If traffic on this site is any indication, it looks like this discussion of monastic discipline is resonating with readers. Today we’re looking at two surprising ironies of the monastics’ way of living: (1) though marked by heroic effort, it was vividly aware that nothing happens without grace, and (2) though born out of a solitary discipline, its best wisdom has always been relational and communal.
A potential objection and the role of grace
Some readers may be nervous about the term “mastery” that I’m using here. Surely that’s the wrong term for the spiritual life. What we’re really after is being mastered by God – isn’t it? Doesn’t this analogy of technical mastery risk making the Christian life a matter of earning salvation by works? When we turn to Bishop Athanasius’s biography of the proto-monk Antony of Egypt, we find the bishop describing the monastic life as being animated by twin energies. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements. The importance of both of these elements to the Christian life was the key theological point of the book, and the book became the pattern and manual for Christian monasticism East and West, and the compass of correction whenever a monastic group or tradition felt themselves going off course and wanted to return to the purity of early understandings.
In other words, monasticism always understood its human effortfulness as working in synergy with the transformative energy of God’s grace, through which (alone! said the monastics and the main, Augustinian tradition of medieval theology) the monks were saved from sin into blessedness.
Another confusion revealed in our nervousness about this “mastery language” is a confusion between means and ends: of course in the end, we seek to be mastered by God – the question is how we get there. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Antony of Egypt, Augustine, commmunity, grace, Medieval, Middle Ages, monasticism, solitude, spiritual disciplines, Spiritual practice, Spirituality
Today I begin posting bits of the “Monasticism and asceticism” chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis.
Why this is the hardest topic in this book for me, and maybe the most important one for American Christians today
There is no chapter in this book where I am “preaching to myself” more than this one. I fear that living in a place as comfortably materialistic and hedonistic as America makes our need for some form of ascetic discipline even more urgent than it has been in other ages and places. I feel the force of Neil Postman’s book title (if not the book itself), Amusing Ourselves to Death. How easy it is just to sit in front of the glowing screen, sipping the extra-large high-fructose corn syrup beverage, after the manner of the bloated inmates of the Buy ‘n’ Large corporation’s starliner Axiom in the movie Wall-E.
I have struggled to really “own” my faith, and part of that has been that I have had little clear sense of how the faith should be changing the way I work, do leisure, raise my family, and so forth. But mine is not just a failure of knowledge. It is a failure of commitment and discipline. So, honestly, I don’t want monasticism to hold any truth for me. I want it to be wrong. And I suspect this is true of many moderns who dismiss medieval monasticism without examining it—going no further than the Monty Python caricature of monks filing through the streets, intoning the missal passage Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem and thwacking themselves on the forehead with boards. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged asceticism, Benedict, C S Lewis, Creation, hedonism, monasticism, Monty Python, Neil Postman, spiritual disciplines, Spiritual practice, super-spirituality
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Friends, I’m not sure what to make of D. A. Carson‘s recent piece on spiritual disciplines in the pages of Themelios. Let’s say I’m processing. I see in his reflections both unfortunate Protestant bias (I think he misses entirely the intense Christocentrism of medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich, which his colleague Carl Trueman in an earlier piece in the same organ did NOT miss), and acute gospel wisdom (“disciplines” must not mean gritting our teeth and doing things under our own steam–a point he makes later in the piece). I’d be interested in comments from y’all. Below is a sample. The whole article may be found here.
How shall we evaluate this popular approach to the spiritual disciplines? How should we think of spiritual disciplines and their connection with spirituality as defined by Scripture? Some introductory reflections:
(1) The pursuit of unmediated, mystical knowledge of God is unsanctioned by Scripture, and is dangerous in more than one way. It does not matter whether this pursuit is undertaken within the confines of, say, Buddhism (though informed Buddhists are unlikely to speak of “unmediated mystical knowledge of God“—the last two words are likely to be dropped) or, in the Catholic tradition, by Julian of Norwich. Neither instance recognizes that our access to the knowledge of the living God is mediated exclusively through Christ, whose death and resurrection reconcile us to the living God. To pursue unmediated, mystical knowledge of God is to announce that the person of Christ and his sacrificial work on our behalf are not necessary for the knowledge of God. Sadly, it is easy to delight in mystical experiences, enjoyable and challenging in themselves, without knowing anything of the regenerating power of God, grounded in Christ’s cross work.
(2) We ought to ask what warrants including any particular item on a list of spiritual disciplines. For Christians with any sense of the regulative function of Scripture, nothing, surely, can be deemed a spiritual discipline if it is not so much as mentioned in the NT. That rather eliminates not only self-flagellation but creation care. Doubtless the latter, at least, is a good thing to do: it is part of our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. But it is difficult to think of scriptural warrant to view such activity as a spiritual discipline—that is, as a discipline that increases our spirituality. The Bible says quite a lot about prayer and hiding God’s Word in our hearts, but precious little about creation care and chanting mantras.