“On the Incarnation” by Saint Athanasius

“On the Incarnation” by Saint Athanasius

Saint Athanasius’ primary focus is to explain why the Creator God had to take on bodily flesh for the salvation of humanity.[1] To that end, he first addresses the dilemma of life/death and knowledge/ignorance before looking at the death of Jesus and his resurrection. The final two sections of the book deals with the Jewish and Gentile objections to the incarnation and resurrection. Athanasius ends the book with a request for the reader to not only study the scriptures, but to live a “life modeled on the saints”[2] so that they can fully understand the words of the scripture. This ending effectively drives home the point that the incarnation cannot be fully understood by those who are not actively following Jesus and allowing the Spirit to cleanse their soul. [1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr (Yonkers, New Jersey: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 49-50. [2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation,...
“Pastoral Care” by St. Gregory the Great

“Pastoral Care” by St. Gregory the Great

In 590 C.E. St. Gregory the Great was elected as the bishop of Rome after the death of Pope Pelagius II.[1] Though he initially tried to avoid the position, he eventually agreed to serve the church and the people of Rome in that role. A year later, Gregory released his book Pastoral Care as “an apology for [his] wish to escape the burdensome office of a bishop.”[2] Within its pages, Gregory outlines the difficulties and challenges one must face in the office of a pastor along with some character guidelines for new recruits. As it happens, the book would become the “standard handbook of pastoral care” [3] for the next thousand years with priests and pastors around the world diving deep into its pages.             The text itself is divided into four parts with each part building upon its predecessor.[4] The first part is focused on difficulties of pastoral ministry and the character traits required of the office. The second part “sets forth the inner and outer life of the good pastor.”[5] The next selection is the longest part of the book were Gregory outlines how to deal with “nearly forty different classes of people.”[6] The final part is a brief chapter reminding pastors to take care of themselves and refrain from pride as they are but humans serving others through the grace of God. I first read St. Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care about a decade ago when I timidly stepped into the role of an associate pastor at a small rural church. Though I enjoyed parts of the book, I found Gregory’s advice to be heavy handed...
“Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition” by Thomas C. Oden

“Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition” by Thomas C. Oden

After years of teaching pastors and Christian leaders about the merits of modern psychotherapy, Thomas Oden became “painfully aware of the so-called outcome studies reporting the dubious effectiveness of average psychotherapy.”[1] This awareness lead Oden on a circuitous journey that ultimately concluded with him turning towards the psychological insights held within the pastoral tradition “expressed by the ecumenical consensus of Christianity’s first millennium of experience in caring for souls.”[2] The book under question is the result of this journey with Oden actively promoting the pastoral soul care teachings of the early church.             The first chapter of the book is devoted to unpacking Oden’s personal research showing the shift in the early 1900’s away from classic tradition of soul care to the teachings of modern psychologists and psychotherapists.[3] The result of this shift is that, in Oden’s option, there is no longer any “distinction between Christian pastoral care and popular psychological faddism.”[4] The problem with this shift is not just a theological issue, but a practical one as the modern psychotherapy cure rate is about the same as what would happen if nothing was done.[5] The answer to this crisis isn’t to forgo modern research, but to develop an approach to pastoral care that blends both the modern and ancient insights into the human soul.[6]             After this stage-setting chapter, Oden shifts gears to exploring the life and message of the most influential writer on pastoral care in the history of Christianity.[7] The person in question is none other than St. Gregory the Great (540-? C.E.), whose Pastoral Care became the “standard handbook of pastoral care” [8] for over...
“Mysteries of the Middle Ages” by Thomas Cahill

“Mysteries of the Middle Ages” by Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill’s book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe is the fifth volume of his acclaimed Hinges of History series. The goal of this series is to “retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West.”[1] Accordingly this book sought not so much to document historical events as to introduce the reader to the complex world of the Middle Ages and tell the story of how the “combined sources of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures”[2] shaped our modern culture.             Rather than starting at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Cahill begins with a Prelude focused on late antique Alexandria, Egypt, before moving into an Introduction that bridged the gap between the antique and medieval periods. While this beginning seems odd and very circular, it helps the reader understand “by contrast: how different are the seeds from the soil that nourished them, how splendid will be the flowers compared with the seeds.”[3]             Chapter one begins sixty-five pages into the volume with a focus on exploring the medieval fascination with female virginity. Using the life of St. Hildegard (1098-1179 C.E.) as an example, Cahill unpacks the “unassailable assumption…[that] the sacrificial virginity of exceptional religious figures…made them more Christ-like than the rest of us.”[4] Interestingly enough, Cahill follows this chapter with a chapter devoted to love and romantic desire as seen through the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204 C.E.). Though it may...
Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works

Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works

During the 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux was a major force of monastic reform and political intrigue. Known as ‘Doctor Mellifluous,’ Bernard was very active in the “many political and ecclesiastical disputes”[1] of his time including being a major supporter of the Second Crusade. At his core, however, Bernard was a mystic who longed to spend his time “meditating on the love of God” and the “humanity of Christ.”[2] It is this latter side of Bernard that comes out in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works which contains multiple sermons and letters by Bernard along with his treatise “On Loving God.” The volume starts off with a transcript of Bernard’s sermon “On Conversion” delivered in Paris sometime during the year 1140 A.D.[3] Written – and most likely delivered – with a pastoral heart, Bernard tries hard to convince people that following God is a noble and worthy cause worth forsaking worldly fame and success. After walking through various points of arguments for and against the conversion of the heart, Bernard declares at the end of the sermon that no matter the cost “those whose treasure is in heaven have no reason to fear.”[4] Bernard’s treatise “On Loving God” makes up the second part of the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book. This treatise was composed between 1125 and 1141 A.D. at the request of Aimeric, “cardinal deacon of the Church in Rome,”[5] who wished to know “why and how God ought to be loved.”[6] Bernard initially answers this question in eight words, “the cause of loving God is God himself”[7], before elaborating on this response in great...
“The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

“The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

In the late-fourteenth century a young man from the village of Kempen named Thomas Haemerken joined a spiritual renewal movement started a few decades earlier by a Dutch scholar named Geert Groote.[1] The movement was centered around the life of Jesus of Nazareth with adherents devoting “their lives to study and to educating the world.”[2] After years of study, Haemerken, better known as Thomas à Kempis or Thomas of Kempen, would share the Christ-centered values of the movement with the everyone through one of the most famous and widely read devotional books in the world, The Imitation of Christ.[3]              Written in four parts, The Imitation of Christ invites the reader to “study the life of Jesus Christ” so that we may “imitate His life and habits.”[4] To that end, the first part seeks to provide the reader with instructions on how to renounce the values of the world (e.g. pride, material possessions, selfishness) in favor of spiritual soul care and formation. “The greatest wisdom,” Thomas writes, “[is] to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world.”[5] Though this is not an easy message to embrace, it is one worth pursuing as in doing so we “will find peace and will experience less hardship because of God’s grace and the love of virtue.”[6]             The second part of the book focuses on the interior life of the reader through a look at the “deeper aspects of the spiritual life, in which God illuminates our hearts with His truth.”[7] It was this selection that really caught my attention as Thomas’ words on mediation, grace, humility, and the Cross...