Embracing My Inner Reformer

The Lord has led me into a new season and has begun a deeper work in me. He has placed me in a context which suits me. He has been clear on His call to this particular place at this particular time. Daily life is no longer such a battle and my sense of vocation is being affirmed by most. All of this has given me freedom from fear of local, daily external threat of abandonment and critique and given a capacity and strength to turn to the internal critique of my own broken psychology.

A few friends have asked me about the Enneagram recently, which, in the past, I have been apathetic about. I have been more suspicious of any personality testing before because of my deep concern of our increasingly individualised identity obsessed culture but I now can better distinguish between a cultural use of a tool and the tool itself. In the Myers-Briggs schema I generally fit into the INTJ type, which generally means I tend to build an internal world which I judge my external world by, I process conceptually first, I value thought and reason above feelings and I seek out workable outcomes and results rather than leave stuff in indecision. I approach this ‘insight’ not as an identity marker but as a pattern of behaviour that I revert to. I try to maintain an openness to it in order that it does not act as a justification for harmful (re)actions in daily life. As usual I want to remain aware of my freedom of choice in it so I don’t enslave myself to the comforting lie of ‘destiny’/’Fate’!

As part of my move into this new season I have, due to geographical circumstance, had to change my Spiritual Accompanier. My previous Spiritual Accompanier I met with for five years and we built up a good relationship which helped me immensely to traverse the season I was in at the time. He was a mentor, who shared a lot of similar experiences to me, e.g. caring for a spouse who struggled with physical pain and restriction, being ordained, having some ‘monastic’ vocation. Our relationship was that of an elder sharing their experience and knowledge as way of guiding a younger through well walked territories avoiding pitfalls and preventable pain. Primarily, though, he was able to affirm me and counteract my internal critic who, at the time was being bolstered by perceived multiple external critics. I needed, in that season, someone I trusted and who knew me and my context to challenge the lies I told myself and my internal distortion of external criticism. my Spiritual Accompanier, therefore, never felt he needed to give me ‘work’ to do because he knew that I already demanded so much ‘work’ myself. He just needed to allow me to be and to externally process my internal battles and to shine a light on it and to send me home having released the ‘demons’ and blessed me.

As I said, since moving contexts and the Lord leading me into a new season, I have been forced (by my geographical circumstance) to change my Spiritual Accompanier and opted to be open and obedient to a Diocesan process of matching. My new Spiritual Accompanier is very different to me, holds very different views to me on many issues but we share enough interests (poetry and monastic spirituality amongst other things) that we can begin conversation. My new Spiritual Accompanier is a teacher on the Enneagram; a fact that, when I first learnt of it, I had a strange internal baulk at. I took note of that response and investigated further.

When friends began asking about the Enneagram and then others asking me about my approach to Spiritual Accompaniment I felt God was trying to lead me to spend my time with my new Spiritual Accompanier to use the Enneagram as a tool to begin to acknowledge some reality to response to the world around me.

I have said before that I have a reoccurring dream that wakes me feeling rigid with frustration, anger and anxiety. In this dream I find myself in a situation where I am being asked to speak to or lead/manage a group of people but no one will listen to my instructions. No matter how much a shout and scream no words come out of my mouth. This fear transforms, very quickly into violence as I battle to take control and stop the chaos. My need to impose some order is met with no change to the situation. I start to shake people who refuse to do what I want. I feel impotent and unable to make an impact on my environment and this expresses itself in a deep anger. It often climaxes on me biting or punching particular people who, in my mind, I see as personifying a lifestyle of carefree, consequence free selfishness who refuse to behave in a way I see as helpful. These people are people from my real life who I hold great frustration that they don’t play by the rules and don’t care about what other’s think. They are people who I now hold as totem for unbridled chaos!

For those of you who know something of the Enneagram, you will already be beginning to see which ‘type” a tend to exist within; Type 1.

If you click on this link you will find a general picture of Type 1s.

I brought this ‘insight’ to my Spiritual Accompanier along with my reoccurring dream and asked him, with his understanding of the theories behind the Enneagram to unpack what might be going on for me. This ‘insight’ does suggest some understandable reasons why I see the world in the way I do and why I respond to certain things so strongly and destructively. It explains my struggles and what makes me stressed/anxious and it certainly explains this vivid dream I continually have.

Each ‘type’, so Christian practitioners of the Enneagram suggest, have an innate truth about the world that is their gift to others. With the Fall and sin this truth has been distorted and now manifests in a twisted version of it. For Type 1s this truth is that God created the world and it was good. The Fall/sin has distorted this gift by persuading Type 1s that it was good but it no longer is and they are being asked to return it to perfection. This gives them a profound drive to perfection and improvement and is why they are characterised as ‘reformers’. This deeply held conviction that it is their job to fix the world and create systems that will lead people to perfection means that they can easily become hyper-judgemental on themselves primarily and then on others around them. They are naturally seeking out the broken parts of the system of the world and tinkering with them.

Type 1s have high sensitivity to right and wrong. They are hungry to know what is good and what is bad. This means that Type 1s struggle with postmodern thought which states that there is no universal system to judge right and wrong. That, in its extreme articulation, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and it is wrong to judge so. It is this reason which opened my eyes to why I feel so out of place in postmodern liberalism. I have been wired, through experience and circumstance to crave order and clear rules. As these rules are questioned and put in flux I get severely anxious and my response is to push harder to return to structure and order. I become more judgemental and my inner critic goes into overdrive causing me deep and painful tension and causing physiological symptoms such as I.B.S., headaches, panic attacks, etc. It is why I get so deeply frustrated and anxious with ignorance, particularly in people of power. It is why I see something of myself in the Mitchell and Webb’s ‘bad vicar’ (click here to watch.)

So where is the hope?

The Enneagram also reveals how ‘types’ ‘disintergrate’ (respond to stress) and ‘integrate’ (grow). Type 1s disintegrate into introspection and anxiety, they become moody and self detructive and finally aggressively dogmatic and angry. When they are encouraged to integrate, however, they can become spontaneous and creative high achievers. As I reflected on this I suddenly realised the reason why I respond so strongly to the fabled Pablo Picasso’s quote,

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. (citation not found)

When Type 1s feel free to grow, they can move from being systematic learners and judgers to being creative reformers. It is Type 1s, when they are integrating healthily, that can do the work of genuine ‘social improvement’; they creatively and systematically review the structures and legislation, deeply understand how things work and why and then innovate by reformation rather than revolution. Type 1s struggle with ‘revolution’ because they perceive revolutionaries as being too driven by fallible feelings which are too subjective. Revolutionaries reject the rules thus creating chaos in the world of Type 1s. Type 1s agree with the assertion of Jean-Francois Lyotard that,

if there are no rules, there is no game. (Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge (Minnesota, The University of Minnesota Press, 1984) p.10)

They reason why Type 1s feel they can change the rules is because they have learnt them to tested them like an expert and can then, without lived insight make specific changes. I am deeply troubled when rules are changed by people who have not learnt how and why the rules were there in the first place. It is blind folly, in my mind, to change things on knee jerk response rather than properly testing and exploring the brokenness in a system.

I have spoken before about a profound moment in my life at Soul Survivor camp listening to Mark Russell speak on bringing change in the Church. He asked whether some of us are called to top down change (reformation) whilst others are called to bottom up (revolution). At that moment I seemed to feel a physical finger poke me in the shoulder. I was being called to sit on committees, boards and governing bodies to do the slow, careful and deliberate work of reformation not ‘reckless’ reactive revolution!

I have, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the protestant Reformation, been reflecting deeply on the person of Martin Luther. I connect deeply with him (he too can be seen as a Type 1 INTJ!) particularly with his motivation and then with his personal, inner struggles. Luther deeply desired unity and was moved profoundly when people took his thoughts and ideas and used them to enact violent revolution. His heart desired a correction of damaging ideology that had distorted the Christian faith and experienced deep tearing within him as he was judged as wrong despite his conviction of ‘rightness’. He could not match up his internal conviction with the external world and this was the source of great anxiety.

As I begin this journey in this new season I am learning to better acknowledge the distortions of the person that God desires me to be but not in undue judgement but safe in the knowledge that God alone can transform me to perfection. He requires only that I stay still and allow Him to do His work in me and the world he loves. There will be times when He will call on me to work with Him in the reformation of His creation but I must be wise to ensure it is His voice I’m following and not my twisted internal drivers.

I have also been encouraged by my new Spiritual Accompanier to embrace my spontaneous, poetic, fun and creative side… so I’m going to go and play lots of games and perform some improvised comedy (safe within the rules!)

Di-Vesting Authority


General Synod is an addiction for me; I know it’s bad for me and causes me great harm but yet I can’t resist engaging in it!

The latest gathering of Synod, like the recent gatherings before it, was rife with painful discord before it had even begun. As I prepared myself for social media outlets to fall into confusion and bitter rivalries (as it seems to do daily now!) I looked at an item on church vestments and thought

“At least there’s a relatively trivial debate on frocks!”

Having said that, despite the two larger decisions to be passed at Synod, it was this ‘trivial’ one that causes me to reflect most theologically about the state of the Church of England at present. As a mixed tradition mongrel of Roman Catholicism and Charismatic Evangelical I have already thought deeply about my use of vestments and, although many would say I am conflicted in my current practice, choosing to wear vestments at times and at other times not, I do know where I stand on this issue (see my post on vestments here.) This piece of legislation, for me, was going to be merely a naming of my current practice but has caused me to reflect again on that practice and the implications it presents.

My current practice is that for baptism and Holy Communion I robe for anything else I don’t. I’m Roman Catholic for their sacraments, charismatic evangelical the rest of the time! It’s not fool-proof but it’s what I have settled with for the moment. The other thing I’d want to stress is that I am, of course, contextually sensitive; if a context demands or requests I wear robes I do and if they would cause the congregation distraction I don’t.

The reason this decision has caused me to reflect, however, is an ecclesiological one. This albeit minor decision betrays the current confusion and division over the Church of England’s understanding of church and authority. This small, ‘harmless’ legislation again highlights the underlying conflict at the heart of Anglicanism in the 21st century and like the turmoil 500 years ago which caused the Great Reformation and 500 years before that the Great Schism and 500 years before that the establishing of the Great Councils it is caused by a lack of clarity on authority.

The cause of this uncertainty of authority stems from several sources sweeping across Synod and disrupting, distorting and severing fellowship and peace. One source is the individualising of society by our subjective post-Enlightenment libertarian/liberal philosophy. I have written on this so much I don’t want to unpack it anymore (if you’re interested read any other blog post and it’ll be there!) This is truly a massive problem when it comes to our understanding of Christian community.

The second source is, on it’s own, not a negative force (in fact it is quite the opposite): the rise in charismatic evangelical theology of which I am a son.

The charismatic movement began with the Pentecostal revival at the start of the 20th century and came to prominence in this country during the latter parts of the century. One aspect of this theological movement is a more egalitarian ecclesiology. If all God’s people are able to be filled with God’s Spirit, be used by God and receive prophetic words and pictures then power is no longer placed in one specific person but within the Body. The understanding of the priest as a kind of conduit for prayer and worship is dismantled. This is a good and proper challenge for the Church.

The prime time when this is exercised is in charismatic worship/prayer events where the gathered community wait on God and speak out words of knowledge and prophecy, speak in tongues and (often forgotten) interpretation of tongues. To keep in line with St Paul’s deep desire for order in church services there is a suitable place of weighing up words and pictures but ultimately everyone is encouraged to encounter God and share what they hear from Him. All voices are given a hearing. St. Paul emphasises in his important discussion on worship in 1 Corinthians 11-14 the necessity for order and the need for ‘one to interpret’ and to ‘weigh what is said’. (I don’t want to go into the exegesis of the refusal of the female voice in this context!)

In these events the ‘leader’ may well be a lay worship leader assisted by another ‘leader’ or vice versa. That ‘leader’ does not have to be ordained and they become, quite rightly, more of a facilitator. This role is key but is rarely trained with the gravity and import it deserves. People are released to lead these gatherings and imitate others without any rigourous understanding of authority. This enabling of lay leadership is rightly to be encouraged, however, but it is in this context that vestments becomes a potential stumbling block.

Vestments, historically, have sought to be signifiers of authority within the worshipping life of a congregation. The clothing is, in this respects, uniform, identifying the person in a particular role. This has meant that bishops, priests, deacons, lay readers, etc., all of whom have specific roles in a worshipping community have had these visible signs of those roles. In the new context where lay leadership is being encouraged vestments are a sign of restricting power to ordained/licensed individuals. To truly allow the laity to thrive we must, understandably, remove the vestments from the ordained but in so doing we must also remove sole authority too.

The charismatic tradition, particularly when wedded to the evangelical tradition, within the Church has really flourished over the last few decades and is one of the largest growing traditions in the Church in England. I want to stress how indebted I am to this inheritance and believe God is using it for His glory in His Church but…

It is not hard to see that within a culture where authority is placed solely on the individual and their perceived experience of the world the charismatic evangelical tradition has a lot to offer. The evangelical tradition gives, if not carefully taught, a highly individualised faith experience; salvation is for the individual, it is not a communal experience. Mix that with the charismatic tradition where the emphasis is on the personal experience of God we have created worship which is, collective in that it is expressed best with others but the experience remains rooted in the individual. The ecclesiology of the charismatic evangelical tradition is individualised, experiential and struggles to present a truly communal reality.

In his article “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity”, John Zizioulas outlines the difference between traditional philosophical thought on personhood and the unique Christian understanding.

…Western thought arrived at the conception of the person as an individual and/or personality, i.e., a unit endowed with intellectual, psychological and moral qualities centred on the axis of consciousness.

For the Christian, however,

…being a person is basically different from being an individual or ʻpersonalityʼ in that the person can not be conceived in itself as a static entity, but only as it relates to. Thus personhood implies the ʻopenness of beingʼ, and even more than that, the ek-stasis of being, i.e. a movement towards communion which leads to a transcendence of the boundaries of the ʻselfʼ and thus to freedom. (John Zizioulas, “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood”, T.F. Torrance and J. K. S. Reid (eds.), Scottish Journal Theology Vol 28 (1975), p.406)

I have argued repeatedly that the UKʼs capitalist liberal democracy has shaped the way we participate in Christian community, i.e. limited us on the individual participants own experience of God. It is in this view that Zizioulasʼ statement is important.

Zizioulas’ ʻopenness of beingʼ lends itself to the charismatic experience seen in many of the growing churches in the UK. Charismatic theology emphasises the importance of a transcendent experience and is achieved by creating an expectation of receptivity to God’s gifts. The challenge comes when attempting to be open to God, allowing others to be used by God to speak to you whilst remaining an autonomous individual; the central authority in our post-modern philosophy.

Samuel Wells takes this idea of receiving gifts and discusses an improvisational device called ʻoveracceptingʼ as a potential tool for Christian ethics.

Overaccepting is accepting in the light of a larger story. The fear about accepting is that one will be determined by the gift, and thus lose oneʼs integrity and identity. The fear of blocking is that one will seal oneself off from the world, and thus lose oneʼs relevance and humanity. Overaccepting is an active way of receiving that enables one to retain both identity and relevance… Christians imitate the character of God to the extent that they overaccept the gifts of creation and culture in the same way God does. (Samuel Wells, “Improvisation in the Theatre as a Model for Christian Ethics”, Trevor Hart and Steven Guthrie, Faithful Performance: Enacting Christian Tradition (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) p.161)

Within this framework we can go someway in achieving both communion with others whilst remaining unique enough to have an identity. Zizioulas’ further development in his understanding of personhood challenges individualism by suggesting we must de-individualise Christ.

In order that Christology may be relevant to anthropology, it must ʻde- individualiseʼ Christ, so that every man may be ʻde-individualisedʼ too. (John Zizioulas,
“Human Capacity and Human Incapacity”, p.438)

Christʼs de-individualisation is, for Zizoulas, pneumatologically conditioned because it was only ʻof the Spiritʼ that Christ united the human, one individual, and the divine, another individual. In this way the Spirit makes it possible for one to be many and so constitutes, for Zizioulas, the church.

…the mystery of the Church is essentially none other than that of the “One” who is simultaneously “many”. (John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton Longman and Todd) p112)

Zizoulas goes on to suggest that

If the Church is constituted through… Pneumatology, all pyramidal notions disappear in ecclesiology: the “one” and the “many” co-exist as two aspect of the same being. (Zizoulas, Being Communion, p.139-141)

Zizioulasʼ belief that this will ʻremove any pyramidal structutures’, as understood by our current culture, is undermined, however, by his continued assertion of the importance of the presence of a bishop, as representative of Christ, within the community. This order of precedence raises the “one” above the “many” and thus creates, for our culture, a hierarchy. Indeed, it is the role of bishops and, to a certain degree, clergy in general that has been seen as the undermining of the full realisation of an egalitarian, flat leadership encouraged within charismatic theology and the wider culture. It is the vote on vestments that deconstructs further the role of clergy within the church which have held sway over the Church, for better or worse.

Jürgen Motlmannʼs ecclesiology offers us a helpful addition.

The doctrine of the Trinity constitutes the church as a “community free of dominion.” The Trinitarian principle replaces the principle of power by the principle of concord. Authority and obedience are replaced by dialogue, consensus, and harmony… The hierarchy which preserves and enforces unity is replaced by the brotherhood and sisterhood of the community of Christ. (Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p202)

Moltmannʼs social Trinity is a communion free from dominion and authority and offers an ecclesiology for our generation who are hungry for the intimacy of community whilst maintaining autonomy of individualism.

Moltmann outlines three different paradigms of the church: The Hierarchical paradigm of God the Father, the Christocentric paradigm of God the Son and the Charismatic paradigm of God the Spirit. He suggests that in the Early Church there was a monarchic social structure seen through the authority of the Father and manifested itself in Papal supremacy. This caused a social rebellion in the form of the Reformation, which replaced such a view with a brotherhood of believers based on the centrality of sola scriptura. Moltmann admits,

Of course, practically speaking the distinction between trained theologians and people without any theological training has taken the place of priestly hierarchy. (Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) p23)

Tony Jones, an ecclesiologist writing about Moltmannʼs theology, suggests,

While Moltmann admits the christocentrism did not entirely overwhelm the hierarchical church, he fails to acknowledge… that hierarchy has been just as prevalent in his own Reformed tradition.(Tony Jones, The Church is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (Minneapolis: JoPa Group, 2011) p144)

In the last of these paradigms, it is God the Spirit that brings unity whilst encouraging plurality. In the charismatic congregation, Moltmann suggests,

no one has a higher or lower position than anyone else with what he or she can contribute to the community.

In this context vestments become void of any purpose and all symbols of hierarchy and power can be dismissed. This paradigm, however, can be, and, as I am arguing, has been, too easily adopted by the individualism of our age as Moltmann goes on to say,

…all are accepted just as they are…Everyone is an expert in his or her own life and personal calling. (Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) p23-25)

 

And there it is: the mantra for the Church at the present time. No one can tell anyone what is right or wrong. All must be accepted and placed as equally authoritative and by so doing authority is displaced and no longer shared.

The Church of England is currently facing a new social rebellion akin to the Great Reformation and again it is about power and authority. The Reformation caused authority to be placed in Scripture and thus power/authority was placed in the hands of any who could read and interpret the text. Richard Hooker, who I would argue is the the architect of Anglican ecclesiology, later stated the need for three authorities: Scripture, tradition and reason, with Scripture having a form of primacy.

I believe we have seen an ascendance of reason as the primary authority under which the others must fall but, with the advent of charismatic theology, there is a need to rightly emphasise the Holy Spirit’s authority in the Church which has morphed intellectual reason to ‘experience’. I would say that the Holy Spirit is in all of these but I understand the move from reason to experience and it comes down to semantics for me. I would argue, however, that this ‘experience’ has been adopted by our individualised culture, abandoning objective truth and making ‘reason’ subjective experience and this is now our sole authority. It is the individualised experience, by way of the charismatic evangelical tradition being allowed to continue without rigorous ecclesiological questions being asked, that is now seen in Synod debates. The vast majority of decisions now are made on the basis of individualised experience which is a distorted understanding of reason and from this Scripture is re-interpreted and tradition is changed.

The decision on vestments opens for us the gaping hole in our ecclesiology and the social rebellion occurring in the church will only end in division if authority is not placed somewhere safe to bring about St. Pauls’ order and decency.

On Discipleship Within The Monastic Tradition

This is the text of a paper presented at the first Postgraduate Research Morning hosted at St Hild’s College in Sheffield on Monday 5th June 2017.

 

I want to talk about discipleship today from within, what many are calling, ‘the New Monastic Movement’ of which I am part. This movement has emerged out of a protest against the steady increase of individualism prevalent in our Western culture. Many would argue that the individualisation of our society began in the Enlightenment with philosophical thought becoming more introspective and focussed on the subjective interpretation of reality famously summarised in René Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am.” The Church has not been immune to this social deconstruction and this has led to a powerfully individualised faith experience. This erosion of the corporate understanding of faith has impacted the Church’s discipleship and life together.

With the secularisation following on from the Enlightenment project and the further mechanising and fragmenting of all aspects of our lives, the place of community has diminished. In the late 20th century, with the Church increasingly  unwilling or unable to offer intensive forms of Christian discipleship, some have gathered together to re-discover what it means to live out the communal life as described in the New Testament. The faithfulness of the monastic and mendicant saints throughout history became wells around which these small groups were nourished, inspiring them to live counter-culturally. These ‘pioneers’ discovered that the shared life they dreamt of had long been practiced by communities like the Franciscans, Benedictines and the Jesuits, among many. Others arrived at a similar place by a different route, having sought, in the first place, to rediscover the spiritual fortitude and charisms of the very same saints of old and so to re-dig wells of Grace in the ‘places’ where God has worked for generations before. Regardless of the path towards a contemporary articulation of the monastic way of life, they all learned that the historic forms were in need of some re-imagining for the new context in which we now live. In this way these expressions of communal discipleship can all be reasonably described as ‘new monastics’.

The term ‘New Monasticism’ was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter he wrote on 14th January 1935. This is what he said,

the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)

Two years later, Bonhoeffer published ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he seems to expand on his view of classic monasticism. He writes,

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness.  It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)

This ‘toleration’ of monasticism by the Church, however, relativized the discipleship lived out in the monastic houses. The Church was able to avoid the criticism of secularisation by living the life of holiness vicariously through the achievements of these monks who obeyed the radical call to forsake all earthly things and follow Jesus Christ in discipleship.

Bonhoeffer argues that Martin Luther’s journey through the monastic life led him to see how the monastic life had failed the Church by perpetuating this lie that Christians could pay others to be ‘disciples’ on their behalf. The monastic houses had become, by the time the Reformation began, propped up by the financial donations by the Roman Church paying a select few monks to be obedient for the rest of God’s Church. Luther’s protest was an attempt to release the radical  obedience to follow Christ, found in the charisms of monastic life, and invite all Christians to participate in this form of devoted life of monasticism.

I say all this, yes, in order to justify the New Monastic movement as a continued protest for the Church to embrace the way of life outlined in the founding documents of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and others. But I also say it in order to acknowledge and outline the popular portrayal of monastic life and the criticisms that it therefore receives. I want to argue that it is the early monastic life, articulated most purely in the Rule of St Benedict, that holds the key for us todayas to how to live as ‘a living protest against the seculariztion of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’

Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. (RB Pro:1-5)

Thus starts the Rule of St Benedict. It begins with an unswerving command to obedience, not a popular command in our individualised, self-autonomous culture but the monastic life centres on the vow to stability, obedience and conversion of life. Columba Cary-Elwes helpful highlights that ‘the very word obedience has a treasure hidden in its history.’ She writes,

If you unpack it, ob audiere, to listen intently is the language of love. When you really love, you listen intently to know what the one you love wants to happen. (Columba Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer:the rule of St. Benedict for lay people (London:Burns & Oates, 1992) p.182)

This understanding of obedience is acceptable in the context of our personal relationship with Christ but it becomes problematic for many in our post modern, subjective culture. To love and obey another is seen by our self-autonomous society as oppressive and open to all manner of abuse. In outlining the role of the abbot in his Rule, St Benedict, on more than one occasion, however, quotes Christ, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” Christ imparts authority to his disciples in order that they may speak on his behalf to others. The abbot in the monastic community is to represent Christ to his monks. The risk of abuse to that kind of power is real and Cary-Elwes acknowledges as much when she states,

No doubt also an abbot can go beyond his rights, and what is wrong or evil should not be obeyed. Yet all that happens is under divine providence and God’s wise guidance of the world, and this includes commands of superiors. (Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer, p.40)

St Benedict spends many chapters portraying what an abbot should and should not do; he spends so much time that it begs the question, “why is it so important?” It is important because the role of the abbot directly impacts the discipleship of the rest of the community. ‘The first thing that defines the abbot,’ Esther de Waal writes, ‘is not the position at the head of an institution but his relationship with sons’ She links this with the model of discipleship undertaken by monks.

The learning process is more analogous to that of apprenticeship by which one person learns a skill from another. In the ancient world skills were handed down from father to son, and so apprenticeship also carries with it the implication of a father-son relationship. It involves imitation and long, patient watching and copying, a shared learning that owes much to the fact of daily living together.(Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1985) p.130)

Discipleship, within the monastic tradition, begins with obedience; to listen intently to God through His Spirit and His people under authority. Rowan Williams paints a beautiful image of this model of discipleship as he suggest that being a disciple ‘is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption.’

You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: essentials of the Christian life (London: SPCK, 2016) p.3)

‘Obedience is not an imposed subservience to an external authority but a condition of inward growth,’ as Dominc Milroy writes,

The monk who is not authentically obedient to his abbot and his brethren will not be a happy monk; the carpenter who is not obedient to the laws of governing joints will make an unreliable table. All disobedience represents, in this sense, the pursuit of illusory freedom which obstructs the acquisition of real freedom. (Dominic Milroy, “Education According to The Rule of St. Benedict”, Ampleforth Journal, no.84 (Autumn 1979) p.4)

As well as obedience, discipleship, within the monastic tradition, also begins with stability. Brian C Taylor says,

The Benedictine vow of stability is a vow to a community of people… In this sense it is a marriage…The grass is not greener “over there”: one must work out one’s problems with this person because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. This is precisely what is so freeing about the vow of stability, both in monastic life and family life. To have to work it out is to demand growth, as painful as it is, and that is freeing. Faithfulness is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and other right now, right here. (Brian C. Taylor, Spirituality For Everyday Living: an adaptation of the rule of St. Benedict (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989) p.17)

Or to put that more succinctly, Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘The meaning of stability: God is not elsewhere.’

If obedience is about listening intently, then stability aids our silencing of unnecessary distractions ‘for stability says there must be no evasion.’ There must be no escaping into a fantasy world or the day dreams of how we’d do great things if only… ‘At the heart of stability,’ Metropolitan Anthony bloom suggests, ‘is the certitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere.’

Both obedience and stability combine with the commitment to seek out the conversion of our lives and gives the framework within which discipleship occurs in the monastic tradition. Conversion of life is about life-long, inner transformation which ensures discipleship is not a course to complete but a way of life to journey deeper into. Thomas Merton argues that a commitment to total inner transformation is to be regarded as ‘the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.’

The Rule of St Benedict is immensely practical and pragmatic and can be used as a manual for a devoted life to following Christ. What we need to learn from it and the wider monastic heritage is the communal necessity of this way of life. Discipleship for Benedict, Francis and the other monastic fathers and mothers can only be done with others. Love can only be practised in the cut and thrust of community life. If the vows to stability, obedience and the ongoing conversion of one’s life can be seen as the soil in which monastic discipleship is rooted and from this the tree of discipleship can bear good fruit then we must acknowledge that all three require other people to be faithful and obedient to and to be changed by.

The monastic tradition has always rejected a form of life that attempts to replicate the religious life outside of a communal setting. John Cassian describes a type of monk called Sarabaites in a derogatory manner,

They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like. (John Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)

St Benedict also depicts this type of monk as,

…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (RB 1:7-9)

The monastic life, I would argue, is still ‘a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’ But in our modern context this requires us embracing the challenge of community life as outlined in the Rule of St Benedict. In this portrayal of community life discipleship is intrinsically linked with the submission of our self wills to the discipline of the larger community’s apprenticeship training. This is not the romantic, sentimental community life that we all easily describe in our dreams of missional communities but a very real and costly life which demands obedience and stability in order to enter into the inner change of discipleship.

Without this ultimate commitment to the other monks, to wife or husband, to child or parent, change is difficult at best because it lives under the threat of abandonment. With a commitment to stability, change is no longer a threat but something to be undertaken together. One can change or ask for change in the other when one knows that one is loved and that this request will not drive the other away.

What the monastic tradition offers the Church today is a communal way of life that challenges our cultures hyper-individualism by demanding the sacrificing of the idol of self and ‘a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.’ We must discover that on the boundary of the Church today the monastics still preserve ‘the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship.’

Stable Life


Stables smell and stables sweat,
Stables get what stables get.
There’s no choice in type of mess,
Mess is mess and it’s all a guess.
In this place of dark and grime,
God Almighty came in Time.
To live the life we fail to live,
To live beside, to give and give.
To empty himself for you and me,
To be here for all to touch and see.

So when we’re tired of work and sweat,
When we’re told to receive what we get.
When there seems no choice in our mess,
Remember God chose you for nothing less
Than the life of His Son who paid the price
For all the riches that have been lost in vice.
God lived a life and can live ours too,
To walk and guide and carry us through
Not out of the mess but to stability
He’s here for all to touch and see.

Written for the advent season 2016 when the publicity strapline was “Do you live a stable life?”.

Carl Wark

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Above me rock, grey and fresh.
Below me bog failing to dredge.
All around, vast iron fortifications
Sheltering, under, damp bronze fern.
Circling the stone refuge foundations,
Holding up the tower of the Old Man,
Up there in the wind swept heights.
Down here the cloistered valleys.
Ascending the cast ire
On unaccustomed foot.
Descending to the umber
Of the bitter terrain.
Up to the vistas
And all he surveys.
Down to the mire
Wading through his malaise.

Written on my first walk near my new home in the Peak District on Tuesday 3rd January 2017.

Chapter 73: all perfection is not herein attained

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For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I sat amongst the emerging community holding the proposed Rule of Life for the possible Society of the Holy Trinity, a New Monastic Society aimed at bringing together communities across the UK (and hopefully further afield) under a common rule and constitution. As we read the prologue to this Rule and reflected on what it said, there was an obvious thing to say,

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I had sat with Ian Mobsby, Gareth Powell and others for three days a month before and shared the stories of our different communities as they grew and developed. The Rule of Life, mainly written by one of the communities, had spoken to the other communities represented around the table. In our discussions we were clear that we needed this Rule to be a broad umbrella so that communities from across the Anglican communion may gather under it but it couldn’t be so broad as to lose any definition.

In a paper I was asked to write for the upcoming New Monastic Conference, entitled ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, I attempted to articulate what the New Monastic movement understands by a ‘Rule of Life’.

A Rule of Life is fundamental to the identification with the New Monastic movement. A Rule of Life is not just an agreed statement of belief or purpose but a set of commitments which are formally accepted by way of promises/vows. For all Christians, for every community, every monastery, every intentional grouping, the Gospel is the Rule of our life, the measure of our faithfulness to Christ. In this sense, no other rule is necessary. The tradition of the monastic Rule evolved as the deposit of the Gospel for a particular group at a particular time. Thus intentional communities need to be clear about the way in which they respond to the call of the Gospel. There are many possible ways: a community may feel called to follow a classic Rule; another may have felt called to write a Rule that is, for the members, their invitation to the Gospel life; another may have evolved a covenant document that identifies certain key practices that hold the members in their common vocation. (Ned Lunn, ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, Position Paper for ‘New Monasticism: a UK gathering of new forms of missional and religious life’, 14th April 2016)

With this understanding it is a natural response when reading any Rule of Life to say, ‘but that’s just being a Christian’ but the reality is many Christians struggle to specifically embody the gospel in their lives. The life of faith demands to live and move within context. The Spirit of God does not calls us to live anywhere but calls us to live in the time and place we find ourselves. Jesus lived in history, at a particular time and in a particular culture.

One of the ways in which the Society of the Holy Trinity distinguishes our specific vocation is to acknowledge that we are all communities living in urban contexts. This is not to say that we refuse to engage in the gospel elsewhere but the reality is we experience the life of faith is in the city environment. God has called us to live out the gospel in the City and so we have different questions to ask and a unique perspective on God’s vision for the new creation from communities who exist in the countryside.

I was initially uncomfortable with limiting the Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity to urban life but God showed me his specific call to bless the city. Living in a context requires us to continually return to the specific questions God asks of us and we must ask of each other. ‘How then shall we live here and now?’ It is easy to lose focus and to shift it from one thing and then to another; a Rule of Life forces us to sit with questions longer than we would naturally.

The Early Church wrestled with the question of context. St Paul argued pragmatically that Christians living in the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire as slaves and wives of Greeks or Romans did not have the luxury to distance themselves from the company of Gentiles as the Jewish Christians would want. It was easier for new Christian converts to live the Jewish life in Jerusalem but it was not practical or reasonable to ask those elsewhere to live to that standard. The Early Church discovered the need for some contextual common sense in the discipleship of new Christians.

The danger of context, however, is that we err too far the other way and use the charge of ‘context’ to encourage individualism. There is a risk that by adopting the ‘that’s alright for you but I am different’ subjective approach to life that we are never challenged by the cost of discipleship. There are some who are exploring New Monasticism who feel they can tailor make their own Rule of Life so that it works for their life as it is. When this Rule of Life starts to cost something of our life and comfort, they re-assess and change it to suit new priorities, etc. This makes me feel particularly uncomfortable. A Rule of Life must be shared with others to ensure that iron sharpens iron. That is why, even though there are some parts of the proposed Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity that I am not keen on, I’m happy to sit with it and would love, in the future, to vow to live by it.

A Rule of Life, like the Bible, demands of us to wrestle with the text and seek to hear God reveal himself through the tangible words. A Rule of Life is a lens we use to help us to hear and understand God’s life-giving story as it calls us to participate in it and it is a lens which we need to share with others to ensure we don’t impose our own agenda and distorted ideas onto it. A Rule of Life must not become an idol, formed into our image, but rather must point us to the revelations of God’s love and grace towards us and the world around us.

Esther de Waal, who I have enjoyed journeying with through the Rule of St. Benedict, puts it beautifully at the end of her book ‘A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict’,

The rule of Benedict is a way of life, a life-giving way. To encounter the text in all its fullness and complexity is like a source and stream, always the same and yet always different, or like a tapestry where I follow first one thread and then another and so get different glimpses of the whole. I return to it time and time again throughout my life. Benedict and his practical manual of the love of Christ are always there to help me on my journey, the coming home of the prodigal to the loving embrace of the father. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (New York: Continuum, 1995) p.215)

Reflection

Christianity is not a spirituality because it forces us to embrace our humanness; the fleshy, tangible life. We are not dualists, yearning for the separation of our souls from our bodies. We are not a people focussed on some spiritual nirvana achieved by asceticism or prayerful meditation in the hope of transcending our flesh. We are bodily present, rooted in history and geography, in the world we see, hear and breathe in.

The gospel is about the redemption of the world not an escape route from it. Rowan Williams writes,

The only history to be taken seriously is bodily history; and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history. (Rowan Williams, The Wound Of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.28)

The beautiful revelation of God through Jesus Christ is that God cares for this world and his eschatological plan is bound up in the atoms and particles of creation. The incarnation is good news for us that our earthly lives are not accidental but have a divine purpose: redemption.

The parish system should help us to remember the particularities of our life. Where we live is important. Our neighbours lives demand our attention. The communities of which we are a part are not distractions but the priority of our God who walks that landscape seeking out the lost and proclaiming another world is possible. We can easily forget these truths and realities and that is why a Rule of Life is helpful to hold us in that place of asking the question, ‘how then shall we live?’ How do we live out the gospel in this place at this time? It will be different from those in different contexts but the challenge is, as it has been since the early Christians first discovered God’s vocation given to them by the Holy Spirit at their baptisms, how do we remain united in the demands of different contexts?

Almighty God, through your Holy Spirit you created unity in the midst of diversity;
We acknowledge that human diversity is an expression of your manifold love for your creation;
We confess that in our brokenness as human beings we turn diversity into a source of alienation, injustice, oppression, and wounding. Empower us to recognize and celebrate differences as your great gift to the human family. Enable us to be the architects of understanding, of respect and love; Through the Lord, the ground of all unity, we pray. (“Prayers for Diversity”, Jesuit Resources, http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/Prayers-for-Diversity.cfm)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess

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Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…

What has happened to the UK?

We live in interesting times!

On the Sunday morning after the UK voted to leave the European Union the lectionary epistle reading was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy; these were the words being used as the ripples of the UK’s decision were felt by all of us. Both major political parties went into melt down as David Cameron resigned triggering a leadership race and then the Labour party followed suit with several resignations and a leadership coup. Scotland began rethinking their independence which, strangely UKIP are dead against because they feel Scotland is better in a union than out… No one seemed totally comfortable with the way things were turning out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s announcement was downbeat to say the least. The political jostling had begun!

Throughout the debate it was clear that what the voting public needed were facts, but who do we trust to give us the facts? As Michael Gove interestingly stated,

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.

Although we needed facts what we wanted was ‘passion’. The ‘Trump Effect’ (which is sadly now a well known phrase!) is the replacement of intellectual reason with courage in conviction.

They aren’t afraid to say it as it is.

They are passionate about their beliefs.

Nigel Farage, the main force behind the referendum, has now resigned having achieved what he wanted in politics. He worked tirelessly to achieve his aim and ambition with great zeal but at what cost? To be more specific; in what manner? For me passion and zeal, unbridled by reason, faithfulness or stability leads to division. This is what is being outlined in the Galatians passage above.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

When you sow in division, you reap in division.

I want to be clear that, despite my vote to remain in the EU, my concern and disappointment is rooted not in the outcome of the vote itself but in the nature that the debate was done and the precedent it has set for the future of our society. As always my judgement on the morality of a decision is based not on the decision itself but on the process and means by which the decision was arrived at. If the vote had gone the other way, I’d have still been upset and uncomfortable about the decision (albeit less intensely).

I have, as regular readers of this blog will know, for a long time been criticising the direction of our society in the UK over the last few decades. At the heart of my criticism and concern is the liberal, individualised approach to politics which places the individual desires and passions at the heart of all conversation. What matters most in debates is not reason but what a person thinks and feels. The subjective voice is unassailable and if someone’s beliefs are criticised then the opponent is labelled ‘intolerant’. Opinion is held higher than than fact or truth because there is no longer any objective truth. It comes down to what we ‘reckon’. This leads to us ensuring we get what we want but never paying the cost to get what we need.

What was obvious throughout the debate and in the aftermath of the referendum was that we the voters, en masse, didn’t know what we were doing. We were not told all the information we were fed lies from both sides and as the reality hit we were all as confused as before. We talk about the value and success of democracy but what the referendum did show me was that democracy doesn’t work because it relies on the generally uninformed voter making a decision which inevitably goes to the person who is charismatic and not for the one who is able to make the change to society that most of us don’t know we need. The referendum was won, not by truth but by personality.

Plato, in his book ‘Republic’, depicts democracy as a denigration of strong governance and places the democratic regime just above tyranny. The democratic man, which he uses to portray the character of democracy, is a man who is free to do what they want and live how they want. This democratic man is ruled by his passions and base desires. He is uneducated with little self control. Democracy is painted as self-autonomous units fighting and competing to survive… sounds like the UK at the moment!

When reading Galatians a day after the referendum it was this depiction of democracy that came to mind as I prepared to preach into a society where the political, economic and social stability of our nation was in chaos. Markets were uncertain. Communities were divided and a rise in xenophobia and racism became prevalent. Families were divided deeply and there was no sign of any leadership. This is the fruit of living life by our flesh, our passions.

The alternative, Paul argues, is to die to the flesh.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

The referendum was also a debate about identity. We, as a nation, are struggling to articulate a shared identity due to the aggressive pursuit of the individual identity in our capitalist, neo-liberal culture. There is no longer a shared narrative to our lives together. This is why the concept of family, community, fellowship is eroded and there is such high levels of loneliness, mental health issues, depression, anxiety and violence; and it is that one word which describes the debate and the fruit of the vote to leave, on both sides: ‘violence’.

Violence is rooted in fear. Violence is the response when we feel threatened. Violence is characterised by the cross. So what should our response be? How then do we live?

Love.

This is not the love that allows people to live how they want but the love which desires that people belong and are brought together. This love is not just allowing others to exist nearby but a desire for transformation and growth. This love is rooted in the monastic vow of stability, obedience and ongoing transformation. Esther de Waal writes,

Genuine love is free from exploitation or the manipulation of others. Where this is missing love becomes a delusion, a subterfuge, a means to an end. The patience and gentleness of verse 5 are again virtues which Benedict admires and which he has been encouraging. This is the opposite of that violence which is not limited to aggressive behaviour but may be a reflection of the hidden violence of feelings which comes out in tone of voice or the glance… The ‘wicked zeal of bitterness’ must refer to the rivalries and power games that can tear communities apart, the sort of competition that is unsuitable in the body of Christ. If you must compete, he seems to say, at least compete in love! (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.211)

Paul contrasts the life lived by the passions of the flesh as a life guided by God’s Spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To live by the Spirit one must die to the flesh. This is what is being outlined by St. Benedict in this penultimate chapter of his Rule.

Let them, “in honour prevent one another” (Rom 12:10). Let them accept each other’s frailties (of body and soul). Let them try to outdo each other in obedience. Let no one do what is best for himself, but rather what is best for another. Let them expend the charity of brotherhood in chaste love.

I’m a passionate person; I feel things powerfully and I have strong convictions but I know I must learn to control and master that passion by deliberately and intentionally dying to self and being drawn into the community of love and respect. I must establish my identity in Christ and allow him to form me in his likeness.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.(Phil 2:3-8)

Reflection

…salvation is not an individual project, but one we undertake with and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. We work out our salvation not only in fear and trembling, but also in community. It is in our care for, and interaction with, one another that we become the body of Christ, now and forever. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1990) p.267)

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to be re-trained in living with others. There was a great cry, after the vote on the UK membership in the EU, to come together and be united. It sounded so simple but we have lost the art of doing that. Living with others is a cost to our personal sense of freedom. We have heard a lot about freedom and our own sovereignty over the referendum debate but I repeat Paul’s words to the Galatians,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

It is the paradox of the Christian life that we have been given freedom to choose to become slaves to one another in Christ. Community is not easy and so the need for guidelines is so important. The Rule of St. Benedict is the greatest example of such guidelines which hold people together when every passion and zeal is telling them to flee or worse do violence in thought, word or deed. A Rule of life must cover every aspect of one’s life; the thoughts (orthodoxy), the feelings (orthopathy) and the actions (orthopraxis). It must be shared with those you live with in order that everyone exists within the same narrative because with no shared story there is no shared values, direction, destination and ultimately no shared character/identity.

We have voted to leave the EU to regain our own sovereignty so how do we now build a common life together? On this issue there remains silence or rather there remains a competition for ideological power or individualised tolerance. The Kingdom of God is established when we allow our political ideology, our self-identity, our sexuality, our gender, our class, our weatlh or status to become secondary to the identity which brings joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I appreciate that may be interpreted as another subjective option of many in this pluralistic society but, as a Christian, I can see no other option offering such hope.

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it…. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the “lenses” through which they are able to understand and cope with the world. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 2004) p.227)

The New Monastic movement is a fresh call from God to intentional place ourselves in the environment of community under a framework that will shape us into the character of Christ. That was the goal of St. Benedict and the other monastic fathers and mothers and it is the goal of this new wave of monastics. The sharing of a way of life challenges the individualised culture we now suffer within. We need to commit to a Rule which is not shaped by me or my desires but is shaped for me and my transformation and in which my passion and zeal will be focussed solely on seeking God’s will in our life together; redemption of my flesh to be guided by the Spirit.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified:hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in our vocation and ministry we may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name. Raise up leaders of character who will lead us to inhabit your story of hope and in which all of us find our rest.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 71: the brothers ought to obey one another

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The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.

Where is authority and obedience placed and how is it used?

Let prefix this post with an acknowledgement: I will be quoting Thomas Merton a lot during this one!

I have a personal struggle with authority and obedience which is deeply woven into my personality and history. Firstly, I am a born and raised Roman Catholic which has undoubtedly influenced me for good and ill in equal measure. I cannot and will not ever shake that influence from me, I can only learn to embrace the good and ask God’s mercy and grace to redeem the ill. Secondly, I am a millennial/Generation Y, my older siblings are the cynical generation X and they have shaped me as well as my peers who, like me have been parented by baby-boomers. All of that may sound like a load of sociological mumbo jumbo but the key point is I’m a product of my culture. Generation Y is also known as Generation Me, for we are, on the whole, a narcissistic bunch obsessed with selfies due to a great deal of pampering by our parents who were the recipients of Thatcher’s ‘booming economy’! These two parts of my social makeup would be enough to create a paradox around the issue of authority but there’s more specific personality traits that create a confusing cocktail of issues for me. (There’s my Generation Y traits coming out; a desperate need to be unique and noticed. Ironic!) In Myers Briggs personality test I am an INTJ

Blindly following precedents and rules without understanding them is distasteful to INTJs, and they disdain even more authority figures who blindly uphold those laws and rules without understanding their intent. Anyone who prefers the status quo for its own sake, or who values stability and safety over self-determination, is likely to clash with INTJ personality types. Whether it’s the law of the land or simple social convention, this aversion applies equally, often making life more difficult than it needs to be.(“INTJ Strengths and Weakneses”, 16 Personalities, April 23 2016, https://www.16personalities.com/intj-strengths-and-weaknesses)

I have a deepening sense of vocation to some form of monastic life. I am a self selected Anglican. I am artistic by temperament and, until ordination, by profession. All of this makes for some paradox inducing internal struggle for me but… it’s what makes me interesting!

I appreciate authority. I desire authority. I know the necessity for authority and even in a democratic country authority is not only allowed it is more needed than ever. Our relationship with authority, as a culture, is interesting to me. After it’s abuses by so many in the 20th century we have allowed the pendulum of social opinion to swing completely in the opposite direction. As my older siblings in Generation X have taken power (often in protesting movements and social activism) a large dose of cynicism towards authority and the status quo has become prevalent too. Figures of authority are routinely mocked and publicly shamed as satire has became increasingly popular so that now most comedians will have some form of pedestal kicking in their acts. I am not suggesting this is bad or unnecessary; I’m just noting it as interesting.

Thomas Merton (here it comes!) wrote to a Marie Byles, a scholar in Japanese religions, on January 9 1967,

You ask about the Catholic idea of holy obedience. What you are really interested in is evidently the ancient ascetic idea of obedience which goes back to the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and so on, is exemplified by the saints, and is analogous to the perfect obedience, docility, and so forth found in other religious ideals. The idea is fundamentally the same: to become free from the need to assert one’s ego, to be liberated from the desire to dominate others, to renounce selfish demands, and so on. Ultimately the idea is that if you renounce your own will you will be guided directly by God and moved by Him in everything… The real purpose of obedience is to obey God and give one’s will to Him. This idea of obedience is somewhat ambiguous in the later legalistic context that it got into, when the religious Orders got highly organized and became big impersonal structures run by bureaucracies. The ascetic idea was pressed into the service of a different kind of ideal, and “blind obedience” was stressed as an ideal since it meant the subject simply submitted to authority and became a cog in a machine. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 191)

Merton draws out the first issue with obedience and authority and that is: where it is placed.

St Benedict’s original emphasis of obedience in his Rule stems from the expectation that within the monastic community there are personal relationships; monks were known to each other. An abbot knew the monks, personally and intimately. This relationship can’t always have been comfortable for either party particularly in issues of obedience. The abbot would have come from the community and could have been, at one time, a peer of the monks he now found himself in authority over. Within the intimacy of this fellowship of faith and discipleship, obedience is encouraged for it’s original purpose: to practice submission of our own will to God. I acknowledge not just my own personal need to practice this submission but my whole culture to do so.

Obedience, unfortunately, has continued to be associated with big, impersonal institutions and so is baulked at by many in Generation X and younger. Since the First World War and the abuses of the ruling classes that forced the population to fight increasingly failing battles on their behalf became apparent, cultural acceptance of authority began to erode. Throughout the last century, with the rise of fascism, communism, capitalism and many other philosophical and political ideals, humanity has developed a wariness to power and authority. Institutions have one by one shown themselves to be corrupted, or at least corruptible, and trust has been lost (the Church, the police, politicians, government processes, schools). This has been done to such an extent that we are now numbed to scandal and, strangely, we now see political elite and celebrities who are seemingly immune to such challenge.

To focus the issue a little more let me explore authority within the Church of England. I, as an ordained minister, have made an oath of canonical obedience,

I, A B, do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest: So help me God. (Canon C14, Canons of the Church of England 7th Edition: Full Edition with First Supplement (London, church House Publishing, 2015)

In my case I have sworn obedience to the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu which has, on occasions, been put to the test. There have been decisions that the Archbishop has made which have affected me directly and which I have not agreed with. I have accepted those decisions as an act of obedience to him. This acceptance has not been easy at times as I struggle to obey authority solely because some person of status tells me to and particularly when I don’t believe them to possess all the necessary information of understanding, but I obeyed. My struggle is particularly painful when I am asked to obey decisions that have been made without any form of dialogue or relationship. Merton goes on,

As long as the notion of obedience is implicated in an impersonal power system it will be corrupted by the very things it is supposed to liberate us from- worldliness, selfishness, ambition, and so on… (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 192)

That is not purely to say that just the authority figure, whoever that might be, is corrupted by those things but those in obedience under them also. For the vow of obedience to be renewed and reformed for both parties involved I suggest we ensure it is placed back in the soil of long-term, trusting relationship. The alternative is to either blindly allow it to continue as it is and to be burdened by the struggle or to leave the system altogether (as many who have taken the oath of canonical obedience are doing.)

Thomas Merton, in a letter to a Wilbur H. Ferry on January 19 1967, makes the following heartfelt observation,

Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic Church and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God’s name. It is an insult to God Himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to. On the other hand… If everyone with any sense just pulls out, then that leaves the curial boys in full command of the field with the assurance that they are martyrs to justice or something. the real problem remains the reform of the Church people who remain inside. And if there can only be a little agreement on a more reasonable and free approach, something can be done. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 322)

Many have asked me why I, as a pioneer minister of sorts and as a creative artist, not only follow the rules but promote the need to stay true to them. It is the key paradox that makes me, me; how does it balance?

I have spoken before about an important moment in my life when I was asked by God to make a decision: was I going to be a revolutionary or a reformer? A revolutionary, in this instance, is one who seeks to overthrow the current system in power and replace it with something else. This revolutionary wants to destroy the status quo which is , in their mind, no longer fit for purpose, in order to create the new workable model. The reformer, on the other hand, is the one who seeks to take the treasures of the old and salvage them to allow the broken parts to either be ‘fixed’ or recycled or thrown out. The job of the reformer, in contrast to the revolutionary, is a long term systematic but thorough process. I made a promise to God some eight years ago to be a reformer and not a revolutionary.

Most pioneer ministers and those involved in the Fresh Expressions movement are revolutionaries. They are tired of the status quo failing, in their eyes, in the mission of God. The Church of England is joke and needs to be radically changed and that change is going to be made from a grassroots movements akin to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and UKIP (this is not about motivation but solely about approach.) I have promised my God that I’d commit to participate in dialogue with the tradition because I still believe God has built his Church and he has not forsaken it yet. I believe that the Church is the hope of the nation and that God is still in it working through it. Fresh Expressions of church must, in my mind grow out from and remain united to the Church of God.

The Reformation was, in my mind, an unfortunate but necessary moment in Church history. It was unfortunate because it has birthed, out of division, a divisive movement. If you sow in division you reap in division. This has meant that preference has often replaced the deeply held convictions of the reformers and we have the situation where there are so many independent churches. These church congregations are not, in themselves a problem, many are doing wonderful, anointed work and I rejoice with them in the promotion of the life of faith and mission but the ecumenical movement, despite our best intentions of being united, is not full unity. What was begun at the Reformation has created this issue.

It is from this place of commitment to change the system from within that I speak. I don’t believe in complaining about something and not learning why it is as it is and how it or I can be changed to solve the problem. It is in this reformation mindset that I struggle to balance my obedience to authority and work to discern how God is birthing the new things in and through his Church. It is in all of this that I am encouraged by Merton’s letter to Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit and one of the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship,

While in fact there are a lot of Superiors who think themselves infallible, and are absolutely incapable of understanding what it means to really find out what their subjects need and desire (they consult only yes-men or people who have made the grade by never rocking any boats), there is a new bunch coming up that sincerely wants to help change things, but obviously can’t do everything they would like to do either. And then there are the good Joes who want to go along wherever the Church seems to be going even if they don’t really understand what it is all about. If all these are treated as if they were purely and simply reactionary tyrants, then there will be a real mess for sure… The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 272)

Merton draws out here the other issue with authority and obedience and that is: how is it used.

The pain of authority comes when it is, as Merton calls it, “arbitrary and reactionary”. How many of us have been on the receiving end of this approach to power? Often authority is used like this when it lacks the environment of relationship but it can still manifest itself like this even when you are within long term, trusting relationships. Merton knew this personally with his own abbot at Gethsemani where he lived.

The letters and journals of Thomas Merton are full of his personal struggles with abbot James Fox who continually refused Merton the opportunity to become a hermit. these occasions are so numerous and so gradual it is hard to find just one that will sum up the pain he felt as he wrestled with obedience to an authority he no longer respected.

I know he is my Abbot, but I am very much afraid that I have never honestly been able to deal with him as with a “spiritual father” and it would be impossible for me to do so sincerely. (May 11, 1965, Thomas Merton to Jean Leclercq, ‘Survival or Prophecy?: The letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) p.128)

Just two years earlier, Merton expressed, in his journal, his approach to obedience to an authority he did not respect.

In consequence my attitude toward the monastery changes. They have need of me and I have need of them. As if without this obedience, and charity, my life would lack sense. It is an existential situation which god has willed for me, and it is part of His Providence – it is not to be questioned, no matter how difficult it may be. I must obey God, and this reaches out into everything… In this new condition my attitude toward the abbot is changing. Of course it is obvious that my complaints and discontent have been absurd. Though I can perhaps back them up with plausible arguments, they have no real meaning, they don’t make sense. He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?(January 15, 1963, Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: the journals of Thomas Merton volume four, 1960-1963 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) p. 288-289)

Esther de Waal suggests,

…obedience is a gift rather than a matter of duty. It is something which the good monk gives with gracious charity to his brother… Obedience depends on listening so totally and openly to the other that through them we discern the face, the voice of Christ himself. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p. 208)

Obedience must be a gift and should be lived not out of duty but love. This becomes painful when authority is wielded over you and obedience demanded from you rather than inspired in you. It is a delicate balance that Merton lived and that we all, in some way, must navigate. Obedience, like love, must begin as a practice, a choice and through this will grow into a habit and a virtue.

The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.

Philip Lawrence, OSB and abbot of Christ in the Desert, writes,

Obedience is valuable in our lives because we show one another what it means to serve and love one another. Even the abbot has to obey the brethren! (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 71: Mutual Obedience”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, April 23 2016, https://christdesert.org/prayer/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-71-mutual-obedience/)

Obedience is to be done in love and as a service and it is expected, although not explicit in the Rule, reciprocal. The person in authority over another is not to laud it over their subjects but to be obedient also. It is in this mutual obedience that authority can be wielded.

Obedience then should be preceded by a deep listening from both parties. If it is rooted in relationship then authority will be exercised with love and obedience given as a gift.

Reflection

This chapter challenges me, like the rest of the Rule, but particularly at this moment in my ministry. This current season in my life is painful like a continual dull thud causing me discomfort. I find myself blindside by a sear of the pain which I must ride out until it subsides. Through it all I choose obedience and to re-commit to following the path laid out for me by God, to see through my potentially erroneous beliefs or opinions and to say of my superior,

He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?

Having said that, I am also aware that authority and obedience is not currently rooted in relationship and it is in this way that it and I must seek to change. I must be careful though,

The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs.

I was asked to visit the nacent new monastic community at St Lukes, Peckham, as part of my involvement in the development of the Society of the Holy Trinity. In our discussion (which can be found here) the painful and personal issue of obedience to authority was explored. I encourage you to listen to it and pray.

I appreciate that this post has been long so I want to sum up the salient point: I believe in the Church as an institution which can develop a transformation of character by practices such as obedience. If authority and obedience is rooted in relationship and a place of intimacy they can be amazing gifts one to another. Outside of relationship they are potentially deeply damaging weapons wielded over people. The change should not be to disown them and seek replacements but to renew and replace them into their proper place.

You are the God who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises of fidelity and presence and solidarity,
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late,
that your promise always comes in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.

You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.

So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us
that we may be among those who believe your promises
enough to respond to your call.

We pray in the one who embodied your promise
and enacted your call, even Jesus. Amen.
(Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress, 2003) p. 90)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 70: no one is to presume to strike another

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We insist that no one is to strike or excommunicate a brother unless ordered by the abbot.

What is that to you?

I want to begin with a confession. I regularly dream of committing great acts of physical violence on other people. Often these people in my dream show no sign of being impacted by the punches, bites, kicks, etc. that I inflict on them. Part of the build up of violence in these dreams is that no matter how hard I attack my opponent they merely smile or continue to taunt me.

These dreams clearly reveal an inner violence within me of some sort; a form of anguish, frustration building up inside me. The figure who takes the most amount of beatings in my dream is my brother who I always associate with antagonism. He and I growing up had a typical brother relationship of competition, bullying and taunting. We are very different people with very different outlooks and approaches to life and this continues to cause (when we spend any long period of time together) a regression to childish responses in me. He has become a totem in my sub conscious for those people who seem oblivious to my frustrations and continue unchanged in their behaviour which irritate me.

I want to be clear that it has been 16 years, 3 months, 1 week and 6 days since I last punched someone in the face… it was my brother. We were sharing a room on the way up to a millennium celebration with our family and he was deliberately winding me up and we had wrestled with each other until I had pinned him down and, as usual, he taunted me, knowing that I never used physical violence. This time, however, I lost control and punched him clean in the nose… we haven’t fought since… Violence solves nothing, kids!

When St. Benedict insist on not striking someone many of us can’t imagining monks beating each other up but we must assume it must have been a common occurrence or it wouldn’t have been specified. The insistence also highlights, as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, that,

…if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement (Mt 5:22a)

Violence can be expressed in many forms and we ‘strike’ one another more than just physically. The same is true of excommunication.

Official excommunication is the task of the abbot only, as has been clearly defined previously in the Rule, but we can excommunicate others from our lives by choosing not to be near them or avoiding them. We are able to exist in the shallow comfort of community life if we hold onto the control of who we allow into our inner life. We look upon one others with the eyes of judgement choosing to give worth and value to one and not the other. In this way we excommunicate people from the community of our heart.

St. Benedict is insisting that we change our heart.

It is in this deeper area of our personal conversion that we must be attentive. Only with the progress through the ladder of humility and under the obedience that is required in that that we can be changed. Again we see the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience and conversion creating the dynamic, paradoxical tension in the life of discipleship.

As with the previous chapter in which the presumption of coming to the help of another monk, in striking or excommunicating another we are placing ourselves between them and God. It is God alone, through the authority of the abbot, that judgement (if it is passed at all) is made. If we presume to step in and mediate we ourselves fall short for in doing this we ultimately say to God,

We don’t trust you’ll do what we expect.

The last two chapters have reminded me of the end of the gospel of John where Jesus has re-instating Peter after his denial.

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (Jn 21:20-22)

The sins and failings of our brothers and sisters must first be a call to our own repentance as we acknowledge that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23) Again we must place ourselves in the narrative of creation, redemption, sanctification.

Our discipleship begins with an acknowledgement that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are created beings formed from the earth by a loving and gracious Father. Our life is solely dependent on his good will and pleasure. From this point we know that we are called to live out a life of freely chosen devotion to him, a life of willing obedience. It is in following him by way of his Son that we are transformed into his likeness. He bestows himself upon those who desire conversion in the person of the Holy Spirit who continues to equip and empower us to continue the work of redemption. The Holy Spirit also makes us holy, distinct from the way of the world and marks us out as God’s own people; beloved.

If we miss out the important acknowledgement, in full force, that we are dust, nothing, sinners, then we limit our appreciation of grace within our life. A community grows and flourishes when all truly inhabit this story of our faith. If we can rightly believe the truth of this in our life and the life of each other then we are able to see Christ working out his purposes in one another.

I’ll finish with a story from the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It is said that she ‘sought out the company of those nuns whose temperaments she found hardest to bear.’ A fellow novice nun, Martha of Jesus, who spent her childhood years in various orphanages and who was described by all as emotionally unbalanced, with a violent temper, became the focus of Thérèse’s attention. It is said that the Mother Superior became concerned that Thérèse was infatuated with Martha and ordered her to stop spending so much time with her. After Thérèse’s death it was discovered that

[she] went out of her way to spend time with, and therefore to love, the people she found most repellent. It was an effective means of achieving interior poverty, a way to remove a place to rest her head. (Kathryn Harrison, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (New York: Penguin Group, 2003) p. 111)

A commitment to conversion of life relies on a rootedness in humility achieved through obedience to authority outside of ourselves. That conversion, for Thérèse of Lisieux, was about achieving interior poverty in the likeness of Christ.

Reflection

What I am about to say is not as controversial as it may first appear: conflict and tension gives a community the necessary dynamic to grow and move forward. Disagreement is not only expected within community it is necessary. Without it life together becomes, firstly, bland and also, secondly, stagnated, dare I say, dead. In the tension of polarised opinion there is a movement in thought, ideals, opinions and direction. As people wrestle with one another in disagreement we all develop and grow.

That’s why the foundational commitment to the narrative outlined above alongside a vow to chastity and stability alongside an equal vow to conversion of life creates the environment to disagree well. It won’t come as a surprise that there are members of my Christian community, locally, nationally and internationally, that I have consider punching in the face on a number of occasions (I’m sure my face has been imagined being pushed through a wall more than once!) It is a natural response to frustration and conflict but the next step is the most important in spiritual growth. Do we choose to consider how to, not necessarily physically strike them or officially excommunicate them but internally do so? What do we do with these internal temptations and thoughts? Father Maximos, in Kyriacos C. Markides book, ‘The Mountain of Silence, suggests,

We ignore them. That is what the Church fathers tell us to do. They explain that they are like flies and we are to bat them away… We can take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ by His grace. (Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: a search for Orthodox spirituality (Indiana: Doubleday, 2002), quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2: farther up and farther in (London: William Collins, 2015) p.1158-9)

Community life is fraught with dangers of division and it is in the dynamic interplay of the trinitarian vows of stability/chastity, obedience and conversion/poverty and under the narrative of creation, redemption and sanctification that these issues can be a positive force rather than a destructive one.

How often in Church life do we avoid conflict because we do not know how to travel through the terrain? It is far better, I propose, that we live within the context of a life committed to the principles outlined here; that, along with the previous chapter, we are to give attention to our own growth in faith rather than take on the growth of others. It is our own conversion that we are responsible for and to allow others to sort out their own growth, trusting and praying for them as they do so. To see them through the eyes of humility, obedience and holiness.

Father Maximos also suggests that it is the practice of the Jesus Prayer that keeps ‘repetitive assaultive thoughts’ at bay.

St Mark the Ascetic said that he gave credit for his prayer life to Satan. Every time he was tempted by the devil, he prayed, thus, he prayed alot. (Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: a search for Orthodox spirituality (Indiana: Doubleday, 2002), quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2: farther up and farther in (London: William Collins, 2015) p.1159)

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 69: no one shall presume to defend another in the monastery

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Take care that, no matter what, no monk presumes to defend or protect another…

How should we teach?

I was sat with a large group of young people leading them in a Bible Study on cutting off limbs (Mt 5:30, Mk 9:43) and there were a lot of questions being asked. I had not been a leader for longer and, althoguh I had experience of being a teacher, I felt out of my depth. I looked across at the paid youth worker who headed up the team I was on and looked pleadingly at him. I desperately needed his help to answer and guide us back on track as I was flailing in the metaphorical brambles! Instead of jumping in and either closing down the questions or deftly answering them he remained silent staring back at me.

Well, thank you very much!

I thought as I clumsily fought back the probing questions and steered us to end the time together to start an unplanned game.

After the young people had left I cornered the youth leader and said,

Could you not see I was in trouble there. I needed your help and you just left me to fail and it was really embarrassing!

He smiled and replied,

How are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet if I keep propping you up. You need to find your own way out of those kinds of messes.

It was one of the best lessons I learnt.

Skip forward eight years and I’m now ordained and leading a youth group in another church. I have a new leader who I am helping to train up and she was surrounded by young people asking difficult questions about miracles. She stuttered and struggled and then she turned to me and said,

I have completely lost track of what I was saying. Ned, how should I end this?

For a moment I was back at that moment when the youth leader let me struggle on my own and I learnt the valuable lesson of finding an ending on my own. As this student leader stared at me, totally overwhelmed, I faltered and stepped in to defend her. Afterwards I regretted doing that, remembering the great lesson learnt when someone didn’t protect me from embarrassment or failure.

It seems harsh reading this chapter, to be told not to defend another person. To leave them struggling doesn’t seem that kind or, to be honest, very Christian. The instruction, however, is to enable monks to learn the lessons they need as they journey the path of righteousness. How often we step into help someone and in so doing refuse them the opportunity to grow or deepen their faith?

As humans we love the opportunity to instruct and teach others in some weird narcissistic attempt to make them more like us. Imparting advice is a way we can extend our influence and intellectually procreate. In doing this, though, we rob another of growing or maturing. It’s the problem with our established pedagogy (way of teaching).

Paolo Freire, a liberation theologian and practitioner articulates, for me, the fundamental problem with the way we teach one another. The church is not immune to the oppressive approach to education which ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.’

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive , memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.72)

Students become passive participants who are, by the manner in which information is given to them, encouraged to accept the world as it is and not to hope for new revelations or transformation in reality.

Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator not re-creator… he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.75)

Discipleship must be shaped around a new way of teaching. A teaching, outlined in Freire’s writing, which encourages students to journey alongside another student. It is a focus on modelling how to interact, with curiosity and wonder, with the world around us. The teacher is no longer set apart, up front, depositing information but rather in amongst, a student amongst students, learning and asking questions with them about what they see, hear and experience around them.

In another book, ‘We Make The Road By Walking’, he summarises his point concisely.

The other mistake is to crush freedom and to exacerbate the authority of the teacher. Then you no longer have freedom but now you have authoritarianism, and then the teacher is the one who teaches. The teacher is the one who knows. The teacher is the one who guides. The teacher is the one who does everything. And the students, precisely because the students must be shaped, just expose their bodies and their souls to the hands of the teacher, as if the students were clay for the artist, to be molded. The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. And in doing that, he or she lives the experience of relating democratically as authority with the freedom of the students.(Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) p.181)

Within this liberation framework we begin to see a way in which the abbot’s authority explicit throughout St. Benedict’s Rule, can be executed without taking away freedom from the monks. The guidance and teaching is one of accompaniment; yes, firm and un-wielding when necessary but allowing God to transform them through a process. Thomas Merton understood this approach.

A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (Boston: Shambhala, 2005) p.258)

Reflection

I suspect that discipleship crisis in the Church (which has led us to mission and evangelism crisis) is rooted in the approach to how we teach. The time has come to throw away the educational philosophy described above as the ‘banking concept’ for what it creates is followers who are dependant on ‘experts’ to feed them the information they need. If they manage to fight through the passivity that is forced upon them they become oppressors themselves with the catalogue of deposits they have collected over the years.

We leaders and teachers must relearn how to guide people to become the person God intends for them to be. This is going to be hard for most of us as we are products of this old and autocratic educational process. We must come to see God through Jesus the teacher who allowed mistakes and failures, who brought out free enquiry in story rather than a syllabus of knowledge that needed to be memorised. The first disciples were not given, like the other rabbis of the time, a textbook to be learnt but instead received the Holy Spirit to inspire.

This new form of teaching must ripple through every aspect of the Church; through the pulpit, into small groups, into evangelism. Can we imagine the Church being at the forefront of education again by establishing this inquiry based, liberation approach to teaching the younger generation how to engage with the world?
Guiding God, through your son, Jesus Christ, we see you teaching us amongst us. You do not deposit diktats from above but instead walk life with us encouraging and leading with all gentleness, strength and faithfulness. We thank you that your desire for us is not just to know about you but to become like you and in that, find our freedom.

Come, Lord Jesus.