Christmas Thoughts from the Big 3  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

On today's celebration of the Nativity, we look at excerpts from the Christmas messages of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Pope. Respective hat-tips to Creedal Christian, JN1034, and A Word on the Word.

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Human beings, left to themselves, have imagined God in all sorts of shapes; took Christianity to introduce the world to the idea of God in the form of a baby: in the form of complete dependence and fragility, without power or control. If you stop to think about it, it is still shocking. And it is also deeply challenging.

God chose to show himself to us in a complete human life, telling us that every stage in human existence, from conception to maturity and even death, was in principle capable of telling us something about God. Although what we learn from Jesus Christ and what his life makes possible is unique, that life still means that we look differently at every other life. There is something in us that is capable of communicating what God has to say--the image of God in each of us, which is expressed in its perfection only in Jesus.

Hence the reverence which as Christians we ought to show to human beings in every condition, at every stage of existence. This is why we cannot regard unborn children as less than members of the human family, why those with disabilities or deprivations have no less claim upon us than anyone else, why we try to make loving sense of human life even when it is near its end and we can hardly see any signs left of freedom or thought.

Patriarch Bartholomew

The event of incarnation of God's word grants us the opportunity to reach the extreme limits of our nature, which are identified neither with the "good and beautiful" of the ancient Greeks and the "justice" of the philosophers, nor with the tranquility of Buddhist "nirvana" and the transcendental "fate" or so-called "karma" by means of the reputedly continuous changes in the form of life, nor again with any "harmony" of supposedly contradictory elements of some imaginary "living force" and anything else like these. Rather, it is the ontological transcendence of corruption and death through Christ, our integration into his divine life and glory, and our union by grace through Him with the Father in the Holy Spirit. These are our ultimate limits: personal union with the Trinitarian God! And Christ's nativity does not promise any vague blessedness or abstract eternity; it places in our hands the potential of personal participation in God's sacred life and love in an endless progression. It grants us the possibility not only of "receiving adoption" (Gal 4:5) but also of becoming "partakers of divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

Pope Benedict

Today we dispose of vast material resources. But the men and women in our technological age risk becoming victims of their own intellectual and technical achievements , ending up in spiritual bitterness and emptiness of heart. That is why it is so important for us to open our hearts to the Birth of Christ, this event of salvation which can give new hope to the life of each human being.

Wake up, O man! For your sake God became man (St Augustine, Sermo 185). Wake up, O men and women of the third millenium!

At Christmas, the Almighty becomes a child and asks for our help and protection. His way of showing that he is God challenges our way of being human.

Benedictine Stability  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Of the three vows made by Benedictine monks at their final profession, one is that of "stability". What is monastic stability and how might it apply to those of us living in the so-called real world? Edward C Sellner in his highly recommended book Finding the Monk Within (HiddenSpring, Mahwah, NJ, 2008) discusses precisely this topic on pp 222-226. He helpfully subdivides the notion of stability into three concepts: stability of place, stability of community, and stability of heart. Existing as we do in a society that encourages us to change jobs, living spaces, and lovers every two or three years, such an idea would come across as downright radical to many people. Let's hear Sellner's thoughts:

Stability of Place

The first understanding of stability, that related to geographical location or sense of place, recognizes the monastic value of staying put, affirmed by the desert Christians in one of their wisdom sayings: "Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything."...Stability is perceived as an antidote to the restlessness of mind and heart in which a person constantly searches for new experiences, new relationships, and new geographical locations to escape difficulties or to solve problems by avoiding them. This unceasing search for the new and extravagant, of course, can too often make life and relationships superficial, and any intimacy between people extremely fragile...Benedict cautions us against the trend of making rootlessness a virtue. Rather, he counsels us to be mindful of the moment, to stay rooted in the present, perhaps above all to learn to wait patiently.

Stability of Community

For Benedictines, commitment to place is related directly to committing oneself to a specific community, a particular family of monks. Stability in this sense involves embracing one family, one community; opening oneself to the conflicts and growing pains, joys and celebrations of particular relationships of friendship and love. Benedict's Rule helps us to see that geography of place and geography of family are one terrain.

This commitment to a specific community or family can lead to greater freedom and joy as one at the same time learns firsthand the meaning of loyalty, persistence, patience, and forgiveness; the ability to accept and work with others' limitations as one learns to accept one's own.

Stability of Heart

....Centering our hearts on God can counteract our inner restlessness of heart, which Augustine describes in his autobiography. It can help us to listen, as John the beloved disciple did, to the heartbeat of God. It can also give us the courage to open the secrets of our hearts to one another, as John Cassian recommended. Benedict's gift and intuition were that stability of place and of community is ultimately about stability of heart. This is why, most likely, he begins his "Tools for Good Works" in chapter 4 with the admonition of Jesus: "First of all, 'love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself'". In staying grounded, sitting in one's cell, paying attention to the moment, we too might experience not only the presence of God, but also revelations that come, as they did to Benedict, in a flash of light. Stability of heart, centering our hearts in God, allows us to truly listen to the heart and the wisdom it waits to convey.

Thomas Merton on the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) died 40 years ago today, which I observe as a feast-day in my own customized liturgical calendar. He entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani on this date in 1941, which was precisely the mid-point of his life. One scarcely knows where to look in his huge literary output (mostly written during a two-hour period in the course of his monastic day) for a suitable quote, but I was lucky to come across something in a very fine book, Merton and Hesychasm (Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., Fons Vitae, Louisville, 2003), which is an anthology of articles by Merton and others dealing with his fruitful engagement with Eastern Christianity. This is from a transcript of a lecture given to the novices during the early '60's and illustrates his ability to combine deep comittment to traditional spirituality with a certain breezy irreverence. The quotes are found on pp 455 and 464 of the book.

But it is important to get some form of prayer that really just expresses everything. Obviously the classic example of this kind of prayer is what is called the Prayer of Jesus, which the Oriental monks use a great deal. Which is very, simply--what's the formula they repeat in the Prayer of Jesus, quite a long one?

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."

Kyrie Jesu Christe, Elaison...

Learn it in Russian, learn it in Greek. Say it. Pep up your spiritual life with the Jesus prayer in the various languages. It's a fine prayer. It's a bit long though. You don't have to say [one] that long. You can just say "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy." You can say "My Jesus, mercy" if you want. That is a Western form. Anything like that....

Sinai is the starting point of a tradition in contemplative prayer. Who knows the name of this tradition in contemplative prayer?

The hesychast tradition. Let's write "hesychast" on the board.

What's hesychast--who's a Greek scholar? You haven't had that much Greek yet--anybody knows what a hesychast is? He's a man who likes "hesychia"--he likes "sweetness", sweetness and rest and quiet and so forth. He loves the rest of contemplation, the sweetness and rest of contemplation. A hesychast is one who likes sweetness and rest, preferably off some place in a cave or something like that.

So the story of the Oriental mystical tradition as the hesychast tradition--it's a little more than just sweetness and rest. It's built around the Prayer of Jesus....

You can say it in Greek, you can say it in Russian, and you can say it in all sorts of things. And this is repeated over and over again in a special technique--this is very good, you ought to know this. You breathe in a certain way--you say it when you're breathing and so forth. You could do this during the morning meditation. It's the easiest possible way to spend the half hour fruitfully in church, I assure you. Don't go too far with the breathing. The idea is to concentrate on this prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," until you follow your breath down to your heart and then BOOM, a big light comes. That's Hesychasm. You see, you get the light of Tabor and it shines and so forth. That's getting a little risque, but that's this tradition.

St John of Damascus  

Posted by Joe Rawls

An Orthodox Christian of Arab ethnicity (he seems to be the only saint depicted wearing a kaffiyeh or turban), John (ca 676-749) was the scion of a family of tax-collectors who successively served both the Byzantine empire and the Islamic caliphate. He followed the family profession for a time but eventually entered the monastery of St Sabas near Jerusalem, where he devoted the rest of his life to asceticism and the writing of theological treatises.

John was ordained to the priesthood in 726, the same year that the emperor Leo the Isaurian promulgated a decree against the use of icons, thus inaugurating the iconoclastic controversy. John responded to this with a vigorous defense of icons, On Holy Images. He laid the groundwork for the Eastern Church's current theology of icons, which carefully distinguishes between latreia (worship), which is due to God alone, and proskynesis (veneration) which may legitimately be rendered to the saints and their images. He was able to do this in part because he did not live in the Byzantine empire but in a Muslim-controlled polity. In another of his works he is very critical of Islam. Go figure.

I include a couple of prayers to John from the Orthodox and Anglican traditions (his feast is today and is also observed by Roman Catholics) as well as a quote from his work on icons. The latter is, I think, an appropriate corrective to certain trendy neo-Gnostic tendencies (Gnostic-Lite would probably be a better description) which one runs into sometimes in liberal mainline Protestant circles.

Kontakion tone 4

Let us sing praises to John, worthy of great honor,
the composer of hymns, the star and teacher of the Church, the defender of her doctrines.
Through the might of the Lord's Cross he overcame heretical error,
and as a fervent intercessor before God
he entreats that forgiveness of sins may be granted to all.

From Lesser Feasts and Fasts

Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, set forth with power by your servant John of Damascus; that we, with him, confessing Jesus to be true God and true Man, and singing the praises of the risen Lord, may, by the power of the resurrection, attain to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

From On Holy Images

I honor all matter...and venerate it....Was not..the thrice-blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulcher, the source of our resurrection; was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life? Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices made? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration...of all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the veneration of images, honoring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Nicholas Ferrar  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Between Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries and the revival of monastic life in the wake of the Oxford Movement, one of the few attempts to form a spiritual community within the Church of England was that of Little Gidding, founded in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, whose feast is observed by the Episcopal Church on December 1.

Ferrar (1592-1637) was the son of a wealthy London merchant. He was educated at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was also a fellow. Resigning his fellowship for health reasons, he travelled throughout Europe for five years, studying medicine at the University of Padua and spending some time in Rome, where he became acquainted with Jesuits and Oratorians.

Returning to England, he became involved in the administration of the Virginia Company along with his father and brother. He served briefly in Parliament and developed impeccable connections in the court as well as in society in general. However, his father's death and the failure of the Virginia Company led to a serious decline in the family's fortunes. Egged on in part by his pious mother, Nicholas resolved to retire to a life of Godly seclusion. The estate of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire was purchased and he became leader of what we would today call an intentional community of about thirty people, mostly relatives and in-laws.

Nicholas was ordained a deacon by Bishop William Laud, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, and he directed the Little Gidding community in a rather rigorous spiritual program. Matins and Evensong, using the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, were said daily in the estate's chapel (pictured above). A priest from a nearby parish celebrated the Eucharist once a month--a very frequent celebration by 17th-century Anglican standards. On weekdays rotating teams of residents met hourly to recite the psalms, all of which would be said every 24 hours. Nicholas himself would privately recite the entire psalter each day, staying up far into the night to do so. He customarily slept on the floor.

The community survived Nicholas's death by about ten years but was forcibly dispersed by Cromwell's troops. However, its memory survived among high-church Anglicans, inspiring several successor communities, not to mention a poem by that great Anglo-Catholic TS Elliot, part of which is reproduced below.

Collect from Lesser Feasts and Fasts

Lord God, make us worthy of your perfect love; that, with your deacon Nicholas Ferrar and his household, we may rule ourselves according to your Word, and serve your with our whole heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Little Gidding

If you come this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. Your are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire
Beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.