The Practice of the Presence of God Part 3

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 2

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Hello and welcome to our final look at Brother Lawrence. Today we will look at the last part of his classic work The Practice of the Presence of God. So far we have looked at the advice he has given others as well as anecdotes about his life and faith. Here we will be looking at Section Five, which provides the reader with many ways of attaining the presence of God.

Section Five

This section is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter looks at two steps used to help the average Christian attain an awareness of God’s presence. The first step is repenting of our sins and asking for forgiveness for our sins, and the second step requires us to look to God before starting any task, to continue looking for Him while working, and to turn our gaze onto Him after finishing our work. The most important aspect of this that Lawrence looks at is the human heart which he says is ‘the first thing in us to have life, and it has dominion over all the body. Therefore it is right that it (the heart) should be the first and last to love and worship God, both when we begin and end our actions, whether they are spiritually or bodily. This should generally be the same in all the affairs of life. It is in the heart, therefore, that we should strive to make a habit of gazing on God, until the action that is needed to bring the heart to this obedience is done quite simply and naturally, without strain or study’ (Pg.116). As usual Lawrence says that there are specific phrases that we can use to approach God but at the same time he also warns us against any distractions that will lead us away from God and that the best thing we can do is simply mortify our senses from anything that lead us away from God.

The first thing that struck us about this passage is the use of mortification. As we mentioned in the previous blog we have issues against certain aspects of the spirituality in Lawrence’s day, especially in relation to hair shirts! However, it is important in the Christian life that we put to death anything that would keep us from God, and in that sense we agree with Lawrence how necessary it is for us to repent of our sins, especially those that would trip us up. Otherwise, the Christian life within us will never grow.

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Physical training

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As for the issue of training the heart to focus it more on God, we agree that it is very important to always keep God in mind. On that note, we think that Lawrence is right that we need certain key phrases in order to attune ourselves into God’s presence. In fact we mention many phrases in our lives that either help us or just happen to pop into our heads, so using phrases that would remind us God would be more beneficial than just our everyday self-talk. I have mentioned the Jesus Prayer in the last blog and how the recitation of that phrase (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) can help bring us closer to God. Another way is to memorize key scripture passages, which not only reminds us of God but of His word as well. In this way, we should keep our hearts and our minds on Him at all times, as Lawrence himself advises us.

In the second chapter, Lawrence continues to look at how to always maintain God’s presence in our life. The only way to do so would be to think about God at all times and even turn all our actions into ‘little acts of communion with God’ (Pg.119). This means that we should also not be impulsive about the worship of God but to worship Him ‘thoughtfully and soberly’ (Pg.120) and, by doing that, we can be use this awareness of God’s presence to help combat the Devil and our own sinful natures. We loved the term used for all our actions being turned into acts of communion with God but we were not certain about whether or not we could even try to always worship Him ‘thoughtfully and soberly.’ However it is possible to find joy in Him and the very act of communion itself implies that our actions should ‘come naturally from the purity and simplicity of the heart’ (Pg.120). In the case of Lawrence, he just naturally communed with God right through the day, which something we would like to aspire to. Apart from worshipping God at church at either Sunday services or various other religious events, the idea of regularly communing with God during our secular activities has an appeal. It would be useful for helping us to combat both sin and the Devil and maintaining God’s presence in our lives. At the same time, we do admit that it we not always good at maintaining this habit and that it takes a good effort to always keep up this practice in our lives.

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Confessional

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In chapter three, Lawrence moves onto the subject of how Christians should deal with any challenges and distresses that upset their spiritual lives. His recommendation is simply to examine our conscience everyday and see how sinful we in comparison with God:

‘[When we do (examine ourselves)] we will find that we are altogether deserving of contempt, unworthy of the name of Christ, prone to all manner of unwholesome conditions, and subject to countless infirmities that distress us and impair the soul’s health, rendering us wavering and unstable in our humors (health) and dispositions.’

 (Pg.123)

It will then make Christians feel sorry for committing any sins and/or yielding to temptation and therefore try to rely solely on God and His grace to help us perform His work in our lives. At first it may seem hard but summoning God’s grace would help it become more easier and ‘and brings with it joy’ (Pg.124).

We discussed how we always need God’s grace continually to help us do our daily work as well as trying to ask for God’s forgiveness for any sins we might have committed. I also asked everyone a question about whether this confession could to a type of morbid introspection and even depression. From this, one of our group said that the idea of God’s grace is the very thing that stops Lawrence from getting depressed because he (Lawrence) confesses his sins and then accepts the forgiveness that God gives and then moves on. The wrong view of confession (which could the reason why it can lead to depression) is the fact that it could lead to a Christian simply trying to work his or her way into heaven and not rely upon God’s free gift of grace. One the other hand, however, regular confession and self-examination are a good idea, especially after we have committed a sin and need God’s grace to overcome it.

Moving onto Chapter 4, we looked into the subject of union with God. Here Lawrence presents a threefold method of attaining this union:

(1) ‘To worship God in spirit and in truth means to offer to Him the worship that we owe.’;

 (2) ‘To worship God in truth is to acknowledge Him to be what He truly is, and ourselves as what we truly are.’;

 (Pg.125)

 (3) ‘Furthermore, to worship God in truth is to confess that we live our lives entirely contrary to His will.’

 (Pg.126)

When asked about the subject of offering God the worship that “we owe”, which would mean developing a habitual practice; become aware of God’s perfection as well as our sinfulness; and that we live lives that are unworthy of Him and, once we acknowledge that fact, He will make us conform to His will.

We mulled over the different prospects of these ideas. One of us said that it is like a kind of spiritual breathing – don’t try to hold your breath and get through the week in one breath. We breathe all the time until it becomes a habit and it becomes ingrained in our lives. In fact, our breathing can be both deliberate and automatic and that is the very same pattern in which we want our spiritual lives to be.

As for living our lives according to God’s will, we often feel that there are times when we feel as if we do not live according to us will. Having said that, though, we will conform more and more to His will as we grow to more like Him in our spiritual lives. Without His will guiding us we all live contrary to His will and might even end up in sin.

I asked the question what an atheist might make of thinking about God in spirit and in truth, and the answer was that they might think it laughable. In fact, they would probably react badly to words like “we owe Him (God) our whole lives” because they would have little understanding of the Person we are addressing and might misconstrue in a bad way. There is also the case of the supernatural and spiritual in our faith, which is something we cannot deny outright and must be embraced in our walk with God.

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Worship

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In Chapter 5, Lawrence talks about three states of union with God:

‘The first degree is general, the second is virtual union, and the third is actual union.

 ‘1. The degree of union is general when the soul is united to God solely by grace.

 ‘2. Virtual union (which is in effect union, though not in fact) is when we are united to God at the beginning of an action, and remain united to Him by reason of that action for only such time as it lasts.

 ‘3. Actual union is the perfect union. In the other degrees the soul is passive, almost as it were slumbering.

 ‘In this actual union the soul is intensely active – quicker than fire are its operations, more luminous than the sun, unobstructed by any passing cloud.’

 (Pg.127)

Therefore, the first two types of union are just the first steps to take before actual union is to be experienced. Yet Lawrence also warns against mistaking this state of actual union with certain feelings, which simply come and go, while actual union itself is rather a ‘state of soul … that is deeply spiritual and yet very simple, which fills us with a joy that is undisturbed, and with a love that is very humble and very reverent’ (Pg.128). It will then lead us into a union with God, whose love will compel us to embrace Him ‘with a tenderness that cannot be expressed, and which experience alone can teach us to understand’ (Pg.128). Lawrence also warns us not to allow any love for people and/or material goods to come in the way of our union with God. The reason is because God Himself is simply beyond our understanding and therefore we must deny ourselves the love of any material pleasures and completely put our love to God alone. Lawrence even describes the difference between the ‘tastes and sentiments of the will and its working.

 ‘The limits of the will’s tastes and sentiments are in the soul.

 ‘But its working, which is properly love, finds its only limit in God.’

 (Pg.128)

To sum up, our soul’s only destination is to be in God alone and in nothing else. From this point we talked about the idea of loving God above all things but not instead of all things. We think that this idea of union as discussed by Lawrence can be related to our individual personalities and whether we respond emotionally to things naturally. We, therefore, need to be careful to equate our emotional state with our spiritual state. The way the union with God should go should run like this: faith informs fact which informs feeling not the other way around. To do the opposite would be misleading and even lead to heretical thoughts.

Moving on the from the theme of union with God, Lawrence focuses on the presence of God by describing the effect that it had on the life of a friend:

‘By non-wearying efforts, by constantly recalling his mind to the presence of God, a habit has formed within him of such a nature that as soon as he is freed from his ordinary labor, and often even when he is engaged in his work, his soul lifts itself above all earthly matters, without deliberation or forethought on his part, and fixes itself firmly upon God as its center and place of rest.’

 (Pg.130)

Lawrence also reminds his readers that this communion with God in his friend’s life occurs within his friend’s soul and God communicates love to his friend’s soul. This acts as a fire of love to God that it actually affects his friend’s outward conduct and manner of life where people such as Lawrence can actually see this in his friend’s life and manner. It is so encompassing that it overcomes any love for other earthly attachments:

‘It is as if He was so concerned that the soul would turn again to things of earth, that He provides for it abundantly so that it finds in faith divine nourishment and immeasurable joy that is far beyond its utmost thought and desire – and all without a single effort on its part but simple consent.’

(Pg.131)

As for knowing anyone like that in our lives, we are sure that we do not know anyone like this friend of Lawrence’s (in fact some of us speculated if Lawrence was simply talking about himself!). We do of people who may have come close to it but they are very rare and, in fact, we wondered if we could ever recognize this “super-spiritual” sense because this quality could be more real and approachable all the time without anything sticking out.

We discussed how Lawrence talks about his friend’s visions of God (‘a glass, a loving gaze, an inward sense of God … a waiting on God, a silent communicating with Him, a repose in Him, the life and peace of the soul’ (Pg.129)) and we think that God grants these visions to whomever He wills. All of us can thirst more for God in our lives, but that thirst itself will show up in different ways. A member of ours says that he cannot see himself being overcome by violent passion. As we mentioned previously, you do not have to be emotional all the time to be a Christian. However, one of us, J, mentioned a person she knew who is completely unemotional, who studies the word of God constantly and in all her responses and actions, consistently demonstrates a life lived in. To J, that person may not have an emotional response to God’s presence, but she lives in the presence of God all the time.

In the final chapter, Lawrence focuses on the benefits of the presence of God. The first benefit he looks at is a growing faith that ‘becomes more alive and active in all the events of life, particularly when we feel our need, since it obtains for us the assistance of His grace when we are tempted and in every time of trial’ (Pg.133). This transforms our faith into a guide for our souls into the presence of God and leads us onward until ‘at last the eye of faith is so piercing that the soul can almost say, “faith is swallowed up in sight” – I see and I experience’ (Pg.133).

This in turns leads to the second benefit which is that it builds up our hope in God: ‘Our hope grows in proportion as our knowledge grows, and in measure as our faith – by this holy practice – penetrates into the hidden mysteries of God’ (Pg.134). The reason is because, like faith, hope will also want to lead us onwards to God as well as turning away from earthly things, because the ‘soul that is thus kindled cannot live except in the presence of God’ (Pg.134).

The final benefit is a passionate love for God: ‘a consecrated zeal, a holy ardor, a violent passion to see this God become known and loved and served and worshiped by all His creatures’ (Pg.134). It is through this state that the soul has a deep-felt knowledge of God and also commits itself to a life of prayer and good works. Finally, Lawrence says that God only grants this grace of His vision on a few chosen souls, but God can also grant it to those who yearn deeply for it: ‘If He does withhold this crowning mercy, be well assured that by the practice of the presence of God and the aid of His all-sufficient grace, your soul can arrive at a state that approaches very nearly the unclouded vision’ (Pg.135).

We looked over these interpretations of faith, hope and love, and have concluded that they are applicable to everyone. Faith is absolutely necessary – without faith it is impossible to please God. Hope is something we have that the world doesn’t have because we have hope in a God who came down to save us from our sin in order to bring us into a glorious future. As for love, well as it says in the first epistle of John, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and therefore we need to demonstrate that love toward others. How we experience and demonstrate these virtues come back to who we are. We often fall over in our demonstration of these virtues but that should not stop us as Christians in putting these virtues into practice.

In conclusion, as a group we feel that we do not need to follow what Brother Lawrence says as a whole due to the difference between our time period and ours as well as a bigger difference between his lifestyle (religious) and ours (secular). On a personal level, I think that there are times when the book does get a bit repetitive every now and again and this might bore the average reader. But we also believe that this book has some really helpful nuggets to offer every Christian. We also admire Lawrence for his effortless and joyful feeling of God’s presence. It’s so straightforward and refreshing even for a modern reader.

Thank you for reading this blog. Join us next month as we look at Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge. In the meantime, we hope you have a Merry Christmas!

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Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stomer

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_of_Jesus)

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Trans. Harold J. Chadwick. Bridge-Logos. 1999 (2001)

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The Practice of the Presence of God Part 2

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 1

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Hello and welcome again! I apologize for any delay but I got caught up in work commitments and did not have time to write the blog. But now we will continue with our look at Brother Lawrence and his classic work The Practice of the Presence of God. Last time we looked at Sections One and Two, which focused on Lawrence’s collected thoughts and some observations about the man himself. Here, in Sections Three and Four, we turn our focus to, first, a series of conversations that Lawrence had with the book’s compiler and editor Father Joseph de Beaufort, before turning our attention to a number of letters that Lawrence had written during his lifetime, giving advice on different topics. It is by looking at these various types of writing and the messages they convey that we finally see what Lawrence is talking about in relation to issues such as God, faith and prayer.

Section Three

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As mentioned above, Section Three consists of four conversations between Lawrence and M. Beaufort, plus an extra account of Lawrence’s life, faith and death. For our book club we simply focused on the four main conversations. In the first conversation, Lawrence talks about his conversion, which led him from a simple life of a footman to that of a monk. It had something to do with a tree:

‘That winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and the flowers and fruit would appear, he received a high view of the providence and power of God that had never left his soul. 

‘This view perfectly set him loose from the world, and kindled in him such a great love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased during the more than forty years since then.’

(Pg.41)

This in turn led Lawrence to ardently pursue the presence of God in his life and to maintain that as long as he (Lawrence) was alive. The story of his conversion to a life of faith touched us all on some level. We all had different types of conversion stories, some sudden as in the case of the apostle Paul and his “road to Damascus” experience, while others felt it gradually over a long period of time. One of us, who had converted a long time ago, says that, after her conversion, it took her a long time to fully understand what she had converted to. This all led us to conclude that being a Christian takes a lifetime of learning, which is always surprising us at every twist and turn of our lives.

In the second conversation, Lawrence begins to talk about various matters such as confession, dealing with wandering thoughts and dedicating our time to God. In relation to the topic of confession, Lawrence himself describes that, during his conversion to monastic life, he had suffered from a form of depression for about four years:

‘I engaged in a religious life only for the love of God, and I have endeavored to act only for, Him. Whatever becomes of me, whether I be lost or saved, I will always continue to act purely for the love of God. I shall have this good at least, that until death I shall have done all that is in me to love Him.

 ‘This trouble of mind lasted four years, during which time he suffered much. At last, however, he saw that this trouble arose from lack of faith, and since then he has passed his life in perfect liberty and continual joy. He had placed his sins between him and God, as it were, to tell Him that he did not deserve his favors, but that God still continued to bestow them in abundance.

(Pgs.45-46)

From then on, Lawrence would regularly confess his sins and he would be ‘very sensible of his faults, but not discouraged by them. He did not plead to God to excuse his sins, but simply confessed them to Him’ (Pg.48). In particular, Lawrence always focused his attention on Christ’s Passion and using that to remind him of God’s forgiveness.

We agreed that we love what Lawrence says about confessing our sins and accepting God’s forgiveness and we feel that to feel that sort of comfort would be wonderful. However, we felt that for someone who was suffering from clinical depression, receiving this sense of forgiveness would take a long time and would not be as simple as Lawrence describes. In a sense, it is like conversion in that it takes a long time to get our heads around it and to actually feel the very forgiveness from God that we seek. We all agreed that Lawrence’s ideas of confession would be considered by some people to be a bit simplistic. However, we thought that it offers a simplicity that we can be benefit from in that it takes the form of simple advice and advocates a childlike trust in God alone.

As for the issue of wandering thoughts we agreed that they could be distracting, especially when it comes to spending time in prayer. One of us said that whenever she has wandering thoughts she simply tells them to leave and tries to focus her mind on God again. I suggested the use of the Jesus Prayer to focus one’s attention on God (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Prayer), but someone else disagreed with this, saying that it would not stop him from having distracting thoughts. I guess you could say that it takes a mixture of God’s grace and an act of will to master them. As for the idea of dedicating our work to God, we all agreed that, while we cannot be conscious of God all the time, we can at least start with a prayer before commencing work, then try to keep Him in mind during our progress, and then finishing our work with another prayer, in particular rejoicing at a job well done. That way we can always keep God in mind during our lives and work.

In the third conversation, Lawrence talks about the idea of beginning the day with prayer, or, more importantly, putting our full trust in God. In Lawrence’s case he simply describes it as simply having a heart that is ‘resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but (God), or His sake, and to love Him only (Pg.53). Lawrence says that we should therefore do our religious duties as best we can but we should not let anything else, the very works themselves or even our personal sins, distract us too much from the love of God. As for us in our secular world, we felt that ideally we would like to start the day with God and put everything that we go through into the hands of God. That we could do more by being more intentional about being aware of God in all parts of our life. Spreading God in our smiles and random acts of kindness could be one way in which we can share His presence, not only in our own lives but also in the lives of others. It may differ greatly from the type of religious practice and work that Lawrence underwent during his time on Earth, but it could be just as effective and could remind us all that God’s presence isn’t just limited to church but can be felt anytime and anywhere, especially among non-Christians.

In the fourth and final part of Section Three, Lawrence focuses on the topic of renunciation, especially of worldly goods and possessions, which can deter us from God alone. The only other thing that is required is an acknowledgement of our sinfulness and to simply know that all a Christian needs is ‘faith, hope, and charity [love], by whose practice we become united to the will of God. All things besides these are indifferent [do not matter], and are to be used as a means whereby we may arrive at our objective, and be swallowed up therein by faith and charity [love]. All things are possible to those who believe, less difficult to those who hope, more easy to those who love, and still more easy to those who persevere in the practice of these three virtues’ (Pg.57). We became fond of that quote, in particular the part that says all that all things are possible because of our use of these specific virtues: faith, hope and love. But at the same time, however, we feel that a Christian would need more than that. The very thing we need, as Christians, would be to be fully united to the will of God. Then these virtues of faith, hope and love will help us to achieve the other parts of the Christian life and fulfil the rest.

Section Four

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In Section Four, the focus turns towards a series of correspondence between Lawrence and some recipients including a priest and a prioress among others. We felt that, centuries after the publication of this book, Lawrence would not have liked or even wanted to have these letters shared with the public. We believe that, when sharing the Christian faith, there should first be a question of why we believe what we believe before we open doors and share. For instance I have a relation who is dying of a critical illness, and because of his condition it makes our family feel stronger in the faith and it even allows us to easily share our faith with complete strangers. With others it is different, such as having a special name that has symbolism which resonate within the person the joy of God’s presence in his/her life.

We think that the letters would have been comforting to his recipients because Lawrence is very keen to offer the joy of his relationship with God and does not resort to self-flagellation. But it is his approach to holiness in that we rid ourselves of anything that does not lead us to God is more of an ascetic, monastic variety, which can unfortunately lead to a salvation via good works. This behavior can be compared to biblical examples such as the Jewish Christians wanting the Gentile Christians to be circumcised in order to adhere to the Torah (Acts 15:1-35), or figures in the parables such as the prodigal son and the workers in the vineyard. We just feel that there should be a balance between the grace and holiness.

Moving onto the content of Lawrence’s letters, we talked about the advice he gives in the letters themselves and asked ourselves whether we would be capable of giving such wisdom to people who needed it. We feel that the Lawrence’s advice is good enough but at the same time it might need to tempered a little. For example, in the case of grief, Lawrence recommends that we should not let such feelings get in the way of our relationship with God: ‘We should love our friends, but without encroaching upon the love due to God, which must be the principal [love we possess]’ (Pg.95). We thought that, if we gave this advice to someone mourning the loss of a friend, it might appear callous at first. So the best thing to do would be to speak the truth in love and encourage that person to bring his/her grief to God then the advice we’ll give would be helpful. On the one hand, Lawrence is trying to keep the grieving person away from treating the loss of a loved one as an idol and it is important to speak up on that point. But the important point is to choose the right time and place to do it and work on from there, otherwise we might seem a bit harsh on that person and might lead them away from God. It all is a matter of choosing the right time as well as the right tone to give our advice.

Moving onto the last batch of letters written by Lawrence, the ones dealing with his illness and death, we notice that Lawrence possessed a serenity about his death and even saw illness as coming from God Himself and that we should accept everything that comes from His hand:

‘God knows best what is needful for us, and all that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we would always be ready to receive equally and with indifference from His hand the sweet and the bitter. All would please us that came from Him. Distressful afflictions never appear intolerable, except when we see them in the wrong light. When we see them as dispensed by the hand of God, when we know that it is our loving Father who humbles and distresses us, our sufferings will lose their bitterness and even become matters of consolation’

(Pg.107).

We thought about these issues, especially in connection with my sick relative. While we admire the faith in God that Lawrence possesses, we need to realize that he was living in a different era, where medicine had not reached the sophistication that it has now, and that the only thing people had in Lawrence’s time was just faith in God. In fact, we do not even share the same idea that medieval and Renaissance people had where pain was good and we don’t even think that God enjoyed the self-flagellation and hair shirts that were often associated with this kind of piety.

At the same time, however, we think that what we are seeing now is only the back of the vast tapestry, where all we can see are vast imperfections whereas God can see the bigger picture. But, regarding the issue of God sending illnesses to remind us that we live in a fallen world and that there is a greater one to come, it is true that God doesn’t desire harm but that He can also use things like hardship to help focus on Him and trust Him more and more. We do know that most prayers are not answered the way we would like them to be answered, but that is simply our human point of view and we do not always have the benefit of seeing things from God’s perspective. It is a complex truth that needs to be acknowledged and brought to mind everyday.

Thank for you for reading this blog. We will return to Brother Lawrence next time and look at the final section of his classic book.

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Trans. Harold J. Chadwick. Bridge-Logos. 1999 (2001)

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 3

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 1

The Benedict Option Part Three

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The Practice of the Presence of God (Source: Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Practice-Presence-Updated-Pure-Classics/dp/0882707930)

Hello again! Welcome back to the blog! Over the next three weeks I will be posting up our discussions on the Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, which our book club had looked at over the middle of the year. For our discussions we used the edition published by Bridge-Logos Publishers, which was revised and rewritten by Harold J. Chadwick. The reason why is because, out of all the editions of Lawrence’s classic that have ever been published, this is the one that appears to be the most comprehensive and offers more food for thought, even though at times it does get a bit repetitive. It is this edition, in its variety, that formed the basis for discussions.

Section One

Raphael_-_Ezekiel's_Vision

Ezekiel’s Vision by Raphael (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezekiel%27s_Vision_(Raphael))

Section One of Brother Lawrence’s book consists of the collected thoughts of Lawrence that his biographer has compiled together. The very first thing that Lawrence discusses is the glory of God and how everything else seems to fall short of His glorious presence:

‘On the one hand, I am dazzled by the brightness of the Sun of Righteousness, the Scatterer of the shades of night; while on the other, with my eyes dimmed by my own sin, I feel at times as if I were beside myself.

‘Yet, I make it my ordinary business to abide in the presence of God with the humility of a useless, though faithful, servant.’

 (Pg.2)

Upon reading this passage, we found ourselves reminded of the wonderful visions of God’s presence that are mentioned in the Bible, especially in the book of Ezekiel. When discussing about trying to attain an awareness of God’s presence, and whether or not we found it easy to do so, we decided that it would not be easy to maintain such a knowledge of His presence as practiced by Lawrence. The reason why is that there are some days when it will be easy and there will be other days when we will find it hard to attain His presence. But when we reach out to Him, God will shower us with blessings that are so wonderful that everything else would seem to be minuscule in comparison. In fact, our faith calls us to consider ourselves as strangers in the world, even when we are caught up in the midst of the secular world. One example of this was recalled by one of our members who considered herself to be a stranger to those who knew her prior to her conversion 7 years ago, and they find her a different person than she was before.

In the Christian life, we conceded that you will always get distractions from the secular world, which is summed up brilliantly by C.S. Lewis who says that, when you aim for God, you get earth thrown, and when you aim for the earth, you will get neither. And as for the issue of whether we should examine ourselves in terms of approaching a holy God, we think that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In other words we need a good idea of the glory and magnitude of God before we approach Him for anything such as worship, confession and petition.

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Carmelite Coat of Arms (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmelites)

We then moved onto how Lawrence as a novice in his religious order, would always begin and end his work with prayer, by focusing his attention unto God and His Truth via ‘the light of faith than by the deductions of the intellect’ (Pg.2). This enabled him to always keep God in mind and even continue talking with him during his labour as well. Whenever he sinned, Lawrence would simply ask God for forgiveness and then move on with his life and work. We applied these ideas to our prayer service during our Sunday worship, as well as trying to pray during our working periods. We discussed that during Sundays when we’re at church trying to have private conversations with God were sometimes difficult due to some possible distractions involved, such as music and frantic activity. The only times during worship when we felt enabled to have a private time with God were confirmation and Communion. When at confirmation, we each remember being given a book of suggestions for prayer during the service, however confirmation itself is a smaller, quiet and stricter time where one is allowed to talk to God privately. As for Communion, it is a more important part of our faith because we are recalling the Passion and Death of Jesus (His Body and Blood), which enable it with a supernatural presence (God’s), turning it into a blessing for the average Christian because it allows us to partake in His sacrifice.

As for work, we concluded that Lawrence was able to communicate with God easily during work is because he (Lawrence) has enough spare time during his manual labour to concentrate his attention on God, while for those of us who have work which requires a lot of time and mental concentration, it becomes a lot more difficult. The reason why is because of our need to give this work our full and undivided attention. The only way we could talk with God is only during a break period, such as lunch, where we can give Him our full attention.

As for the idea of an examination of conscience and whether Christians could benefit from it, one of us discussed how, after she feels like she has done something wrong, the idea of confession would come to her straightaway. She then prays during the night and she says that God often clarifies the wrong she has done and how to turn away from it. Therefore, God is very specific in this conviction of sin, while the Devil is general and non-specific about sin, and offers no such idea of doing something wrong and allowing to do better or stop the sin from entering our lives. We therefore lack this sense of wrong about sin and we then need God to help us understand how deep this sin is in our lives and how we can turn away from it.

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Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer)

Brother Lawrence then finishes Section 1 by looking at issues such as faith, prayer, truth and suffering. Brother Lawrence claims only faith alone ‘can reveal Him (God) or teach me what He is. By faith I learn more of God, and in a very little time, than I could do in the schools after many a long year’ (Pg.4). He also says that we should not rely solely on our own strength and instead always put our trust in God alone, and that by focusing all our thoughts on God alone we can have peace and tranquility throughout our life. This can even be applied to moments of trial, which might seem to be long and painful but, with the presence of God kept in mind, seem light and short. In fact, God often uses such torments to help ‘purify the soul, and to constrain us to abide with Him’ (Pg.6). As for the truth, Brother Lawrence says that God alone is the ‘great teacher of truth’ and that in order to progress further in faith, we must avoid relying in the subtle conclusions and fine reasonings of the unaided intellect’ (Pg.5). He also says that (w)e can reason laboriously for many years, but far fuller and deeper is the knowledge of the hidden things of faith and of Himself, which he flashes as light into the heart of the humble’ (Pgs.5-6). Finally, Brother Lawrence encourages his readers with a plea that, because he neglected giving his youth (early years’) to God, we should not neglect giving every moment of our lives to God and that we should (c)onsecrate all yours to His love’ (Pg.6).

We then look at Lawrence’s view of these issues, beginning with education. We have hundreds of years of deep theological thought and training, as well as several creeds that help us to get an idea of God and the fundamentals of our faith and we definitely have a need of such things. However, we also need to approach God as an Actual Person, love Him and just live by faith. Faith says “I don’t have to understand it all, I just need to love God.” We have to live by faith because we cannot do anything else. God is incomprehensible and nothing we can do on our own, beyond our sinfulness, can approach Him in His own goodness. Therefore, God gives us his peace when we follow His path.

As for the issue of hardship, we found Lawrence’s attitude towards it as rather inspirational. However, we feel like that there are times when we are not able to endure these torments, even if they are sent by God to help us grow in our faith and therefore it would take both faith and a bit of effort to able to see the pain and struggle of life as sent by God to help grow stronger in our faith.

Finally, as for consecrating our time to God alone, is something that we all agreed should be done daily. The reason why is because everything in time and creation belongs to Him. Even the work we do is often an act of worship, even though sometimes we cannot be conscious of God’s presence because the work, if done well, requires our full concentration. Therefore, the one ideal way of dedicating our everyday life to God would be to start in the morning, with a promise to consecrate all the events of the day to God, then, in the evening, to check up with Him and ask for His help to do better tomorrow. The reason why is that God should always be at the back of our minds all the time.

Section Two

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Obi Wan Kenobi copyright Lucasfilm (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obi-Wan_Kenobi)

Section Two of this book consists of a series of observation about Lawrence himself, which were most intriguing. We also gained some more information from Lawrence as both a Christian and a human being as revealed in the except:

‘He (Brother Lawrence) had a frank open manner, which, when you met him, won your confidence at once, and made you feel that you had found a friend in whom you confide completely.

 ‘On his part as soon as he knew with whom he was dealing, he spoke quite freely and gave immediate proof of great goodness of heart. What he said was very simple, but to the point and full of sense.’

 (Pg.10)

Another aspect of Lawrence is that he is depicted as a wise teacher who was willing to give advice to all his fellow monks. But above all else, the only thing Lawrence desired was to know God and to seek His way alone. Upon reading these descriptions of his faith and character and a strong sense of serenity, which are so compelling that each one of us even desired to have that kind of serenity, even if it meant doing what Lawrence did in his lifetime and having what he had as well. This also reminded us of certain elders in our church who provided such wisdom and serenity to the younger members and how it greatly benefited them in their journey of faith. I myself suggested some parallels with similar mentor figures in fiction, such as Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars – wise elders who help the hero on their journey. But above all, Lawrence also possesses great sense of humility in the fact that he takes no pride from his wisdom and even prefers a simple faith in God to that of great learning (including constantly reading and rereading the four gospels). It is this humility that we as Christians can learn from and use to help deepen our faith.

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Carmelite Monks at Prayer (Source: Carmelite Monks http://www.carmelitemonks.org)

Moving onto chapters 2-4, we looked into further aspects of Lawrence’s life and thought. We love the fact that Lawrence says that all he has to do, after committing a particular sin, is to pray to God for forgiveness and be filled with a sense of His love and forgiveness, so that he (Lawrence) can move on and continue with his vocation in the monastery. We often wonder how it would feel if we possessed such a sense of His grace and forgiveness. I asked everyone if it was possible to think that Lawrence’s faith would appear to be a bit “fatalistic” to some people. After some mulling over it we decided that, in terms of helping others, we should do the best we can. As for us, we asked ourselves how would we accept it? The only answer would be that it would work if we simply take it to God and ask Him what He thinks about the matter. It is likely that He would say that My grace is sufficient for you, which was the same answer He gave to the apostle Paul when he had a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor.12:7-10). Another answer to this problem is simply to give God alone the praise, give Him praise in all things and for all things. Finally, we should always acknowledge that God is sovereign and that He alone rules over everything.

As for other questions concerning any issues of dryness and not praising God for the gifts he provides us with, our answer was that the reason why God often provides us these periods of dryness is to help us have faith in God and not just in the gifts that He gives us. For in some cases, it is possible to have the gifts He provides us and not have faith in Him, thus taking all our gifts for granted. Therefore, we concluded that faith alone is a conscious decision to turn to God and must be done on the part of the Christian alone.

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Grave (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grave)

In chapters 5-6, this section of the book looks at the death of Brother Lawrence especially where he is pain and deliberately lies on his sore side in order to still praise God while in agony! We felt that even we wouldn’t dare go so far as worship God in such pain! However, we believe that having faith and trust in God would allows us to accept death better and can even bring one closer to God. The reason why is because our Christian beliefs can allow us to have something decent to hold onto and believe in about death. It does not have to be the final end.

Having so far read the first two section of Brother Lawrence’s book, we have all concluded that he has much to teach us all. First of all, the concept of denying oneself in order to be closer to God would appear simple but it is not easy and therefore takes God’s grace, time and effort in order to attain it. Another aspect is that one can easily compare Lawrence with the saints of great learning, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, who looked to God via knowledge because that both chose different paths to reach God. However, Lawrence’s pattern can be traced back to the New Testament especially in connection with what the apostle Paul said about God choosing the simple and the weak of this world in order to shame both the wise and strong (1 Cor.1:27-29) and that Jesus said that we need to be like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of God (Matt.18:1-5; Mk.9:33-37; Lk.9:46-48). Finally, Lawrence’s serenity and joy must have been a powerful presence and it would be wonderful to attain such a depth of feeling like his. This has led us to believe that, in spite of the centuries between our time and Lawrence’s, we think that this humble monk has much to tell about faith, trust and joy.

We hope you enjoyed reading about our first discussion of Brother Lawrence’s book. We look forward to next time as we discuss Sections 3 and 4 of the Practice of the Presence of God. See you then.

 

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Trans. Harold J. Chadwick. Bridge-Logos. 1999 (2001)

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 2

The Benedict Option Part Three

PART TWO

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The Benedict Option (Source: Penguin Random House https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/547188/the-benedict-option-by-rod-dreher/9780735213296/)

Hello, and welcome to the final post for the Benedict Option! My apologies for the delay in writing this post; I just got caught up in some business, which distracted me a little, but now we are back! We have spent three months discussing the various merits and limitations of Dreher’s book and his ideas. Now, we shall look at his ideas for Christians on how to deal with issues of employment, sexuality and technology before reaching a final verdict on his book.

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Jobs (Source: https://nvnews.com.au/jobs-december/)

In Chapter 8, Dreher looks at the topic of employment for Christians in a post-Christian environment that wants little to do with a conservative Christian viewpoint. It is also worth noting that Dreher wrote this book as a response to the LGBT persecution of Christians who simply do not want anything to do with serving a same-sex marriage as well a warning to Christians that there will be difficult times ahead. To be fair on Dreher, he does state that we may need to show wisdom to decide whether or not there is actual persecution in a workplace situation. We cannot simply make a mountain out of a molehill when a situation could just be a minor problem that does not require any unnecessary attention.

We also discussed that it is rather difficult to discern whether the outcome of our work will be used to honour God or not, for example, a machine such as a car can be used to help people in everyday lives, vut also could be used to kill someone whether deliberately or accidentally. We simply do not know whether or not anything that we make with our hands could will be used either way.

However, there will be moments when our beliefs do clash with any anti-discrimination laws, for example would it be right for a Christian school or church to hire a non-Christian for either a teaching position and/or a pastor? It is these issues that are more important than debating the merits of baking a cake for a wedding, and in these instances Christians should put their beliefs first rather submit to the ethos of the working atmosphere. In fact, work itself should not be an idol, and therefore God must have the final word.

Later on, Dreher says that we must try supporting Christian businesses in order to keep them going and to keep Christian workers in employment. The problem with this idea is that, while in theory a Christian employee/business could do a better job, we have to always remember that we Christians are also fallen human beings and are capable of making mistakes. For example, we do not always turn the other cheek. At the same time, it would be nice to benefit from reading books without developing sinful thoughts after an initial reading, to buy clothing that does that not present the human body as an object of lust, and to hear comedy that does not resort to both crude language and sexual innuendo for laughs. It might mean that Christian employees/businesses might have to work harder and we, as consumers, would have to pay more, but if it means that we can end up with products that promote a Christian way of life and thought, then it could be worth it.

A final word on employment is that Dreher believes that most higher paying and/or more intellectual jobs would be beyond the reach of most Christians due to the fact that there could provide conflict with and/or compromise our beliefs. Therefore it would be better for Christians to choose manual employment that will not lead to us betraying or watering down our faith. He even claims that the Christian practice of asceticism could help us deal with working in a position of manual labour and getting our hands dirty. As Dreher puts it: ‘Better to be a plumber with a clean conscience than a corporate lawyer with a compromised one’ (Pg.192).

As we looked over his suggestions, we decided that as Christians we should do what has to be done, whether the job we’re doing is intellectual or manual, but that we should use the gifts that God has given us to help spread His Word and Presence to a fallen world. Again, we will know when we should leave a job when it becomes apparent that, somewhere along the way, it could lead to a conflict with our faith. Again, it is a matter of either honouring God or treating the job itself as an idol.

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Gender symbols (Source: https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/05/where-the-male-and-female-symbols-came-from/)

In Chapter 9, Dreher focuses on the issue of sexuality, especially how today’s culture uses sex for the sake of personal gratification and labels anyone a bigot who opposes LGBT ideology and same-sex marriage. We admit there are points where we agree with Dreher on certain issues. However, given the conflict between conservative Christians and LGBT activists, I have decided not to include our full discussions on the issue of same-sex attraction, but to simply reiterate that everyone (including both straight and gay Christians as well as non-Christians) are sinners and we need God’s grace and the full support of a loving Christian community.

As for the issue of pornography we agreed that it is dangerous and that we also need to help Christians who struggle with this addiction in order to help them develop healthy relationships. We should also offer support for single Christians and to help them deal with the struggle of sexual temptation that everyone suffers from on day-to-day basis rather than simply leave them to continue their battles alone. The only word we can say is that we should offer love and support for we all suffer from temptation on a day-to-day basis.

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Technology (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer)

Moving onto Chapter 10, Dreher looks at how technology affects the Christian life. He states that technology has changed the way we view the world, giving us a false superiority that makes us think that we are in charge of our environment and can control it. This includes issues such as information, the physical environment and the human body (especially in the case of IVF, which Dreher thinks is as harmful to the formation of human embryos as abortion). He also says that the Internet itself has radically altered the way we view information, in that we can download a lot of facts about any specific topic, yet we cannot retain for the information in our minds. It has also affected human relationships in that we spend too much time on computers and also has greatly diminished our attention spans as well as spreading porn and making it available for young teenagers.

On a certain level, we agree with Dreher that technology can be all encompassing and has radically changed human behaviour. But the problem is that our modern world is too dependent on technology and if we get rid of it completely, our society will not know how to function. At another level, we need to recognize that technology itself inhabits a morally grey area in that it can be used for both good and bad, for example a computer can be used for, say, running a library, as well as designing and developing military weapons. However, we can try to limit our dependence on technology and not be always taken in by the latest fad. Instead, we should try to develop a critical stance on how technology is both consumed and used and try not to turn it into an idol.

The same applies to our use of the Internet in that we need not become addicted to it. There are vast amounts of information offered on the Internet, which needs to be curated in terms of what is useful and what is rather frivolous. We perhaps need also rely on other means of research, especially using books, because it can help us develop better ways of retaining information and using it. We also need to develop better communications skills and not use technology as a way of isolating ourselves from the real world and its issues.

Medical technology helps us deal with medical problems and make them easier to handle. However, if left unchecked an idolization of medical technology can lead us to a false understanding of the human body and nature, in that it treats them as simply inanimate matter to be controlled and manipulated at will. In fact, the one problem with medical technology is that it brings up difficult ethical questions and it is also difficult as to know when and when not to use technology to help solve our medical problems. In the end, we now that medical technology, like other kinds of technology, pervades our society and we cannot, at this point in time, live without it. But if we can make sure that we limit our over-reliance on this kind of technology and simply treat it as a tool and not as an idol that encompasses all our lives, then we can put safeguards on how we use it for our benefit.

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(Source: https://www.freepik.com/free-icon/question-mark_731610.htm)

This leads us to one final question: what is the Benedict Option? After having looked at this book for three months, all we can say is we don’t know. All we can gather from reading the book is that, one some points, both the Benedict Option and conservative, traditional Christianity appear to be the same thing. What we can gather from Dreher’s book is that the Benedict Option appears to be a reaction of fear, especially fear of persecution. It is interesting to note that this book was written during the time America legalized same-sex marriage. And even though Dreher (especially in the conclusion of this book) claims that those who practice the Benedict Option should perform their actions in a spirit of love, the impression we got from this book was simply more fear than love. The best lesson we can gather from Dreher’s books is that Christians have to make their faith more robust, and to be more aware, especially when dealing with a culture that has now begun to want little to do with Christianity. That is what Christians have been doing for centuries and, God willing, will continue to do in the future.

Join us next time as we look into the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Sentinel, 2017

Anyone wanting to know more about Rod Dreher:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_Dreher

Part One

Part One of Brother Lawrence

The Benedict Option Part Two

Part One

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The Benedict Option (Source: Penguin Random House https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/547188/the-benedict-option-by-rod-dreher/9780735213296/)

Hello and welcome again to the blog! In February we discussed chapters 1-4 of The Benedict Option, and now, having met up again in March, we will continue our discussion with chapters 5-7 of Rod Dreher’s book. In these chapters, Dreher looks at the concept of liturgy, Christian discipleship, the concept of family and community, and finally education and schooling and comes up with suggestions that he thinks can enable Christians to thrive in these areas in the upcoming decades. And, as in the conclusions reached in the previous blog, we discover that we agree with some of Dreher’s ideas while disagreeing with the rest.

Chartres_Cathedral

Chartes Cathedral (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartres_Cathedral)

To begin with Chapter 5, Dreher talked about the dangers of churches simply becoming places of “entertainment” instead of places of worship and discipleship, and he is not alone in pointing this out. In The Pastor, Eugene Peterson warned against the idea of the church being used for entertainment alone, and sometimes we wonder if our own Anglican church can be in danger of becoming used for entertainment alone, due to the music and the multimedia becoming too distracting and can even prevent Christians from focusing on God. In Dreher’s book the only way to avoid this route is to simply go back and use earlier liturgies that the churches have used for centuries as well as the thoughts of the early church Fathers but some of us do not agree with him. On the one hand as Christians we have to be different to the world, but we do not think that the only way to do that is simply to stick to our old traditions because the old traditions themselves might end up becoming another idol to serve. At the same time, we can see that western culture is dying at the moment because it continues to ignore all the lessons of history, not just in the church but also in general. But we agree that we have to stick to tradition at some level. We just need to question ourselves why these traditions exist then we can say ‘this we can change’ and ‘this we cannot change’.

We then entered a big discussion about tradition, especially in regards to both Catholicism and Anglicanism because both denominations are big on tradition, which goes back thousands of years. We thought that it would be a good thing to learn about the church’s past in terms of its richness not only the glories of the church’s past but also from its mistakes so we can provide a balanced look at Christian history. Another factor is the historical writings, which Dreher looked at, such as ‘Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, Jerome, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Irenaeus, and so many more’ (Pg.104-105). We agreed that we do have to address the need for looking at the church fathers, especially for the young people who will need to carry the church tradition onwards. However, we do need to be aware of our current situation because so many things have changed, especially in regards to mental illness and medical issues, so we cannot simply ignore the current scientific and technological advances that are around us at the moment. But we do agree that there are still some aspects of life that have not changed too much and from that we can learn from history to deal with them. To conclude on the concept of tradition, we do need to recognize that both history and tradition are important, but what is happening now is equally important as well and therefore we, as a church, need a mix of tradition and reverence to handle both.

As for sermons and the liturgy, Dreher claims that they are very necessary to help us provide a sense of continuity. We agreed that a minister and/or priest’s sermon is basically just one message being delivered to the people during the service. As for the liturgy, we think that every church (including “non-traditional” Hillsong churches) has a particular liturgy, i.e. an order and a usual way of doing things, and that some people can benefit from them, while others can’t. But the most important aspect of the liturgy is that we do not idolize for its own sake, and thereby letting it displace God. But the many actions involved in the liturgy, such as standing to attention, sitting and participation can enable us to stay awake during a service and to be a part of it.

Moving from tradition and liturgy, Dreher then goes into the concept of asceticism and discipline, claiming that Christians really need both in order to show that they are committed to the Christian faith, otherwise Christians would appear no different from non-Christians. One of us said that fasting helped her to gained an insight into the concept of charity, but she also said that the decision to fast was really her choice and not something imposed upon her. Therefore something like fasting can help us to train us in the Christian life but it there is also a danger of it ending up becoming legalistic, and therefore perverting the Christian faith. As for confession, we agree that it is “good for the soul” but also need to show accountability for all kinds of sins, including greed and gossip along with other sexual sins, which are often the ones reported in the media. However, we also talked about the idea of mandatory reporting for priests, especially given the issue of child abuse in clerical circles. We asked how people can gain help for their sexual sin if they know that if they go to confession then there is the certainty of being reported to the local authorities. Therefore, this will prevent them from taking the first step toward repentance. We asked if there will be any support for any sexual offenders, and we felt that the concept of confession has therefore become a very complex issue that will not be easily resolved any time soon.

We then discussed the concept of beauty, and we agreed that people can find contemplating nature to be a religious experience. We also agreed that the arts, such singing, dancing, painting and music can reach behind any barriers we put up and touch the soul, convincing people of God’s existence. And, like Dreher, who converted to Catholicism because of a visit to Chartres Cathedral, we also agreed that ancient churches with the beauty of the stained glass and architecture could also engender reverence.

The final aspect of church discipline that Dreher looked at in Chapter Five is the idea of talking about the history of the martyrs (those who died for the Christian faith) and confessors (those underwent great suffering for the faith yet survived to tell of their ordeals). Dreher says that we should always relate the history of both ancient martyrs such as St. Polycarp of Smyrna and recent ones like Dietrich Bonheoffer. However, while we agree that we to need to always remember those who died for Jesus and we also talked about modern martyrs who are suffering at this very moment, giving their lives for God (especially with Empart a missionary organization in India that our church helps to co-fund and gives aid towards). We agree that if we talked more about these modern martyrs, this might make a good impression upon young people who might come to a belief in Jesus because of these figures, and may think that the Christian faith is something worth practising. This therefore lead us to think deeply about where we as a church are going, especially with the information that Christians are the most persecuted group in the entire world.

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Church Community (Source: http://www.edencommunitychurch.org/church-life/)

Next, we looked at chapter 6, where Dreher talks about the concept of a Christian family and community. According to Dreher, a Christian family should be run like a monastery, where everyone is able to perform bible study and study the lives of the saints as well as display humility to each other, especially when one sins and disagreements suddenly arise. We talked about this idea, coming to the conclusion that even in the best Christian family it hard to get it right. In the case of a Christian family you need both discipline and love to achieve the best results. You can’t simply say ‘follow this plan and your kids will be fine’ because there are no guarantees of getting it right. We do agree that training children in the Christian faith is important, such as giving them bible study, giving them solid theology, and treating them like people. But the most important idea in building the Christian family is setting a good example, which would enable young Christians to be willing share the faith of their parents and to live good Christian lives. Therefore, we think that setting a good example is more important than simply trying to run a home like a Benedictine monastery.

As for the idea of a Christian community, he says that we should have a proper Christian community that is run closely with the local church and that we should govern ourselves in the same way as a Jewish and/or Mormon community does, i.e. that of a community that displays a strong Christian identity. We looked at his concept and compared to our local church, St. Clements, and we decided that we are already partially doing what Dreher is suggesting is his book: in the sense that we are trying to reach to both ourselves and the greater community of Kingston in a service of love. For example, we run a series of community building exercises (such as Men on Water, Women’s activity day, Prime Timers, etc) and we have someone running risk management and we make sure that all our groups are under the Anglican diocese and are under insurance, so that we do not find ourselves liable to put people at risk. We also discussed that macro (large) events can help build community and even micro (small) events such as lunches, dinners and even book clubs can help to build community as well. We also think that that it is important to even build connections between other churches (for example we used to hold a Good Friday event between all the churches although that has stopped a while ago).

But the most important thing we have to emphasize that we must do this community building is because we are doing it out of the Great Commission as well as out of a sense of love. We think that Dreher’s own plea for building a Christian community is based purely out of fear, especially that of non-Christians threatening to take what is important from our communities and preventing Christian growth. We do our community out of fear of not fulfilling the Great Commission, not of feeling under attack by anyone who will ill-treat us. More importantly, we don’t want to be friends just for the sole reason what we can bring them to the Lord. We need to be friends just to be friends. If we are good friends then we will want our friends to become Christians because we love them and being a Christian is the best thing for them. It is the same reason why we do not want the church to become the sole focus for our community building doing it for the Great Commission alone, it is more important that we reach out to show the love of Christ to people, and even if we fail in what we are trying to do, at least we are trying to work at it.

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Education (Source: http://www.trendingpackaging.com/safe-packaging-for-old-books/)

Then we looked at chapter 7, where Dreher talks about the concept of Christian education. He proposes that we should have is a classical Christian education where grammar, logic and rhetoric are the foundations of this educational system. The reason why Dreher is calling back to a more “classical” form of education is because modern education is based on “contemporaneity”, which is based simply on what is more “recent”, which meant that anything “old” and of long value must be jettisoned immediately. Worse, is the fact that while there is plenty of information offered at the moment to enable people to develop very specific skills, there is little emphasis on virtue and on acquiring it. Another reason why Dreher is critical of modern education is the acceptance of LGBT ideology in American education, which is cause for concern with some Christians.

We think that Americans, especially the ones we see in the media, are very good at practicing rhetoric but we think that that is not a virtue in itself. More importantly, some of us asked about the role of science in Dreher’s concept of education. Where is it and where should it be used? More alarmingly, we have tended to notice an absence of science in Dreher’s book. Is it because of its connection to more “modern” thinking, that Dreher himself is frightened of mentioning it? We do agree that lived Christianity in the community is much more important than bible bashing and that we need to lay more emphasis on our historical heritage because we agree that, especially with modern education, there can be a danger of losing touch with our past. However, try as we might, we cannot simply ignore the advances of the last century as well as those around us so we need to take note of them as well.

We agree that a “classical” education does work well for those whose minds are trained to work that way, but we do not think it can work for EVERYONE. But we do agree that we MUST stretch our children more in both bible study and education. A prime example of this stretching is demonstrated by the abilities of homeschooled kids, which is something that Dreher discusses as well. Therefore, we asked if it is possible if we can do a combination of homeschooling and sending kids to normal schools as well? We do need to support each other in educating our kids, because if parents think that education is important then the children will work too. Upon looking at this, we agreed that there has to be a balance between relevance of information and learning for learning’s sake is important, in order to help teach our children both virtue and skills as well.

To sum it up, all of the suggestions that Dreher illustrates in Chapters 5-7 are reasonable but the problem with them is that all seemed to be based on fear. But, as Christians we do not need to fear because we have God with us who is able to prevail against every adverse circumstance that comes our way. Besides, a lot of his suggestions we have been doing for a long time as Christians and we have been doing for hundreds of years, especially during the modern era. It is just that Dreher is scared of us losing our own Christian framework because we have lost so much of our Christian values in our Western society. This is a reasonable fear, which we share as well on some level, but as mentioned before we must have faith and respond to every situation in love, not in fear. To be based primary on fear alone demonstrates that we do not perform every act in a spirit in love, which is the most important aspect of the Christian faith. To respond in fear alone betrays God Himself.

Join next time as we finish our discussion of Dreher where we look at the final chapters concerning employment, sex and technology.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Sentinel, 2017

Anyone wanting to know more about Rod Dreher:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_Dreher

Part Three

The Benedict Option Part One

 

9780735213296

The Benedict Option (Source: Penguin Random House https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/547188/the-benedict-option-by-rod-dreher/9780735213296/)

Hello and welcome to the first blog post for 2018. This month the book club met to discuss The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, a text that has stimulated some discussion among many Christians due to its controversial claims. In particular the book claims that, because of the way that Western society has been going in terms of rejecting both Christian faith and ethos, orthodox conservative Christians have no choice but to separate themselves from a culture that has become aggressive against their faith. That we need to try to preserve and adhere to our own church traditions instead of just blindly following the rest of the world. And this applies especially in terms of moral issues that Dreher and many Christians do not agree with such as same-sex marriage.

So far, our book club has agreed that Dreher’s solution is more targeted to American culture because it reflects the thoughts and concerns of more conservative Americans. For example one of us compared Australia with China, looking at how Australia is post-Christian and is indifferent towards Christianity while China has a growing Christian population due to persecution, and it is an issue we need to address. But another member thinks that, instead of focusing just on issues like marriage, the church should be more concerned about the welfare of the poor and refugees and we are not sure that hiding away from non-Christians will allow us to show Christ to the world.

Chapter 1

 

Saint_Bendict_of_Nurcia

St. Benedict of Nursia (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_of_Nursia)

Here Dreher attempts to define the current ethos of not just the Western world but also that of the Christian church in general. Dreher shows that in place of family and tradition, the Western world now focuses on a rampant individualism that places Man instead of God in the center. Unfortunately the churches, instead of professing an orthodox Christian faith that requires believing in scripture, tradition and repentance and suffering, have instead have what he describes it as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD):

  • ‘A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • ‘God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • ‘The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • ‘God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • ‘Good people go to heaven when they die.’

(Pg.10)

We all agreed that in today’s world and in the churches, both the average person in the street and the average Christian would practice to some degree a form of MTD instead of believing in the Christian God and obeying Him. We also agreed that in Western societies such as America and Australia there is a very rampant individualism that wants little if anything to do with a traditional family-based faith. This is in stark contrast to non-Western societies such as China that have a more family-based culture and regard loyalty to the family as the highest goal. In fact, the issue of individualism can also be connected to the Bible, because, ever since the Protestant Reformation, we have each our own personal interpretation of the Bible, which could lead to some anxiety concerning whether or not anyone is interpreting the Bible in a way that is in accordance with orthodox Christian doctrine.

However, we are not certain about the issue of having a more “monastic” and “exclusive” faith, which poses more question than answers. For example, do we all need to become “Benedicts” and adhere to a more communal way of life? Or will we up becoming more exclusive and just end becoming more of a “Christians-Only” club? What effect will that have on the concept of Christian witness? Do we have enough non-Christian friends? How much do we change to help people to feel more comfortable in church? More importantly, what part of our faith needs to kept and what needs to left out? Therefore, what Dreher provides is simply one answer but it, so far, it does not satisfy our individual and cultural needs and wants.

Chapter 2

Dreher provides a brief summary of how the West itself went from professing Christianity to becoming more and more secular. We had some difficulty in Dreher’s claim that the philosophy of nominalism was responsible for God being replaced by Man at the centre because one would need a good grasp of philosophy to really know what Dreher is talking about to agree with him about nominalism. On the one hand we agreed that the medieval worldview of everything being full of the glory and presence of God is a good one. One the other we think that in all areas of society throughout history there have been some true Christians and some who call themselves Christian and some who are not Christians – not just after nominalism. But we do agree that for a long time Christian ideals and morals have been the foundation of the government in Western society. Now we are moving away from that foundation.

We think society has been changed because the church has not lived Christian lives (in terms of looking after the poor, etc.) and this in turn this has led the West itself to reject Christianity. It also means that Christianity can be mocked but not other religions such as Islam because that would been seen as “politically incorrect.”

This part of our discussion led to some interesting comments from a member of our group who is a young person from China. She says maybe the West, especially Australia, gives too much freedom and that the Christian faith is seen as a threat to that freedom. This is different in China, where people are more open and curious about the Christian faith in spite of threats and persecution. She also found it odd that it was American missionaries who bought the faith over to China many years ago, and now she finds it hard to believe that Western culture is not Christian anymore! However, while we agree that the West has lost its moorings as a Christian culture, we do not agree that the Benedict Option is the “answer” to the problem. We agree that it could be seen as a useful part of the solution but definitely not the whole solution.

Chapter 3

Norcia

Monastery of St. Benedict, Norcia (Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monastery_of_St._Benedict_(Norcia))

Dreher looks at the Monastery of St. Benedict to show more of what the Benedict Option is. We are sure that some people would find the Benedict concept very beneficial but, in truth, it would not be suitable for everyone. We agreed that some people would find monasticism very attractive, especially in terms of escapism and not having to deal with the hard realities of life and other people, but that does not take into account that even monastic life can have its harsh realities as well, such as having to put up with both discipline and other members of that community.

Dreher then goes into more detail of the various aspects of the Benedictine life. The very first thing we discussed was the concept of order and obedience, especially obedience to the Abbot. We had some trouble with this concept, because, according to the Benedict rule, the Abbot is very powerful and everyone under him answers to him. We found that very interesting to compare this concept of the Abbot with leaders such as our pastor, and also made us wonder who this Abbot answers to – God or someone higher in the church hierarchy? However, the Chinese person told us that in China the pastor of a church is very powerful and can decide upon every of a person’s life, especially who that person can date and marry. We also noted that in the West there have also been some church leaders who have taken that strict line in trying to control every aspect of an individual’s life.

We then looked at other issues such as prayer, especially since the Benedictines tend to rely upon the Daily Office and lectio divina to aid prayer and contemplation. We agreed that to have extra time to pray and focus on God would be beneficial and appealing to us, especially in our world where we live by a fast and hectic schedule that little if any time to talk with and praise God. The idea of doing work for the glory and love of God is an interesting topic because it makes us question the motives that drive us to get a job and do work. Do we really do it for God, for others, to do a good job, or just for our own satisfaction? The subject of work has also lead Dreher to discuss the concept of suffering, which we are just starting to experience in the west, for example where strong Christians have lost their jobs for questioning something such as homosexuality. What Dreher argues is that Christians should use the Benedictine practice of asceticism in order to help prepare themselves for any trial that they might encounter. That was interesting because it contrasted with the idea of using asceticism and fasting as a means of being close to God, especially in the case of Lent where most Christians use it to concentrate on the passion and suffering of Jesus. Finally, we discussed the Benedictine concept of building community and showing hospitality to others, which we most useful because by using these values we could better display the love of Jesus to our neighbours.

Chapter 4

Finally, Dreher talked about politics and how the Benedict Option could help develop an alternative set of politics. We were a bit reluctant to discuss this section because of the fact that politics tends to provoke arguments, even though one of us had written to politicians a while ago on certain issues. We did look at what Dreher had written about “apolitical politics”, which means working outside the political system to bring cultural change without policy change. We looked at the pros and cons of this idea and we concluded that this sort of politics would work best if we had strong support from others because no individual would succeed in committing to this way of life.

Conclusion

So far, we do not know what Dreher is suggesting when he talks about applying the Benedict Option. Based upon what we have read, we do manage to gain some hints of what he is getting at, but the problem is that he offers no concrete form to help the reader fully understand his idea. Having said that, we have only skimmed the surface of the book, and maybe when we have read further, we could a better grasp of what the idea that he wants to implement.

Next time we are going to look at Chapters 5-7 of The Benedict Option. If anyone wants to discuss anything about we have talked so far, please leave any questions in the comments below.

Bibliography

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Sentinel, 2017

Anyone wanting to know more about Rod Dreher:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_Dreher

Anyone wanting to know more about the Rule of St. Benedict:

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/benedict/rule

Anyone wanting to know more about the Daily Office:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canonical_hours

Anyone wanting to know more about lectio divinia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_Divina

Part Two

 

A Brief Appraisal of the Main Virtues by John Kelly

This is a condensed version of a presentation I gave last Wednesday (15/Nov./2017) to a mixed prayer group, in Kingston.

On November 1st., we celebrated All Saints Day. This is a day on which we are given the opportunity to honour the unknown billions of saints and martyrs, whose virtues were outstanding and beneficial to others, similar to the Saints who are known, and honoured on special days of the year.

So what are these virtues that make all these saints so special?!

If you Google the word ‘virtue’, you’ll get “ Behaviour showing high moral standards”, as in ‘paragons of virtue’.

You will also be told that a ‘virtue’ is “ the seventh-highest order of the celestial hierarchy”! But for this appraisal, we shall pass, on this snippet of Christian ‘angelology’!

So let’s relate our thoughts to Our Lord.

Virtues are gifts from God that lead us to live in a close relationship with Him.

Virtues are like habits – they need to be practised, as they can be lost, if neglected.

The three most important virtues are called theological virtues, because they come from God, and lead to God !

The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity.

Faith, hope, and charity, are called theological virtues because they are the most important characteristics in a Christian’s life, as Paul explains in Romans 5:1 – 5; and 1 Corinthians 13:13.

They pertain to one’s relationship to God (exclusively in the case of faith and hope; and primarily in the case of charity).

FAITH is the grace of believing in God’s love for us, and His revealed truths (Luke 1:45 ; John 11:25 – 26 ; and Ephesians 2:8 ) . A quote from St. John of the Cross: — “ Faith is the union of God and the soul.”

HOPE is the grace of trusting that God will be true to His promise to save us from eternal death, if we turn to Him in repentance ( Romans 5:2 , and 8 :25 ; Hebrews 6:17 – 20 ; and 1 Peter 1:3 – 5 ) .

A few comments on Hope, from Pope Francis:—

“ It is best not to confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a psychological attitude towards life.

Hope goes further.

It is an anchor that one hurls toward the future, it’s what lets you pull on the line and reach what you are aiming for , and head in the right direction.

Hope is also theological: God is there , too !”

CHARITY is a two-fold grace, with the primary effect of moving the will to love God fervently and above all things; and with the secondary effect of intensifying love for our neighbour ( Deuteronomy 6:4 – 6 ; Matthew 22:36 – 40 , and 25:31 – 46 ; Mark 12:28 – 31 ; Romans 13:8 – 10 ; and 1 Corinthians 13:1 – 13 ) .

Another quote, from my favourite ‘go-to’ for religious quotes, St. John of the Cross :— “ At the end of our life, we shall all be judged by charity. “

That was a very brief referral to the three theological virtues, mainly because we are familiar with them ; I now move on to the secondary tier of virtues, the four cardinal, or moral virtues .

These are human virtues, acquired by education, and good actions.

“ Cardinal “ comes from ‘cardo’, the Latin word for “hinge”, meaning ‘ that on which other things depend’.

They are also called “ moral virtues “, because they help us to live within the moral parameters set forth by the Gospels.

The four Cardinal Virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance .

These are virtues that can be practised by anyone, for, unlike the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues are not, in themselves, the gifts of God through grace, but the outgrowth of habit .

However, Christians can grow in the cardinal virtues through sanctifying grace, and thus prudence can take on a supernatural dimension, as well as a natural one.

Prudence is the grace to form correct judgements (Matthew 10:16; 1 Peter 4:7).

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that prudence was the primary cardinal virtue, because it is concerned with the intellect.

Prudence is basically the ability to distinguish what is good, and bad, in any given situation, and to take appropriate action.

Aristotle defined prudence as “recta ratio agibilium”, ‘right reason applied to practice’.

We simply cannot make a decision, and then describe it as a “prudential judgement”, for prudence requires us to distinguish between what is right, and what is wrong, or should be avoided!

Justice is the virtue that demands that we have the constant, and permanent determination to give everyone exactly what is due to them.

St. Thomas Aquinas ranked justice as the second cardinal virtue, because it deals with the will.

Whilst the theological virtue of charity emphasises our duty to our fellow man, because he is our fellow, justice is concerned with what we owe someone else, precisely because he is not us!

And since justice is concerned with rights, it is very important to remember that natural rights always comes before legal rights, as in the case of the right to life of babies!

The third cardinal virtue, fortitude, is commonly called ‘courage’, but it is different from much of what we think of as ‘courage’, today.

Fortitude is always reasoned, and reasonable. Fortitude always seeks to serve a higher purpose.

The person exercising fortitude is willing to put himself in danger if necessary, but he does not seek danger for danger’s sake.

Fortitude is not foolhardiness or rashness, ‘rushing in where angels fear to tread’!

St. Thomas Aquinas ranked fortitude as the third of the cardinal virtues, because it serves the higher virtues of prudence and justice.

Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it!

The fourth cardinal virtue, temperance, can be practised by anyone, whether baptised or unbaptised, Christian or not.

Temperance is the virtue that helps us control our physical desire for pleasure.

St.Thomas Aquinas ranked temperance as the fourth of the cardinal virtues, because temperance serves prudence, justice, and fortitude .

The moderation of our own desires is essential to acting rightly (the virtue of prudence); giving each man his due (the virtue of justice); and standing strong in the face of adversity (the virtue of fortitude).

Temperance is that virtue which attempts to overcome the over-riding condition of our fallen human nature: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

There are lots more virtues, that cover the many aspects of our lives; there are seven capital virtues following the theological, and cardinal virtues (e.g. chastity, generosity, brotherly love, humility ) .

There are virtue lists for all the non-Christian religions; there are copious uses of the term virtue/virtues in business, implying good value /good standard; many sports, such as Golf, have lists of virtues for those involved.

But one of the unusual stories concerning virtue, that I found in my research, pertained to Benjamin Franklin, the American Statesman , Scientist, and Writer, who sought to cultivate his character by a plan of 13 virtues, which he developed at the age of twenty !

I say plan, because there was a plan, which he attempted to stick to, throughout his entire, successful adult life .

He did not attempt to work on the 13 virtues all at once.

Instead, he worked on one, and only one, for each week, “leaving all the others, each week, to their ordinary chance”!

He carried no illusions about his ability to live completely by his virtues, but he certainly believed that the attempt made him a better man, contributing greatly to his success and happiness !

You can find Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues, on

https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Virtues/thirteen_virtues

So there you are folks, not my presentation per se, but enough details from it, to offer you an introduction to Virtues 101!

Cheers,

john k.

 

Please leave your comments and questions in the comments below!

TESTIMONY of Jill New

This a testimony from one of our book club members Jill New.  I hope people will find it an interesting look into how she came to know Christ.

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

Psalm 40:2

Six and a half years ago my husband, David, passed away at the age of 61. Death took him just six weeks after he first became ill with a very aggressive cancer; in his lungs were primary and secondary cancers, along with pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism. We had been married for almost 34 years.

The funeral service was conducted by a lovely, gentle, older man, named Graeme. When he visited me, prior to the funeral, he told me that he also performed grief counselling, and that I should give him a call if I found I needed it. I thought I would be able to grit my teeth and tough it out, but after six weeks my grief became unbearable so I made an appointment to see him.

Fast-forward several months. In a counselling session, I said to Graeme, “I want you to teach me something. I keep noticing your kindness, your gentleness, the lovely way you treat all people, the way you just accept everything about them. You also have such a steadiness, and a palpable aura of peace about you. I have tried hard all my life to have those qualities that you possess, and I’ve failed. Would you please teach me how to be more like you?”

Graeme’s response was, “Well, I can tell you a little bit about myself, but a large part of who I am has to do with my relationship with Jesus.”

“Oh dear,” I said. “I have never liked Christianity, or Christians. I find Christians very annoying. I don’t believe in God. I believe in reincarnation, and I believe in a mix of what Buddhism and Hinduism teach. However, since you reckon the way that you are has to do with your Jesus, then I’m happy to hear a bit about it when I come next week. So…how long have you been a Christian?” Graeme responded that he had been a Christian since age 16, and had pastored a church for almost 40 years, before retiring a few years ago.

I turned up for my appointment the following week, and Graeme filled me in on the story of the Bible, all the way from Creation to the Cross, then briefly spoke about Jesus’ 1000 year Millennium rule, and the New Heavens and New Earth. I found it so boring (I did not say this to him), and I was very relieved when the hour was over. Graeme suggested that I purchase an NIV bible, and read the Gospel of John.

At home, I read the Gospel of John. When I say “I read it”, what I mean is that I read it just the way I would normally read my fiction books. It didn’t take me very long to read those few pages. I flipped through my Bible and came across John’s Epistles, so I thought, “I’d better read this too, as it’s also called ‘John’.” Well, that took hardly any time at all, so I kept going, and began reading Revelation. It seemed like some sort of dark fairy-tale story, and I wondered how on earth Christians could be so dumb as to be sucked in to such nonsense. I’d read a few chapters, and I began to realise that the images being described were identical to those on some of my tarot cards. I was not impressed! I put the Bible down.

At my next appointment, Graeme eagerly asked me how I’d gone with reading John. I told him I’d read it, along with the “other John bits near the end of the Bible”, and had read some of Revelation. I said to him, “I can’t believe it! You Christians have stolen the images off my tarot cards! Don’t you see? The Bible isn’t original. It has copied stuff!”

Graeme, gentle and calm, as always, eyes twinkling, gave me a smile and said, “I hadn’t expected you to read that far. I thought John would be plenty for you to read during the week. I certainly wouldn’t have suggested that you read Revelation. That is a book that even advanced Christians struggle to understand. It’s definitely not for beginners.” He talked a bit about Revelation, and how it was intended to be read. He suggested that I read Romans during the week.

Romans. Oh dear! I read a few pages, and many times on every page, was that word “sin”. Ugh. That was the word I had always hated, as Christians seemed to carry on about it so much. Here’s the thing: I thought “sin” meant sex – people having dirty, depraved sex. Christians seemed to have some unpleasant hang-up about sex. They didn’t approve of it. I could not keep reading. Sin, sin SIN! Arrrgh!! I threw the stupid book across the room. “I am not reading this load of puritanical nonsense!”

I said these things to Graeme, at my next session. Yet again, he was kind and gracious and accepting. I told him that I did not think that I could ever read “that book” again. It just annoyed me so much.

I felt despair. All my life, my insides had been in turmoil. I really, really wanted to embody the traits that Graeme had, and most especially, I wanted to feel peace. I had never met anyone as peaceful as Graeme, and since he reckoned the peace came from Jesus, I had begun wanting Jesus to help me too. I talked to Graeme about how I could not bear that Bible. Then suddenly, I had an idea – a desperate last attempt.

I’ve always been sensitive, and ever since my twenties, I’ve been able to sometimes pick up emotions and/or body sensations inside some people, on some occasions. I asked Graeme, “So is He with you at the moment?” (meaning Jesus).

Graeme said, “Yes He is.”

“Then can I come and sit next to you, and see if I can feel Him?”

“Yes, you can.”

I went and knelt next to Graeme, and suggested that we both close our eyes.

Nothing happened for about 30 seconds, and then suddenly I was completely blanketed by something extraordinarily powerful. It was full of the deepest peace – indescribably deep. There was an intense emotional sweetness too. I felt all the pain go out of my body, and my breathing altered and became slow and deep. All my fears dissolved and were replaced by a sense of absolute safety and security. I could not move or speak. My eyes were closed, but I could somehow see that I was surrounded by a pale golden mist with tiny sparkles in it. The peace was profound, and I felt that I never wanted to leave. The experience was far beyond anything I’d ever known.

Eventually I was able to move, and I staggered back into my seat, and managed to say to Graeme, “Deepest, most profound peace,” before I started uncontrollably weeping. Our session had run over time, so I had to leave. I got up from my chair, and reeled across the room, as if drunk, careened into the wall in the passageway, and made my way outside.

By the time I arrived at my car, all the sensations had left, and I was back to my usual painful body, and my grief and depression. Back to being me. I thought to myself, “Wow, so that’s what it feels like to be Graeme. He’s so lucky.”

The following week, Graeme said to me, “So would you like to talk about what happened in our session last week?”

I described it in detail, and said, “You are so lucky to go through life feeling like that.”

He replied, “I felt none of those things that you’ve described. When you told me to close my eyes, I said to God, ‘You have given me so much of Your love. Do you think Jill might have some of Your love too?’”

Oh. Oh. OH. I looked at him, and he looked back, and slowly started smiling. A second or so later, I got it too. I haltingly said, “Graeme, I…um…now believe in God. Oh…I DO.”

Graeme was smiling all over his face, and just could not stop smiling. I was still absorbing the enormity of this new revelation. It was taking a while to sink in. Everything I’d previously believed, my behaviour, my thoughts, my way of doing life, all flipped upside down on that day – the 5th August 2011.

“You turned my wailing into dancing; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.”

Psalm 30:11-12

˜™

The Wounded Healer

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Image Copyright: Amazon.com

Hello, welcome to our first book review. Today, we will be looking at The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. This book was first published in the 1970s in response to practising ministry in the midst of a confused and broken world. Here, Nouwen answers this question by looking at the problem from four different angles, looked at in four individual chapters. It is divided into a suffering world, a suffering generation, a single suffering individual and finally, a suffering minister. The reason is because Nouwen also likes to think of a minister as a part of this world and being just as “broken” as the world itself. Yet, at the same time, Nouwen insists that the minister would recognize himself as a “wounded healer” in order ‘to recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts, and make to that recognition the starting point of their service.’ (Pg.4). In doing so the ministers will become better equipped to deal with a fragmented world as well as knowing the brokenness in their lives, which is further elaborated in this small book.

In the first chapter, Nouwen delves into the subject of a broken world, and does so by relating the case study of an individual named Peter, who in spite of coming from a devoutly Catholic background, has problems trying to make sense of the whole world. The only way that Nouwen can look at these problems is by focusing on the factors that create such fragmentation in the first place. This consists of looking at disillusionment with the Christian tradition, especially in the twofold sense of what Nouwen calls a ‘historical dislocation’ (which is a break with the continuity of the Christian tradition due to its irrelevance in modern life) and ‘fragmented ideology’ where the modern mind tries to find some compatibility with the Christian faith and that of the world and its problems. This in turn leads to what Nouwen calls a search for a new immortality, where due to no belief in the afterlife, people try to foster a similar sense via various means such as through rearing a family and/or a career, and yet failing to find an adequate alternative to the Christian faith. Therefore Nouwen looks at three ways of providing liberation from this condition: the first two being mysticism and revolution, in which both extremes are used to bring change (the first in the soul, while the second in society via usually violent means). Both methods have their positive aspects as well as their negative ones i.e. the mystic becoming too introverted whereas the revolutionary often forgets about his own faults and fears when trying to implement whatever changes he can inflict upon society. Therefore Nouwen suggests that there is a third way, the Christian way, where both positions of the mystic and revolutionary are combined in order to help make sense of the world and to provide a sense of change. “For a Christian, Jesus is the one in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in the human search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.” (TWH Pgs.24-25). Therefore because Jesus combines both aspects of the mystic and revolutionary positions from there on the Christian minister can deal with those who dwell in the world, its problems and the means to deal with them.

In Chapter Two Nouwen talks about the concept of a rootless generation, which is one which is inward (in the fact that most people form communes where they search for ways to expand their minds as well as trying to find a means to change society); fatherless, where due to a mistrust with the earlier generations, most young people try to break away from the traditions that their forebears have followed up until the present day; and finally convulsive in that they need to always change the world around them. In order to help ministers be more compassionate to this generation, Nouwen then weighs the various pros and cons of these various temperaments and tries to come up with ways that Christian minsters can use to handle the situations that this generation is going through. He suggests that Christians need to be an ‘articulator of inner events’, in which to better understand the ‘inward’ thought patterns and lead to more deep and meaningful relationships to be more compassionate towards a fatherless generation in which they must meet their needs as equals and how to address them; and finally to become ‘contemplative critics’ in the sense that, feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit with them, be able to “uncover the first glimpse of the new world behind the veil of everyday life” … and be able to “keep a certain distance to prevent becoming absorbed in what is most urgent and most immediate, but that same distance allows them to bring to the fore the real beauty of the world and of humanity, which is always different, always new” (TWH Pg.48).. To sum it up, a contemplative critic would guided by a supreme vision that goes beyond the narrow confines of this world and its wants, offer a method to help the people of the rootless generation to better channel their creative energies, and be critical of both the authorities and those who rebel against them. (On an interesting side-note, Nouwen also used the title ‘contemplative critic’ in a book on Thomas Merton called, simply Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic, which could be worth checking out). This, according to Nouwen, would help the minister not only to better understand the rootless generation, but to also help them in the future.

So far looking at the first two chapters of Nouwen’s book one notices the background when this book was first published (1972). For, although Sue Mosteller in the preface to this book, mentions that there was some attempt to “update” this book, one can still find mention of words and ideas such as commune and sit-in in these two chapters, especially in the one discussing about the rootless generation. Indeed while there are some aspects that still resonate with today’s society (such as the loss of faith in tradition), it will be fascinating to see how we can still use the descriptions that Nouwen uses to address the spiritual ills and desires of late 1960s/early 1970s society in the background of today’s world which is dominated by the social media and movements such as the New Atheists. For example, could the New Atheists’ desire for a “godless” and better society be connected to that of the “rootless” generation in its search for a perfect, more just world? Or is it just too dissimilar to what Nouwen had in mind many years ago? Another criticism would be that being such a brief book Nouwen does not go into too much detail about the various problems that most ministers deal with, such as alcoholism and drug abuse. Therefore, this leads me to suggest that society-wise, Nouwen’s book should be seen as a primer and that budding ministers and other Christians should also look elsewhere to help better supplement their ministry.

In the last two chapters Nouwen turns his attention to the more individual aspects of ministry. First he looks at a single individual, a Mr. Harrison, who is waiting for an operation on his arteries and his talking to John Allen, a theology student who is under training to be a hospital chaplain. The conversation between the two men turns out to be very superficial at best, partially because Allen himself does not dig deep enough to get to the gist of Mr. Harrison’s problems, which are divided by Nouwen into three parts. One is that Mr. Harrison is a victim of an “impersonal milieu” (the hospital represents to Mr. Harrison a white, sterile environment that seemed indifferent towards him); the second being a fear of death (on a subconscious level, Mr. Harrison is afraid of dying on the operating table and does not feel prepared for death); and finally a fear of life in that Mr. Harrison has no one to relate to on a personal level if he recovers from the operation and is also afraid that he might be left feeling pain later on. Therefore what John should have done is to provide a much more personal response to Mr. Harrison’s situation, thus making Mr. Harrison feel that is not alone and help him deal with the fear of life (allowing Mr. Harrison to know and feel the potential of life) and also offer hope that shows that there is salvation after death as well. It is this personal touch that Nouwen strongly recommends other than any sort of theological training that can provide, at best, only a dry academic approach to ministry of people and their problems.

The final part focuses on the minister, as someone who can offer aid to a hurting world while at the same time is looking at himself as equally “wounded” and “lonely” as well. In this section of the book Nouwen says that, like other people, ministers are subjected in the personal sense (in that ministers also bears personal wounds and can even try to vainly ignore them in order to move on with their lives and work) as well as professional in the fact that their very jobs can often bring them into conflict with others and are never around when they are really required. “The painful irony is that ministers, who want to touch the center of people’s lives, find themselves on the periphery, often pleading in vain for admission. They never see to be where the action is, where the plans are made and the strategies discussed. They always seem to arrive at the wrong places at the wrong times with the wrong people, outside the walls of the city when the feast is over” (TWH Pg.92). Therefore, the only way for a minister to function properly with these wounds is to be allowed to accept them without any further need for denial (“The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.” TWH Pg.90), and then use their wounds to offer hospitality to all who come to them. This hospitality is, in itself, twofold when it requires both concentration and a sense of community. Concentration, which requires withdrawing from the minister’s needs and desires in order to fully participate in the pain of the other in order to share, which can be painful but necessary for both the minister and the patient. Community in which both sides recognize that they share the same pain, the same loneliness and that from then on they can build each other up in both confronting their problems and living out the Christian life. “A Christian community is therefore a healing community, not because wounds are cured and pain are alleviated, but because wounds and pain become openings or occasions for a new vision. Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and shared weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength” (TWH Pg.100).

It is this sense of pain and loneliness that really shines out in Nouwen’s book, not just in Chapters 3 and 4, but also throughout the whole book itself. It is a pain that Nouwen had known during his whole life, because while he was a Catholic priest, he was also a celibate homosexual, which made him feel a painful tension between his commitment to serve the needs of others and his sexual desires which he felt ran contrary to the Bible and the church’s teaching. It was this tension that would go from one extreme to the next, as Philip Yancey relates in Soul Survivor, as on the one hand Nouwen would give inspiring addresses, but later one he would be found reduced to tears, and even ask someone to talk and even hold him (Soul Pgs.289-290). It was this pain that would ironically fuel his life and work as hinted at in the pages of the Wounded Healer, which briefly looks at how loneliness permeates both individuals as well as society at large. That, and the use of anecdotes, helps make Nouwen’s book so compelling in that we as Christians need to recognize ourselves as flawed beings in need of God’s grace and no amount of ignorance can help us to dismiss it completely out of hand. It is also this recognition of our personal pain that helps set Nouwen above and beyond all other Christian writers who simply and completely overlook the subject of pain and turn their attention to other “positive” subject matter. For it is only by looking at ourselves as sinful creatures who are all (including both committed Christians and non-Christians as well) in need of God’s help as well as our own.

Bibliography

Nouwen, H.J.M. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. Image Doubleday, 2010 (1972)

Yancey, P. Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. Hodder & Stoughton, 2007

 

For any further information on Nouwen, his life and work, please visit the sites below:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Nouwen

http://henrinouwen.org

Please leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

WATCH THIS SPACE!!!!!

Hi everyone!

Sorry for the delay, but I promise that we will resume our book discussions as soon as possible!  Plus we’ll have some exciting book reviews (including an upcoming one on the The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen) and other discussion pieces on issues such as specific areas of the Christian faith.

Hope everyone stays in the loop!  We look forward to sharing our views with everyone and also hearing back in the comments below!

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