no other…. [We have been] destined from all eternity to bring one another closer to God by our love, our patience, our forbearance, and our efforts at mutual understanding.”

keep-calm-and-stay-putAlso, while our tendency is to leave when the going gets tough, as Jonathan Wilson Hargrove says, “Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is ahead of you.”

Yet stability is not “the way we’ve always done things.”  It is not staying put for staying put’s sake.  Stability is the environment in which we need to be challenged to grow.  Stability says that our maturity in Christ is at stake whenever life in community is challenging.  Those whom God has placed around us are indispensable for the Holy Spirit to form us into the image of Jesus.

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Praying the Rule

 

Don Richmond:

St. Benedict

St. Benedict

Introduction

The Rule of Saint Benedict (RB) is as relevant today as it was in the chaos of 6th century post-Roman “civilization.” It speaks efficiently and effectively to the concerns and questions of our rapidly crumbling western culture. It speaks, as well, to each of us. Often, however, we have neither heard nor heeded its important message.

Many messages, or life-lessons, are in fact found in the RB. Instruction regarding community living, relationships, integrity, equity, fidelity and employment are all addressed. However, the principle concern of the RB is prayer; the worship of God (the worth of worship) and liturgy as life (the work of worship).

While planted within a closed community of monks (the “enclosure” of the monastery), and rooted within fixed forms and times of prayer and work, its flowering can be enjoyed by all Christians. That is, as history has clearly demonstrated, those who live outside of the monastic enclosure can also profit by adopting and adapting monastic priorities, principles and practices.

The RB, in both its “Prologue” and “Seventy-Three Short Chapters,” support the priority of prayer. Praying the Rule seeks, in some small way, to contribute to this priority– as well as the profitability that may be derived from it. In keeping with both the context and content of the RB, Praying the Rule is divided into three parts: (1) Reading the Rule,* (2) Reading the Bible** and (3) Reflectively reciting and applying the Prayer after these readings. These, coupled with a heart-felt recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, make a good beginning.

It is a very short and simple process that I trust will encourage devotion to God through a fixed, albeit brief, commitment to reading, reflection and prayer.

-Alcuin, Obl. OSB.

*The Rule of Saint Benedict (Saint Benedict Press, 2007)
** English Standard Version (Crossway Books, 2011)
Art (below): catholic.com, 2007

 

PrayingTheRule

Praying the Rule

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Rule of Benedict (RB): “Listen carefully my son…”

Proverbs 1: 8: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, / and forsake not your mother’s teaching.”

 

Father,
I am prone to sloth
and disobedience.
By Your mercy help me
to listen, hear, turn,
and put into practice
Your precepts.
In Christ’s Name I pray.

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RB: “With passion filled prayer…”

1 Thessalonians 5: 16: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…”

 

Father,
I do not want to be
a reluctant follower.
Help me, therefore,
to begin and end
the path You have set me upon
with passion, purpose,
and persistent prayer.
In Christ’s Name
and for his sake.

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RB: “With eyes open to the Divine Light…”

Luke 9: 32: “Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory…”

 

O Lord Jesus Christ,
I have slept again
on the Mountain of Divine Revelation.
Awaken and speak to me
Your Word,
and help me
to hear and heed You,

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RB: “With your loins covered…”

Ephesians 6: 11&14: “Put on the whole armor of God…having fastened on the belt of truth…”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You have called me to strong obedience
and peace-making violence,
the violence of love.
Help me
to labor long
with a love so strong
that I will see
and celebrate Your kingdom.

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RB: “Let us hear our Lord, answering and showing us…”

Matthew 11: 15: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear…”

 

Speak to and show me
Your holy way,
O Lord.
Help me
to walk, do, and speak
in Your mercy
by Your mercy
and through Your mercy.

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RB: “The days of our lives are prolonged…”

Matthew: 7: 24: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock…”

 

O Lord my God,
You call me
to radical repentance and
reconstruction of my life
upon the Rock.
Establish me upon this True Foundation.
Help me build a strong structure
of righteousness,
that I might truly live
and serve You
by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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RB: “Be prepared to fight…”

Ephesians 6: 12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”

 

O Lord my God,
You have turned my mind and my heart
to Your will
through Jesus Christ.

In his Name,
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
give me the graces
that human nature cannot give:

Faithfulness to Christ,
Fidelity to his cause,
Fighting with spiritual weapons
to accomplish his will.

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RB: “To safeguard love…”

1 Corinthians 13 -14: 1a: “Pursue love…”

Lord Jesus Christ:
Your way is easy and light…
But beginnings can be hard.

 

By Your mercy and grace
help me to be
Your disciple
by exercising reason, amending faults, and safeguarding love.

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RB1: “Under a Rule…”

1 Corinthians 11: 1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ…”

 

Abba, Father:
I am prone to want
my own way,
and wander.

Assist me,
by Your good guidance,
to attain and maintain
stability of heart,
soul, mind, and body,
within the community of all those who are in the True Faith
and Perfect Love of Christ.

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RB2: “An Abbot [Father in Christ] who is worthy…should always remember what he is called…”

Ephesians 4: 1: “I…urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…”

Almighty Father:
You have spoken to me
in Jesus Christ,
and showed me how
life should be lived.

Help me
to so speak and live
as to bring You glory,
and build Your Church,
in Christ’s Name.

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RB3: “[A]ll be called to Council…”

Hebrews 10: 25: “…not neglecting to meet together…”

 

Father:
You have called Your own
together for prayer,
instruction, fellowship,
and Communion.

Help me to hear
and heed Your calling,
as an obedient child,
of our Lord
Jesus Christ.

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RB4: “These, then, are the tools…of our spiritual profession.”

Philippians 2: 12: “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

O Lord our God:
Working out my own salvation
can be arduous,
with many pressing responsibilities.

Help me
to see all as one,
in You,
through the exercise of love.

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RB5: “[The disciples] do not live according to their own will….”
Luke 22:42: “Father…not my will, but yours, be done….”

 

O God my King,
I want my own way,
but must learn humility
and instant obedience.

Empower and Equip me
to listen, “leave immediately,”
and “quickly put into effect”
Your will in Christ’s Name.

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RB6:  “[I]t is fitting for a master to speak and teach, and it is proper for a disciple to hold his peace and listen.”

Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, / but  whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

 

O Living Word,
My Lord Jesus Christ:
Teach me restraint of tongue
and responsibility of speech,
so that I may be renewed
and Your people refreshed,
through the Holy Spirit.

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RB7: “[I]f we are going to reach the highest summit of humility…our ascending actions must set up a ladder….”

Philippians 2: 7: “…[B]ut [Christ] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men….”

Isaac the Syrian:  “Virtue is not accounted virtue if it is not accompanied by difficulty and by labors” (Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria, Templegate Publishers, 1990).

 

My Lord Jesus Christ,
exemplar of greatest humility
by becoming flesh
without sin,
Help me
by the actions You have taken,
to ascend to humility
by descending into Your poverty.

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RB8: “[I]t seems reasonable that [the monks] should rise at the eighth hour of the night [for prayer]….”

Ephesians 6: 18: “[P]raying at all times in the Spirit…with all perseverance….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ,

Swift to pray:

You were vigilant
in prayer and obedience.

Help me
exercise reasonable vigilance
in the same
during the Winter of this life.

RB9: “And thus the Vigils should be brought to an end [with the Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy].”

Psalm 143:1: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; /give ear to my pleas for mercy….”

Lord Jesus Christ:
You have ordered
my end and my beginning,
encouraging me to disciplined prayer.

Assist me,
by Your great mercy,
to worship well
and pray fully.

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RB10: “Let [a Reading] out of the Old Testament be said by heart….”

Psalm 119: 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet / and a light to my path.”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
Your Written Word
is certain guidance
and a sure defense.

Through the Holy Spirit
help me
to store Your Word in my mind
and establish it in my heart
as a solid foundation for my life.

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RB 11: “On Sunday…Gloria…Alleluia…Te Deum laudamus…Amen.”

1 Thessalonians 5: 18: “[G]ive thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you….”

 

Almighty God,
whose only Son was resurrected
as my perpetual Sabbath

Help me to rest in You,
and praise Your Name,
who alone deserves glory, Amen.

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RB12 / 13: “How to celebrate…on Sunday….”

Hebrews 4: 9 – 10 “[T]here remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God….”

O Lord of Sabbath,
joy of my heart
and peace of my life:
At all times and in all places
You awaken and call me
to ordered prayer and worship.

Give me,
by Your good graces,
those attitudes, words, and actions
most pleasing to You,
that I might begin with worship
and end with the same.

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RB13: “The thorns of scandal are likely to arise…and thus they should be reminded by the covenant of this prayer, namely, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive….”

Matthew 6: 12 …[A]nd forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors….”

 

O Christ our Savior,
You endured the scandal
of suffering and death

Help me to give no offense,
nor take any,
so that I might pray
freely and fully.

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RB 14: “On Saints days…the same order should be observed….”

Hebrews 12: 1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….”

 

Almighty God:
You have raised-up
in Your Church
righteous Saints.

Raise me up,
in and through Your righteousness,
to good works
from a pure heart.

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RB15: “From the holy feast of Easter until Pentecost ‘Alleluia’ should be said without intermission….”

Revelation 4: 11: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, / to receive glory and honor and power….”

 

Alleluia, O Father,
Alleluia,
for Your Son’s sacrifice.

Alleluia, O Christ,
Alleluia,
for Your ascended ways.

Alleluia, O Spirit,
Alleluia,
for Your tongues aflame.

ALLELUIA!

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RB16: “Seven times in the day I have sung praise to you….”

Psalm 119: 62: “At midnight I rise to praise you….”

 

O Holy Spirit,
You have distributed tongues
for proclamation and praise.

Empower me,
by Your great gift,
to speak well and sing faithfully.

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RB17: “We have already arranged the order of the Office…[l]et us now deal with the Hours that follow….”

Ephesians 6: 18: “[P]raying at all times in the Spirit….”

 

Lord,
help me sanctify
my ways and my days,
by ordering
my priorities and practices
as prayer.

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RB18: “Those monks who do not sing over the psalter in the course of a week…show themselves negligent and lack devotion….”

1 Timothy 4: 15: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them….”

 

Lord God,
Gracious Heavenly Father,
By the Holy Spirit
help me to be
diligent in devotion,
prepared to pray,
ready to die
for Jesus’ sake.

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RB19: “We believe that the Divine Presence is everywhere…especially…when we assist at the Word of God….”

Psalm 2: 11: “Serve the Lord with fear, / and rejoice with trembling….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
Assist me to read and reflect upon Your Written Word….

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RB20: “Our prayer, therefore, should be short and pure….”

Matthew 6:7: “[D]o not heap up empty phrases…for they think that they will be heard for their many words….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
Help me attain simplicity in prayer
from a pure heart
avoiding superfluity of words.

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RB21: “ [C]hoose men with good reputations and saintly lives….”

1 Corinthians 1:2: “…called to be saints….”

 

O God, my Savior
and Sanctifier,
I have no good
apart from You.

Empower me
by Your great love,
through the Holy Spirit,
to live righteously and serve lovingly.

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RB22: “[L]et the monks always be ready…to the Work of God….”

2 Timothy 4:2: “…be ready in season and out of season….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
As with your example in St. Mark’s gospel,
help me always be ready:
quick to pray
swift to serve.

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RB23 – 24: “If any Brother…does not correct his ways….”

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault….”

 

Almighty and Most Merciful Lord,
You have called me
to the listening ear
and responsive heart.

Strengthen me, therefore,
to hear and heed
Your rebuke and restoration
through others.

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RB25: “None of the Brothers should speak with him nor associate with him.”

1 Corinthians 5: 5: “[Y]ou are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

 

Lord of All Righteousness,
my sin has separated me
from all true fellowship.

By Your mercy in Christ
help me to repent
and return.

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RB26 -27 (Matthew 9:12): “Those who are well do not need a physician….”

 

Abba Father,
I am sick with my own sin.
Help me, in Jesus’ Name,
to attend to and amend my ways.

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RB28: “The medicines of the Divine Scriptures…and the prayers of the brothers…would do something to cure the sick brother….”

Galatians 6: 1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness….”

 

O Christ our Healer:
Your Scriptures and Saints
provide help and hope.

Help me,
through the comforts of these graces,
to be restored and renewed.

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RB29 – 30: “[L]et him be received….”

Luke 17:3: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him….”

 

Lord of Mercy:
You have provided
the means of salvation
through Jesus Christ.

In Christ’s Name,
by the Holy Spirit,
help me
to repent and remain steadfast.

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RB31: “He should care diligently for the sick, the children, the guests….”

James 1: 27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit the orphans and widows….”

 

God of All Comfort,
whose children are
the poor in spirit,
Help me
follow Your path and plan
of practical discipleship.

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RB32-34: “All things should be held in common….”

Acts 4: 32: “…[T]hey had everything in common….”

 

O Great Giver
of all that is good:
From Your gracious hand
all life receives
daily sustenance.

Help me, therefore,
to hold your gifts
with an open hand and heart;
giving and receiving
as compassion and necessity dictate.

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RB35: “The brothers are supposed to serve each other, and no one should be excused….”

Galatians 5: 13: “[B]ut through love serve one another….”

 

With selfless service,
O Lord,
You came to save.

With such selflessness,
for the salvation of souls,
give me strength for service.

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RB36: “[S]pecial care must be given to the sick….”

Matthew 25: 36: “…I [Jesus] was sick and you visited me….”

 

Lord Christ:
Help me to know
that service to You
is service to others,
because to love others
is to love You.

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RB37: “Their weakness should always be taken into account….

Galatians 6: 2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
In Your mercy You accommodated Yourself
to my weakness.
Through this same mercy
help me arise faithfully
to my neighbor’s need.

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RB 38: “Reading should not to cease….” (sic)

1 Timothy 4: 13: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the Logos,
the Living Word
active in my life.

Empower me, therefore,
by the Holy Spirit,
to attune and attend myself
to what You communicate.

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RB39 – 41: “[I]t is not without some misgiving, that we appoint the measure of…food and drink….”

Romans 13: 14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You practiced self-denial
throughout Your life,
suffering, and death.

Help me, therefore,
throughout life’s wilderness temptations,
to be and become
Your faithful follower.

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RB42: “Monks should keep silence at all times, but especially during the hours of the night.”

Habakkuk 2: 20: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; / let all the earth keep silence before him.”

 

Lord,
it is easier to speak
than to listen
and hear.

During this life’s dark night,
help me
keep all silence
that precedes wise speech.

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RB43: “Prefer nothing, therefore, to the work of God.”

Mark 14: 38: “Watch and pray….”

 

Lord God:
Through the Logos
You call me
to the work of prayer.

Assist me to be
instant in prayer,
anxious to preach,
ready to die.

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RB44: “It is enough.”

John 19: 30: “It is finished….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ,
You have made full
and sufficient sacrifice
for my sin.

Strengthen me
to true confession,
total repentance,
and appropriate reparation.

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RB45 – 48: “[T]hat all things may be done at their appointed times.”

Ecclesiastes 3: 1: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

 

O Lord of Sabbath:
Idleness and inattention are enemies
of community and conscience,
warring against piety and prayer.

Help me, therefore,
to employ myself intently
in Your purposes
and for Your glory.

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RB 49: “A Monk’s life should at all times resemble a continual Lent….”

Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness….”

 

Lord of the Desert,
Your inspired and obedient self-denial
defeated the devil and death,
and encouraged me
to follow.

By the Holy Spirit
lead me,
through life’s wilderness,
to obedience, overcoming,
and effective service.

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RB50 – 51: “The Brothers who work at great distance…should fall upon their knees in the place where they are laboring….”

1 Thessalonians 5: 17: “[P]ray without ceasing….”

 

O Lord Jesus Christ:
You labored long
for  the lost.

Help me in my labor,
with patient and persevering prayer,
to accomplish Your purposes.

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RB52: “If any other Brother should also wish to pray…let him enter without ostentation and pray….”

Matthew 6: 9: “Pray then in this way….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You have instructed us
to pray
simply and sincerely.

Help me, therefore,
to exercise faith
in Your Person,
instruction and provision.

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RB53: “Due honor should be paid to all….”

1 Peter 2: 17: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God….”

 

O Christ,
You are The Door
of welcome
and gracious hospitality.

May I also
open wide my heart,
and hands,
generously to others.

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RB54 – 55: “[A]nd they were distributed to each according to need.”

Acts 4: 34: “There was not a needy person among them.”

 

Father of Love
and great grace,
You know my needs
before I ask.

Help me,
with this understanding,
to trust in You
and learn contentment.

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RB56: “…with guests and strangers….”

Ephesians 2: 19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens….”

 

Savior of the stranger,
Your self-emptying grace
provides all good things.

May I,
no longer a stranger,
radically welcome others
in the same spirit.

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RB57: “[T]hey should exercise their crafts with all humility….”

Isaiah 64: 8: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; / we are the clay, and you are the potter….”

 

Creator God:
You fashion all life
to accomplish
Your purpose.

Craft me,
Your human clay,
into a vessel of honor
and useful service.

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RB58: “[T]o discover whether he truly seeks God, and is eager for the Work of God, for obedience and for obtaining humility.”

Hebrews 4: 10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You know the hearts
and minds of all,
discerning and dividing flesh from spirit.

Create in me
a clean heart,
and a single eye,
to the humble obedience
of prayer in community.

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RB59: [M]ake the…promise…together with the oblation.”

Numbers 31: 50: “And we have brought the Lord’s offering [oblation]….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You have poured out Your life
for me
as perpetual sacrifice.

Empower me,
as a free will offering,
to promise properly,
pour our my life wisely,
and serve you completely.

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RB60-63: “[I]f they deserve it…”

1 Timothy 3:2: “[B]e above reproach…sober minded, self-controlled….”

 

Lord of all Servants,
You humbly descended
so that I might ascend
to Your great humility.

Strengthen me
to so descend
as to uplift others
to their potential and Your purposes.

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RB63: “[T]he Brothers should receive the Pax, approach the Communion, lead a Psalm, and stand in Choir, according to the order assigned to him….”

1 Corinthians 14:33: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace [Pax].”

 

God of Order:
You have appointed
all life a season,
place and purpose.

Help me
to order my life
according to Your appointment,
giving place to others.

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RB64: “[H]e must give account for his stewardship…”

Luke 16: 2:  “Turn in the account of your management….”

 

Almighty God,
Who was, and is,
and is to come,
calling all to account.

Help me,
with full knowledge of Your rule
and expectation of Your return,
to be a faithful steward
of Your many gifts.

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RB65: “…[E]nvy arises, along with quarrels, detractions, rivalries, dissensions and disorders…”

James 1: 20: “[T]he anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You are the Prince of Peace who,
through selfless service,
secured the Kingdom.

Help me,
following Your path of peace ,
to step down
in order to ascend to Your will and way.

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RB66 – 67: “[B]eg the prayers of all, on account of the faults they may have committed on the way…”

Hebrews 13: 2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers….”

James 5: 14: “Let him call for the elders of the church….”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
Receiving me to Yourself,
You have given
new life.

Anoint me, therefore,
with like Spirit,
to receive and to give
Your offering to others.

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RB68 – 71: “[W]ithout manifesting any pride, resistance, or contradiction….”

Hebrews 13: 17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them….”

 

Lord God:
You have established
all authority,
perfectly in Jesus Christ.

In His Name,
and through the Holy Spirit,
assist me to submit with assurance
to Your sovereign will
exercised, at times, through human authority.

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RB72: “[E]xercise…zeal with most fervent love….”

Galatians 6: 2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

 

Lord Jesus Christ,
You were zealous
for God’s house
and honor.

Open my eyes to see
the house and honor
of God in my neighbor,
especially my sister and brother.

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RB73: “But for those who hasten towards the perfection of holy living…”

Hebrews 12: 1” [L]et us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus[who is] the founder and perfecter of our faith…”

 

Lord Jesus Christ:
You have run the race,
hastening to obedience
and the just reward
of resurrection and rule.

May I also
follow hard after God,
and run well
to Your reward,
celebrating Your eternal rule.

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“For what page, or what passage is there in the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments that is not a most perfect rule of a [person’s] life?”            -Rule of Benedict, 73

 

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.

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Chapter 49: The Observance of Lent

Donald Richmond:

A Monk’s life should at all times resemble a continual Lent, but few have such virtue.
    The Rule of Saint Benedict (Saint Benedict Press)

weeding“Is it Lent, again?” whines a rather delinquent monk in the 1985 film Ladyhawk. He is much-relieved to discover that it was not, and that meat was potentially on the menu for the week. We, however, are not so lucky. Lent begins on Wednesday and, as a general rule, some form of self-sacrifice is strongly encouraged. Such self-sacrifice simultaneously reminds us of Christ’s Via Dolorosa, our own earthly pilgrimage, the need for self-sacrificial living and our eternal destination. For us, Lent is a reminder.

On the other hand, for the Monk, Lent is a rule. It is, in fact, THE RULE. The monk is called, challenged and (if truly called) charismated to the task of self-sacrifice. The black cassock of our Benedictine friends is not simply plain garb, but, rather, is a robe of perpetual repentance and the portal of penitential prayer. 

But Saint Benedict is a realist. He understands that “few have such virtue.” Recognizing this, in Chapter 49 of the Rule, he “encourages everyone during Lent to live in all purity, and during this holy season to wash away all the negligences of other times” (Emphasis mine). In short, our father Benedict suggests that we, by God’s great grace and mercy, give ourselves a thorough spiritual scrubbing. Purity, especially at this time, is to be rigorously and patiently pursued.

And Saint Benedict, thankfully, was also a pragmatist— in the best sense of the word. Urging abstinence and virtue, he provides the Monk and “everyone” with some very practical tips. He shows us what abstinence and virtue (or abstinence toward virtue) looks like. He shows us what works.

First, cutting to the very heart of the matter, St. Benedict tells us that a true Lent is to “refrain from all defects and apply ourselves to tearful prayer.” According to the author, “Reading” plays an important part in this. As we enter this Season of Lent, with the full intention of living more perfectly before God and other human beings, let us seek God’s voice through reading His word more diligently and praying more consistently. Let us immerse ourselves in what God says, the standards of God as found in the Word, in order to be convicted and cleansed by “the washing of the water of the word.”

As well, St. Benedict tells us that we should add to that which is good and abstain from that which is bad. He refers to “adding something” and “abstaining from” in Chapter 49. It is, now citing ‘a Kempis’ Imitation, a seasonal rooting out of one vice — and, as well, the planting of one virtue. Note that he emphasizes “something.” He does not say “do it all” or do “everything.” He says to do SOMETHING. This is important. Many of us at times feel immobilized by sin. We feel like we have so many problems that we do not know where to begin. We become overwhelmed. Instead of doing SOMETHING, we do nothing. St. Benedict says to uproot “something” and plant “something.” Replace vice with virtue. Begin, of course, with thorough repentance from sin and faith in God through Jesus Christ! Do “something.”

Furthermore, the Rule of Saint Benedict talks about our use of “meat and drink.” We get this. Lent is often a time of “giving up” something. My wife gives up chocolate and desserts. I have given up a variety of things and, in keeping with my “all or nothing” personality, have had to learn not to do it “all.” I have to repeatedly learn the spirituality of “something” and resist the devilish economy of seeking to do “everything.” My Lenten observance at times has been, therefore, not to be so very hard on myself. Whatever we choose to give up is, according to Benedict, by our own “free will” and in “the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

Wow! Joy of the Holy Spirit! I bet we rarely think of Lent as even mildly pleasant, let alone a time of happiness or joy. It is often the horrific cry, echoed by the Ladyhawk monk, “IS IT LENT AGAIN?” Yes it is. And yes, it IS a joy. But it is JOY IN THE HOLY SPIRIT. Sacrifice without the Holy Spirit is little more than self-justifying action. It is Babel. With the Holy Spirit it is Tabernacle and Temple. It is Basilica and Cathedral. We may indeed deny ourselves, according to the Rule, “food, drink, sleep, talk, [or] laughter” as we “await the holy feast of Easter.” But let our abstinence be guided and governed by God. And, if we can think of nothing else, pluck the weed of slander and gossip and plant the seed of mercy, patience, and kindness. Or, if this is too much, exercise consistent mercy. Or, if this too is too much, ask God to plant in us the seed of great sorrow for our sins.

Finally, St. Benedict tells his readers to inform the Abbot of the decision they have made. For those of us outside of the monastery, whether Oblates (like me) or committed Christians, tell someone you trust about your plan for Lent. Let a mature person you know be aware of what your intention for Lent is. What we “intend to offer” should be made circumspectly known. This keeps us honest.

IT IS LENT AGAIN? Indeed it is! Let us, by God’s mercy, see this time as “joy in the Holy Spirit.”

 

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.

 

 

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THE ASCENDING ACTIONS: Humility in the Rule of Benedict 7

Donald Richmond:

“For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the hearts of the contrite ones.” -Isaiah 57:15 (KJV)

The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent_Monastery_of_St_Catherine_Sinai_12th_centuryThe Rule of Benedict (RB) tells us that we “ascend by humbling.” One translation of the RB, referenced in the Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book, says that we “ascend by descending.” Although this statement is appropriate to any monastic endeavor, and is the pattern of growth for every Christian, this ascent by descent is most appropriate to the Ladder of Humility as found in RB 7. Those who want to “grow up” in Christ must experience and embrace the humiliations it requires to attain such a lofty ambition. Growing down is growing up.

Pride exalts itself. It is haughty in its intention and its actions, neither considering God or boundaries appropriate to the human condition. Intending to be “like God,” Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit. Similarly, assuming that his very best was “good enough,” and rejecting God’s blood-oriented pattern, Cain submitted to God and unacceptable offering. Moreover, instead of obeying God’s directive to disperse, people gathered at Babel and sought to dispense with fear by constructing their own socio-psycho-pneumatic towers of defense. The biblical list is endless, replete with examples of those whose pride led to destruction. Adam’s, Cain’s and Babel’s pride each led to expulsion: Adam from the Garden, Cain from society and Babel from unified culture and communication. Seeking to ascend, but on their own terms, they were cast down and out.

This prideful and grasping intention is not foreign to humanity. It is inherent to “Man,” and his motivations and movements. It is not simply the preserve of those whom we might consider proud, but, rather, the proclivity of all people. Saint Benedict’s answer to this problem is threefold, and is found in the first few paragraphs from the RB 7.

Benedict’s first answer is SUBSTITUTION. Those who seek to be humble must learn to sit (rest) in the certainty of God’s mother-like care as a “weaned child.” This is not easy to do. Weaning is not in most cases a pleasant experience. When children are weaned from their mothers they often fuss. Similarly, when we are weaned by God, when we must grow up, we often are inclined to “busy” ourselves with “great matters.” That is, in other words, we seek to quiet our discomforts with distractions. Instead of this, the RB urges the disciple to substitute busy-ness with rest, distraction with discipline and sublime thoughts with a stilled soul. In short, although just a beginning, he exalts being over doing —- at least until we set our priorities straight.

Benedict’s second answer is STILLNESS. “I have stilled my soul,” the author writes. As with substitution, stillness is also a hard discipline. It requires, according to the RB, “hushing” ourselves. I am sure that many adults are familiar with, as young people, having to be “hushed” by their parents. Often this imposed silence was because the parents were engaged with adult conversations or activities. As such, if the children were not “hushed,” they would be a disruption. In RB 7, this “hushing” is a self-imposed discipline of discipleship that simultaneously heightens silent listening and halts disruptive distractions. The “hushing” of the soul insists upon creating a space where peace and centeredness can be cultivated.

Finally, Benedict asserts that we STRUGGLE with and up the true ladder of success. He refers to this as a ladder of “ascending actions” which we must ourselves both construct and ascend. The RB insists that “lowliness” or “humility of heart” is the means by which we ascend. This is, even before the “first step” of humility, God’s work (“by our Lord”) and the task to which we are fitted by the “Divine Vocation.” As such, because God orders our days well-before they occur, our human vocation is found in humility. We ascend to the Divine Vocation by descending into the human vocation for which we were formed. The supreme example of this is Jesus Christ who became poor so that we might be rich, who descended so that we might ascend.

ANGELS DESCENDING

“Truth, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scripture.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (Moody Press [MP], 1980)

Historically, before the invention of movable type (the Printing Press), monks memorized massive amounts of the Bible. Understanding the importance of scriptural meditation and memorization, Benedict both demonstrated and prioritized this discipline in the RB 7. Referencing “Learning the Psalms and other readings,” Benedict clearly asserts that the text should be memorized because, especially in the 6th century, books were rare. Memorization was imperative.

Appreciating this literary scarcity, and Benedict’s remarkable skill with recalling and relating the Sacred Text, contemporary readers will likely be amazed. His familiarity with Text, especially in varied contexts, is truly astounding — and worthy of imitation. Given these things we can only assume that Benedict consciously and deliberately reversed the sanctioned order of Divine Revelation stated in Genesis 28:12. In the Genesis text, angels were “ascending and descending.” In the RB, the angels were “descending and ascending.” This represents a substantial shift in revelatory and theological emphasis. I can only assume, based upon Benedict’s sanctity and enduring legacy, that the saint knew exactly what he was doing — and why.

Considering that this change occurs within the context of Benedict’s insistence upon humility, there are at least two interrelated reasons why he imposed this grand reversal. First, those who pursue humility must descend. As stated above, we “ascend by descending.” The example of the angel, and of Jesus Christ himself, is that they descended into our need. The angel descended upon Jacob to assist him in his need — and, of note, assisted him in a need that was self-created and self-sustained. Our Lord descended, in great humility, to assist us in our own self-created and humanly inherited need. Christ’s descent into the waters of baptism preceded his justifying elevation and sanctifying ascension. Consequently, in keeping with angelic and Christo-centric witness, we too must descend.

As well, the angelic descent also highlights how very needy we are. God is always with us in our deepest and our darkest need. His descending and ascending, his ascending and descending, occurred and occurs well before the conscious awareness of our need. As Scripture states, before we call God has answered. We cannot ascend the ladder of humility on our own. Like Jacob grasping at the blessing, truly his but unfaithfully sought, we too can only ascend by receiving the assistance of the descending angel (Christ himself). He lowers himself in order to lift us up. In both cases, Benedict’s reversal of the text is wise.

Humility requires humiliations. Only Christ, the Descended Angel, can assist us in our need. Only the Holy Spirit, the Dove descended, can empower our impossible venture into impossible virtue. The descent of God enlivens the ascent of those who are God’s own. With the angel, we must descend before we ascend.

HUMILITY AND FEAR


“Labor now to live so, that at the hour of death thou mayest rather rejoice than fear.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Our Father Benedict’s first step up the ladder of humility is the “fear of God.” This emphasis, echoing Solomon, is truly the beginning of wisdom and exists within a set of commandments, considerations, contempt and cautions. Each, like the ladder’s structure, offers firm footing for the pursuing pilgrim.

The pursuit of Christian perfection occurs within the context of commandments, God’s commandments. What is expected, the proper fear of God, is inspired and initiated by God Himself. That is, the bottom rung of humility sounds a note of hope: What God initiates, God inspires. As such, God’s command and our empowering are God-breathed. Scripture and Spirit – as well as the example of Saint Benedict – is our strength. Let us therefore recall that Holy Scripture tells the Christian that it is God that works within us both to “will and do of God’s good pleasure.”

Lest we forget that God calls us to certain ascending actions, we are also challenged to certain considerations. That is, it is not just God’s work. We too are called to inspired actions. These are of contempt and caution, and have both attitudinal and behavioral applications. We are to have contempt for all those things that distract from God, and we are to cautiously yet committedly pursue him, through humility, up the ladder of holiness. Remembering, recognizing and recollecting are critical to this ascent.

Benedict calls us to never forget (negative), and always remember (positive) the dangers of this first step of humility. Forgetting inevitably results in falling and failure. Forgetting is, in fact, fatal. An examination of the icons related to John Climacus’ ladder, some of which are located at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, graphically illustrates these dangers. Failure to remember incites demonic temptations and torments. The upward ascent is a necessary but dangerous enterprise. Accomplishing God’s will, doing God’s will in God’s way, draws demonic attention. Humility requires spiritual warfare. Embracing the fear of God, and resisting false fear, is a firefight.

As well, we must recognize that God is “looking down…from Heaven.” Again Benedict asserts that importance and assistance of God on this journey. We are not alone. God initiated. God inspires. God empowers. Nevertheless, in spite of these graces, we must turn our minds (“thoughts”) toward God, as God is perpetually and eternally inclined toward us.

We are to recall Scripture in resisting “evil desires.” Our scripturally-informed recollection considers both death and delight. As Benedict writes, “death sits close to the entrance of delight.” The reader is reminded of the proverbial reference about a man seeking a dangerous liaison. As such, Benedict sees the dangers as a temptation to spiritual adultery. Recollection is therefore a guard. When we recognize the death inherent to illicit delights, as disorders of priority and passion, it causes us to hesitate — to resist. The potential of immanent and eternal death, graphically depicted in the Climacus icon referenced above, helps us resist and renounce the delights of the world, flesh and devil.

Let us remember that we are on a ladder. Let us recollect ourselves, appreciating that just as in the physical world a fall may be fatal, so also fatalities may occur during our spiritual ascent. Adam and Eve’s fall impacted all. Their death in some way impacted everyone everywhere. In short, Benedict suggests that ascending humility requires that we “go not after [our] lusts” but, rather, pursue our Lord. We must not be distracted. The fear of the Lord is the beginning…middle…and end of wisdom.

HUMILITY AND WILFULLNESS

“It is a great thing to live in obedience, to be under a superior…” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

The Descending Angel becomes most obvious and necessary in Steps 2 – 3 of the Ladder of Humility. Here Christ descends and attends to our deepest need: Renouncing our own wills and submitting our self-inclined ways (indeed our very selves!) to a Superior. We cannot do this on our own. Far too frequently we insist upon our own will and our own way, militantly resisting the insights and assistance of others. We do not want a Superior because we all too frequently feel superior. And yet, with Thomas ‘a Kempis, we are wise when we believe that is better and safer to be under properly established and spiritually mature authority.

Benedict anchors our efforts in “constraint.” “Constraint wins the crown,” he writes. This calling and challenge of constraint is both galling and graced. It is galling because we must not only DENY ourselves (which is hard enough); we must also DELIVER ourselves into the care of a Superior. This is a hard climb up an impossible ladder, again reflecting the humiliating discipline of stepping up by stepping down. Honor is in humility. Holiness is in humiliations.

But this surrender is also graced. Benedict, in the third step of humility, swiftly identifies our actions with those of Jesus Christ himself. We share in Christ’s sufferings and, as such, in some small way, their salvific implications (cf. Phil. 2: 8 and Col. 1: 24). In other words, our submissions and humiliations are so identified with Christ that his ascension is our own.

Let us therefore recall the words of St. Paul: Those who die with Christ will also rise with Christ. When we sip the gall of proper submission, we are empowered to sup the grace of sanctification.

NOT GIVE IN

“If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

It is easy to give in when we experience hardship. The human inclination, except when imbued with higher purpose, is to surrender when encountering struggle. In fact, even with higher purpose, sloth sits on our “doorstep” seeking an opportune time to weaken us with weariness. The progress of the pilgrim is frequently visited by despondency.

This temptation to give way, give in and give up takes on an entirely different meaning in the specific context in which Benedict wrote about it. We expect “contradictions” from the world. We expect “contradiction” from a society and culture that rejects Christ, Christianity and its values. Such abuse is anticipated. But these “contradictions” are not expected from the Church of God. What is difficult and most galling is the “contradictions” of those who are, by appointment, spiritual authorities and spiritual family. When family is Judas we experience Gethsemane. When a spiritual superior behaves as a spiritual inferior, when power is abused or insight is seriously lacking, this feels like crucifixion of the lowest order.

The forth step of humility, being obedient when things become hard and contrary, is squarely planted in Golgotha’s blood-baked soil. It is a parched place. We do not live in an ideal world. We do not live in an ideal church. We do not live among ideal people. Pristine people are a figment of the overstretched imagination. We live in a real world with real people who have real problems. “Contradiction” is the norm in a broken world, even a broken world of “good” people who seek to do the right thing. “Contradiction” is the norm of the Church.

The Ladder of Humility expects the pilgrim (on h/er long and arduous journey) to “bear all things” with a “quiet conscience.” In fact, quoting the Apostle, we are to bear…believe…hope…endure all things for the sake of Christ. In this context – the context of the monastery, the parish, and the Christian life – it is not a matter of “justice,” but the fruit of justification that leads to sanctification and glorification. The person who desires to be holy must be prepared to suffer. Sanctification requires sacrifice and suffering.

HUMILITY AND CONFESSION

“No man ruleth safely, but he that is willingly ruled.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Although every degree of humility has direct impact on prayer, it is in the fifth degree that this becomes most apparent. Here the monk is to “hide nothing” from the Abbot, who is to be treated as the Father of the enclosure. Nothing is to be hidden from the Abba, everything is to be confessed.

This imperative is so pronounced that confession to the Abbot is understood as confession to the Lord. This must be understood. While Sacramental Confession does not seem to be at issue, while not minimizing its potential or importance, relational confession and the making of reparation is vital to effective prayer. As Jesus said, “go and be reconciled, and then present your gift [at the altar].” As such, confession precedes petition and the entire “work of God.”

But there is more. Benedict emphasizes “humble” confession. This expectation forces the penitent to confront not only the problem, but, as well, the utter poverty of the one who makes confession. The penitent therefore acknowledges guilt (problem) and shame (person). The very core of human nature is, therefore, addressed. Benedict seeks, by emphasizing “humble” confession, to remove any and all pretense from the penitent for the purpose of prayer.

Given Benedict’s exacting expectations, biblical expectations, we have no other choice but to “commit our way [and words] to the Lord.” We cannot do it on our own. We need God. Our person, penitence, repentance, reparation and petitions are entirely in God’s hands. “Humble” confession acknowledges our abject poverty of spirit, thereby placing ourselves entirely at God’s disposal. Penitential impoverishment, the need for “humble” confession, is foundational to prayer. The kingdom of heaven is opened to the utterly poor of spirit.

THE MOST ABJECT

“If we esteem our progress in religious life to consist only in some exterior observances, our devotion will quickly be at an end. But let us lay the axe to the root…” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Steps 6 – 7 discuss the philosophy and practice of humility. In keeping with Benedict’s rootedness in real life, the crucible for this particular form of conversion is the community.

The person who wants to advance in the degrees of humility, ascending the angelic ladder, must be “content” with the most miserable of treatment and most menial of tasks. Given our understanding of modern psychology, this will appear dysfunctional and dangerous. Benedict and the early Mothers and Fathers of the desert, however, also had profound insights into socio-psycho-pneumatic health. This is evidenced in three constellating ideas regarding abjection: The monk (1) consciously chooses this path on the basis of (2) critical awareness of the need for humility that is rooted in the (3) absolute assurance of both (a) divine assistance and the (b) dangers in a refusal to grow. In other words, radical need requires radical action.

As a true shepherd, Benedict wants and expects more from those who are under his fatherly care. Not content with outward conformity, he presses the need for inward conversion. He wants his disciple to believe in h/er “very heart” that s/he is the most “abject” of sinners and a “worm.”

We resist such labels and lowliness. Nevertheless, if we think of ourselves as abject worms, we will have no problem being treated as the lowest and associating with the low. Jesus called his disciples “fishers of men,” and, as we know, worms catch fish. Humility, often mitigated through humiliations, helps us identify with all those who are marginalized and rejected. Those who are most abject are also, quite often, most available.

NOTHING BUT WHAT IS COMMON

“If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown…” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

The eighth degree of humility, do nothing but what is common, reinforces Benedict’s previous point and in many ways is far more exacting. While our exemplary humility will attract attention, we must do everything within our power to see that it does not. We must not draw attention to ourselves. Our efforts must be in secret — attracting the attention of God alone and entirely seeking God’s reward. Secret and silent sanctification is what we seek.

Jesus, upon illustrating the same point in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), says that our gifts and our prayers should be in secret. Alms should be in secret. Fasting should be in secret. Prayer should be in secret. No one should know. We simply live (or live simply) in a common community among common people living common lives of uncommon, yet secret, devotion. Those who seek sanctification should not herald their efforts, but, rather, they should hide their efforts.

Thomas More was an exemplar of this. Throughout his adult life More wore a “hair-shirt” of considerable discomfort under the lavish robes imposed upon him by Henry VIII. No one, even his dearest daughter, knew of this until he was executed. He sought to identify with Christ and his sufferings in secret. He sought humility secretly. He pursued holiness in hiding. None would have known until he died for his faith. One of his final prayers clearly expresses More’s uncommon heart:

“Give me Thy grace good lord
To set the world at nought

To set my mind fast upon Thee
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.

To be content to be solitary…”

BE SILENT

“He is truly great that is little in himself, and that maketh no account of any height of honor.” -Thomas ‘a Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Secrecy requires silence. Consequently, the orientation of the eighth degree (secrecy) is evidenced in the ninth degree (silence).

It is far too easy to exalt ourselves, to assert our authority, education, knowledge, abilities, grace, growth — our will, works and ways. We most frequently exhibit ourselves through verbal and visual means. Our tongue is like, according to Solomon (although properly used in his case), “the pen of a ready writer.” And how very quickly we want to publish our own praises! We are swift to speak and swift to show, but sinfully slow to silence. This of course also means that we are slow to sanctification.

Visual exhibition, addressed in part in the previous degree (secrecy), must not be overlooked, either. We all at times want to show what or who we know. Sometimes these exhibitions are publicly sanctioned such as when a pastor wears an academic gown that bears three bold stripes (chevrons) announcing h/er educational standing as “Doctor.” Other examples of exhibitions are abundant. If we have “achieved” something we want to show it.

Benedict provides poignant insight about why we should refrain from such verbal and visual speech, drawing no attention to ourselves. First, as stated earlier, sanctification is sought and secured in secret. No silence and no secrecy suggest no sanctification. As well, secrecy and silence supports the RB’s wise emphasis, “do not appear to be more holy than you are.” Sanctification is not about appearances.

But now, cutting to the marrow of the matter, Benedict cites “slander” as a reason for restraint in speech. In other words, Benedict asserts that we all-too-frequently build our public reputations upon the backs of others. We slander “them” so that we can exalt “us.” This emphasis on slander provides a very unique perspective on silence. It appears that, inherent to ascending the ladder of humility is the unfortunate propensity to drag others down. It is almost like, believing that we have finally found some firm footing we do not want anyone else to find such a hold on humility. And, once again, our “slander” can be visually or verbally displayed. Three stripes on the academic gown speak as eloquently, even more so, as saying “I am a Doctor.”

Slanderers, according to Benedict and the Bible, will not survive. They cannot ascend the ladder of humility, achieve any degree of holiness or be sanctified. Why? First, slanderers set themselves against the divine economy of humility. Jesus was impoverished for our wealth. He humbled himself for our (proper) exaltation. Second, slanderers set themselves against humanity. Asserting self requires, even in some small way, deserting others. Finally, slanderers stand against h/erself. As such, the person who seeks sanctification must willingly submit to auricular castration.

BE MERCIFUL TO ME

“Let thy servant rejoice in thee, not in himself nor in anything else; for thou alone art the true gladness, thou art my hope and my crown, thou art my joy and my honor, O Lord.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Steps 10 – 12 continue Benedict’s emphasis upon silence. Centering upon this priority, at least until spoken to, he now capitalizes upon our need to refrain from laughter (Step 10), speak discreetly (Step 11) and show humility (Step 12). The final emphasis serves as the interpretational priority: Show it, don’t just say it!

Benedict has been steadily advancing in this direction, and this is entirely reasonable. Declaring is only as effective as demonstrating. If we declare without demonstration we are hypocrites — or in need of radical re-evaluation and re-adjustment. Although humility is grounded within the heart, it demands the decisions and disciplines of holy fear, instant obedience, steady silence and an abundance of humiliations if it is to effectively ascend through the degrees of humility.

We come again, as with the “descending angel” referenced above, to a reversal in what appears to be sound theological principles. As with the descending angel, Benedict also asserts that our ascension results in our arrival at the love of God. Put bluntly, if we ascend we will be loved. This is a radical reversal of St. John’s “we love because HE FIRST LOVED US.” That is, according to John, the love of God is received — not achieved. It is a result of God’s descent, not our ascent.

A far more cautious consideration of this text in the RB may be required, however. The RB was written within the context of a community of God’s children, cloister and Benedict. With this in mind, the efforts expended upon ascending the degrees are little more than expressions of a pre-existing set of relationships. The Prologue clearly suggests this pre-existing set of relationships. Chapter One addresses a unique community committed to God and each other. In Chapter Two the concept of the Father, the Abba, Abbot or Superior, the human reflecting the Divine, is explicated. Similarly, Chapter Three addresses brothers [and sisters]. These, in Chapter Four, are given “instruments” or “tools” for constructing a Christian communal life.

Having established this familial framework, the RB now raises the bar of expectation by insisting upon certain disciplines (Chapters Five & Six) which are requisite to growth, harmony and evangelism. In this context – the family of faith living in and as a community of prayer – Benedict, invoking childlike faith and angelic assistance, sets the disciple upon the ladder of ascent. But, as the RB outlines in Chapter 7, it is a ladder entirely established upon pre-existing love and heavenly help. It does not emphasize “works righteousness” as much as it insists upon righteous works. Benedict’s biblical reference at the end of the degrees of humility, the ladder of ascent, makes this clear: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” As such, at the top of the ladder, the “twelfth degree of humility,” we return to the beginning. We begin and end with the fear of God because even our best efforts are prone to fail. As stated at the beginning of Ampleforth Abbey’s Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book (For Beginners): “ALWAYS WE BEGIN AGAIN.”

VIGILS

“Therefore we must watch and pray, lest our time pass away idly.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Christian growth, especially regarding humility, requires grace and vigilance. We must, according to Jesus, “watch and pray.” Saint Benedict did not place so much emphasis upon humility as an end in itself. Although humility, as beginning and as end, may be “achieved,” it is achieved to a purpose. The purpose is prayer.

This suggests that, in Chapter Eight of the RB and just after Chapter Seven’s pronounced emphasis, humility is for the purpose of encouraging a community at prayer. And we begin, as might be expected, “at night time.”

All life begins at night. As Holy Scripture tells us in the Genesis narrative, evening is the beginning of creation (Genesis 1: 5, Knox). Similarly, evening is the beginning of prayer. It is, as well, the beginning of any true growth in God. We begin in the darkness of our own sin and separation. We begin with our need, our poverty and our mourning — which is, of course, a morning of a new day in Christ and with the community of other Christians. Life is a vigil that requires the vigilance of prayer.

Humility drives us to our knees and into the arms of God and each other.

“Lighten our darkness we beseech Thee, O Lord, and by Thy great mercy defend us from all of the perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Thy only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
-Book of Common Prayer

 

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: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 12th century icon (St. Catherine’s MonasteryMount Sinai).

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Holiness: A Benedictine Approach

Donald P. Richmond:

Orthodox_Christian_Monasticism_by_flekaEvery Christian is called to holy living. This is not a personal option, it is an inspired expectation. The Holy Spirit desires a holy people. The Paraclete requires perfection, Christian perfection. As those who are made alive by the Holy Spirit, with Jacques Maritain we can therefore assert that the “only one sadness [is] not to be a saint.”

Those of us who have read The Seven Storey Mountain may recall Thomas Merton’s fruitful exchange with Robert Lax soon after Merton’s conversion. During this conversation, Lax flatly insisted that the call of the Christian was to be a saint. In shock, Merton asked how this calling was to be achieved. Lax’s answer was short and simple: “By wanting to.” According to Merton, Lax went on to say that “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what he created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

Of course, as we are all aware, this is far easier to say than it is to do. Between the intention and the reality falls T. S. Eliot’s pernicious “shadow.” And, with Eliot, we may indeed have “wept and fasted” and “wept and prayed,” and repeatedly found that we all too often fall short of God’s ideal and our intention. The wanting is not always the achieving. We need to be disciplined and discipled in practical holiness. Although we all Christians may be inclined toward holiness, we are all in need of “how to” instruction. In short, we need “a word.”

The Rule of Benedict (RB) is precisely the word that we need. It provides God’s children with an outline of obedience that leads to practical holiness. It does this by issuing a call, providing a context and establishing a college. These, rooted as they are within the considerations of living in and as a community, help every committed Christian achieve her or his intended purpose.

THE CALL OF OBEDIENCE

Echoing Solomon’s Proverbs, Saint Benedict heralds his Rule with the oft-quoted word LISTEN. “Listen carefully,” he writes (RB, Prologue, Saint Benedict Press, 2007). The wisdom of God is found in carefully listening to God. God’s words are our wisdom and our way.

Careful listening, according to the RB, has at least three very practical applications. Those who want to be holy must “turn” (RB, Prologue). We must, according to Saint Benedict and Holy Scripture, “turn the ear of our heart.” As such, Benedict calls us to a change of heart. We are called to radical interiority. According to him, change comes from the inside-out, and not from the outside-in. However, we cannot change our heart. We cannot, on our own initiative, “turn.” We must recognize, as did the old Shaker hymn, that turning is a gift. The ability to turn is, in fact, a gift of God. And the very good news is that this interior change is prompted and empowered by a relationship with God. As one of my teachers repeatedly said, “God’s command is God’s enabling.” We are God’s children and, as such, we can change. In this context, therefore, obedience is inwardly generated and not outwardly imposed. It is not an “I must” but an “I want” and an “I will.” This is a great gift.

Second, those who want to be holy must also “accept” (RB, Prologue). Saint Benedict urges us to “[w]illingly accept” the “advice” that is offered. Turning opens the mind and accepting inclines the heart. Turning is “seeing” and accepting is “believing.” But why should we accept this teaching? Why should we believe enough to obey? The reason is simple: This calling is issued by God (with whom Christians have a relationship), through Scripture (through which God and God’s covenant are revealed), by Benedict (by whom we are issued a Rule to which we are committed) out of complete and unconditional love. Acceptance is therefore the penetration of the life of God into the soul of human persons. We turn to embrace and be embraced. Acceptance is the “Yes” of our Lady. Acceptance knows that it is God “here now, speaking to you” (RB, Prologue). Such knowing moves from the “head” to the “heart” into the “hands.”

As well, those who want to be holy must “practice” (RB, Prologue). Hearing + Heeding = Holy. The practice of this advice is “labor.” It is, properly understood and applied, war (RB, Prologue). To be holy is to “fight for our true King, the Lord Christ.” Turning opens the mind. Accepting enlivens the heart. Practice engages the hands. “Blessed be the Lord my God / Who trains my hands for war and my fingers to fight.” As such, the practice of obedience is established upon the priority, principles, practice and power of prayer. The rule of prayer is the rule of both belief and behavior. Listening, accepting and practicing are prayer-as-perfection-in-community priorities.

THE CONTEXT OF OBEDIENCE

The context of Saint Benedict’s appeal is issued within a set of intersecting relationships. We have a relationship with God. We have a relationship with Holy Scripture. We have a relationship with Benedict. We have a relationship with the Rule — and, in fact, other Rules upon which the RB was composed and compiled. These relationships, and the very concept of relationship, are indispensable to liturgy (the work of prayer) and living. There is, however, at least one other relational context that is clearly and forcefully referenced.

The RB is issued to “children,” the daughters and sons of God and Benedict. It is issued to the community, the enclosure, as family. This emphasis sets the tone for the entire text, and is highlighted in Chapter One of the RB. The RB is issued to “Cenobites, or Conventuals, who are the most steadfast class of Monks.” To this I would also add Oblates and all those who seek to live holy lives within the context of a vital and vibrant Christian community. (It must be noted, however, that the time-and-community-tested “Hermit” also has a share in the calling to and context of holiness. The hermit’s relationship to the whole and the holy is the subject of other considerations.)

Community is the context of obedience.  It is the cathartic way and means by which we grow in practical holiness. How is this accomplished? It is accomplished through God’s grace and the practical expectation of Benedictine “stability” which enlightens and empowers prayer. It is accomplished, again by God’s grace, by stability within the (at times) unsatisfactory society of saints.

Our society, and often our churches, resists stability. Church-hopping and church-shopping are commonplace. If we do not like the pastor, we change churches. If we do not like a particular theological nuance, we leave. If the worship does not provide us with the “feeling” we are looking for, we jump ship. If the community is not “seeker sensitive” – with a coffee bar, bookstore and smoking lounge in the lobby – we feel deprived. If people are not “nice” or “too nice” or are “not our kind,” we resist or refuse relational commitments. We do not seek stability – the grist of change – we want stimulation. Stimulation, however pleasant, does not result in sanctification.

Saint Benedict, living as he did during a time of great and unremitting upheaval, clearly understood our wandering propensities, relational proclivities, cultural climate, and the difficulties we all face during times of challenge and crisis. This is precisely why he emphasized stability in community. For Benedict this was just not a social need (which it certainly was and is), but a spiritual imperative. If we are going to successfully resist being crafted according to cultural norms, we need a counter-cultural answer. This answer is found in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict’s call and challenge to his children is a “here” and “now” imperative (RB, Prologue). He requires saintly stabilization for the process, purpose and power of sanctification. He tells us to “stay put” in order to “grow up.” His stabilizing “voice” is, especially in our society, radically counter-cultural. (And, thankfully over the past number years, more people from many different denominations and walks of life are embracing “intentional community”). Community is the catalyst of change. Relationship is the critical resource for revival.

THE COLLEGE OF OBEDIENCE

I am now an aging “hippie.” My adolescence was shaped by the priorities, principles and practices of the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and very early 1970’s. Unfortunately this radical reorientation occurred at a time when I did not enjoy the stability of church life. As such, and in very short order, I became indiscriminate and disoriented. Not only did I embrace the concepts of human and civil rights, of “liberty and justice for all,” of peacemaking, I also became involved in a number of destructive counter-cultural activities that compromised my socio-psycho-pneumatic health. Dereliction, depression and despair began to dominate my life. Two very unfortunate drug-experiences, along with a hearty “Lord, save me,” shifted the entire direction of my journey.

This journey largely began about a year after the “two very unfortunate drug experiences” referenced above. I went to college; but not just any college. The first college I attended was biblically faithful, grounded in community and functioned like a monastery.  Although it technically did not have an Abbot, Prior and monks, in almost every way this college was structured as if it did. Its substance and standards were monastic. Prayer and work were emphasized. Obedience was not just suggested, it was mandated. It truly was a “school of the Lord’s service” (RB, Prologue).

It is to be noted that Saint Benedict’s Rule begins with (RB, Prologue), and is immersed in (RB, Chapters 8 – 20), prayer. This foundation of prayer is for the purpose of perfection (cf. RB Prologue, “amending our ways” and RB 73, “loftier heights…of virtue”). This occurs within the college of an obedient and stable community. A VERY swift analysis of Benedict’s prayer-as-perfection oriented agenda insists upon a community for prayer (Prologue and Chapter 1), a captain overseeing the community of pray-ers (Chapter 2), a parenthetical council by which prayer and community are governed (Chapter 3), the characteristics or prerequisites of prayer-and-perfection-in-community (Chapters 4 – 7), the calling and crafting of prayer-as-perfection (Chapters 8 – 20) and, with a few exceptions, considerations for continuing as a community committed to prayer-as-perfection (Chapters 21 – 73). The “school” was and is the community, and the “service” was and is prayer. These, structured as they are in the RB, are the path of perfection.

I must conclude with the essential curriculum of Benedict’s college of obedience, and it will be properly assumed that the curriculum is prayer. And, of course, on some level, it is. Nevertheless, the RB provides two very pronounced particulars about prayer-in-community-as-perfection. These are found in Chapters 6 and 7 and can be crassly considered as emphasizing our need to “shut up” (Chapter 6) and “put up” (Chapter 7). Of course “Silence” is far deeper than keeping our mouths closed, and “Humility” includes far more than toleration. But, in spite of this, prayer-as-perfection-in-community (and through community) is enhanced through the cultivation of silence (“waiting on God”) and the disciplines of humility (“wanting for God”). Although we have a wide-array of tools from which to draw (RB, Chapter 4), the children of the Lord’s school are perpetually clothed in silence and humility as prerequisites.

One of the greatest needs of the church today is to experience and express practical holiness. Unfortunately, as our society no longer seems to hold at the center, as we become more fractured and distant, as we become ever-more removed from community life and living, holiness is not provided the practical “soil” in which to grow. Holiness (with the rare exception of the time-and-community-tested Hermit) requires community. If prayer is a means of perfection, it needs the stability of a community where prayer can be practically exercised (exorcised???) in life. The RB, its priorities, principles and practices, provides us with such an environment.

“Raise up, O Lord, in your Church, the Spirit which animated our Holy Father St. Benedict, so that, filled with same Spirit, we may strive to love what he loved and live what he taught. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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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