Camaldoli's Eastern Roots  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

The Camaldolese are a Roman Catholic monastic order founded by St Romuald (951-1025, more or less). A native of Ravenna, Italy, he began monastic life in a traditional Benedictine monastery in that city, but soon developed a hankering for the life of a hermit. He eventually founded several monasteries in Italy that combined cenobitic (community) life with eremitic (solitary) life. Monks could choose to live as cenobites or hermits (or alternate between the two lifestyles) but still remain within the same monastic community. After Romuald's death these foundations coalesced into the Camaldolese order, which in recent years has formally affiliated with the worldwide Benedictine federation.

The current issue of the online Orthodox theological journal Theandros has a good article by Joseph Leach exploring the eastern Christian roots of Romuald's monastic spirituality (Theandros is available in the sidebar under "Favorite Links" but for convenience the article can be found here).

Leach demonstrates convincingly that Romuald is a bridge figure between the Eastern and Western churches. This is summarized in Romuald's Brief Rule (reproduced in its entirety) and in Leach's conclusion, part of which is quoted below.

Brief Rule

Sit in your cell as in paradise.
Put the whole world behind you and forget it.
Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.
The path you must follow is in the Psalms--never leave it.
If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of
your good will, you cannot accomplish what you want,
take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart
and to understand them with your mind.
And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up;
hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.
Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there
with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.
Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God,
like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

From Leach's Conclusion

In Romualdian prayer the monk sits alone, stripped of the supports of the world, empty of the delusions of the false self. With the Word being spoken to him through the Psalms, he waits alert and humble, with an attitude of reverent awe, trust, and total dependence on God. In this the Brief Rule occupies an interesting place in the spirituality of the western church....St Romuald was trying to encapsulate the wisdom of the desert tradition and to bring it to life in the western church. The Brief Rule shows that he did this in a pure form, without embellishment or accretion. As a consequence, the style of prayer and the mode of life described here seems to be more closely related to the traditions of the Eastern Church than to those of the West, and it is perhaps not unreasonable to describe St Romuald as an Eastern Father in the Western Church.

Young Geezers and the Liturgy  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Episcopal Cafe has a most interesting post by Luiz Coelho, a Brazilian Anglican seminarian. He discusses the phenomenon of 20- and 30-somethings finding spiritual nurture in very traditional modes of worship. Apparently it's not all about U2charists. Also, this post has so far gotten over 20 comments, which has to be something of a record for this site. Here's a sample of Coelho's essay:

What I perceive more and more is that a sizeable amount (and in some environments the majority) of us prefers "old-fashioned" liturgy, and it is not rare to find youth discussing the beauty of an east-facing Mass, the dignifying simplicity of Anglican chant or the pity that Festal Evensong is almost unheard of nowadays. It may also come as a surprise for some to learn that such an interest in traditional liturgical matters is not necessarily attached to conservatism. In fact, among young adults, it usually holds hands with an inclusive and socially liberal, yet creedal, theology. Even in the few cases where I have run into theologically conservative and liturgically traditionalist young Anglicans, they have seemed to me to be much more charitable to divergent ideas and more apt to accepting diversity, or even a peaceful co-existence in different Churches, or church bodies.

Booknote: In the Heart of the Desert  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert, World Wisdom, 2008.

A native Australian, John Chryssavgis is a deacon in the Greek Orthodox Church and currently serves as adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues. He has a doctorate in patristics from Oxford (his thesis supervisor was Kallistos Ware) and he was on the faculty of Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts.

In the Heart of the Desert is a comprehensive, approachable introduction to the spirituality of the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers. These people flourished during a very crucial, very seminal period in the history of Christian contemplative spirituality. Starting with Antony of Egypt in the late 3rd century and lasting more or less until the advent of Islam, they protested the overly cozy relationship between church and society that followed in the wake of Constantine's edict of tolerance. Perceiving that Christianity was getting too watered-down, they fled to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine and, in effect, started over from scratch.

The book is essentially an explication of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a compendium of material originally in Greek, Coptic, Syriac, and Latin that records the aphoristic insights of these pioneering monastics, which were originally transmitted orally. Following introductory chapters on the text and the overall historical background of the desert fathers, Chryssavgis treats the material topically, delving into such subjects as solitude, detachment, spiritual guidance, and life in the cell. There are also chapters on "The Desert and the Environment" and "The Desert and Gender". The text is richly larded with quotes from the fathers and mothers, which the author has translated himself--in a very fresh and lively manner, I should add. All in all, this is the best treatment of the subject I've come across since Derwas Chitty's The Desert a City.

Let me include some quotes by Chryssavgis, followed by excerpts from the actual Sayings.

If God is right there, in the middle of our struggle, then our aim is to stay there. We are to remain in the cell, to stay on the road, not to forgo the journey or forget the darkness. It is all too easy for us to overlook the importance of struggle, preferring instead to secure peace and rest, or presuming to reach the stage of love prematurely. It is always easier to allow things to pass by, to go on without examination and effort. Yet, struggling means living. It is a way of fully living life and not merely observing it. It takes much time and great effort to unite the disparate, disjointed and divided parts of the self into an integrated whole. During this time and in this effort, the virtue of struggle was one of the non-negotiables in the spiritual way of the desert. The Desert Fathers and Mothers speak to us with authority, because they are in fact our fellow travelers. They never claim to have arrived; they never indicate that they have completed the journey. (104)

These heroes of the spirit are filled with joy; they are also characterized by humor. The desert stories are filled with witty situations and entertaining sayings. Their humor is, in my view, undoubtedly connected to their humility. If they take themselves less seriously, it is because they want to take God more seriously. They are neither obsessed by their ascetic struggle nor preoccupied with their particular virtues. The desert dwellers can be joyful because they know that they are human and that failure comes with the territory of being human....The desert elders knew that perfection rests with the divinity; and certainly not in our frailty or in any ability that we may have to negotiate with the divinity about our virtues and our vices. (105)

Opportunities present themselves to us continually, even in a busy space. We can discover the "desert", even in the noise of a city. We can all look for a place and a moment where we will struggle with our selves and encounter God. Those are the places and the moments of temptation; those are also the places and the moments of transformation. Then we shall discover the mystery of the extraordinary in the most ordinary, the wonder of the commonplace, together with the surprise of beauty. When we have addressed our demons, will we not also know the presence of angels in our life? (109)

From the Sayings:

Abba Agathon said: "If I could meet a leper, give him my body and take his, I would be very happy. For this is indeed perfect love".

A brother who had sinned was dismissed from the community by the priest. Abba Bessarion stood up and walked out with him, saying: "I, too, am a sinner".

They asked Abba Macarius: "How should one pray?" The old man replied: "There is no need to make long discourses; it is enough simply to stretch out one's hands and say: 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: 'Lord, help!' He knows very well what we need and shows us his mercy".

Abba Pambo said, "If you have a heart, you can be saved".

Abba Sarmatas said: "I prefer a sinful man, who knows that he has sinned and repents, to a man who has not sinned and considers himself righteous".

Teresa of Avila  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Teresa (1515-1582) was one of the great figures of 16th century Spanish Catholicism and one of the great Christian mystics, period. Hers was a family of converted Jews that came under the scrutiny of the Inquisition. Her parents were opposed to her vocation and she had to sneak out of her house early one morning to go to the Carmelite convent she felt drawn to join. The Carmelites of those days had gotten somewhat lax, and she began a reform movement which resulted in the foundation of twenty or so convents during her lifetime. Both men and women were subject to her authority; one of these was the equally great mystic John of the Cross. She wrote a number of works, her masterpiece being The Interior Castle.

On her feast today, rather than a long quote from the Castle--I always get depressed when I try to figure out which of the seven mansions I'm in at my present stage of spiritual development--I'd like to share three of her poems with you. Before we get to that, I want to mention two things of related interest. First is a book by Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila (Continuum 2000), which he wrote before becoming chief cat-herder of the Anglican Communion. I found it very informative without being overbearingly academic.

I should also mention the existence of a community of Byzantine rite Carmelites in Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania. Their website is worth a visit.

Christ has no body

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which is to look out
Christ's compassion to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good,
yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

God alone is enough

Let nothing upset you,
let nothing startle you.
all things pass;
God does not change.
Patience wins
all that it seeks.
Whoever has God
lacks nothing:
God alone is enough.

Let mine eyes see

Let mine eyes see thee, sweet Jesus of Nazareth,
let mine eyes see thee, and then see death.
Let them see that can, Roses and Jessamine,
seeing thy face most fair, all blossom are therein.
flower of Seraphim, sweet Jesus of Nazareth.
Let mine eyes see thee, and then see death.
Nothing I require, where my Jesus is,
anguish all desire, saving only this,
all my help is his, he only succoreth.
Let mine eyes see thee, and then see death.