The Ladder of Divine Ascent – First Week of Lent

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Hello, and welcome again to the Ladder of Divine Ascent! Sorry for any delays, I’ve got bogged down in work last week, but I am back! This week we’ll be looking at steps 6-10. The first two (6-&7) deal with instilling virtues in the life of a monk, while 8-10 deal with helping the monk to control his vices, this week being anger, malice and slander respectively.

Cimetière_marin_de_Varengeville-sur-mer_(Seine-Maritime)

Death

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

Steps 6-7

 In the sixth step, Climacus looks at how a monk should always keep death in mind in order to enable him to think more and more of his salvation:

‘The remembrance of death brings labor and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.’

 (Pg.132)

Among the objects of meditation for those who think on death are ‘the love of God, the remembrance of death, the remembrance of God, the remembrance of the kingdom, the zeal of the holy martyrs, the remembrance of the presence of God as described in the saying: “I saw the Lord before me” (Ps.15:8), the remembrance of the holy and spiritual powers, the remembrance of death, judgment, punishment, and sentence’ (Pg.134). Therefore, it also brings to mind a sense of repentance as in the case that Climacus relates of a monk called Hesychius the Horebite who, after a carless life, was struck by a severe illness and, feeling that his end was near, decided to stay in his cell for twelve years grieving for his sins.   Hesychius lived there without talking to anyone and lived mainly on bread and water. All the while, the other monks were in awe of him because of the change that came upon him. And when he died and they came to bury his remains, they couldn’t even find his body, which made the monks believe that God had accepted him for his act of repentance. ‘Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it a bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity. … Men like (Hesychius) unceasingly pile fear upon fear, and never stop until the very strength in their bones is worn out’ (Pg.135).

As for those who ask why doesn’t God actually tell us the time of death, Climacus claims the reason is because He does not want us to become slack in our activity. If anyone knew the hour of their passing before hand, they would ‘pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner’ (Pg.133). At the same time, Climacus also chastises those who use the though of death for wrong motivations: ‘A habitual sinner prays humbly for death, but the man who does not want to change his ways may, in sheer despair, actually long for death. And there are some who out of conceit consider themselves to be dispassionate, and for a while they have no fear of death, while a rare few hunger to leave by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit’ (Pg.133).

The end result of a remembrance of death, apart from a sense of repentance, is that it would also enable the monk to avoid food and all sorts of physical pleasure as well. ‘To have an insensitive heart is to be dulled in mind, and food in abundance dries up the well of tears. Thirst, however, and the keeping of vigils afflict the heart; and when the heart is stirred the tears may run’ (Pg.133). Likewise, a monk will also will keep a strict control of his body and it would remain habitual, as an Egyptian monk told Climacus: ‘ “If it ever happened that I was inclined to offer some comfort to this carcass of mine, the remembrance of death that had been so firmly established in my heart would stand before me like a judge; and a – a wonderful thing – even if I wanted to push it aside, I simply could not do so’ (Pg.134). Some people in the secular world at the time of Climacus may be critical of not giving in to the senses, but Climacus says that the monks who are mindful of death and use it to discipline themselves are actually happier then those who are not mindful of death and give into their senses, whom Climacus depicts as depressed. In fact, Climacus even says that the highest aim in Greek philosophy is the thought of death, which shows that it is the end-all and by-all of all human thought.

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Lamentation of Christ, Erfurt, c.1480

Wikipedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Tears)

Moving onto the seventh step, which deals with sorrow and weeping, Climacus is very adamant about one thing: it has to be VERY heartfelt! In fact it stems so naturally from the sixth step that it is not surprising that Climacus also encourages the monk to think of death all the time in every way:

‘Think of your lying in bed as an image of the lying in your grave; then you will not sleep so much. When you eat at table, remember the food of worms [corpses]; then you will not live so highly. When you drink water, remember the thirst of the flames; then you will certainly do violence to your nature.

 ‘When the father superior visits an honorable rebuke, reprimand, or punishment on us, let us not forget the fearful sentence of the Judge [God], so that with meekness and patience – a two-edged sword – we may kill the irrational sorrow and bitterness that will surely be sown in us.’

 (Pg.138)

Climacus says that true heartfelt sorrow can aid with our repentance, especially after a monk’s baptism where true tears can aid in cleaning any sins after baptism. The reason why is that, while baptism helps wash away the sins of a former life, tears after baptism help the monk to repent of any sins committed after baptism and would help keep the monk’s soul in check. At the same time Climacus also wants us to be genuine in our tears for, and, he gives many examples of those who faked their repentance. He writes against intellectual pride as well as having tears yet still persisting in sins such as anger and pride as well as avoiding any temptations from the demons. It would therefore do no good to appear mournful while still being proud of one’s tears while condemning others because it would make as much sense as a ‘man who asks the king for a weapon against the enemy – and then uses it to commit suicide’ (Pg.141). Perhaps, the most severe admonition that Climacus uses to help convey his message is that of a holy man named Stephen who, in spite of a holy life of withdrawal and fasting, was under condemnation by unseen spirits at the point of death. Stephen would look left and right at his invisible accusers and answer their questions with replies such as: ‘ “Of course it is true. That was why I fasted for so many years.” Or again: “Yes, that is correct, but I wept and served my brothers.” Or again: “No. You are accusing me falsely.” Or sometimes: “Quite right. No, I have no excuse. But God is merciful.” ’ (Pg.142). But the worst scene was when Stephen could not find any suitable answer to his accusers, only saying: ‘ “I do not know how to answer.” ’ (Pg.142). This terrible ordeal ended when Stephen finally died, but everyone around him did not know whether or not he received salvation and Climacus uses this story as an example of those who do not show a perfect depth of sorrow.

To achieve this perfect state of mourning, the monk needs to possess a real fear of God. On the one hand, the soul has to love God but it needs to keep in mind the idea that God, as Judge, would lead the soul to eternal punishment for any misdeeds. Therefore Climacus warns monks that God is not one who bestows mercy on anyone after they sinned, giving them an excuse to sin constantly! This would lead the monk be feel sadden and grieve for any sins they have committed in the past, as well any sinful temptation and/or thought they have felt recently. In turn this would also lead the monks to look away from earthly things and lead them into a state of dispassion where the only true source of contemplation is in God alone.

Having read these chapters, I would have to agree they are rather harsh for other Christians. In fact, if taken to an extreme, it might lead to some feeling depression. Indeed, one should temper the severity of God with His mercy as well; otherwise a Christian might end up with a one-sided portrayal of Him. On the one hand, our God is mentioned in the Bible as a “consuming fire” and He does inflict punishment on those who turn from His ways. At the same time, He does show mercy and He came down to earth to save our lives from sin and lead us to salvation during his First Coming, which is the main core of the Christian faith. So, it is always important that we should have a balanced idea of God in our minds, as represented in both the Bible and Christian doctrine. Having said that, it is always good to keep in mind that, as Christians, we can sin and therefore need to repent of any sins committing during our lives as well as those committed prior our conversion. Therefore, we need to show deep, heartfelt contrition for our sins and to avoid feeling too proud to need forgiveness. In the case of death, we need to be aware that we have only one life on earth and we need, therefore, to ask for God’s grace to help us continue His work on earth, and not to spend it just for our own enjoyment. And a time like Lent, with its focus on the passion and death of Jesus on the cross, is perfect for reminding us of our failures and that we need to confess our sins before God and, if necessary, with others in order to fully live the Christian life that God has given us. So there are moments when keeping in mind our death and mourning for our sins becomes necessary.

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Saul attacks David Julius Schnoor von Karolsfeld

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

Steps 8-10

In the last three steps for the first week of Lent, Climacus turns his attention from virtues to overcoming vices. In Steps 8-9, he looks at the sin of anger and malice, and how monks should overcome this habit. In Step 8 Climacus says: ‘Freedom from anger is a triumph over one’s nature. It is the ability to be impervious to insults, and comes by hard work and the sweat of one’s brow’ (Pg.146). According to Climacus a quick-tempered person is in danger of getting caught up in pride because he is often full of his own self-esteem and is inclined to think himself in the right when bearing a grudge. However, this is contrary to the monastic spirit that Climacus is teaching and that the highest goal of a monk is to conquer anger by various stages:

‘The first stage of blessed patience is to accept dishonor with bitterness and anguish of soul. The intermediate stage is to be free from pain amid all such things. The perfect stage, if that is attainable, is to think of dishonor as praise. Let the first rejoice and the second be strong, but blessed be the third, for he exults in the Lord.’

 (Pg.149)

To reach these stages, Climacus gives many different kinds of advice. For example for those who are still under the influence of sensuality, Climacus says these individuals should take up the solitary life because it would work ‘like a scalpel to cut away sensuality and corruption of the heart’ (Pg.148). But, if they are still in the grip of these passions, then Climacus says they should abandon the solitary life and learn to obey their superiors in a task that would help them control their tempers. Yet the main purpose of these exercises is for the monk to learn humility which is the reason Climacus emphasized the need to learn and practise meekness and mourning because they will need it to conquer anger. The reason is because ‘tears act like a bridle, (in the sense that they) hold in the anger’ (Pg.150). And by learning austerity a monk will give way to pride. To clarify this matter Climacus cites the case of three monks who each receive a wound and how they responded to it: ‘The first felt it keenly, but did not speak; the second was delighted by the thought of the reward the injury would bring him and he felt compassion for the wrongdoer (who inflicted him); the third wept fervently at the thought of the harm his offending neighbor was suffering. At work, then were fear, the sense of a reward due, and love’ (Pg.150). Therefore, anger within a monk must be kept under firm control.

The ninth step continues with this theme by looking at one of the children of anger: malice. Climacus describes it as a dark and loathsome passion and can give birth to other sins like gluttony and lust. Malice not only destroys all loving relationships, it can also ruin religion as well, saying it can ‘twist the words of the Spirit to suit itself’ and that a ‘malicious hesychast (monk) is like a lurking snake carrying about its own deadly poison’ (Pg.153). The only advice Climacus gives is to use our malice to subdue our bodies; to use religious exercises such as the Jesus Prayer and the remembrance of Christ’s passion to subdue it when it appears in a monk, and finally to forgive and forget any wrongs. By forgiveness, it will stop monks from bearing any grudges so they can possess a forgiving spirit that will subdue all kinds of malice.

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One winds on the distaff what the other spins Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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

The tenth step is dedicated to stopping slander because it is a more subtle sin in that it can appear to be virtuous in that the one passing the slander says that he is trying to stop someone from sinning but, in the end, the slanderer is in sin because he is judging others more harshly then himself. As Climacus puts it: ‘Those who pass speedy and harsh judgments on the sins of their neighbors fall into this passion because they themselves have so far failed to achieve a complete and unceasing memory of and concern for their own sins. Anyone untrammeled by self-love and able to see his own faults for what they are would worry about no one else in this life. He would feel that his time on earth did not suffice for his own mourning, even if he lived a hundred years, and even if a whole Jordan of tears poured out of his eyes. Mourning of that kind has, as I know, no trace in it of slander or harsh judgment’ (Pg.156). To slander and defame somebody is to Climacus a usurping of God’s role because He alone can judge, and the slanderer is sinning because slander is a child of anger. The only remedy Climacus recommends is turning against the demon that causes slander, using humility as a means to see that we are all sinners, and concentrating mainly on the virtues of a person and not his vices. Doing so would rid us of slander and means that that we have finished the tenth step of Climacus’ ladder.

Upon reading these admonitions against the vices of anger, malice and slander I think that Climacus is at least in good company. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus Himself teaches against anger, saying it is worse than murder and that those who slander their brothers are in danger of judgment (Mt.5:21-26). Jesus also admonishes those who slander their brothers by trying to take the speck out of their brothers’ eye while ignoring the log in their own (Mt.7:1-6). And the apostle James teaches against the tongue saying that we should seek to control it because if left to its own devices it could cause great harm (Jm.3). As for the advice that Climacus gives concerning control of these passions, I think that it would vary for Christians living outside a monastery. However, like all sins, I believe that we should be accountable for any sins towards God and fellow Christians and that it would be useful for Christians living in the secular world because we need to leave a good impression in the name of our faith. We must also control any internal sins and leave them before God in order to prevent us from falling into sin. It is a lifelong struggle and it would take God’s grace in order to help us overcome these sins.

Thank you for reading about steps 6-10 in Climacus’ book! Next week we will be discussing steps 11-15. I will even release the final segment of our discussion of John Everidge’s Beautiful Outlaw.’ See you then!

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

 

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The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Ash Week

Previous: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Introduction

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Hello, and welcome to this edition of the John Climacus blog! This week is commonly known as the first few of days of Lent, which in the Western church (i.e. Catholic, Protestant and/or Anglican) usually begins on Ash Wednesday. But in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Lent always begins on a Monday, which was historically known as Clean Monday because of Jesus’ words concerning fasting in Matt.6:16-18. ‘Keeping a sad countenance to show off one fasting is mere external display. Jesus rejects such hypocrisy. …. During the fasting seasons of the (Eastern Orthodox) Church, the hymns call the faithful to wash and anoint their faces (thus, there is no “Ash Wednesday” in the Orthodox Church)’ (OSB Pg.1278). This is the reason why Climacus’ book begins two days earlier than the beginning of in the Western church. On another note, you might find many of Climacus’ suggestions extreme or even damaging, but I still think we can find some wisdom in this encouragement to monks in the 7th century that we can apply to our own lives too.

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Benedictine Monk

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

Step (1)

For the first three days (March 4-6) Climacus looks at the root clauses for renunciation and the following steps of detachment and exile that are necessary for keeping a member of a monastic community committed to this charge. In Step One, Climacus begins with a description of God and the servants who are truly loyal to Him:

‘When writing to the servants of God, one should begin with our God and King Himself, the good, the supremely good, the all-good. Of all created and rational beings, endowed with the dignity of free will, some are friends of God, some are His true servants, some are useless servants (cf. Luke 17:10), some are entirely estranged, and there are some who, for all their weakness, take their stand against Him. We simple people assume that His (God’s) friends, o holy Father, are properly speaking those intelligent and bodiless beings (angels) who surround Him. His true servants are all those who have done and are doing His will without hesitation or pause. His useless servants are those who think of themselves as having been worthy of the gift of baptism, but have not at all guarded their covenant with Him; while, it seems to us, the strangers from God, His opponents, are the unbelievers or heretics. His enemies are those who not only contravene and repudiate the commands of the Lord, but make stern war against all who obey Him.’

 (LDA Pg.73)

For the most part, Climacus focuses his attention in this step to the ones who are true servants of Christ, the monks who will renounce everything in order to follow Jesus. The reason why these monks do so is because of God who is the true Life, Salvation and Light Himself and the monk is an ‘imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity’ (LDA Pg.74). The monk therefore is one who, in spite of living in a physical body, aims to aspire to the ‘rank and status of incorporeal angels’ (LDA Pg.74), which means always keeping death in mind, keeping a close watch on your body and its senses in order to avoid sin. Later on, Climacus says that there are three paths in the monastic life: ‘There is the road of withdrawal and solitude for the spiritual athlete; there is the life of stillness (dispassion) shared with one or two others; (and) there is the practice of living patiently’ (LDA Pg.79) with Climacus recommending the life of stillness being the ideal one to choose.

This means a cutting off from the everyday world, seeking comfort in spiritual fathers within the monastery and doing great violence done to the body in order to keep it in check. It may appear impossible and even Climacus himself admits that it may seem that way. But one sure remedy is to put our faith in God: ‘Yet full of passions and weakness as we are, let us take heart and let us in total confidence carry to Christ in our right hand and confess to Him our helplessness and our fragility’ (LDA Pgs.75-76). From the vantage point of this humility a monk can rely on Jesus to help him through his turmoil and can build up his mind into one that appreciates godly thoughts and, using virtues such as innocence, abstinence and temperance from which to feel secure, embark upon the religious life. Climacus depicts the monk as an athlete trying to train his body so it can be fit, or a soldier trying to fulfill an order given by an emperor. At the same time, Climacus counsels against judging those who leave the religious life, because some good might come out of it, such as a monk finding another way of leaving sin behind: ‘I have watched seed that accidentally fell into the ground bear much fruit again and again, though the opposite has almost happened’ (LDA Pg.77), and states that not all are called to the monastic life. For those living in the secular world, Climacus gives this advice:

‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’

 (LDA Pg.78)

However, it is the love of God that compels the monk to reach a state of spiritual perfection. Sometimes, it might be a fearful respect as well as a love for God but above all it also depends if He has called you into this service: ‘It is He Who has summoned you. He has often been known to act in the following way: when He sees courageous souls He permits them to be embattled from the very beginning, in order the sooner to reward them’ (LDA Pgs.78-79). And that the perfect monk is one who has kept unquenched the warmth of his vocation, who adds fire each day to fire, fervor to fervor, zeal to zeal, love to love, and this to the end of his life (LDA Pg.80). It is armed with this faith and zeal that a good monk is enabled to develop along Climacus’ ladder and go higher in ridding himself of any sins that might trip him up, as well as gaining new virtues along the way.

For the ordinary Christian, the idea of renunciation may seem a bit extreme, especially if one is living in a day-to-day job and has a family to support. However, as I have demonstrated above, Climacus at least recognizes that not everyone is fit for monasticism and gives appropriate advice to enable those in the outside world to live in a faith-filled manner. However, even an ordinary Christian can find some use in Climacus’ view of how God often calls to drop what we are doing, pick up our cross and try to commit ourselves to His work. And a season like Lent is perfect for helping us focus our attention on what is godly and true, especially in relation to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, especially in a world which is full of things that can entice us away from remembering our salvation bought on the cross.

Lent is a time when we can spend some time away from all our desires and worries and try to focus our attention on this event in world history with a lot more concentration. It can also help us to see if we have any particular idols in our lives that can distract us from giving God our proper attention and to see if we need to lessen the hold that an idol has on our life or be rid of it altogether. We can use the time to find a way to turn our gaze onto God, who alone is worthy of our praise. So, even though the ordinary Christian may not have any need to join a monastery and undertake any great penance, we do have some time in our life when we need to develop our faith from becoming one of word only to one of word and deed alone. Above all, the Christian also needs to hear the voice of God and to discern what He wants for his-or-her life, and with the help of the Bible and other Christians, we can walk that particular path.

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Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos

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

Steps (2) and (3)

In the next two steps, dealing with both detachment and exile respectively, Climacus continues with the theme of leaving the world behind. In the step on detachment Climacus focuses on a will that is determined to adhere to God and nothing else. This means that a monk must not have a love for both God and the world, for he must only love one alone:

‘If you truly love God and long to reach the kingdom that is to come, if you are truly pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgment, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, for possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed for anything of earth. All worry about one’s condition, even for one’s body, will be pushed aside as hateful. Stripped of all thought of these, caring nothing about them, one will turn freely to Christ.’

 (LDA Pg.81)

Saying these things, Climacus also provides some analogies from the life of Christ, especially when He calls some people to be His disciples, yet they simply provide excuses such as burying their loved ones (“let the dead bury the dead” Matt.8:22); as well as the episode of the rich young man when Jesus tells him to go sell all he has (Mark 10:21). The reason is because anything else could interfere with the monk’s spiritual progress and Climacus even cites some examples of “holy men” who performed their “virtues” and “miracles” in front of the world, yet, when they joined a real monastery, they found that they could not cope with the rigor and simply gave up. Their practice is similar to the Pharisees and scribes mentioned in the gospel who also give a great show of their “spirituality” yet were not near the kingdom of heaven in Jesus’ estimation.

The only true miracle-workers, in Climacus’ opinion, are monks: ‘Who in the outside world has worked wonders, raised the dead, expelled demons? No one. Such deeds are done by monks. It is their reward. People in secular life cannot do these things, for, if they could, what then would be the point of ascetic practice and the solitary life?’ (LDA Pg.83). At the same time, however, the monk has to be prepared to endure all kinds of hardship: ‘He has to turn away from worldly concerns, from men, from family; he must cut selfishness away; and thirdly, he must rebuff the vanity that follows obedience.’ (LDA Pg.83). The monk must be single-minded in his pursuit and never be grieved by the loss of family, friends and worldly possessions and be keen to accept all sorts of hardship and slander and not care about trying to lighten their heavy burden. Only then will they have completed the second step.

As for the third step, exile, Climacus says that the true monks must practice this virtue if they want to have a fully complete and utter renunciation from the world: ‘Someone withdrawing from the world for the sake of the Lord is no longer attached to the possessions, that he should not appear to be deceived by the passions. If you left the world, then do not begin to reach out for it. Otherwise your passions will come back to you.’ (LDA Pg.86). The world in this case becomes synonymous with temptation and by going into exile, Climacus says that monks are fleeing from temptation. To go back into the world, even for a noble purpose, will only end up in temptations and frustration, in the same way Moses had when he went back to save Israel from the Egyptians, only to end up being caught up in the darkness of sin and temptation. Therefore, following on from the last two steps, going into exile is the next logical step, and if they had any thoughts about going back to our family and friends, they should drive them out. In the same way, if one was of noble birth, he should disguise that fact lest there be a conflict between his reputation and his desire to continue as a monk. And if thoughts of missing his family still afflicted a monk, then he should think of death and use that thought to drive out the thought of loss. But the monk must also use humility to avoid getting puffed up in pride. By being committed to the religious life in this regard, Climacus says that the monk has completed the first three steps.

Like the first step, the second and third steps may seem a bit extreme to the modern Christian, and, indeed, their ideas would only work within a monastic context. But, at the same time, I think that Christians would find these ideas useful. In the case of detachment, we must make sure that we have nothing that can deter from the love of God, especially if it happens to be friends and family. Otherwise, that would become an idol and would endanger our walk with God, especially if we have a desire to do His will in our lives and would find ourselves hampered by anything else that pulls us away. In the case of exile, while most Christians cannot join a monastery, we do need some times of withdrawal in our life in order to focus our whole attention on God in prayer. In fact the gospels mention that Jesus withdrew from the crowds from time to time in order to pray. The same applies to Christians who should be seen as “athletes” who should use this time of prayer as a means of “exercise” in order to practice God’s presence in their lives, as was not only mentioned by Climacus but even by the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:12-21. However, what Climacus is aiming at in his book so far is the desire for godliness and a commitment to Christ alone without any love for anything worldly that competes with it. If we love worldly things, we might end up being under two masters and will inevitably love one and hate the other. And, while we may not end up in a monastery, I think that bringing this concept to our attention will encourage us to come clean and try to focus our whole attention on God alone.

CJCS meets with his French Counterpart

Generals saluting

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

Steps (4) and (5)

Having finished the first three steps that deal with renouncing the world, Climacus deals with the issues of instilling virtues that would aid the monk with going further a head in the monastic life. The first two that we are looking at this week are obedience and penitence. Step 4 is one of the lengthiest chapters in the book, chronicling Climacus’ stay at a monastery where he witnessed, and heard about, many accounts of obedience. Indeed, Climacus is insistent that monks show complete and utter obedience towards their superiors in everything as he feels this is very important for the spiritual life:

‘Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, an unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. A corpse does not contradict or debate the good or whatever seems bad, and the spiritual father who has devoutly put the disciple’s soul to death will answer for everything. Indeed, to obey is, with all deliberateness, to put aside the capacity to make one’s own judgment.

 ‘The beginning of the mortification both of the soul’s will and also of the body’s members is hard. The halfway stage is sometimes difficult, sometimes not. But the end is liberation from the senses and freedom from pain.’

 (LDA Pgs.91-92)

Climacus supports this supposition that the way of obedience is hard – the many episodes he details in the fourth step depict monks who have to undergo a lot of trials. One example is that of the former robber who, having converted to the monastic life, had to undergo a confession of sins before the entire brethren before the abbot could consider the robber worthy of entering the monastery. The robber managed to attend the monastery on Sunday in a hair shirt and ashes, but the abbot suddenly refused him to enter, rebuking him sharply in front of everyone and thus causing the robber to confess every single sin he committed in tears. The reason for doing that was not for the robber’s own good, but to provide an example for any monks who had some sins that needed to be confessed. Other accounts include mention of an monk named Isidore who, because he was arrogant had to stand by the monastery gate, bend his knee at anyone coming in or out, and say ‘ “Pray for me, Father, because I am an epileptic.” ’ (LDA Pg.98). This method taught Isidore such humility that even when the abbot allowed him to come back to his original post, Isidore deferred this request, preferring to remain in this humble position. Another account of extreme obedience is that of a monk in Asia, one Brother Acacius, who was so attached to his superior, a man who was very strict and exacting, that even after death, obediently answered his superior’s question on whether he was dead or not:

‘How could someone truly obedient die, Father?’

 (LDA Pg.115).

This greatly astounded the superior so much that he even decided to stay near Brother Acacius’ tomb in order to show penance for the monk’s own death!

While all these accounts may strike modern people, including some Christians, as odd and barbaric, Climacus, on the other hand, shows the opposite. He says that all the brothers actually took on these tasks joyfully and were greatly enriched by the experience. In fact, the reason why for such extreme behaviour is because the monks were trying to avoid pride and many other sins such as gluttony and by putting under the command of a superior in complete obedience they were ridding themselves of such sins. In fact, confession itself is also encouraged among monks because it can help rid any of the monks of any particular sins and not get puffed up by pride. And Climacus even says that the one who is confessing his sins should behave as though he were a condemned man, and by using this habit, a monk would be able to avoid any sins and be free of any pride.

However, at the same time Climacus does recognize that each person who suffers a particular, individual sin should find a director who is perfectly suited to help the monk out of this particular vice:

‘If lust is your problem, do not pick for your trainer a worker of miracles who has a welcome and a meal for everyone. Choose instead an ascetic who will reject any of the consolation of food. If you are arrogant, let him be tough and unyielding, not gentle and accommodating. We should not be on the lookout for those gifted with foreknowledge and foresight, but rather for those who are truly humble and whose character and dwelling place match our weaknesses. … Adopt the fine habit, so conducive to obedience, of always assuming that the superior is testing you, and you will not be far wrong. If you are constantly upbraided by your director and thus require great faith in him and love for him, then you may be sure that the Holy Spirit has taken up residence invisibly in your soul and the power of the Most High has overshadowed you. But you must not boast or celebrate when you manage to be brave under insults and indignities. Rather should you mourn for having earned criticism and for having stirred your director to anger against you. And what I am going to say to you now must not shock you. … It is better to sin against God than against our father. If we make God angry, our director can reconcile Him to us. But if he (the director) is angry, then there is no one to speak up for us before God. And in any case, the two situations are really the same. Or so it seems to me.’

(LDA Pg.119)

NOR Skrik, ENG The Scream

The Scream by Edvard Munch

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

As for the fifth step, on repentance, Climacus says that it goes after obedience automatically and helps get closer to God: ‘Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. … Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction. The penitent deals out his own punishment, for repentance is the fierce persecution of the stomach and the flogging of the soul into intense awareness’ (LDA Pg.121). To achieve such a heightened awareness of repentance, the monastery that Climacus visited in the previous step has devised a place that consists of such penitents. It was known as the Prison:

‘A mile away from the great monastery was a harsh place called the Prison where smoke, or wine, or oil for food or anything else was never seen, only bread and chopped vegetables. Here was shut up without permission to go out those who after entering monastic life had fallen into sin. Nor were they all together. Each had his own cell, or two at most might be together until the Lord gave the superior some assurance regarding each one of them. A great man named Isaac was in charge of them, and he demanded of them that they pray with scarcely an interruption. To ward off despondency they were given great quantities of palm leaves. Such was their existence and rule, such their life-style, these men who truly sought the face of the God of Jacob.’

(LDA Pg.105).

However, in Step 5, Climacus goes into more detail. They are described as wretched, almost cadaverous like beings that bemoan their sins and the lack of forgiveness day and night. They even ask their superior for even more punishment, such having to wear binding chains and other harsh punishment, just them feel more wretched than before. They also contemplate death, wondering if God would ever more merciful to them, and, when one of them dies, most on them would flock around the dying man and ask him questions about whether he thinks he is worthy of God’s forgiveness or does he still feel the burden of sin and other various questions.

This extreme image may not sit well with modern Christians and it might be possible that it may be a bit extreme. However, Climacus claims that, without repentance, a monk cannot attain perfection. An idea of our sinfulness could help lead us to a sense of humility and can make avoid any errors of pride. It also possible that is one makes a habit of lapsing so persistent that it would be almost impossible to get rid of it. So, therefore, thinking of our sins and the next judgment, in the eyes of someone like Climacus, is necessary for a monk’s salvation.

Having gone over these last two steps for this week, I can imagine most people find them a bit hard to swallow. In our current society, where human freedom is a must, the idea of submitting to someone in authority would almost alien, not to mention “cult-like” as well. In fact, in our first blog on Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option we heard from someone that a pastor in China would have complete authority over one’s life in the same way as the abbot in a monastery (The Benedict Option Part One). As for repentance, the idea of spending some time in a place like the Prison will not be anyone’s cup of tea! In fact, for someone suffering from depression the idea of bemoaning one’s sins in such a dreadful state would not be very conducive for one’s mental health. However, sometimes we might need to follow someone in our lives to help us along on our Christian path, such as parents and mentors (although not to the extremes mentioned in Step 4). And, as Christians, we have to be aware that are all sinners and we need God’s grace and forgiveness in order to move on from our sins and be committed Christians. And, while I might agree that the behavior mentioned in Step 5 maybe a bit excessive, the other extreme, of permitting certain behavior in secret, can be also damaging, as in case of the child abuse issues in the many churches at the moment. So, a sense of repentance and accountability is necessary. And a time like Lent can help us to be fully awareness of our sinfulness and the reason why Jesus came on earth in the first place.

Thanks for reading this! Join me next time as I look at Steps 6-10 of Climacus’ book.

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

The Orthodox Study Bible. Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Thomas Nelson 1982 (Rev.2008).

Next: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – First Week of Lent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Introduction

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Copyright: Paulist Press (http://www.paulistpress.com), Amazon.com (https://www.amazon.com/gp/site-directory)

Hello, everyone!

Earlier, in a previous blog (COMING SOON!), I said that, during this upcoming Lent, I would be focusing on the Ladder of Divine Ascent an Eastern Orthodox spiritual work written and/or complied by the 7th century monk St John Climacus. Originally written for a monastery in Raithu, which was found near the Red Sea, the Ladder helps monks to work through the many steps to reach a proper detachment of the world and to fully embrace a love for God alone. The steps involved are these:

Outline of Ladder of Divine Ascent
(1) The Break with the World
Step 1 Renunciation March 4th
Step 2 Detachment March 5th
Step 3 Exile March 6th
(2) The Practice of the Virtues (“Active Life”)
(i) Fundamental Virtues
Step 4 Obedience March 7th
Step 5 Penitence March 8th
Step 6 Remembrance of Death March 11th
Step 7 Sorrow March 12th
(ii) Struggle Against the Passions
(a) Passions That Are Predominantly Non-physical
Step 8 Anger March 13th
Step 9 Malice March 14th
Step 10 Slander March 15th
Step 11 Talkativeness March 18th
Step 12 Falsehood March 19th
Step 13 Despondency March 20th
(b) Physical and Material Passions
Step 14 Gluttony March 21st
Step 15 Lust March 22nd
Steps 16-17 Avarice March 25-26
(c) Non- Physical Passions (continued from (a))
Steps 18-20 Insensitivity March 27-29
Step 21 Fear April 1st
Step 22 Vainglory April 2nd
Step 23 Pride (also Blasphemy) April 3rd
(iii) Higher Virtues of the “Active Life”
Step 24 Simplicity April 4th
Step 25 Humility April 5th
Step 26 Discernment April 8th
(3) Union with God (Transition to the “Contemplative Life”)
Step 27 Stillness April 9th
Step 28 Prayer April 10th
Step 29 Dispassion April 11th
Step 30 Love April 12th

Copyright The Ladder of Divine Ascent Trans. Colm Luiheid & Norman Russell (Pgs.12-13)

Now, knowing that most people (myself included) are not members of a religious order, I believe that we could benefit from a work such as this, especially in the season of Lent where most Christians are encouraged to undergo all the usual pleasures of this world in order to focus on Christ and the road leading to His passion. The reason why is because we often get distracted by the temptations on offer and a work like Climacus’ could help us to improve ourselves, tear us away from the distractions of this world, and even lead us to a love of God. At the same time I shall bring to mind some of the difficulties to be found in trying live out the “steps” in a secular world and how we can choose activities to help fulfill as much as possible. I shall write up on the steps each weekday and post my findings onto the blog on the weekend just to let everyone know of what I make of Climacus’ work so far. There I will be able to show how his work can help Christian progress during this holy time of year and to do so with great patience and faith.

James 🙂

Work Cited:

St. John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent Trans. Colm Luiheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982

Next: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Ash Week

 

Beautiful Outlaw Part 2

Previous: Beautiful Outlaw Part 1

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Source: Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Outlaw-Experiencing-Extravagant-Personality/dp/1455525707)

Hello again! Last time we looked at Chapters 1-6 of John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw, especially with its focus on the person of Jesus and how Christians should use that to help gain a better appreciation of Jesus Himself. Now, in Chapters 7-12, Eldredge continues looking at further facets of Jesus’ personality before leading onto how we should allow that character to permeate our lives.

Collodi_Pinocchio

A giant statue of Pinocchio in the park Parco di Pinocchio, Collodi

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinocchio)

In Chapter 7, Eldredge focuses on the honesty of Jesus, especially when He confronts both the sins of the world and the hardheartedness of the scribes and Pharisees. This is also used to confront the relativism and tolerance of today’s Western world, where we tolerate diverse viewpoints without even realizing that some of them are wrong. Eldredge says that the difference between being offensive for its own sake and being so to pull someone up is ‘a matter of location – where in fact does the offence lie? The man who makes a racial slur betrays something ugly in him. The friend who says you’ve had too much to drink spares you something ugly in you. A foghorn is offensive at a dinner party; it is the sweetest sound in the world for a ship lost in a storm. Jesus’ words are not offensive. It is something in us that is offended’ (Pgs.74-75). It is this “offensiveness” that Eldredge claims is needed to wake us up from our sinful ways and that we often find ourselves too weak or timid to point sin out to others. As for the exclusivity of Jesus, it is needed to help remind us all of Jesus’ claims to salvation and how He wants to rescue us from hellfire itself. It is not a doctrine that the church added on later, it is simply one that is in danger of being toned down. Eldredge even compares this exclusivity to reality, especially when we wake up from a nightmare and find ourselves safe in our beds. Relativism, if seen as the basis of reality, would only plunge us all into a never-ending nightmare from which there is no waking up. Therefore, we need the “offensiveness” of Jesus as much as we need the rest of His character.

We asked ourselves about whether we can confront people who we think are in the wrong in the same way Jesus did. We decided that we needed to be really certain when we are in the right before causing any kind of offence. And certain that our motivations are correct, because if we don’t think before we say something, we could end up in a bigger mess rather helping someone out of one. We found what Eldredge says about relativism very fascinating, especially in today’s world which goes under a different meaning of tolerance than it was previously understood. The new meaning is that we are all right and no one is wrong, therefore there can be nothing wrong at all. However, we do need to know where we stand, and, as Christians, we should stand on truth. It will cause offence but we do not need to throw it into everyone’s face.

JesusPharisees

Dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees by Gustave Dore

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees)

Moving onto Chapter 8, Eldredge talks about Jesus’ “freedom”, in the fact that He can find Himself free to talk to sinners and those outside the law. Eldredge says that this freedom came from ‘a profound holiness’ that Jesus alone possessed (Pg.92) and it makes a contrast to today’s church. Eldredge compares to a church seminary where new students were encouraged to become active members of a church and to participate in the various services offered by the local church. But a friend of Eldredge’s, who was a student at this seminary, couldn’t attend the services due to his heavy workload, which met with some disapproval from the staff and students. Eldredge thought this disapproval was unfair and that this was a law that Jesus would not have approved of and would have exposed as such. On the one hand, the “freedom” of Jesus it’s not one of rebellious offence, a freedom which is ‘abrasive and unholy’ (Pg.89). But, on the other hand it not born out of a fear of “doing the right thing”. Rather, it symbolizes ‘an internal revolution, a changed heart’ (Pg.89), which is something that Jesus alone can provide.

We find that rules and regulations can help support you but when they threaten to control you, they become a problem. It is really nice to have these guidelines that Eldredge talks about in place. It also helpful to look at the reason behind the rules, to look at why they came into being in the first instance and also to avoid them becoming irrelevant. In the end, we just have to recognize the fact that most people love rules and that the church itself loves having rules as well.

As for Jesus and the law, we noticed that in His teaching, He tends to go beyond the reason for the rules. For example, the command “You shall not commit murder” is further elaborated to mean, “you shall not get angry with your brother.” We find that, most of the time, our sins are really sins of the mind and we just need to cry out to God for a new heart and ask that He help us stay pure and free.

Vulpes_vulpes_laying_in_snow

Red Fox

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox)

In Chapter 9, Eldredge looks at the “cunning” of Jesus. At first it seems an antithesis to our concept of Christ and the Christian life, especially if we envision as “Jesus as meek and mild.” However, Eldredge reminds us that, during His First Coming, Jesus was living in a dangerous world, in fact he was nearly killed by Herod the Great when He was a child! During His adult life, the Pharisees tried to find ways to kill Him, which resulted in His crucifixion. On another level, Jesus also used His cunning to address His audience, especially in His questions and parables that He used in His conversations. And Eldredge even goes so far as to suggest our salvation is in itself a cunning plan against the Devil and his angels! In fact, the only people who get it wrong about His cunning are ourselves:

‘We don’t appreciate Jesus’ cunning because we insist on clinging to our naïve view of the world. We just want life to be easy; we just want life to be good. We don’t want to deal with evil, so we pretend we don’t have to. We don’t want to navigate sin either. We prefer our coffeehouse chitchat, our Twitter-level engagement. We play at church. It’s as though we think our mission and our context is something other than what it was for Jesus. Even though he said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).’

(Pgs.104-105)

We must therefore understand Jesus’ cunning in context with not only first century Palestine, but even our own world today.

We like a certain phrase Eldredge used: ‘How would Jesus have me be snakelike today?’ (Pg.104). It contrasts nicely with the idea of Christians being holy, simple people. In fact, we need to encourage ourselves not to be stupid or gullible, we need to use very bit of our brains during our Christian life. It is definitely crucial. We talked about Eldredge’s interpretation of certain episodes in Jesus’ life, especially the scenes with the rich young ruler and the Samaritan woman. In Eldredge’s view, the rich young ruler probably felt challenged to address the idols in his life, such as his wealth and/or status in the community. However, there has been some debate whether or not the rich young ruler did or did not change his life, some commentators think he did so, however the Bible is too “open-ended” to give a definite answer. As for the Samaritan woman, we are not sure about what Eldredge says about Jesus using His cunning to entrap her, especially with her being a “loose” woman and probably too tough to crack. But, we also need to look at the context, especially with the word “Samaritan” because we tend to end up thinking of the Good Samaritan. However, in first century Palestine, a Samaritan was a hated half-breed and therefore probably on a level with the local riffraff of our day! Therefore, the idea of Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman was scandalous in the sense because she was an outsider from the Jewish point of view, not an example of His cunning.

However, we do think that biblical expressions such as “innocent as doves, and wise as serpents” and “lambs among wolves” is a good description of the internet today, especially with its many dangers and temptations on offer. In fact, you could also apply it to our world today. In fact, we like the fact that Eldredge brings up the subject of danger during Jesus’ first time on earth because that too can be overlooked. It was why Jesus was always on the move as well as how He ended up on the cross.

Rochdale_Unitarian_Church_Humility

Representation of Humility in a stained-glass window, by Edward Burne-Jones

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humility)

In Chapter 10, Eldredge then looks at the humility of Jesus, which is represented by the fact that He, God Himself, took on our humanity with all its infirmities:

‘For ages upon ages, his generous hand fed every creature on earth; now it is he that has to be fed, spoon-fed, drooling most of it down his chin like any other toddler. The Son of God doesn’t even know how to tie his shoes. Someone had to teach him how to tie those sandals John the Baptist said none of us were worthy to untie. “The rabbit goes around the tree and down through the hole … like that. Now you try it.” Picture seven-year-old Jesus in the shop out back, learning from Joseph how to use a hammer and a saw. He who hung galaxies in such perfect poise, like a hundred billion mobiles, has to be shown how to nail two boards together. … Think of the implications. He who never tires, never slumbers, accepted the need for sleep. Every night. How deep was the exhaustion that kept him dozing right through the gale, waves crashing over the boat? Jesus ate, every day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner; he needed to. He had to trim his toenails. He who clothes the lilies of the field with greater glory than Solomon’s splendor had to do his laundry, squatting riverside, rinsing the dust from his worn garments like any other peasant.’

(Pg.109)

But Eldredge goes further by looking at certain acts performed by Jesus which also demonstrate His humility, especially when He is patient with how the disciples kept misunderstanding His teaching. It is this humility that sets Jesus apart from other world leaders and founders of world religions, especially with dictators who create giant, awe-inspiring monuments to themselves and their “glory.” It is the fact that Jesus, God-Man, made himself a lowly son of a carpenter that alone makes Him so fascinating.

One of our book club members, GMG, states that the reason why we never truly grasp Jesus’ humility is because we are not humble ourselves. We all think that being a human is simply all right. And that’s just so wrong when we compare our humanity to God. By contrast, when we think about it, we are all stunned by the activity that Jesus underwent in Palestine at that time, especially given the fact that He must have walked a great number of miles. This in turn made us ask a number of questions such as:

How much did Jesus know He was God as He was growing up?

How much did He know of His divinity and His part in God’s plan?

When did He know that He was going to the cross?

He must have known more than the average twelve-year old, which must be a pretty awesome thing. Add to this His humility and it makes Jesus even more amazing. He was a very a humble human. That alongside the fact that He was God, it means that Jesus was incredibly humble.

It made us talk about the value of humility in our lives, but we find that it is a value that we often take for granted. For instance, a proud demeanor is extremely off-putting and following anyone who is very proud is not done by choice. So Jesus would need to be humble to get followers, especially as He chose not to use armies to enforce His leadership.

The humbleness of loving reveals a true knowledge of who you are. It means not having to prove yourself to anyone and also allows you to choose wise actions rather than showing off. Which is why every Christian must allow Jesus to fill their lives with humility and allow them to practice this virtue as well.

Indian_Chameleon_(Chamaeleo_zeylanicus)_Photograph_By_Shantanu_Kuveskar

Indian Chameleon

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chameleon)

In Chapter 11, we move onto the “trueness” of Jesus, because He possessed a good, noble character and was also genuine from moment to moment, and from person to another:

‘Neither success nor opposition have power over him. One day the crowds love him, the next they are shouting for his crucifixion. Jesus is the same man – the same personality – through the whole swirling tempest. Jesus is free from the fear of man. It is something more than integrity, though it certainly encompasses that. He is true to himself, true to his Father, true to what the moment most requires, true to love. In this forest of fig leaves, where you are never sure you are getting the true person, there is nothing false about Jesus. 

‘That alone makes me adore him.

‘Nobody likes being lied to. Notice your outrage when some trusted leader is exposed as a fake. Think of how strong your reaction is when a close friend lies to you. Some relationships never recover. Now – it is one thing to tell a lie; it is something else entirely to be a lie. The man who has two families, carries on two separate lives – he’s not just lying about what he does, he’s lying about what he is.

‘The most essential gift you have to give is yourself. When you aren’t entirely true about that, you aren’t true. But we’ve all grown accustomed to committing dozens of little white lies about ourselves every day.

 ‘Except this man. He is Faithful and he is True.’

 (Pgs.129-130)

It is this quality of Jesus that sets Him apart from us, because we often blend, chameleon-like, from social group to another, in order to be with the “in” crowd. Not also that, but our fiction and media celebrates characters who are neurotic and imperfect rather than those who are honest and true. This makes the “trueness” of Jesus more easy to recognize among people who lie and are unstable in contrast.

There is something to be said for changing your behavior to suit the situation. But it depends on your motivation. Why are you trying to please the person? Is it out of respect for the situation or is it because you wanted to be liked? In addition, we tend to hide our true selves because we are sure that people won’t like us. On a personal note, I often feel uncomfortable when sharing my faith with other people because of fear of outright rejection and even ridicule. But this fear also can be found in Christian circles. For instance, churches should be places where we are loved unconditionally, but churches are also made up of imperfect people so there is still the risk of being hurt. I guess we have to pray to God to tell us the difference, to give us a true character and not a “false” one.

Transfigurationbloch

The Transfiguration of Jesus by Carl Bloch

Source: Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus)

In Chapter 12, Eldredge provides a brief summary of why we all find Jesus beautiful. Compared with other people, who we will prefer at certain moments in our lives, Jesus is beautiful because He alone possesses all the qualities that we find admirable:

‘His ability to live with all these qualities we’ve seen, in such a way that no one quality dominates – as is so often the case in our personalities – eclipsing the richness of the others. To live in such a way that there is always something of an element of surprise, and yet, however he acts turns out to be exactly what was needed in the moment. Oh, his brilliance shines through, but never blinding, never overbearing. He is not glistening white marble. He is the playfulness of creation, scandal and utter goodness, the generosity of the ocean and the ferocity of a thunderstorm; he is cunning as a snake and gentle as a whisper; the gladness of sunshine and the humility of a thirty-mile walk by foot on a dirt road. Reclining at a meal, laughing with friends, and then going to the Cross.

‘That is what we mean when we say Jesus is beautiful.’

(Pg.137)

But the best thing is the fact that, throughout all the gospels, the one thing that we notice is that Jesus loves and not just in a sentimental way: ‘Love as strong as death; a blood, sweat, and tears love, not a get-well card. You learn a great deal about the true nature of a person in the way they love, why they love, and, in what they love’ (Pg.137). This especially evident in the episode of the prostitute who anointed Jesus with perfume before His crucifixion (Mt.26:6-13), where not only Eldredge agrees with Jesus that what she has done is a beautiful thing, but it also takes a ‘beautiful heart to recognize the beauty in a scandalous act, and to love it as he does’ (Pg.138). Which is why Eldredge calls Jesus the “Beautiful Outlaw” of the title, and, after reading all this information about Him, the next best thing we could do is to simply discover Him for ourselves on a deep, intimate level. This will in turn make us feel and understand His love better.

We’re not sure what Eldredge wants us to do with this chapter. We agree it is important to find Jesus for ourselves. We also agree that the book so far has made us look at Jesus in a different light. He is an outlaw in that he didn’t really care what society thought of Him. But He didn’t become an outlaw for a “loving and beautiful” reason. So far, we think that Eldredge’s book is too simplistic and the term “beautiful outlaw” is too simplistic as a label to be used to describe Jesus. But we also like to think that it is a good place to start for rethinking our relationship to Him.

Join us next time as we look at the final six chapters of Eldredge’s book, where we can put the idea of Jesus as a “beautiful outlaw” into practice and use it to challenge the world around us.

John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw. Faith Words. 2011 (Rep:2013)

 

Beautiful Outlaw Part 1

Previous: The Practice of the Presence of God Part 3

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Outlaw-Experiencing-Extravagant-Personality/dp/1455525707)

Hello, again! Welcome back to the blog. Last time we discussed Brother Lawrence and his seminal classic, The Practice of the Presence of God. Now, we are going to have three-part look at a book that we talked about last year: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge. It is a look by Eldredge at the person of Jesus and how we often end up confining Him (Jesus) under some false labels and how Eldredge wants to help find the true Jesus and have a better relationship with Him.

We start by looking at the introduction and the first six chapters. In the introduction, Eldredge states that each of us needs to “experience” Jesus at some level. In Eldredge’s case, nature helps experience Jesus, because to Eldredge nature resembles a grand masterpiece created by a master artist. And that artist is none other than Jesus Himself. It is appreciating nature that has lead Eldredge to a greater understanding of Jesus: ‘these experiences are far closer to what it is actually like to experience Jesus than mere talk of him could ever be’ (Pg.x). After that, for Eldredge, there is no need for any further speculation. All we need to do is simply love Him as He is, which, in turn, will settle all of our burning questions and desires.

We pondered about this part of simply “knowing” Jesus without trying to resort to add any further “frills” via human philosophy and/or religious doctrine. We concluded that if we simply ask Jesus to show Himself to us, then He will. You do not need to have an extensive knowledge of the creeds and other aspects of religious thought in order to know Jesus, but they are rather useful to learn eventually, especially since they form the “backbone” of our faith. This also brings us back to Brother Lawrence and how he says that experiencing Jesus is very important for our faith and religious practice. However, you do need to have some grasp of the gospel in order to know the person of Jesus because they are one of the sole texts by which we know Him. Another text to look at when “experiencing” Jesus is the Old Testament, which is a cornerstone in helping us to appreciate the knowledge and love of Jesus. Because, if Jesus is God, then it is hard to believe that Jesus is loving and caring without that knowledge from the Old Testament.

In a sense Eldredge is right that nature can help us to appreciate Jesus, but on the other hand it is possible to appreciate nature without even a single thought for God, and therefore leave Him out of the equation. In the end, all theology has to be measured up against the Bible, because theology can also mislead and/or choke our love for Jesus, and in that respect we agree with Eldredge how that can make us lose the point of Jesus. All it adds up to is simply a case of balance.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Religion

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_worship)

Eldredge focuses on the character of Jesus in the first eleven chapters. In Chapter One, Eldredge looks at a passage in John (2:1-12), where Jesus first encounters His disciples. In this case, Eldredge looks at the “happiness” of Jesus, especially His playful way with His disciples. It is this sense of happiness and playfulness that sets Jesus apart from the religious leaders of His day, and Eldredge uses it to highlight a point that Jesus was not always “religious” in the sense that He always resorted to religious rules and practices but that He had a different personality of His own: The man is not religious. If he were, the story would have taken place in a religious setting – the temple, perhaps, or at least a synagogue – and Jesus would have gathered them for a Bible study or prayer meeting. Jesus doesn’t even show up at the temple after his resurrection. He’s at the beach, catching his boys fishing, filling their empty nets and then having them to breakfast’ (Pg.6). It is religion itself that Eldredge claims is responsible for not allowing people to know Jesus intimately, due not only to its controversies such as persecution and scams, but even to its use of rules and regulations. Eldredge even says that the Devil can even use religion to help deter people from knowing Jesus! For by finding Jesus we realize that He was different as a person than He is usually depicted in religious thought, and is this fact that Eldredge claims is depriving us of finding Him and knowing Him more intimately.

We talked about this identification of religion. GK said that “religion” and “faith” are two different things and can be used to support each other. For instance, you can be religious without faith, meaning that you just go through the motions of religion without even having any life-changing experience of Jesus and God’s grace. On the other hand, you can be religious and possess faith. Religion can, therefore, either hinder or help you. By itself, it does not get you anywhere. In Eldredge’s case, he is claiming that religion has taken the personality and humanity away from Jesus. Or, even worse, given Jesus a fictitious personality that can be either ‘meek or mild’ or ‘high and aloof’ (Pg.3), thereby causing us to lose sight of the real Jesus. We lose His fun, His intelligence and His strength. J said that “religious people” actually her put off Christianity for a long while before she came around to it. On a different scale, R said that she was into rule-keeping or “black and white” Christianity, thus turning from a thing of grace into a thing of law. To help us understand the matter clearly, GK said that he has known some faith-filled religious people, where the religion serves as a type of “framework” for their faith. In the end, analogous to something like human intelligence, we believe that religion can be used for either good or bad.

almeida_júnior_-_batismo_de_jesus,_1895

The Baptism of Christ by Almeida Junior

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

In Chapter Two, Eldredge looks how Christians tend to lose sight of Jesus’ personality and often end up reducing Him to these stereotypes, especially in terms of our art, where we depict Him as a weak ‘wispy, pale Jesus’ (Pg.16). The only option we’ve got is to simply go back to the personality of Jesus:

‘Personality is what makes someone and not everyone, or anyone.

 ‘You simply cannot love Lincoln or Charlemagne like you love your closest and dearest friend. Though historic figures may be admirable, you cannot love them because you do not know them. They are far too removed from your personal experience to win or sustain your true love. Actual experiences of their personalities is something no one ever really gets. But when it comes to friends, family, lovers, we love them because of who they are – because of their personality. My goodness, we love our pets because of their personalities – the fact that your cat sits on your head and licks your ear to wake you, or that your dog has a taste for gingersnaps and underwear.’

 (Pg.15)

To do otherwise, would be to reduce Jesus to a series of mere stereotypes, which would be impossible for any normal Christians to relate to and might prove a deterrent to the world.

We say that, even after we read the gospels, it’s easy to lose His personality, to simply focus on His teaching and not His own person. J says that she can see how different churches often focus on one or two aspects of Jesus’ personality. For example, a Presbyterian church that she once knew focused more on sin, while our Anglican church focuses more on God’s glory. In fact, there are different varieties of Anglicanism itself that can lead to different ideas of God and Jesus, as well as one sermon that looks at a specific character trait of God while another sermon looks at a different one. But, if we look into the scriptures, we see a different series of interpretations. For instance, the Old Testament is actually full of puns and word play, which often challenge the idea of it being a stuffy old book full of rules and regulations. This is especially true when we often miss the meaning of a particular word or phrase when it was rendered in the original Hebrew. We also think that most mature Christians can show us God’s personality via their own personalities.

Maybe the real reason why we can often lose Jesus’ personality when reading the gospels is because it depends on how you are reading it or what you are reading it for. Sermons and teachings are there to help us draw out the meaning from the scriptures and to teach us what we don’t know. Books can either lead us to God or may even distract us from finding Him, maybe the same book can do that at different times! And, honestly, we do need different things at different times, depending upon where we are at and what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. One day we may experience a teaching from Adrian Plass, while, on the next day, we could experience on from a sermon by Charles H. Spurgeon. It all depends on both God’s will and the way our lives are going.

altobello_melone_-_the_road_to_emmaus_-_google_art_project

The Road to Emmaus by Altobello Melone

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

In Chapter Three, Eldredge focuses on the idea of God/Jesus as playful. To support this claim, Eldredge shows some example from nature (such as animals playing around with each other as well as a bird crashing into a window cleaned by one of his sons!) and from the gospels. He believes that we often miss the point of stories such as Jesus sending Peter off to fish for money to pay taxes (Matt.17:24-27), Jesus’ first meeting with Nathanael (John 1:43-50) and the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24:13-35) because we often end up missing the humour, the playfulness of Jesus. By recognizing this “playfulness” we can fully appreciate the quirks that often appear at an initial reading of the gospels and can also appreciate Jesus’ humour in our day-to-day lives as well. But we had a few quibbles with Eldredge’s interpretations of these events. For instance, J says that she finds the Emmaus experience and the incident with the fish to be more of an example of wise psychology than any playfulness. But one could detect Jesus having something like a twinkle in His eye during these events! In R’s case, she thinks that, after the resurrection, she did not usually think of Jesus being “playful”.

However, it all goes back to Chapter Two, and what Eldredge says about the different and rather erroneous interpretations of Jesus’ personality. For example, medieval theology often used an allegorical reading of scripture in order to grasp the meaning of scripture. In fact, we have read the gospels so many times that when we read them again we know what’s coming, and thereby take it for granted! We almost down read them and often lose sight of Jesus’ personality. As for Jesus’ personality, He was way too complex to be kept under simple labels. In fact, He was BOTH serious and playful during His life on earth. After reading Eldredge’s book, we might be looking more for Jesus’ personality in all future readings of the gospels, in order to make sure that it springs out at us and enables us to catch onto it.

scarsellino_-_driving_of_the_merchants_from_the_temple_-_google_art_project

Driving of the Merchants From the Temple by Scarsellino

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

In chapters Four to Six, Eldredge looks at other aspects of Jesus, His “intentionality” (Chapter Four), His “humanity” (Chapter Five), and His “generosity” (Chapter Six). Jesus’ intentionality is set in contrast with His playfulness, which Jesus uses to confront the man evils in His time in first century Palestine, which Eldredge says was a dangerous place to live in at the time, especially when Herod the Great tried to kill the infant, John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas and the scribes and Pharisees were always trying to kill Jesus. Jesus also knew about His upcoming death on a cross, which was all part of the danger. This makes Jesus different from not only the “meek and mild” stereotype we are used to, but also to other historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi, who are out-and-out pacifists. Eldredge uses a quote by G.K. Chesterton that states that Jesus’ life on earth could be compared to ‘the manner of a military march; certainly in the manner of the quest of a hero moving to his achievement or his doom’ (Pg.42).

As we have said at the end of Chapter 3, we need ALL sides of Jesus, not just one or two, in order to flesh Him out. But this is a side of Jesus that we’ve been more aware of. We all knew He had a mission and we know from the gospel accounts that He spoke with authority. I also recalled the fact that, on December the 28th of thereabout, some churches often hold the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, where they remember those children and babies killed during Herod’s search to find and destroy the infant Jesus, so there is some form of recognition of the “dangerous” times during Jesus’ First Coming. All this mention of His intentionality brings Jesus closer to prophetic figures like John the Baptist and Elijah. But His intentionality was not out of control, even in the sacking of the temple, Jesus acted with forethought. He also knew what was going to happen, especially leading up to His crucifixion, He didn’t want to do it, but He knew it had to be done, so He did it. So, after reading this chapter, we felt we already had heard about Jesus’ anger, that it was a righteous anger on behalf of someone else. It was neither selfish nor out of control but was part a greater plan.

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Agony in the Garden by El Greco

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

Moving on in Chapter Five, Eldredge says that Jesus used His humanity to balance our both His playfulness and His intentionality. Eldredge says that, if we don’t keep Jesus’ humanity in mind, we could be in danger of using His divinity to override His humanity:

‘For something has crept into our assumptions about Jesus that makes it almost impossible to relate to him, not to mention love him. I say “crept” because it has not been a conscious decision; few of the things that shape our actual convictions are. I think much of the creep has happened, ironically, as a result of our attempts to love and revere Christ. But crept in this notion has, and it has done great damage to our perceptions of him, our experience of him.

 ‘It’s the notion that Jesus was really “pretending” when he presented himself as a man.’

 (Pg.43)

Eldredge says that Jesus felt emotions tethered to His body in the same way any normal human does, especially during His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. And after His resurrection, Jesus did not simply have an “ethereal” ghostly like body, but one that could eat, swallow and digest a piece of broiled fish. This is enough to dispel any idea of Jesus simply “pretending” to be human, that Jesus is a God-Man who participated in our sins and struggles, not some kind of God who simply assumed the “appearance” of human flesh. The idea of Jesus pretending to be human is an age-old heresy and that is why our creeds (both the Nicene and the Athanasius creed) were written, to help emphasize both His divinity and His humanity. Jesus’ immanence and His transcendence are actually two parts of Christianity and we have dire need of both. In an odd way, we need the different denominations (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant) because they help to emphasize the different aspects of God and who He is. When you over emphasize one aspect at the expense of another, you only get heresy. So knowing church history helps us to recognize when we are in danger of going off the rails.

One of us has read a book entitled Dethroning Jesus where pop culture is trying to exchange the real Jesus for a fake one, in this case what some people believe to be the “real” Jesus. They often end up with a very human Jesus, one who is just a good man. But, as C.S. Lewis says, Jesus was NOT just a good man, and trying to accept Him as that is NOT an option! To do so would be an insult to the real Jesus and would be Christianity at all.

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The Marriage at Cana by Maerten de Vos

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

In Chapter Six, where Eldredge discusses Jesus’ generosity, especially in relation to His miracle-working. Eldredge relates this act of generosity with the miracle of the wedding-feast at Cana, where Jesus multiples the wine, is where Eldredge claims that Jesus also revealed His glory:

‘John says, “He thus revealed his glory.” What is it, exactly, that Jesus thus revealed? Certainly his power over creation. But there is something else here, something beautiful. Jesus did not provide cheap wine – as the maître d’ expected, given the lateness of the hour. He didn’t just give them a little wine, say, a dozen bottle to wrap up the evening with one last toast. Jesus does it lavishly. To the tune of 908 bottles. …. Here is the same stunning generosity we see pouring forth in creation: “The whole earth is filled with his glory” (Isa.6:3 NLT).’

 (Pg.59)

 This is good news for our creation, because it is a sign that one day Jesus will restore it to our original, pre-fallen state and even now Jesus is the giver of life and every good thing, that we should acknowledge Him as such. One of our members, J, found it hard to understand why Jesus would give more wine to people who were already drunk but we pointed out that Jesus was stopping the groom from being humiliated. As for Jesus’ generosity in nature, we do agree with Eldredge that we see examples of it all the time, especially in the way that coral can procreate and create more of itself, or the many species of ants in Australia. We also discussed why science is often “blind” to these miraculous acts in our world because there it cannot handle the supernatural. This is often the reason why some scientists are often led to the conclusion that God does not exist because they cannot something deal with that defies the natural laws of the universe. But, like Eldredge, we agree that when we depend upon God for our daily bread and walk in His will, then you will be able to see His generosity all the time. All one has to do is be open to his will all the time.

Having looked at the first part of Eldredge’s book, we are often struck by how we often tend to overlook Jesus’ humanity. When we think of “being human”, we think of just flesh and blood but this book has encouraged us to think in terms of personality instead of just being focused on the flesh alone. This is good in trying to find out about Jesus, a figure who we know about, yet at times we tend to take for granted. It is good to be able to have another look at Jesus and be able to critically rethink how we perceive Him and how we can relate to Him. It is our hope that reading a book like Eldredge’s will enable other readers (Christians as well as non-Christians) to think and critically re-evaluate our picture of Jesus as well as our relationship to Him.

Join us next time as we look at Chapters Seven-Twelve of Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw.

John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw. Faith Words. 2011 (Rep:2013)

Next: Beautiful Outlaw Part 2

COMING SOON!

Hi all!

Just informing everybody that I will be returning soon to blog writing later this month!  First up, I will be writing up the blog posts for a book we looked at last year Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge, then I will move onto the titles our book club will be looking at later this year.  Which will be exciting!

During Lent, I shall be looking at an Eastern Orthodox spiritual classic The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus.  I hope that, by writing this book during this time of the Christian year, I will be able to show how it can help illuminate this period of Lent in terms of self-mortification and fasting in preparation for Holy Week and Jesus’ Passion on the cross.  During the year, I will also be doing book reviews in order to stimulate interest in Christian books and spirituality.

I look forward to writing about Eldredge and other topics!

See you all soon! 🙂

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 3

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 2

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Practice-Presence-Updated-Pure-Classics/dp/0882707930)

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.

Alpinistide_treening_Paldiski_pangal

Physical training

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

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.

Cathédrale_Saint-Étienne_de_Toulouse_-_chapelle_des_reliques_-_Confessionnal_PM31000752

Confessional

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

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

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

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!

Adoration_of_the_sheperds_-_Matthias_Stomer

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)

Beautiful Outlaw Part 1

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 2

The Practice of the Presence of God Part 1

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Practice-Presence-Updated-Pure-Classics/dp/0882707930)

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

Arnold_Lakhovsky_Conversation

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversation)

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

James_Campbell_-_News_from_My_Lad_-_Google_Art_Project

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_(message))

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.

Duerer-Prayer

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

Ben_Kenobi

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.

Cimetière_marin_de_Varengeville-sur-mer_(Seine-Maritime)

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.

jobs-sign

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