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Monday, October 22, 2007

Near to Me Now

In the wild bliss of your world I run,
Hearing your whispers of love
In the snow that graces sleeping limbs;
Your laughter in the sunshine
That wakes those sleeping limbs
And makes the bright river shout for joy.
O God, be as near to me now
As you are to these, your creations.

Like the Rain

My heart betrays me,
Like the rain
That falls from somber skies--
I run away, breathless,
And find myself here again,
Back where I began.
I cannot run too far away,
Nor be lost to your memory
Or your smile.
Like the rain,
My heart returns,
And all things are made new.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lessons from the Life of St. Antony

These reflections are drawn from one of the classic works of Christian biography and devotion, St. Athanasius' Vita Antoni. This was one of the most influential books of the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, shaping almost every subsequent form of monasticism and setting the pace for all the works of Christian biography produced through the following millennium. It's not a long book, and well worth reading.
St. Antony was the most famous of the Egyptian desert fathers, carrying out his ministry in the late third and early fourth century. As the story goes, his parents died when he was a young man, and he was left caring for his sister. But one day he heard a reading from the Gospels, in which Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Antony, taking this word to heart, put his sister in the care of a local group of Christian women, sold his inheritance, and became a hermit. These are some lessons I gleaned from Athanasius' tale of his life:

Seek out the wisdom of experienced mentors. (When beginning his life as a monk, Antony sought out godly men who had pursued similar courses of life, learning all he could from them).

When pursuing a ministry and a calling from God, expect the attacks of Satan against your efforts--first in trying to dissuade you through reminders of the high cost of your sacrifice (for Antony, this was the memory of his sister and his feelings of obligation to her) and then by offering the temptations of the flesh, comfort and sensuality.

After a victory against temptation, double your guard.

No matter how viciously the Enemy attacks you, never give in. He has no real power to do you harm, save that which God allows.
(Antony was under nearly constant torment by demonic forces, but he never stopped rebuking them with Scripture and the authority of Christ. His disciples would come out to the desert expecting to find him dead from this dramatic spiritual warfare, but instead they would find him singing).

Anchoritic monasticism (the life of hermits) is not a selfish life, nor is it a form of escapism. It is a direct and intentional effort to combat demonic forces through the exercise of a holy life, and therein to break their power.

A concerted life of private devotion is powerfully useful and necessary for the outward work of the Kingdom of God.

Holiness attracts both disciples and inquirers.

Material possessions are insignificant when compared to the possession of virtue.

A life of virtue is simple (at least in some sense), for "it is within us", and all that is required is concerted and conscientious effort.

Christians need not have any fear of demons--"by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails."
(A large portion of the Vita is a sermon by Antony on this very topic--it is one of the central theses of the book).

The working of signs and wonders, or of consistent victory over demonic forces, is not a cause for boasting--it is the Lord's work, not ours.

A life of holiness and asceticism is a life of rich and unfettered joy.

The discipline of physical labor is as much a spiritual discipline as prayer.

Even the person of greatest spiritual maturity will bow his head to the authority of the church.

No matter how poor you may be, you can always live generously and offer what you have in the service of hospitality.

Love solitude. It can be a well of strength for the godly person, especially in contrast to the hectic superficiality of the world.

The Lord will glorify himself even through secret works of devotion.

The life of the body and the life of the spirit are wholly intertwined; and any discipline of spirit will likely fail without discipline of body.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Relishing Antiquity

I like old things. Part of it, I suppose, comes from growing up in a place where old houses (by today's standards) line the roads, clapboard homes from the farming days of my grandparents and great-grandparents. I like the smell of older houses, of hardwood floors that still carry, in every worn shadow and subtle creak, the memory of previous residents. There's an old 1890s house at the Littleton Historical Museum, just a couple miles from the seminary, and it reminds me of the old houses of northern Maine. I like to go there just so I can drink in the smell of it and enjoy its silence. Rachel and I make our current home in a fairly new apartment, complete with more closet space than anyone could possible need (so we turned one into a prayer closet) and a nice carpet that wears holes in my socks. It's a fine little apartment, but I wouldn't want to live there more than a few years. It's too new, too full of me and my generation in a few tiny rooms.

I also like old things because I love stories, and the best stories of all are the ones that really happened. Old things and old places are full of stories--of vanished hopes and possibilities, of the testaments of dreams come true. A few years back, when I was on a tour of Europe with some of my college friends, I savored the old buildings, imagining what they once looked like and who may have lived in them. The ruined buildings of Rome entranced me, spinning my imagination into whirlwinds of a thousand unremembered stories, stories that I will never know until I hear them from the lips of those who walked those vanished streets.

One place in particular caught my fancy, with a breathless wonder that I've never felt since--the little chapel of St. Martin in Canterbury, which sits on a rise above the great cathedral. It was, so the traditions say, one of the first churches in England, converted from an old shrine when Augustine, the missionary ambassador of Pope Gregory the Great, came to preach the gospel to the Angles. It's a tiny place, without any of the grandeur of the nearby cathedral, but the sense of holy history there is heavy and awesome. I wanted to immerse myself in the silence of that place. (My own roots go back to that area--the Burdens, as far as I can tell, trace their descent from Normans who settled in Kent, the county that surrounds Canterbury.) If I could choose one place to return to from all my travels in Europe, it would be to Canterbury, to visit that ancient little chapel again.

I also like old things because Christianity trained me to like them. Ours is a religion of antiquity, a religion of history, and from my earliest days I have understood that some of the richest wells of strength and faith can be found in what is past. (In recent years I've been captivated by the legacy of the Catholic saints of the Middle Ages.) Sadly, a lot of Christians nowadays don't understand the power of tradition, and we have suffered for it. We live in a world that glorifies whatever is new, even if it is intrinsically worse than much of what is old. We have been seduced by the pace of technology, and have forfeited one of our most glorious birthrights--the history of the church. My hope is that we can recapture history in my generation, that we can order our steps once again by the Scriptures, by the examples of the church fathers, by the wisdom of the saints, and by the guidance of the cloud of witnesses who have already run this race.

Old books are one of my greatest delights. The public library here has a never-ending used book sale, and with a little diligent searching one can find copies of the classics for only a dollar or so. Not only are they old in that their authors represent a different age, but the books themselves are old--often a bit worn around the edges, with the rough feel of pages that have been treasured by many readers before myself. I'm stocking enough books to keep myself happily reading for years, and many of these books are so good that I'm longing for seminary to finish, just so I have a chance to read them. I've picked up copies of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, the Venerable Bede, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, John Milton, Homer, and a few anthologies that offer classics from Ancient Greece all the way through the 20th century. The walk to the library leads me along a pathway beside the Littleton cemetery, shaded by a row of crabapple trees, and I can read the names of the old settlers and ponder mortality as I stroll.

All in all, I've come to turn to old books almost exclusively. Unless there's a matter of current thought that I need to research, I seldom touch books that have been printed in the past fifty years--a bit ironic, since I'm a writer of books myself. With new books, it has become a wearying exercise to separate the wheat from the chaff, and many reflect the same tendencies and bents of the age that already affect me. I need to drink from the perspective of another age, to see myself through the ancients' eyes, and in that context I find a much richer store of wisdom, both for the things that all ages have in common, and for the things that our own age is blind to. There are a great many good books being published now (books about history are always a worthwhile read), but the problem is that there are so many books being printed, both good and bad, that it seems better to lean on the old and proven classics than to sort through the endless blitzkrieg of printed folly today. I would give the same advice C. S. Lewis gives: if you are able, read one old book for every new book you read. (See his introduction to St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm)

A great deal of my future posts will touch on the old readings I'm immersed in. What I draw from them will probably be a great deal more profound than anything I could come up with entirely on my own--tradition has the power to make men's thoughts great. At the moment I'm in the midst of an elective seminary course that covers a broad survey of early "spiritual masters"--so far we've covered some of the apostolic fathers, Antony and the desert fathers, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and Cassian and Benedict. Look soon for a post on "Lessons from the Life of Antony."