Category Archives: Church History

Joining an Ongoing Story

Alice was a lost soul wandering through a strange land trying to find her way back home. Along the way she stumbled upon a cat sitting on a tree branch. Initially frighten, she overcomes her fear and asks the Cat which way she ought to go. The Cat, being a bit mad, responded with perhaps the most powerful statement ever recorded, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”[1] George Harrison would later paraphrased Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat in the equally profound lyric, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”[2]

This advice, while originally given in the context of spatial dimensions, is equally valid in a temporal and spiritual sense. If we, the followers of Jesus, really want to find our Beloved in the darkness of the unknown, we need to first know where we are going. It may sounds strange to think about knowing where you going while embracing the mystery of the unknown. Yet, it is exactly in this paradox that we find the truth of life.

Years ago when the people of Israel were on the edge of the unknown with Jerusalem and the Temple about to be destroyed, the Creator sent the prophet Jeremiah to tell them not to worry. Rather they were to “stand at the crossroads” between the known and unknown and “ask for the ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16, NIV). It would be in walking down the ancient paths of those who followed the call of the Creator King that they would find rest for their souls.

The same is true for us today. We are the heirs of an ancient faith with roots back to the very beginning of time. We are not the first people to start this journey, nor will we be the last. Accordingly, we can look backwards to those who have gone ahead of us to find our way forward. As author of Hebrews reminds us, we are “surrounded” by a “great cloud of witnesses” who are cheering us on, encouraging us to finish the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1, NIV).

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Roman Catholic Church once remarked that “Americans have never liked history” since the “past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can remake ourselves at will.”[3] This self-imposed historical amnesia causes us to have an unhealthy “egocentric obsession with the present”[4] as noted by Brian Zahnd. Once we embrace the concept that we are part of an ongoing story that is bigger than ourselves, then everything changes. No longer is the Christian faith about me or what I can get out of it. No longer is it just about our particular group within Christianity or our nation. Rather our eyes are opened to the bigger picture of God’s rule and reign that spans both time and space.

 

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Boston: International Pocket Library, 1941), 75.

[2] George Harrison, “Any Road,” in Brainwashed, Dark Horse/EMI, 2002, compact disk.

[3] Charles Chaput, “Remembering Who We Are and the Story We Belong To” (speech, Notre Dame, Indiana, October 19, 2016), National Catholic Register, accessed October 20, 2016.

[4] Brian Zahnd, Water To Wine: Some of My Story (Spello Press, 2016), Kindle edition, 1349.

Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 2 of 2)

The first part of this series can be found here.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536 C.E.) is the first change agent under review. Born in the Netherlands towards the latter half of the fifteenth century, Erasmus was a Roman Catholic priest and Augustinian monk who was not content to live life inside the monastery walls.[1] Rather, his desire to ask questions and learn about the broader world pushed him to travel all over Europe, meeting new people and encountering new ideas. Early on in his career Erasmus collected and subsequently published a book of sayings and phrases “culled from antiquity”[2] which not only broadened his perspective of life but helped broaden the perspective of those around him.

As he processed the information and knowledge gained through his questions and travels, Erasmus began to challenge the status quo of his time. His personal moral character did not allow him to sit idly by while narrow-minded, though intelligent, people took advantage of the average person through a devotion to prescribed answers. Writing with humor and tact Erasmus tackled the abuses of the Roman Church while insisting “that righteousness was more important than orthodoxy.”[3] The wisdom of using humor and satire rather than straightforward logical arguments can be seen in that fact that it “enabled Erasmus to satirize everything and everyone in the world of his time while escaping the condemnation that would have been hurled at him had he tackled his subjects straight on.”[4]

In summary, Erasmus was a change agent who placed a high value on asking questions rather than being content with prescribed answers. In helping others navigate the changing cultural landscape, he acted with wisdom, humility, and humor, rather than seeking rather than seeking to build himself up with pride and knowledge. Throughout his life, Erasmus refused to rely solely on his intelligence; rather he constantly sought to develop his personal character by placing “ethics and spirituality at the center of [his] theology and philosophy with Christ’s teaching as the model for fruitful Christian reflection.”[5] All of this led to a broad perspective of life with friends and admirers on both sides of the primary cultural and religious divide of his time, that of the Protestant Reformation.[6]

The second change agent under review is Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.), the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Like Erasmus, Luther was an Augustinian monk and priest within the Roman Catholic Church. He also placed a high regard on questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life, though his personal journey with these values took him in a different direction than Erasmus. For Luther, his desire to better understand the Way of Christ led him to reject the answers traditionally given by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.[7] The end result of Luther’s questions was the posting of the famous Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 which led to the Protestant Reformation.[8]

Throughout his life, Martin Luther engaged in an introspective journey to know and understand himself. Despite his fame as an international religious leader, Luther “never gave off the aura of a medieval saint”; rather, he would “realistically evaluate his strengths and weaknesses”[9] while publicly confessing his personal flaws. Luther’s focus on truly knowing himself led to his theological masterpiece, mainly that salvation is a “free gift of divine mercy for which the human person can do nothing.”[10] This conclusion was in direct opposition to the predominant view that salvation could be bought and sold by the Roman Catholic Church by drawing on the “merits of Christ – and of his saints.”[11] In challenging this perspective of salvation, Luther became a major change agent who helped bring correction to the wider church of his day.

As a change agent, Martin Luther was one who was not afraid to pursue questions despite the uncertainty of where they might lead. He also demonstrated wisdom in knowing how to navigate the politically charged landscape of his day. Luther’s deep moral conviction was, as previously mentioned, a major bulwark against the pressures of fame, prescribed answers, and the narrow-mindedness of those in leadership roles above and around him. All in all, Luther was able not only to broaden his own perspectives of life, but those of others across Europe and, eventually, the world.

Around the same time that Erasmus and Luther were changing the religious landscape of Europe, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564 C.E.) was changing the art world to the point that “no artistic education could be complete without a thorough knowledge of his work.”[12] Born in the Republic of Florence, Michelangelo loved to question the world around him in a desire to broaden his perspective of life. This desire to learn earned Michelangelo the label as the “greatest artist who had ever lived, supreme above all rivals in the fields of sculpture, painting, and architecture.”[13]

Even though he was famous during his lifetime, Michelangelo “cared not a whit for riches, nor even for food or clothing.”[14] Rather, he maintained a humble lifestyle, seeking to devote all his energy and focus to crafting works of art. Michelangelo’s desire to create items of beauty was constantly challenged by the political upheaval within the courts of Pope Julius II, his primary benefactor. The wisdom he showed in navigating the treacherous waters of artistic rivalry, political backstabbing, and full-out national war is commendable.

In summary, Michelangelo was a change agent who managed to capture the “expressive possibilities of the human form” [15] in a way that no one else had ever done before while maintaining his personal character in the midst of a city full of political upheaval. He also challenged the status quo of the art world in an effort to broaden the perspective of those who gazed upon his work. Writer and Episcopal priest Ian Cron once stated that “artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal.”[16] Perhaps this is why Sir Joshua Reynolds described Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel as “the language of the Gods.”[17]

Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all possessed the rare ability to tap into the emotions of their time and help people navigate the changing cultural landscape. Though their personalities and beliefs differed, they all valued the act of asking questions, seeking wisdom, being true to one’s personal character, and having a broad perspective of life over and above preset answers, factual knowledge, personal intelligence, and narrow-mindedness. In doing so, they changed the course of their culture and, ultimately, the world.

 

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York City: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2013), 135.

[2] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 132-133.

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 11.

[4] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 136.

[5] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 315.

[6] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 13.

[7] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 155-157.

[8] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 22.

[9] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 164.

[10] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 380.

[11] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 151.

[12] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Walker & Company, 2003), 313.

[13] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 312.

[14] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 109.

[15] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 299.

[16] Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 110.

[17] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 313.

Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 1 of 2)

The world is changing. Or, at least, more people are noticing the change as the world has always been changing. Humanity, in general, prefers to experience change in small doses with time enough to process the ramifications before the next wave of change sweeps over them. Although much of human history has progressed in small steady steps, the global events of the last few decades have rendered this luxury elusive. The rapid pace of change has escalated uncertainty with people “crying for justice, honesty, and solutions” [1] while being scared and angry.

This response is not new as people throughout history tend to respond to rapid change with fear and anger. Standing strong against this tidal wave are leaders who embrace the change and help lead others through the darkness of the unknown. These leaders, or change agents, are people who are able to maintain a broad perspective on life while valuing questions, wisdom, and personal character over intelligence, knowledge, and presumed answers.

While history is brimming with amazing examples of such leaders, this paper will focus on three change agents within the pandemonium of sixteenth-century Europe who embraced the values previously mentioned. This time frame was chosen due to the parallel between it and the furor of modern culture within the United States. Both periods experienced change at a rapid pace as new concepts and ideas poured into their culture through globalization  (i.e. European colonies in the Americas and Asia vs. airplanes, global tourism, and mass immigration), increased knowledge (i.e. Gutenberg’s printing press vs. the internet), religious discord (i.e. the Protestant Reformation vs. religious pluralism), and political mayhem (i.e. the end of the feudal system vs. the rebirth of nationalism).[2] The agents themselves, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo, were chosen due to their ability to give a voice to the emotions of their time while personally reflecting the values of questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life.

However, before looking at the lives of these change agents, it is worth pausing a moment to better understand the four values in question and how they interact with each other. The first value is that of asking questions. Though this may sound like an odd value, it is actually the protovalue from which the other three flow. The prerequisite of asking a question is the humble acknowledgment that the answer is unknown to the one asking the question. Hence to value questions is to recognizes one’s own limitations while seeking to move beyond those limitations. It a multi-layered value that carries within it humility and curiosity coupled with a boldness to receive answers that one may not like.

Wisdom, the second value, flows from the first in that one must understand the world around oneself before being able to wisely choose a course of action. The New Bible Dictionary defines wisdom as “the art of being successful, of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results”[3] whereas Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action.”[4] Both definitions carry a sense of practicality where information and knowledge is transferred from the theoretical into the best course of action for that time and place.

The third value is that of personal character development. This value can be defined as having moral strength and fortitude to embrace the uncertainty of questions while seeking the path of wisdom. Change agents who embrace this value are ones who seek to truly know themselves and learn their “strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview”[5] rather than being content to rely on their inherent intelligence and talent. Having embraced such a journey, the change agent is then able to move forward into the unknown, forearmed with the wisdom that comes with personal reflection and a deep moral conviction.

Having a broad perspective of life is the last value under consideration. This value means having the “ability to see things in a true relationship”[6] across the broad spectrum of life. It is a value that embraces the vastness of humanity as reflected in the plethora of human culture, personalities, and behavior. One cannot, however, embrace the broadness of humanity or begin to see the interconnectivity of things if one does not ask questions or have the personal character to move beyond past assumptions and narrow-minded views of life. Hence, to value a broad perspective of life means opening oneself up to new ideas and concepts that may or may not challenge previously held ideologies.

Those who embrace the values of questions, wisdom, personal character development, and a broad perspective of life may find themselves living on the edge of the unknown. While this may sound frightening to some, it is the best place to be as it means having to trust God as one enters into the uncertainty of life. This is why these four values can be seen so clearly in the lives of change agents both in the modern era as well as in sixteenth-century Europe. A word of warning though, not everyone who embraces these values end up in the same place. As this paper will soon demonstrate, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all espoused similar values even though they ended up in different ideological and theological places. It is as Justo Gonzalez once commented, “in such an age of turmoil, many sincere Christians went through profound soul searching that eventually led them to conclusions and positions they themselves could not have predicted. Others, equally sincere and devout, came to opposite conclusions.”[7]

 

Endnotes

[1]  Tri Robinson, Re:Form: The Decline of American Evangelicalism and a Path for the New Generation to Re:Form Their Faith (Sweet, Idaho: Timber Butte Publishing, 2017), 92.

[2] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005), 4.

[3] The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[4] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[5] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership, 95-96.

[6] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “perspective.”

[7] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 10.

Heretics and Heroes

A look back over history shows that there are certain periods in time during which innovation and cultural change dramatically increases. The book Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World is the sixth volume of Thomas Cahill’s The Hinges of History series in which the events of these critical periods of western history are documented and retold. Heretics and Heroes focuses on the cultural and religious upheaval in Europe during the sixteenth century.

Divided into seven sections with a prelude, introduction, intermission, and postlude, the book highlights various innovative ideas and concepts that arose during the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.  Woven throughout the text is a nod towards the “centuries-long game of philosophical tennis”[1] being played out behind the events themselves. This game, as Cahill outlines in his prelude, is between the Platonic-Augustinian and Aristotelian-Thomistic schools of thought on how reality is perceived. During the time period covered by Heretics and Heroes the Platonic-Augustinian view of reality (i.e. that the “phenomena of our world…leads us to the absolute realities…[of] Beauty, Truth, Justice, Unity…and…Goodness” [2]) becomes the dominate view over and against the Aristotelian-Thomistic view (i.e. that “there is no world of Forms beyond the world we know and see” [3]).

Though it may seem unlikely, the motivation for both the master artists of the Renaissance and the leaders of the Germany Reformation can be found in the newly rediscovered drive to know and understand the absolute realities behind what we see and hear. The artists followed a blend of Platonic philosophy and Medieval Christianity that saw the “human flesh [as] a fine thing” [4]; hence their desire to create humanity at its best. The preachers of the Reformation, on the other hand, used this desire to fuel their pursuit of Truth over and above the realities of church and political power and the weight of tradition. Martin Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521 is the clearest example of this desire for Truth as he dismisses the “authority of…popes or council by themselves” in favor of the intangible authority of “Scriptures and…plain reason.”[5]

In unveiling the joint motivation for the Renaissance and Reformation movements, Cahill opened my eyes to a previously unknown subset of European history. As an avid reader and lover of history, I have read multiple books about the Reformation and the events leading up to and following this movement. However none of these books connected the Reformation events to the Renaissance or the rise of Platonic-Augustinian philosophy. Accordingly I am grateful for Cahill’s blending of these movements has it has provided me with yet another part of the “mechanism of our functioning contemporary selves.”[6]

In a very practically manner, I can see myself paying more attention to the art around me and the meaning being conveyed through the art. Prior to reading Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes book I had never paid attention to the deeper cultural and philosophical context and meaning of an art piece. Rather I would just see the picture itself without looking any deeper. Now, however, I am curious as what other secrets are lurking behind the canvases and sculptures of the Renaissance and other time periods.


End Notes

[1] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2013), 7.

[2] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 5.

[3] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 6.

[4] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes 105.

[5] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 182.

[6] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 305.

“Chasing Francis: A Pilgrims’ Tale” by Ian Morgan Cron

Written in the style of wisdom literature with a “delicate balance of fiction and nonfiction,”[1] Chasing Francis takes the reader on a journey with Chase Falson as he embarks on a pilgrimage to St. Francis’ hometown of Assisi, Italy, in search of a deeper, more robust faith. The story begins with Falson, an American evangelical megachurch pastor, having a crisis of faith after years of having an “unshakable confidence in [the] conservative evangelical theology”[2] he learned in seminary. Despite his attempts to prop himself up through visits with a psychiatrist, Falson falls apart on stage during a Sunday morning sermon a few days after burring a nine-year old children who died in a freak accident. During this sermon he finally admits to himself and the congregation that his “faith is gone”[3] and he no longer has all the answers for everything in life.

The days after this breakdown Falson, who has been asked by the church elders to take some time off, decides to visit Assisi, Italy, on the advice of his uncle who is a Franciscan priest. Once in Italy, his uncle introduces him to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 C.E.) and the radical nature of his faith in Jesus. Falson initially tries to deflect his uncle’s comments about St. Francis because of his suspicious of Roman Catholic theology. However he soon embraces the pilgrimage as he realizes that he really wants to find “a new way of following Jesus.”[4]

Using the pilgrimage of Chase Falson as a guide, Ian Cron masterfully guides the reader through a deconstruction of a faith of certainty as commonly held by the American evangelical subculture before reconstructing that faith around “serving Jesus completely and unreservedly”[5] as modeled by St. Francis. Topics addressed within the book include the nature and role of the Bible in our faith, the role of arts in the church and the world, the need to stand with the less fortunate members of our society, the connection between humanity and the rest of nature, and a critique of the rampant materialism that holds sway in a large part of the church.

The oldest surviving depiction of Saint Francis (1228-1229 C.E.)

Though some may see this book as controversial, if not outright dangerous, I found it refreshing and delightful. Like Falson, I got “fed up with the baggage that frequently goes along with the Christian subculture”[6] and sought refuge among the writings of those who traveled the road of Jesus-centric mysticism before me. And while I might have used different words then Falson did in his final talk to his church, the concepts of transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning are ones that I have wholeheartedly embraced.[7]

The writings and mission of St. Francis of Assisi, however, remained largely unknown to me before this book. After reading Ian Cron’s depiction of St. Francis, I am intrigued by the saint and his message to radically follow Jesus. St. Francis does seem, as Cron put it, to be a “wonderful integration of all the theological streams we have today.”[8] Perhaps in addition to helping repair the Christendom of his time, St. Francis will help us straight the bend heart and mindset of our churches today as we join him in chasing Jesus.


End Notes

[1] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 215.

[2] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 12.

[3] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 30.

[4] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 47.

[5] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 208.

[6] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 216.

[7] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 196-208.

[8] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 55.

The Forgotten Story of Palestinian Christians

There are times when things that we should know about are lost in the avalanche of information that surrounds us each day. The stories of what happened to – and what is happening to – the Palestinian Christians is something that we should know more about. Sadly most of American Protestant Christianity has bought into a theological system that rejects these followers of Jesus while embracing the secular state of Israel.

Though it may not be a popular stance, I firmly believe that followers of Jesus MUST stand up for each other no matter what our ethnicity or race. As such while I don’t have a problem with existences of the nation of Israel, I do have a problem with the way they treat the Palestinian Christians – not to mention Palestinians in general.

And, yes, I understand that there are Palestinian groups who are actively fighting against Israel. And yes, I know this causes security issue. So why I’m not smart enough to know how to solve the political situation, I do know that Jesus of Nazareth said to love and bless EVERYONE – even those who are trying to kill you. As such I feel that American followers of Jesus must learn how to shift through the noise to hear the voices of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who are following Jesus.

The book Blood Brothers: The Dramatic Story of a Palestinian Christian Working for Peace in Israel by Archbishop Emeritus Dr. Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a good starting point in learning about the history of Palestinian Christians.

Published in 1984, the book starts off with Chacour’s family getting ready to celebrate the return of the Jews in 1947 to the land. As Melkite Christians, they often prayed for their Jewish “blood brothers” and were glad to have them return to the land. Sadly the military machine of the new nation didn’t like having a group of Palestinians living near the Lebanese border, so they forcefully removed Chacour’s family and all the people of Kafr Bir’im. Later on the military will destroy all the buildings in the village in an effort to keep the people from returning. Despite losing everything, Chacour’s father modeled the forgiveness of Jesus while teaching his children what it meant to be a peacemaker.

As the book goes on, the reader learns more about Chacour’s journey with Jesus and how he became a priest. Woven throughout the book is the theme of forgiveness and understanding. This is not a book that seeks to slander the nation of Israel or the Jews who were returning to the land after War World Two. Rather it looks at the historic facts while bring to light that not all the Jews who returned to the land wanted to drive out the Palestinians. Sadly the voices of peace and love were crushed under the war machine of anger and hate.

The people of Jesus are to be peacemakers. And to be a peacemaker you have to know the history of those with whom you are trying to make peace. Hence I would recommendation reading Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers. Read it as a history lesson from a group of people hidden from American church culture and then let the message of forgiveness and peace pour out to those around you.

Let us increase our dedication…

St. Anthony the Great
St. Anthony the Great

I wanted to include this quote by St. Antony of the Desert on my last post…but it was way too long for that post, so I decided to post it separately.  I would, however, highly recommend everyone to read The Life of Antony by St. Athanasius as soon as possible. Written in 360 C.E., it was one of the best known works of literature in the West for a thousand years or so.

And, wow, is it good! =D

So do yourself a favor and find a copy today!

Enjoy.

“[L]et us hold in common the same eagerness not to surrender what we have begun, either by growing fainthearted in the labors or by saying, ‘We have spent a long time in the discipline.’ Rather, as through making a beginning daily, let us increase our dedication…

“Let us not think that the time is too long or what we do is great, for the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. And let us not consider, when we look at the world, that we have given up things of some greatness, for even the entire earth is itself quite small in relation to all of heaven. If now it happened that we were lords of all the earth, and renounced all the earth, that would amount to nothing as compared with the kingdom of heaven.

“For just as if someone might despise one copper drachma in order to gain a hundred gold drachma, so he who is ruler of the whole earth, and renounced it, loses little, and he receives a hundred times more. But if all the earth is not equal in value to the heavens, then he who has given up a few arourae sacrifices virtually nothing, and even if he should give up a house or considerable wealth, he has no reason to boast or grow careless.

“We ought also to realize that if we do not surrender these things through virtue, then later when we die we shall leave these things behind – often, to those whom we do not wish, as Ecclesiastes reminds us. This being the case, why should we not give them up for virtue’s sake, so that we might inherit even a kingdom? Let none among us have even the yearning to possess. For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us? Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us – such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek….

“[W]e have the Lord for our coworker in this, as it is written, God works for good with everyone who choose the good. And in order that we not become negligent, it is good to carefully consider the Apostle’s statement: I die daily. For if we so live as people dying daily, we will not commit sin…If we think this way, and in this way live…the desire for a women, or another sordid pleasure, we shall not merely control – rather, we shall turn form it as something transitory, forever doing battle and looking towards the day of judgement.”  (emphasis added)

Source: Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 44-46.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. Previous posts this series can be found here and here.

insignificant-actionsIn the intervening years between the time of the Desert Fathers (4th and 5th century C.E.) and today (21st century C.E.), many people have sought to incorporate the concepts promoted by the humble men and women of the desert. St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), a notable materialistic playboy before his conversion to Christianity, was especially taken with the simplicity and self-sacrifice of St. Anthony, one of the first Desert Fathers. In pondering Anthony’s life, Augustine, a young man in Milan (the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time), came to the conclusion that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.”[1] This conclusion prompted Augustine to reject the culture of his day and embrace the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Father, concepts he later helped promote throughout Christendom.

Father Joseph Warrilow (1909-1998 C.E.) is a more modern example of someone who embraced the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Father Joe, as he was commonly called, was a Benedictine monk who lived seventy years in a monastery on the Ryde Isle of Wight in England.[2] The Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Church was started by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 C.E.) who drew upon the wisdom of the Desert Fathers in the creation of his Rule.[3] Accordingly Father Joe’s life was ordered around the self-sacrificial rhythms of the Desert Fathers which granted him the time and energy to pastor multiple people.[4]

The Order of the Sustainable Faith is another contemporary example whose members’ lives reflect the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Started by Jared Patrick Boyd (1978– Present) in 2014 as a “missional monastic expression for the Vineyard,” The Order of the Sustainable Faith draws on the contemplative example of Christian forebears and includes both cloistered (residential) and mendicant (non-residential) expressions.[5] The Order is governed by A Rule of Life that promotes simplicity and self-sacrifice akin to both the Rule of St. Benedict and the lives of the Desert Fathers. Similar to the Desert Fathers, the voluntary embracement of simplicity and self-sacrifice by members of The Order of the Sustainable Faith are both for the formation of the members’ soul as well as for creating space to help others.[6]

In conclusion, while the lives and actions of the early Desert Fathers may sound strange to a modern follower of Jesus, the wisdom of the Fathers are of immense value to the Christian of the twenty-first century. In embracing the concepts of simplicity and self-sacrifice modeled by the Desert Fathers, the modern Christian enters into a place that allows them to see “how unfriendly the modern culture is to the spiritual life.”[7] As they continue to walk down the self-sacrificial path of the Fathers, their soul will find rest and they will, like the Fathers of old, be able to demonstrate the love of Jesus to the world around them in practical ways.[8]

Footnotes

[1] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

[2] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (New York: Radom House, 2004), 265.

[3] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), 28.

[4] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe, 268.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, v-vii.

[6] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, 30.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 93.

[8] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint, 25.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. The first part of this series can be found here.

Danger signSt. Anthony, the most famous of the Desert Fathers, was reported by St. Athanasius as teaching his follow sojourners not to pursue nor yearn for earthly possessions. Rather, followers of Jesus were to pursue “prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger,” and “hospitality.” [1] These are the possessions that will run ahead of a believer, preparing heaven for their arrival.[2] This message of Anthony carries within it echoes of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:23-34 to his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

The thought of giving away one’s material possessions in an effort to pursue Jesus may sound strange and extreme to most 21st century Christians in the United States of America. Capitalism and materialism has so enveloped American culture that such thoughts of simplicity and self-sacrifice are rarely, if ever, heard or contemplated. The Desert Fathers, however, beckon the believer of today to resist the seductive nature of modern culture and fight the “battle of the heart.”[4] It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have while simultaneously embracing an indifferent attitude towards material items.[5] Rather than pursuing riches and the American Dream, modern Jesus followers would do better to “live simply and generously, promoting economic equality and sustainability.”[6]

The struggle to live simply with few material possessions was seen by the Desert Fathers as part of the Christian life in which they tried to face the darkness within themselves.[7] Drawing on the example of Jesus, they saw the incarnation as something to “inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive.”[8] Syncletica of Blessed Memory, one of the few Desert Mothers remembered by history, once commented on this desire to suffer through lack of material possessions: “It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.”[9]

The abbot Hyperichius echoes this sentiment about the redemptive quality of simplicity and self-sacrifice when he declared voluntary poverty as the “treasure house of the monk.”[10] An unknown Desert Father was recorded in the Verba Seniorum as proclaiming that “if a man have humility and poverty and judgeth not another, so comes in him the fear of the God.”[11]  The abbot Abraham expands the redemptive quality of simplicity beyond a lack of material possessions in his comments to Cassian of Marseilles about why the fathers dwelt in the desert rather than in the valleys of the Nile. “We have despised…all the luxurious pleasures of the world: we have joy in this desolation, and to all delight do we prefer the dread vastness of this solitude…whence the saying of the Lord in the Gospel, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’”[12]

Footnotes

[1] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 43.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 44.

[3] New International Version: Thinline Bible, Luke 12:23-34.

[4] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 94.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments: A Rule of Life (Lexington, Kentucky: The Order of Sustainable Faith, 2014), 32-33.

[6] Grenholm, Micael. “Charismactivism: Combining Miracles, Evangelism, Peace and Justice” (Unpublished book manuscript emailed to the author, May 5, 2016), 81.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 85.

[8] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 79.

[9] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[10] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 69.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 166-167.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 1 of 3)

joshs-phone-068Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput recently remarked that “Americans have never liked history” since the “past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can remake ourselves at will.”[1] This self-imposed historical amnesia causes the church to have an unhealthy “egocentric obsession with the present.”[2] Christianity, however, does not belong solely to the living but also to those who have confessed Christ throughout the ages.[3] Accordingly there is wisdom in listening to and learning from the ancient fathers and mothers who have helped set the course of Christianity.

While history is rich with saints worthy of study and emulation, this three part blog series will seek to examine the lives of the Desert Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era. Similar to modern believers, these Jesus followers lived at a time when the prophetic edge of the church was dulled and Christianity was in favor in the halls of power.[4] Seeking to follow Jesus with all their heart, soul, strength and mind (Lk. 10:27), the Desert Fathers gave up fleshly comforts (e.g. soft beds, nice clothes, conveniences, regular meals, etc.) and embraced a life of simplicity and self-sacrifice. Though their lifestyle may seem extreme, “rough-hewn words of life” pour forth from these ancient fathers to water the souls of the modern Christian who are facing an increasingly materialistic, sexual, hectic, and individualistic culture and church world.[5]

Contrary to the prayers of those seeking the American Dream of wealth and riches, Agur the son of Jakeh asked the Creator King to keep both poverty and riches far from him and, instead, give him only his “daily bread.”[6] This desire for just enough for each day sums up the lessons of simplicity from the Desert Fathers. To have too much is to risk disowning the Lord and trusting in the riches of the world while to have too little is to risk dishonoring the Lord by becoming poor and stealing from others. Having just enough for each day allows one to focus on the truly important things of life “without being encumbered by an inordinate amount of responsibilities” that demand time, money and attention.[7]

It must be stated that the call to embrace simplicity does not mean that one believes that material possessions are inherently evil. This concept, called Gnosticism, was something the church fathers of the second-century successfully fought against.[8] The Desert Fathers stayed with orthodoxy by affirming the belief that God created all things good.[9] Their embracement of simplicity and self-sacrificial denial of material possessions, therefore, was less about the inherent evil of such items and more about self-discipline.[10] The simplicity of having few possessions allowed the Desert Fathers to focus their attention to seeking God and helping those around them.

The Verba Seniorum (Saying of the Fathers) records a time when a wealthy nobleman visited one of the desert communities and gave them a basket filled with golden coins. The community’s priest told the man that the brethren had no need for the gold, but the nobleman pressed them as he could not understand their lack of desire for monetary wealth. Finally the priest placed the basket of golden coins by the doorway of the church and told the brethren that each could take what they needed. No one touched the coins as they needed nothing. Rather they all agreed with their leader when he turned to the nobleman and said, “God hath accepted thine offering: go, and give it to the poor.” [11]

This connection between simplicity and helping the poor can also be seen in the fourth century Historia Monachorum (History of the Monks in Egypt). In this document, a story is told of a group of monasteries under the leadership of Serapion. Each monk in the monastery worked with their hands to earn money while living a life of simplicity. This allowed them to give the majority of their income to the “poor, so that not only were the hungry folks of that countryside fed, but ships were sent to Alexandria, laden with corn, to be divided among such as were prisoners in gaols, or as were foreigners and in need.”[12]

Footnotes:

[1] Chaput, Charles. “Remembering Who We Are and the Story We Belong To” (speech, Notre Dame, Indiana, October 19, 2016), National Catholic Register, accessed October 20, 2016.

[2] Zahnd, Brian. Water To Wine: Some of My Story (Spello Press, 2016), Kindle edition, 1344, 1349.

[3] Zahnd, Brian. Water To Wine, Kindle version, 1379.

[4] González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (New York: Prince Press, 2009), 136-137.

[5] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xix.

[6] New International Version: Thinline Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), Proverbs 30:7-9.

[7] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint: How to Live Simply and Love Extravagantly (Boise, Idaho: Ampelon Publishing, 2008), 20.

[8] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 36.

[9] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), 74.

[10] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 74-75.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 91.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 57.