Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bread of Heaven or Husks of Swine?

A Reflection on the devotional theology of Thomas á Kempis

Reading Thomas á Kempis can be more than a little challenging. There is a strong penitentiality that makes a steady diet of The Imitation of Christ hard to digest and when approaching works of this nature I usually view it as digging for gold. The gold is there, notably in some lofty reflections of our relationship with Jesus our Lord.

The year that I discovered that grace was freely given I heard the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and actually tried to live it perfectly for a week.  It was a salutary exercise, and it crucified me; a wonderful preparation for the gift of grace that comes only through the sacrificial labour of Christ Jesus.  If you doubt me, accept the challenge and try it for yourself.

Context is always important and when reading Thomas remember his basic orientation.  He says, “Blessed is he who appreciates what it is to love Jesus and who despises himself for the sake of Jesus. Give up all other love for His, since He wishes to be loved alone above all things. (The Imitation of Christ; Book II, The Interior Life; Chapter 7).  Similarly Saint Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).  In his Rule, St. Benedict says, “The love of Christ must come before all else.” [Timothy Fry, ed. The Rule of St. Benedict, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1980), p. 27.]

This following prayer from Thomas á Kempis surfaces an awareness of the inadequacy of human efforts in acquiring grace.  This awareness is not just a quirk of medieval devotional theology, but is written into the very nature of faith itself. 

Thomas á Kempis speaks out of this consciousness and prays,

If you discovered iniquity in the angels and did not spare them, what will become of me? The stars fell from heaven, and I, mere dust, what should I expect? Those whose works seemed praiseworthy fell to the depths, and I have seen those who once were fed with the bread of angels take comfort in the husks of swine.

There is no holiness where you have withdrawn your hand, O Lord; no profitable wisdom if you cease to rule over it; no helpful strength if you cease to preserve it. If you forsake us, we sink and perish; but if you visit us, we rise up and live again. We are unstable, but you make us firm; we grow cool, but you inflame us.

The Collects in The Book of Common Prayer emphasize the same theme, that grace is a free gift, and cannot be earned by the unaided will.  The following Collect is from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

Collect for The Ninth Sunday after Trinity.

GRANT to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The spiritual foundation for the life of grace is found in these marvellously disturbing lines from Psalm 88.  “I am a man who has no strength. . . I am shut in so that I cannot escape. . . I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4, 8, 15).  Until one has discovered this uncomfortable reality one has not begun living a grace filled life.  Yet having discovered this one cannot live a life stalled in helplessness.  Surrender must be followed by obedience.  Paul exhorts us to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12, 13).  Surrender to God in the face of our essential helplessness is not meant to be used for a surrender to acedia, or a surrender to laziness.  Paul again reflects a healthy orientation when he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (Corinthians 15:10).

Nor are we allowed to wallow in our helplessness, or to waste time and energy enjoying the penitential discovery that we are too easily satisfied with taking comfort in the husks of swine.  John Cordelier instructs us to “Live boldly, dangerously, and completely, without fastidiousness.  Accept the mud and slime, the heat and misery, the odious disabilities of the flesh” [The Path of the Eternal Wisdom, (Elbiron Classics, p. 80].  So you are what you are.  Rejoice in the grace of Christ more boldly still and get on with the business of living.

Self-discovery and confession are meant to lead us to forgiveness and to the active pursuit of doing the right thing.  C. S. Lewis advises us to keep our balance saying, “Keep clear of introspection, of brooding, of spiritualism, of everything eccentric.  Keep to work and sanity and open air – to the cheerful & the matter of fact side of things.  We hold our mental health by a thread: & nothing is worth risking it for.  Above all beware of excessive day dreaming, of seeing yourself in the centre of a drama, of self pity, and as far as possible, of fears. (Letter “To Arthur Greeves, April 22nd [1923]”) C. S. Lewis, Family Letters, Vol. 1, (SanFrancisco: Harper, 2004), p. 605.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

St. John of the Cross: I am dying that I do not die

This life I live in vital strength
Is loss of life unless I win You:
And thus to die I shall continue
Until in You I live at length.
Listen (my God!) my life is in You.
This life I do not want, for I
Am dying that I do not die. 1

The theme of dying in order that one may live is central to Contemplative Theology. Gregory Palamas (14th C) says with clarity that “The Living God is accessible to personal experience, because He shared His own life with humanity.”   Palamas speaks of this process, of dying in order to live, as a necessary preparation for being transformed into light, even as Christ is Light, “In the affective part of the soul, we bring about the best part by rejecting all that impedes the mind from elevating itself towards God . . . He who has purified his body by temperance, who by divine love has made an occasion of virtue from his wishes and desires, who has presented to God a mind purified by prayer, acquires and sees in himself the grace promised to those whose hearts have been purified. He can then say with Paul, “God, who has ordered light to shine from darkness, has made His light to shine in our hearts, in order that we may be enlightened by the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ”; but he adds, “We carry this treasure in earthen vessels.” So we carry the Father’s light in the face of Jesus Christ in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies, in order to know the glory of the Holy Spirit.” 3

The practical problem is, “Who wants to die in order to live?” Every instinct militates against it. Humankind, indeed all of creation, avoids death like the plague that it is; a plague brought about by the Fall. Adam and Eve’s sin was not eating the apple; it was the sin of preferring their own will instead of accepting the clearly stated Will of God. The three classic elements of temptation: The lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of Life; all pander to the desire to have and control life on our terms rather than on God’s. The result of our preference for our own will in place of God’s will is death. Far from being “like God, knowing good and evil,” we suffer the natural result of our choices.

In a way, St. John of the Cross, has an advantage. He is in a narrow prison, beaten, starved, and deprived of even the most elemental necessities, he really has only one clear option, he says, “I am dying that I do not die.” Make no mistake, we do not want to trade places with St. John of the Cross. It is no great privilege that he enjoys, but the greatest suffering and privation.

We would much rather have our creature comforts. We love our sheltering homes, heated and air conditioned. We have our favourite slippers, and our comfortable clothes, and we even speak of certain foods as “comfort foods.” At other times, in other cultures, any shelter, heated, or air conditioned, or not, is good; any clothes are good, any food at all is daily bread. There is great danger in this, our considerable comforts shield us from dying in order that we may live. Spiritually, we live in a place of greater danger than the Carmelite prison of St. John of the Cross. Spiritually, we live in the habitation of dragons.” 4

There is an old country gospel song that presents us with the choice,

Two coats were before me
An old and a new
I asked my sweet master
Oh what must I do
The old coat was ugly
So tattered and torn
The other a new one
Had never been worn
I'll tell you the best thing
I ever did do
I took off the old coat
And put on the new.

The question remains, just how do we take off the old coat and put on the new? What comes so easily to mind are the issues of self-discipline, diet, exercise, and the wide variety of entertainments that our society presents to us. Those things have their importance, but only in reference to the deeper issue; that of the surrender of our will, the surrender of the very thing that was the cause of the Fall at the beginning.

St. Benedict gives us the key, “To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will and are taking up the strong, bright armour of obedience to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King.” 5  The way of Obedience is the way we walk out of our own wills into the will of the God who made us. This throws up a tremendous barrier to many within the Church who do not trust the authorities within our hierarchical structures.

Let me say carefully that there is a hierarchical authority governing all hierarchical authorities. For us in our Anglican context the basis for authority is first Holy Scripture, and second Tradition, as we find it in the historical Book of Common Prayer. In the 5th Century, St. Vincent of Lerins put it this way, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  6 That is our first, and fundamental obedience.

Given that as the necessary context, we are called to obedience to our bishop, and to those whom God has appointed as our spiritual guides and mentors. Of this Benedict instructs that, "An Abbot who is worthy to be over a monastery should always remember what he is called, and live up to the name of Superior. For he is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, being called by a name of his, which is taken from the words of the Apostle: “You have received a Spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry, ‘Abba—Father!’” 7

The application of this is difficult for those who are essentially Protestant by background and proclivity. As the Abbot is the father of a monastery so also the parish priest is the father of a flock of God, and is also called by his name (Abba – father). If the priest is hidden in your Son these are words for him. The blessed Apostles has said, “Follow me, as I follow Christ!” (I Cor. 11:1). I can’t think of a sentence in Holy Scripture more terrifying for any priest. The priest prays with the Psalmist saying, “If your hand is on me, if you make me strong for yourself, then your people will not turn back from you, they will call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved (Ps. 80:3). The restoration comes as Your hand rests on the one who is called by your name, Abba.

It is easy to set black and white rules for obedience, but much more difficult to work out the call to obedience in the context of real life. While the call to obedience in some things is clear, in many other things we are confronted with considerable ambiguity. Any decision is apt to be a decision that is essentially an act of faith that we are doing the right thing, and often the failure to act is in itself an act of disobedience. We tend to think of obedience as primarily a denial of pleasures, when we ought to be thinking of it as the embrace of those responsibilities and challenges that God places before us in the normal course of life.

With St. John of the Cross we pray,

This life I live in vital strength
Is loss of life unless I win You:
And thus to die I shall continue
Until in You I live at length.
Listen (my God!) my life is in You.
This life I do not want, for I
Am dying that I do not die. 8


1.St. John of the Cross, THE POEMS, trans. Roy Campbell, (London: Harvill Press, 1951), p. 55
Orginal Spanish Verse:
Esta vida que you vivo
Es privación de vivir;
Y así, es continuo morir
Hasta que viva contigo
Oye, mi Dios, lo que digo,
Que esta vida no la quiero;
Que muero porque no muero.
2. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 1
3. Ibid, p. 42
4. “Thorns shall grow over its stronghold, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be a habitation of dragons, a court of owls. And wild beasts shall meet with the howlers; the satyr shall cry to his fellow; indeed there Lilith settles and finds for herself a resting place” (Isaiah 34:13-14 RPS).
5. The Rule of St. Benedict, “The Prologue.”
6. St. Vincent of Lerins, “The Vincentian Canon,” AD 434, Ancient History Sourcebook.
7. The Rule of St. Benedict,
8. St. John of the Cross, p. 55