This is my discussion assignment from the online course on Monasticism and Monastic Theology, part of my uThM Program. You can find the course homepage here.
Likewise, all of my coursework from my uThM Program can be found here.
I also keep a monthly Research Journal that analyzes and integrates what I’m learning. You can find that here.
So, let’s dig into my final assignment for this online course, Monastic Spiritual Theology.
1) FORUM ONE Plato, The Parable of the Caves, The Myth of Er
a) Which elements in Plato’s parables would be most appealing for Christian seeking to understand and practice “contemplation”?
Seeking toward a deeper relationship with the divine, the uncovering of the Noesis, first through the prism of the intellect (Dianoesis), then onward into ecstasy, to know the unknowable. To see the face of God. These concepts appeal to me.
In fact, as I am becoming to understand it, the contemplative life is about full sanctification. It is a personal choice, a lifestyle choice, in which the whole life is sanctified to God, where normal relationships, common wants and needs are sacrificed so as one can fully engage with the process of transformation, to become Christ-like, to enter into the Holy of Holies, to ready oneself for the coming of death and the subsequent eternity.
Monasticism is the closest expression to Biblical Christianity I have so far seen. But, it represents only a select few that have been called to be eunuchs for the glory of God.
b) What in Plato’s thought could be problematic or misleading?
His eschatology is wanton. There seems to be no foundation or authoritative source for its development. His idea of humanities inescapability of reward and punishment, an almost karmic propensity is troubling. He also seems to think that just people will receive their due in time, where as this is not played out on earth while people are alive, for there are many just people (relative) who suffer a great deal during their life and receive no reward and are beaten down, tormented and killed. There are unjust people who thrive, gain more power and are the tormentors.
2) FORUM TWO: Cicero, Enoch, The authentic meaning of “contemplation” and “action”
a) Is Enoch a more attractive (or more confusing) model of the contemplative than Plato’s Er?
To be honest, I’m not sure if either one of them are representative of the contemplative life. Plato’s Er described a vision of a man who basically died, but when his body was about to be burned, he was brought back to life and he recounted the journey of a soul after it leaves its body and goes into the spiritual realm.
Enoch, likewise, recounts many theological conclusions that are represented in Scripture, but it does not lend itself to contemplative experience in any way.
b) What elements of contemplation did you notice in Cicero that were less obvious in Plato?
None. I saw no contemplative elements in either.
c) Do you find the notion of a dynamic interrelationship between contemplation and the ascetical quest for virtue helpful? Have you had much experience with the tradition of stages in – or a stepwise movement of – spiritual progress?
Yes. It not only fits as an explanation of the contemplative purpose, but it answers all the questions I’ve had about the evangelical paradoxes present in most modern churches. Spiritual life is an ebb and flow between the triune states of sanctification, all working together to bring about the revealing of the sons of God. It fits with the biblical identity of marriage (out of weakness), and the preferred state of celibacy, as marriage and sexual congress is only for a season and for specific purpose.
3) FORUM THREE: God in Light and Darkness; Visionary Ascetics.
a) Christian spiritual writers have often described apophatic simplicity as a “higher” form of spiritual experience than kataphatic complexity. Does this approach seem accurate, or should it be more carefully nuanced?
I would tend, on an instinctive level, to agree. Though, I think we must be careful to recognize these are two sides of the same coin, and, likewise, they are invented terms of modernity. As was stated in the lecture, they were not terms used by the early church, the church fathers or much of antiquity.
With that said, I think it is a distraction to use the terms at all. It would be better to approach theology and our faith holistically and not be so dogmatic.
b) Were the visions of Perpetua and the monastic founders solely for their own spiritual progress, or do did they serve other purposes, as well?
That is still unclear to me. Are visions to be shared? Do the hearing inherent benefit? Better yet, and immensely more important, are visions and dreams the product of God’s volition or are the wrought from a sub-conscious inner process of turmoil within the individual?
The seer certainly always encapsulates the vision or dream as a message from God to the world. But, if not actually authored and gifted by God, then it is of no consequence to either the world or the seer.
There is an underlining principle here. What profit is a prophecy? Only in its ability to accurately predict the future. God uses the prophetic for the sole purpose of declaring his sovereignty and agency over the myriad of “gods” worshiped by humans.
So, in that a vision or dream is prophetic, it would likewise serve only one purpose – predictive. Not necessarily for our benefit (i.e. the Book of Enoch is predictive in announcing the Son of Man multiple times describing what we would now call the Christ, yet, Enoch was written at least 150-300 years before Christ was born, and hundreds of years if actually written in part or whole by the actual Enoch (though, it is entirely possible, since Enoch was raptured by God at age 365, he could have written the text in the presence of the Lord, and the text delivered in various ways to the earth – there is also the good possibility that the account was orally passed down and subsequently written by receivers of that oral tradition – neither of which would invalidate the authorship of the content – likewise, we have a certainty to it’s authorship, as Jude claims it was written by Enoch).
So, if indeed positioned by God to be received and disseminated, then it certainly has another, greater, purpose than self edification. If it is not authored or authorized by God, then it is appellative to heresy, for a prophecy from any other than God is prohibited.
To answer the question, then, it is only profitable for personal or greater edification if it is truly from God. If from any other source, it is heretical.
Check out my new book Ashen Monk Mountain – a new monk is invited to a monastery hidden deep in the Canadian Rockies, only to discover the monks there have a secret they seem unwilling to share…..
4) FORUM FOUR Early Egyptian Monasticism; the Life of Antony.
a) One of the first terms used in reference to the monks and nuns of antiquity is anchorite, from the Greek anachoreo, which means to withdraw or to flee. Based on your reading and study, what were the early monastics running from, and what were they running towards?
First they were running from the depravity they saw in their modern society. Christianity was now the state religion, everyone was a Christian, but this also meant there were no longer persecutions or martyrs. Devout (true) Christians sought a means by which to implement sanctification through fire without the external persecution that was now missing. They found this through ascetic practice and renunciation.
b) What are your thoughts about the formation Antony received from his local Christian community (i.e. before he withdrew into the solitude of the abandoned fort)?
He modeled the ascetics that came before him, and took a spiritual director that could guide him in his development. I think this is fine. It is most likely necessary for proper growth. Personally, I’m not convinced yet that I’m called to desert theology, and, thus, not clear on the benefits of a spiritual father.
I do feel drawn to, enticed by the idea of solitude, of drawing away from the artifice of the social construct. I don’t know how religious that draw is or if it is motivated by a deep-seated disenchantment with humanity. I do not have a love for humanity. And, if correct, God says if you do not love them then you do not love Him.
I identify with Matthew 24:12, “…the love of many will grow cold…”
I am convicted by John 13:34, “…A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And John 15:12, “…Love one another as I have loved you.”
And 1 John 4:7-21, “love one another…for love is God. Everyone who loves is born of God. He who does not love does not know God.”
These passages terrify me.
Will I ascend in the end only to be discarded and cast aside, having never truly known God? Never truly been saved? Never truly become a new creation in Christ? Have I been fooling myself all along?
I do not know how to love others.
I love God.
I think I love God.
To return to the question. Formation. I think it’s important. This is why I’m pursuing my uThM degree. I believe it is formation, but at a distance. It might not be as effective as having a spiritual father, but I don’t know if I’m ready for or even interested in that.
5) FORUM FIVE Hermits, Hermitesses, and Cenobites – Ancient and Modern.
a) How different is our contemporary experience of solitude and community from that of the monks and nuns of earlier ages? How did they – and how do we – envision the respective asceticisms of the two states?
There is much less in way of asceticism. Few if any are selling everything they have and going out into the wild places. Even less so are evangelical or catholic denominations willing to support the eremitic lifestyle and provide for those who would go out into the desert.
Today, monasticism seems largely cenobitic, with hints of solitude. There are a few orders that focus on eremitic philosophies, but few, and they all still maintain a somewhat communal living.
There is one hermitage that actually seems eremitic, and that is the Bethlehem hermitage. But, they are somewhat extreme (devout) in their asceticism, not allowing any book but the bible in the confines of the monk cells.
I prefer what I’ve discovered in the lecture materials and external materials, the concept of the idiorrhythmic monk, who has no affiliation with a formal monastic order or monastery. He maintains his personally owned hermitage property, he earns his own money, pays for his own living expenses and creates his own, individualistic rule and rhythm to life. This concept was shunned in the past (I think because it not only caused abuses, but it stripped the monastery leaders of enforcible influence), but it is the exact description of Oblates today. They come and go as they please from the monastery grounds, they have a specialized rule, they are not bound by any authority of the abbot, and they maintain their own cell and their own material possessions. The largest monastery in the world on Athos was, at one time in history, idiorrhythmic.
But, I think oblate programs seem to be a means by which the cenobitic system can incorporate idiorrhythmic monks under their authority/affiliation.
I think a better pursuit (at least for myself) would be as an idiorrhythmic monks. They regulate their own manner of life as they are able from their on resources. They develop their own rhythm for life, an individualistic regimen, that is focused, on the one hand, on private prayer in the cell or hermitage, while on the other hand, affording the flexibility of personal ownership, earning power, and better dietary controls.
These monks model the original greats: St. Anthony, Ezekiel, and John the Baptist.
They are not required to attend any sort of formal church meeting or service and have the freedom to pursue other interests as led.
b) Are you perchance an anchorite (aspiring or actual), or have you any friends who are? Would you care to share something of your experience of the hermitage in the modern world?
Yes, I have the spirit, willingness and personality of an anchorite. I am by nature called to and express solitude and contemplation in my personal life.
I am likewise an aspiring eremitic mystic, having gone as far as purchasing my own wilderness property, built a cell, and have done several tests on the lifestyle’s viability.
I do struggle with desert theology and asceticism, but I do have a great and intense interest in theology, mysticism, monasticism, eremiticism, and the contemplative life.
I also have great interest in fiction writing, with a lesser emphasis on teaching.
I am immediately drawn to idiorrythmic monasticism because it can easily incorporate all aspects of my interests: contemplative expressions, mysticism, isolation, solitary pre-dispositions, intense and comprehensive biblical study, philosophical inquiry and rumination, and creative expression through writing, gardening, bonsai, and carving.
6) FORUM SIX Lectio Divina, Praying the Scriptures.
a) In the practice of lectio divina the terms meditation and contemplation describe two aspects or movements within a process, rather than ends in themselves or “states” to be maintained. How does this correspond to your own understanding of these terms, or your experience with them as spiritual practices?
It appears as if there are several things happening at once, and all with slightly different motives.
First, there is a fallacy circulated about the origins of Lectio Divina and I’m not certain as to why. Maybe its the need to root all things modern to the ancient past, which is in vogue at the moment. But, the claim that St. Benedict, in his Monastic Rule, recommended Lectio Divina is completely false. He recommended “Divine Reading.” What did he mean by this? No one seems to know because Benedict assumed his reader knew what it was (and they assuredly did at the time).
We know the monks at that time recited the Scriptures, often from memory. We know they meditated on Scripture while on a journey or in their cell or at work. We know they sung the Psalms, though there is at least one account where this was attributed to weakness and was discouraged (interesting).
It’s not for another 500 years before another monk named Guigo II, in 1150AD actually laid out (with some specificity) what would later become Lectio Divina.
It appears as if the modern “catholic” church at some point adopted Guigo’s monastic practice (or it became widespread among monastics and was then adopted from them) and the label “divine reading” was slapped on it to give it ancient legitimacy (the term Benedict uses). The term is never used by Guigo and he claims to have “thought it up” rather than attributing it to Benedict.
Fast forward to modernity, we have the New Age movement steadily creeping into organized churches. As serious biblical study falls out of fashion, this leaves the door open for all kinds of heresies to enter in. Eastern Mysticism is one of those. In an attempt to dilute the “judgmental” nature of Scripture, due to its rightful absolute truth, a new form of lectio divina (not like that described by Guigo) is presented to the modern world and paraded around as “ancient” and from “St. Benedict the Monk.” But, this is nothing like what Guigo described and we have no idea what Benedict referred to.
In the end, the first two steps are to read and to think deeply. This is as Guigo describes it. Specifically, after reading, “we begin to chew it and break it with mind and reason.”
Nowhere in this does he describe taking a single word or phrase out of its context, use it as a mantra and allow for both thinking and logic to pass out of our minds so that we can experience God directly. In fact, he says we are to 1. Chew on it. 2. Break it. 3. Do so with the mind (thinking). And 4. Do so with reason.
This is both the reading and the meditation aspect of Guigo’s 4 steps (he never called it Lectio Divina – he called it Jacob’s Ladder).
Prayer, of course, is self-evident. Whatever we read, whatever we have uncovered by the chewing and breaking apart of the Word (through thinking and reason), we then take this before the Lord, asking for the application, asking for the motivation for giving this to us. Asking what we are to do with this now that we have been given it.
After this is the quietness that we sit in, as we wait upon God for an answer. This is, indeed, spiritual. It is supernatural. It is mystical. It is transformative. But, it is rooted in the reading and the meditating. It is rooted in context. It is also rooted in revelation. It is also rooted in metaphysical knowledge. But it is revelation from God, not by some esoteric eastern meditative practice.
b) The text we studied from the Constitution on Divine Revelation suggests that lectio divina is one of the means by which sacred tradition makes progress over the centuries. Is this an exaggeration? What could it mean in practical terms?
First off, sacred tradition is a heresy. There is only sacred scripture. Only scripture is inspired by God, inerrant as it was written, infallible in its transmission. Lectio Divina is an attempt to legitimize doctrines of demons and to incorporate the practices of such into the body of Christ.
The Guigo description is somewhat okay. He kind of loses me on prayer and contemplation. Because of this, I would not ascribe to his four rungs as trustworthy. Instead, I would ascribe to the concept of meditating on Scripture from Scripture.
Of course we are to read the bible. Rightly, we are to do so contextually, to find out what the authors of the bible meant to say. Then we meditate on what we’ve read, turning it over and over again in our minds, dwelling on not only what it says but what it means – then and now and to us personally in this moment. The bible says it is spiritually discerned. That means we receive a greater message from the logical, contextual one. That received message never negates the underlining one.
As we live on and dwell in the Word, it becomes a part of us, we hide it in our hearts (memorization), we dwell on it, consider it and its ramifications.
We go to God in prayer over the issues that our reading and meditation bring up. Just as Scripture tells us to. Allowing room for the holy spirit to illuminate, to educate.
The result of that, the growth, that which spurs on our individual (and collective) sanctification is what I think they are describing as contemplation.
The ultimate goal, of course is Ephesians 4:11-16, the building up of the body, for the equipping of the saints, that we might all come to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, that we should no longer be tossed by the winds of false doctrine, but be knitted together and grow together in love.
7) FORUM SEVEN Lectio Divina, Praying the Scriptures – conclusion.
a) Philo, Guigo, and Hugh each highlight different aspects and applications of lectio divina. How do their insights compare with your own experience of this practice?
I’ve never attempted the modern interpretation of lectio divina. I do have experience with zazen meditation, and the concept of emptying your mind so you can connect directly with “god” is of eastern mystic origin. Plus, it does not resonate at all with the texts they present to support lectio divina. Guigo does not describe what often occurs today in ld. Philo was obviously influenced heavily by Greek philosophy.
As mentioned before, their evocation of Benedict does a gross disservice to his words. He mentions divine reading, but never once describes what he means. Guigo’s description of his four rung ladder was created by him and he never classifies it as divine reading.
Lectio Divina is a modern day modification of eastern mysticism, repackaged for the Christian church in an attempt to dilute the truth of the gospel (which is doing a great job).
b) Leclercq suggests that lectio divina is the basis of a monastic approach to exegesis and of a whole “monastic culture”. Of what value is that approach today? Can it (should it) be reconciled with modern, scientific exegesis of the Scriptures?
There is no way to reconcile the modern application of ld with either modern exegesis or even the same from antiquity. We don’t know for certain what Benedict referred to when he mentioned divine reading. We don’t have a description of such until Guigo. He is the apparent originator of his application he calls the ladder. These two independent and quite possibly distinct sources have been hijacked by the infiltration of the new age movement in the church in an attempt to authenticate their desired approach, which is simply repackaged eastern mysticism.
If this is really how monks approach scripture, its no wonder they are dying on the vine. But, then again, the culture they have developed over the centuries is one distanced from a biblical expression of Christianity. The chanting/singing, the habit, this lectio divina. I would imagine this is only about 1000 years old, if that. The modern interpretation is nothing like what Guigo described. This is probably no more than 30-50 years old in its current version.
Monastic theology is quite fundamentally flawed. Desert theology, I think, is somewhat flawed, but less so. But, as Paul says, “What does it matter? What’s important is in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.” This world is on its way to the lake of fire. What does it matter if they pave the road along the way?
NOTE: I just wanted to mention, this course was incredible during the first few lectures. But, as soon as we slipped into Lectio Divina, it has really gone downhill. My view of monasticism has really been tarnished, to the point that I’m no longer disappointed that I do not qualify to enter most if not all monasteries. I do wonder if this is not by design. I think there is a place for the eremitic lifestyle. But, I’m thankful that I’ve been afforded through this study to the understanding that I can pick and choose what is good and the rest discard. Idiorrhythmic monasticism is exactly what I’m looking for. This way I can by, just like my education, self-directed. I can cut away all the dogma and all the hype, and worship God in spirit and in truth.
I wonder what God is preparing me for. I keep praying to be taken each night as I fall asleep, and I’m always surprised in the morning when I first wake. I’m still here. I have returned to the living. Why? Can it be to simply live out my allotted time? That seems like a waste. Maybe that is adding to the record that will be used at my judgment. If it is, I’m doomed, and rightly so. I am guilty. My only hope is in Christ’s propitiation on my behalf. This is the only way I will enter the Kingdom of God. It is the only way by which I might have the slightest chance to stand before him, to converse with him, to be heard, to listen and know the secrets of the universe and of life and existence and reality and the fundamental fabric that binds all into creation.
I hope the course gets better.
8) FORUM EIGHT Psalmody and Prayer, A Rhythm that heals the Soul (introd.)
The central place of psalmody in Christian prayer has been attacked from many quarters in recent years. A famous monastic musician once quipped that the Psalter is “a quaint and vivid testimony to the spirituality of the late Bronze Age”. Related complaints abound in the periodicals of most Christian denominations, generally in regard to the violent imagery and intolerant world view expressed in psalmody.
a) How would the sources we are studying respond to these criticisms?
To discredit the recitation of the Psalms (or any of Scripture) on the justification that the bible contains violent imagery is laughable. The bible is a serious work, a unified message, from God. He has given it to us to serve a purpose. I’m sorry you are offended. Suck it up. You’re really going to be upset when you’re standing in front of the great white throne and they search for your name in the books and it can’t be found. Then you’ll be tossed into the lake of fire and what that could possibly mean for you throughout all eternity is impossible to estimate or fathom.
To say the Psalms are antiquated, that the music we use is rather dullish, I would agree. Christian music, for the most part, is down right appalling.
Personally, I would say do away with all music – the traditional as well as the innovative. But, do what you’re going to do. I don’t mind at all. Enjoy. Just don’t make me sit and listen to it.
b) Do you find their approaches helpful?
I do find the explanation for why the psalms are “recited” helpful. It makes some sense now, especially the history of it. To spend the day, breaking up the psalms and reciting them, after each one, spending a minute or two in personal, silent prayer, I think this would be extremely beneficial. I can’t imagine the sheer spiritual growth one would encounter from a daily practice of this, undivided. It is too bad there are not more communities doing this kind of thing.
I find it typical, as the monastic tradition developed, and they included actual singing into the service, they sacrificed the more important element – prayer.
I agree with Abba Silvanus. Singing the Scriptures instead of a humble recitation, or just quietly listening to them, is akin to pride and you risk being puffed up. I’ve always thought this way about the lone singer that goes on stage at a church – they inevitably will think too much of themselves. It would be better for the church if we sit in a circle and pray silently together rather than what we do today. Better yet, we go, each into our own closets, and pray for each other.
But, daily recitation, spending devotional time in the scriptures each and every day, multiple times a day, would be a world of benefit. Interspersing it out between prayer, reading, work….priceless.
I’m truly convinced, despite all the heretical elements that have crept in over the years, the Christian monastic communities are, by and far, the closest we have in an authentic expression of Christianity today.
I’m not nearly as convinced of the hermitic call as I am the cenobitic, though I feel much more drawn to the former than the latter. I wonder if that is because I don’t want to change. Pride? Selfishness? Maybe I would do better to submit and enter, especially if I truly believe it is the closer of the two. Both are closer than evangelicalism. But, I’m still attached to protestant theology.
9) FORUM NINE Psalmody and Prayer, A Rhythm that heals the Soul (concl.)
The sources we have studied suggest an ancient approach to psalmody that is significantly different from what is generally experienced in worshipping Christian communities today. Intervals of silence allowed for an intertwining of psalmody with personal prayer. A symbolic or allegorical experience of the text expected the psalter to open out both as a mirror of the soul and a window into God and creation.
a) Is it realistic to hope that some aspects of this approach might be revived in our own day?
Not if catholic parishioners are anything remotely like protestants. I assume that them both being the same is the very reason the prayer was removed from the liturgy in the first place.
Prayer is active. It is also effective over the long term. It is also prescriptive. But, above all else, prayer is convicting. And, people do not want to be convicted of their sins. They want a show. They want to be entertained. They want the “appearance of godliness” but lacking any real transformitive power. They do not want to actually need to change who they are or what they do. They want religion to conform to them, not have to conform to absolute laws or rules or authentically engage with a supernatural teacher that will literally set them on spiritual fire from the inside out.
With the love of the saints growing cold, with the enticement of demonic doctrines and teachings, with the dilution of the gospel message, with the erosion of the biblical authority and the very text itself, it is a wonder there is a church at all.
But, it is prophesied.
The great falling away must come first and the true believers will go underground and will worship in spirit and in truth, rather than through pomp and tradition and debased vagaries from false teachers that satisfy their itching ears.
b) If you have any experience of communities or parishes that have attempted this, would you care to share them?
I have been involved in congregations that attempted to return to more authentic biblical expressions of church community. It never seems to work. There is typically infighting almost immediately. Plus, there is a real depletion in our age of basic interest in biblical things. No one seems to really care at all about anything of substance.
The only kind of religious experience people are interested in are 1. Superficial, shallow highly “relevant” entertainment based programs, that can easily be held at arm’s reach, never requiring anything in return. 2. Demonic doctrines in any and all forms. It doesn’t seem to matter what it is, as long as it is not Christian. New Age. Occultic. Sci-Fi. It’s all good.
There was one community in Germany that made a few attempts to become more authentic, but the pastor went to the extreme, alienated have the congregation and was driven out. Another one in my home town, but the leader wanted to strong-arm everyone into his own specific brand of faith. The only real expression I’ve seen of authentic christian community was from the guys in the barracks while I was in the military. It was very much like a monastery without the vow of celibacy, and we also had terrible jobs. Then again, I don’t think any of us were having any kind of sex. There were a few married men that joined us. Meeting at the library once or twice a week (no real set schedule), pouring over texts, checking and double checking what teachers claimed.
It was in its infancy, though, and not by any means a fully mature church community.
The closest thing I see now on the landscape, to be completely honest, of an authentic christian community is the monastery. It provides a separation of the sexes, which is important, since this is the state we will spend eternity in. They are devout, and raise prayer and study to a higher importance than work. Everything is shared in common, there is no property (not necessarily forbidden). They literally recite scripture 7 times daily.
They live together and so learn to get along with each other, having opportunity to put themselves last before all others, to endure others, to put the needs of others before their own.
It is sanctification by fire.
They successfully remove many temptations, putting god first.
It is too bad I’m too old and monasteries are dying on the vine out of lack of interest.
Check out my book, Sacred the Circle – a vision is given to men all across the country. A ghastly, horrible vision. It is time. The end is near. It is time to gather together and pray….for the multitude.
10) FORUM TEN Liturgical Prayer – the Heart of Monastic Spiritual Theology (introd.)
We have seen that during the first centuries of Christian monasticism there existed an approach to liturgical prayer that was profoundly mystical, even “contemplative”.
a) In our own day it cannot be claimed that the mystical significance of liturgy is overemphasized. Has the notion of “contemplative liturgical prayer” any relevance (or any hope) in an era such as ours, where the liturgy is made to serve so many other purposes?
This is also seen in the evangelical churches of today. Spiritual significance has left both pulpit and pew. There is no appetite any longer for a genuine, persistent, exponential sanctification. Parishioners want to know what religion can do for them, not what they might offer God or how he might change them. Hymns with spiritual significance have been altogether replaced by shallow, popularized copy aimed to entertain than to inform and much less to transform.
I think this disparity will continue to move away from spiritual transformation and will be, in the end, a symptom of the great falling away.
I believe the true believers and members of the body of Christ will go underground, and will be persecuted for their faith in Christ (specifically) and for their adherence to worshiping God in spirit and truth and their rejection of what will become a state sponsored and approved form of religious idolatry.
b) We have studied texts in which the liturgy is described as “divinizing”; and, indeed, this notion retains an important place in the mystical theology of the Christian East. In the West this teaching first cooled, and then simmered well below the surface for several centuries; but it is undergoing a revival in our own day. Is this a good thing?
Is that really what’s happening, or is it just an excuse to introduce elements of far eastern mysticism and other occult practices into the church? We need to be ever watchful and be certain by faith, confident that what we are doing and what is happening around us is from and for God and not for us.
11) FORUM ELEVEN Liturgical Prayer – the Heart of Monastic Spiritual Theology (concl.)
We now consider the spiritual pole of “kataphatic contemplation”: that is, of beholding the glory of God in complex images and in light, rather than the simplicity and “dazzling darkness”of Dionysius’ Mystical Theology.
a) What are your reactions to our glimpse at the music and visual arts of medieval monasticism? Are they primarily “period pieces” or do they have something to say to us today?
Instinctively, I would relegate them under the admonition to worship God in “spirit and truth” and would, by knee-jerk reaction, allocate these types of activities outside of that categorization.
But, if I’m truly honest, and take all of Scripture into account, then I must admit only that these kinds of activities are not for me within the categorization. I could not, in good conscience, attend an organized church meeting and participate in these highly ritualized, repetitious forms of worship. It would simply violate the admonition of both “spirit” and “truth” for me. Because of John 4:23-24, I’m bound, for it says not only that God is looking for these kind of worshipers, but if I am to worship him, I “must” do so in this fashion. In spirit and in truth. It is not the place or the approach (methodology) but the condition of the heart, the condition of the sinner in respect to God. For, it appears that God would rather have intent over external apparatus (Matthew 9:13) and the worshiper is apparently free in the selection of the apparatus ultimately used (Romans 14) as long as we do not, by our liberties, place a stumbling block before another brother.
But, to answer the question, I personally do not see a purpose in the liturgy as it is performed today. I do not see a purpose in hymns, or corporate worship, or even corporate prayer. I do not ascribe to the modern equivalent or expression of the church today. I find it not only stifling, but it is also obsolete, given the state of our technological advancement.
b) Our selections from St. Gertrude and Vatican II suggest that liturgical prayer can be both profoundly contemplative and a real exercise of our common priesthood. How does this comport with a modern approach which tends to emphasize the differences between (and sometimes the incompatibility of) liturgical prayer and contemplative prayer?
One major difference, I think, as I understand it, is the origin of liturgical prayer. It was created for 1) corporate worship and 2) as a means of disseminating biblical truth that was not widely available to the common person throughout most of history. So, liturgy would serve a much greater importance in the past, much more so than today, given the ubiquitous availability of the Scriptures.
There is also the aspect of perspective to consider. Until recent history, human kind has been primarily a spiritual/superstitious creature. The liturgy would serve as a means of transmitting, with its elaborate pomp and ceremony, a much greater essence of Christ and the gospel than could otherwise be done with the printed word or the simple recitation (though, I would argue with this last point).
But, much like the one who looks into a mirror dimly, but once perfection comes, we will see face to face. This is liturgy. This is the Mosaic law. This is the natural world. They point to that which is complete (which is Christ).
There is an argument to be made that, if Scripture is truly inspired of God, which it does claim, then we must ask, is it not the perfection that comes?
Did the biblical, human authors write into the bible errors? There were certainly transcriptural and editing errors added to the copies later in history, but did the biblical writers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, write with inerrancy?
If yes, then it is perfect and all other shadows must be cast aside. If not, then we may have greater problems still.
Liturgy served a purpose in a portion of history, but, in my opinion, it should be replaced by the simple recitation of Scripture. Thankfully, I do not stand for the entirety of the church, that each of us serves a unique purpose in the body. I believe I am called to a minimalistic, ritual-less, in spirit and in truth expression of the faith.
But, what if both are right, if one is right and the other is wrong, if we are all wrong? As Paul preached, “whether insincerely or in truth, as long as Christ is preached.”
12) FORUM TWELVE The Scriptures as a Source of Spiritual Transformation (introd.).
Our first three readings and lectures in this section provide the background and some of the medieval “working out” of Evagrius Ponticus’ much more difficult text. Of all the early monastic authors, it is he who most strongly emphasizes the interrelationship between, prayer, contemplative reading of the bible, and the ability to offer spiritual direction. I am aware that the Gnostikos is a difficult text, but I am eager to hear your responses to it:
It appears to be the typical post 1st Century text that is riddled with a great deal of false religion. The idea that there is a secret/hidden knowledge is possible. The seven thunders come to mind. The book of Jasher also. The processes and origins of the planets and the galaxies and universe likewise are in need of explanation and confound all of human intellect.
So, in this sense, there is hidden knowledge. Most certainly, the origin and history of angels is another mystery in hope of clarification.
But, the idea that we need this hidden knowledge in order to be saved is false and a gnostic heresy. The idea that that knowledge of the unsaved person needs to be improved is biblical. Perfect knowledge is the biblical phrase. How is this accomplished? By learning of the truth of the person of Jesus, the one who is God and became flesh and gave himself up for us, dying on the cross, and rose again and ascended into heaven. If we believe this and accept the sacrifice made on our behalf, this is knowledge perfected and is perfect and full and effective.
This mysticism of Evagrius is not the mysticism I seek. I’m seeking the hidden realities that are partly revealed, hinted at, by Scripture, but are for the majority left unanswered, undefined, and ariled.
Do you believe Evagrius (and his predecessors) had a valid point about the way we “read” scripture and the way we “read” personal stories and human souls?
I’m not certain as to what the question is referring to and I cannot locate the reference in the reading. From reading about Evagrius, it appears as if he is potentially heretical, accused of being analogous to Zen Buddhism. As previously a Zen practitioner before finding a saving grace in Christ, I must admit, my interest is peaked. I look forward to reading more of this figure in the future.
But, that said, if his teachings do coincide with either far eastern religion or gnostical, he will quickly be discarded.
From what I gathered from the text in question, I would contend his view is that how we read Scripture should be entirely different from how we read stories. That both can, if we are not careful, infiltrate the human soul.
This is an interesting idea, as one of my ongoing research questions is that of biblical inerrancy, and the inspiration of the canon, or better yet, the distinction between those documents within the canon from those outside of it.
Can documents, knowledge, revelation, thought, outside of the canon inform our personal and, subsequently and unavoidably, our corporate doctrine?
For example, should the Screwtape Letters or the Books of Narnia be used to teach, describe, or inform our theology about God or the Christian life?
I contend, that is one of the main uses of fiction and creative writing – to inform, to entertain, to pose questions and possibly provide possible answers.
13) FORUM THIRTEEN The Scriptures as a Source of Spiritual Transformation (concl.)
Cassian offers a method or model of contemplative exegesis. What do you think of the different ways his method is applied by Eucherius, Chrysologus, and Bede?
There seems to be a shift in focus as we move away from the apostolic and early centuries, from a literal, surface level, logical meaning of Scripture to a spiritual, allegorical, alternate, even subjective meaning being read into the text.
I could not say with any conviction that the bible does not contain within it great and profound spiritual meaning. An argument can easily be made from how the NT writers quoted instances of the OT, that at least some passages have been literally taken completely out of context and rendered into an alternative spiritual message for later audiences.
I think where the problem comes in is the eventual abandonment of the plain, logical, literal reading of the text and its fundamental, underlining message.
Doing so robs us of the message of God. Likewise, the knee-jerk reaction to obfuscate the clear interpretative principles utilized by both Jesus and the apostles also hollows out the biblical message and inhibits the depths in which one can enter into the sacred places of God.
The first, literal, apparent, surface meaning of the text is foundational. It establishes the word of God in the life of a believer.
The second, emotive, ethical meaning brings us from the surface into the hidden depths, though still shallow, for it is still grasping by and through the fallen nature of man, it brings about the intent of the message, which Jesus taught us was far superior than the letter of the law.
Third, we are no longer the seed cast aside on top of the ground, forgotten, but are instead the seed that has been covered, hidden within the earth, and watered (with the word) and now have sprouted.
It is through the sprouting, through the life sustaining mechanisms that is entirely a volition of God, a mercy of God, that we can proceed yet further into the “holy of holies” and glimpse God as he may be seen through Christ Jesus. Paul called this a “great mystery, Christ and the church.” It is the communion, the fellowship, the ecstasy, the true direct experience of the divine.
This third meaning is discovered through the text, underlining the text, hidden within the text itself, buried to be later unearthed by the diligent.
But, the third never negates the former first two. This is, in my estimation, a grave mistake and is the mistake that most of our world has made.
What are your reactions to the allegory of Christ’s Passion in the anonymous reading for Holy Saturday?
I do not take issue with fiction in use of theology. I wholeheartedly embrace speculative theology, even on which to build personal doctrine if not corporate teaching.
But, I think each of us will be held to account if we move from fiction into the realm of teaching doctrine without solid Scriptural support.
Then again, no matter the motive, Paul says as long as Christ is preached, let it continue.
As Pastor Joe would tell me, “There is enough of Christ on every page of the bible to save a soul. God will work you through any false doctrine if you are truly saved.”
I have a hard time with prophecy.
I have a hard time with speculative theology that has no basis in any kind of reality. If there is not contextual scriptural evidence, then speculation should remain in the safer realm of fiction. The arena of fiction is as wide open as the imagination is limiting. There are no blinders, no conceptions, no inhibition on fiction that requires of its author guidelines or etiquettes. You can write about God, the devil, about working on a car, about cancer, about racial division, about supernatural infestation, demonic possession, the sky is the limit.
The only additional restraint placed on fiction would be adding a stumbling block before a brother. I think this could easily be avoided by clearly identifying a work as fictitious, and not to be take as doctrine or theology of any kind.
Most writers, though, especially religious and certainly Christian want to step into the other area that require both speculative fantasia and elements of spiritual teaching.
This is not a mistake, but when one is taking on the latter, it is crucial that we require a higher degree of certainty in what we are teaching.
Allegory is a very useful approach to scripture. But, it is not the only approach and is not the primary or foundational one.
First Principles can be claimed to be the straight forward, literal reading of the text. It is the milk of the word. The meat is that which we strive for as we mature, as we, theoretically, draw into a deeper spiritual relation with our creator, as we feast on the provision from God.
There are mysteries hidden in anticipation of the great pleasure God receives as we are led into discovery. But he does wish for active participants in the process.
We are to, above all things, rightly divide the Word of God.
13) FORUM FOURTEEN Origins and Types of Early Christian Monologistic Prayer
How would you respond to a Christian who confides to you their discomfort with monologistic prayer because it seems to contradict the Lord’s warning to avoid “vain repetition” in prayer? (And if you have not yet encountered this concern, I guarantee that you one day will!)
I’m still working through what I believe on the subject of repetitious prayer of Matthew 6:7. There are, indeed, several different types of prayer used in the whole of Christianity. There is personal (intimate) relational prayer between 1 person and 1 God. There is corporate prayer (which also varies in expression). There is repetitious prayer (Jesus Prayer). There is also recitation of Scripture (which varies widely between freeform reading and reciting to strict, formal recitation, often formulated with accompanying psalmody. There is meditative scriptural practices, ranging from simple devotional contemplation to formal lectio divina type applications. There is also the “praying” of the Rosary, which, as I understand it, is a formulaic prayer or set of prayers (really set of modified or codified) scriptural references that are used in conjunction with a rosary (religious implement) which was established mid-way through church history in an attempt to bring “praying of scripture” to an uneducated (illiterate) church body.
The question is, then, do any of these violate the edict of Christ in Matthew 6:7, that states, do not pray with “vain repetitions?”
At this time, I would answer that they all “can” violate the command, and often, typically do violate the command.
Christianity is most often – Catholic, Protestant alike – a familial extension of the culture in which we were raised. Intention, of course, as with most of Christ’s earthly teaching, is key. What do we intend by our prayer? What is our aim? Our end goal? Are we seeking communion with God? Are we violating other appellations of the Lord (are we praying in public, making a show of it)?
Motivation is the heart of everything for Christ. For him, the inner man is the plight of man. No external force seems to be addressed as a problem (not even demonic possession – it is present, it is dealt with, it is explained, but never identified as primarily problematic). Sin is the problem and this manifests itself in a myriad of ways, but it all arises from the main sin of pride.
Inherently, there appears to be nothing externally or intrinsically problematic with any of the above mentioned expressions of prayer. When we combine our intention with any of them, it then often results in violation of Matthew 6:7.
One must decide for himself what they believe about such things. Everyone will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:12). Nothing of itself is unclean. But, it is the conscience that makes it unclean (Romans 14:14). If you are convinced something is a sin but you do it, then you are guilty of sin. Whatever is not from faith is a sin (Romans 14:23).
When you pray the Jesus Prayer, where is your heart at? Are you doing it because someone said to do it? That, by doing it you would somehow become more pious and closer to God? Do the actual incantation of the words hold some mystical, supernatural power to transform you or others or the external world around you? Are your prayer activites rote, mechanical, without active engagement of your entire mental and physical and intellectual and spiritual person? Do you show up for church and go through the motions – stand up, sit down, read this, respond with that, and apply formulaic rubrics – all because some authority has ascribed it as a means by which holiness is somehow granted you through some irrational, metaphysical transference?
I conclude, if the religious person is genuinely seeking God (Matthew 22:37) with all their heart, mind, and soul, and their individual act of expression (worship) is in both spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24), then the superficial mechanics is of no consequence.
Do you sit? Stand? Lay flat? Weep in a ball on the floor of your room?
There are only two caveats that Christ applies to the activity of prayer: 1. Prayer must be done with the WHOLE of the person and 2. Prayer must be done in secret, not as a display or show.
In fact, I would say this is the testimony we are to give, and increasingly more so as the days of persecution return to the Western Church, we are to say nothing about our faith until asked. We are not to proclaim our faith in words, in songs, in pageantry. We are not to declare ourselves righteous before men, like the Pharisees. But rather, our testimony of act is clearly read before all people. Our behavior speaks volumes. Jesus said in John 13:35, “All will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”
Mostly the objection arises from protestant circles. The difficulty with this objection is, indeed, in the behaviors witnessed during every Sunday service. Heartless, mechanical, spirit-less repetition. Dry and ungodly motivations.
This, I believe, is driven by the improper structure of the modern protestant church organizational structure and the invention and professionalization of the pastorate.
This, I believe, will utterly and completely dissipate at the reinstatement of persecution to come.
Did you find and surprises in the texts from Cassian or on the Rosary? Many modern advocates of monologistic prayer quote Conferences 9 and 10 in a very truncated and selective way. Do you have any experiences in this regard?
With a protestant background and theology, the one major surprise I discovered was the Rosary – and most other applications like the Hours of Prayer – are at least rooted in the Scripture. Everything seems to have at least a source in the Scripture. That, of course, in no way, explicates the manifold abuses apparent in Catholic circles. But, this in no way, renders Protestant insincerities in any way less egregious.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Thankfully, we are saved by grace if we truly believe on him who rose from the dead.
I now can see Catholic and Protestant as much closer than before.
15) FORUM FIFTEEN The Jesus Prayer and Modern Monologistic Methods
Our rather detailed study of the development of Eastern Hesychasm (the Jesus Prayer) suggests a more intricate interrelationship between liturgical prayer and private monologistic prayer than is generally appreciated. What our your thoughts on implications of this for the way we teach and recommend different forms of prayer today?
Prayer is a simple and yet, holds within its application, a great and expansive and inexhaustible manifestation of spiritual depth. At its core, prayer is uncomplicated. It is fundamentally communication, but expansively communal, quickly becoming in execution and to the one executing it a kind of metaphysical apprehension of a deeper, richer, elaborate, enveloping, all-encompassing encounter with the divine, altogether foreign, and completely incomprehensible in its manifestation and mechanisms.
But, the church, throughout its history, appears to have struggled in not only how it approaches God in prayer, but if and when it should. We see, as a species of special creation, prone to ritualization, codification, and evoking the presumptive authority of tradition (though there really be no such thing).
Again, we must engender the adage, “all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Co 6:12).
Does it matter “how” we pray? Are the mechanics of prayer prescriptive? Are they, by Scripture, codified in such a way that we are required to bow a certain way, to position our hands thusly, to keep our eyes closed, opened, crossed? I encountered one brother who was convinced that you could pray in any bodily position EXCEPT for laying down, which he concluded was disrespectful to God. But, of course, this flies directly against Psalm 63:6, “On my bed I remember you, I think of you through the night watches.”
In reality, God has levied no prohibition to any manner in which one might approach him, save one: that we do so in spirit and in truth. He has provided us with a blueprint in the Lord’s Prayer (not necessarily as something to be repetitious, but as a teaching guide). But, man has elaborated on this. He has dogmatized this provision, often rendering it into a pagan-like babble of ill effect.
So, in light of this, it really does not matter the interrelationship between the liturgy and the Jesus Prayer. It is the inner motivation of the prayer that Christ is concerned with. Not tradition. Not external sacrifice. It is not about food or the cleaning of bowls or even asceticism. It is about the condition of our heart, the genuineness of our transformation and the honesty of our belief.
What does it produce? Does the Jesus Prayer draw us nearer to God? Does it produce some level of sanctification? Does it cause a road-block for another believer? What are our motivations for such activity?
In the end, of course, we must make up our own minds, for each of us will make an account before God.
Liturgy. Jesus Prayer. Centering Prayer. Meditative Prayer. Christian Zen. These are all tools and approaches to God. All are representative by their distinctives. What their histories are, what their individual applicatives are remain mostly irrelevant.
Dogmatic religion is the thing of pharisees, the doctrines of demons and of men. I don’t believe, when persecution comes, that any of these types of prayer will remain.
For those who read the article on Symeon, any thoughts on his sense of the interrelationship between an experience of divine indwelling and the authority to absolve from sin?
There is an error here before we even begin. No one can absolve sin except Christ Jesus. Or, more strictly speaking, God the Father. He is the ultimate judge. Everything has been given into Christ’s hand.
If we are covered by the blood of the Lamb, there is no sin. God simply does not see the sin we have inherited or that which we have committed and heaped up for ourselves. Rather, he sees the work of the cross, the sacrificial offering of innocent blood on our behalf.
It is an error to believe humans can forgive sin. This is only from God. In fact, if we have believed in the work of Christ and have truly been saved, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, Paul says there is nothing that can separate us from that salvation: this would include a priest (or anyone else) who declares we are condemned.
So there is no connection with the heretical catholic practice of absolution of sins to an indwelling by the spirit, since this practice is not biblical nor from God.
16) FORUM SIXTEEN Benedict as Reformer; Monastic Liturgical Renewal
I am very interested in your responses to the material we have reviewed on: (1) Epochs of Monastic Reform; (2) Benedict as monastic reformer/renewer; and (3) monastic reform of the Liturgy of the Hours.
I did not realize that monasticism was mostly wiped out during the French Revolution. Also, Trappists seem rather new as well. I suppose I fall into the same camp as I do with Protestantism. I’m continually looking back to the earliest eras of Christian history to try and dispense with the constant bombardment of dogma and religious institutionalism.
I often wonder: Christianity has such a long and varied history with heresy, are all those throughout the centuries actually saved? Will I see those people, all of whom fall to one side or the other of biblical orthodoxy, in heaven at the last day? Or, does tradition find favor and my doctrines prove heretical?
So much drift in religious organization over time. So much reform required. Error upon error, seemingly right from the start, right out the gate.
But, I suppose nothing has overtaken us but what is common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13).
But perhaps even more interesting and important is the question (for which there is obviously no right or wrong answer): what portions or aspects of the different sources and subjects we have studied together this semester do you believe could contribute to modern spiritual reform or renewal?
Honestly, I’m convinced that science and technological revolution will be the major driving factors for religious reform in the future. Not necessarily renewal, but a major falling away.
As AI develops and nanocomputing exponentiates, we will first see device shrinkage, then brain/device connectivity. Once human brains are augmented with technology, this will produce a super-human, trans-human technology race right about the same time AI becomes self-aware, cognizant, and autonomous.
This will usher in a host of reforms, and the simultaneous revolution sparked by the undermining of western culture by the alt-left will bring about a full scale assault of persecution on the church (and on the Jews). This will completely hollow out the modern organizational church paradigm and replace it with a utterly transformed and underground body of Christ, similar to those of the first century during the age of persecution.
I would imagine at that point, there will be a time of great fire within the ranks of believers, great evangelism, and a final adding to the body of Christ before the times of the gentiles is closed for good.
I also think the beast in Revelation is an AI. The thing in which they brought to life.
As far as monasticism, I believe it will die. Just like monasticism replaced the persecuted church in the fourth century, so too will monasticism be replaced by the coming persecuted church of the end days. There will, of course, still be hermits, who live out their lives in solitude and in desperate conditions, but out of necessity not choice. Cenobitic will be utterly wiped out, just as it was in the French Revolution.
Excerpt from Ashen Monk Mountain:
Mr. Eckey put his pen down.
“Mr. Ward,” he said. “The Vatican apparently has interest in your particular gifts and abilities for a – call it – a special appointment. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
He shifted his weight on the hard bench.
“Normally, the Congregation does not get involved in appointments or a particular monk’s vocational choices. But, sometimes, when the need arises, special arrangements can be made.”
“Are you talking about another monastery?”
“Actually – ”
Mr. Eckey picked his pen back up.
“It’s an entirely different Order.”
Christopher leaned forward as a gust of wind billowed the long sleeves of his tunic.
“I don’t really understand,” he said. “Are you saying the Vatican wants me to move to a different monastery – to a different Order? But…I…”
Mr. Eckey waited a moment.
“You were part of the 7th SFG? Assigned to operations in Afghanistan for the majority of your enlistment, surrendering your commission as a Captain. Is that correct? What did you like or dislike about your military career? Why was it you left?”
Christopher looked out over the cornfields in the distance.
“Sir,” he said, wringing his hands together. “I don’t really understand why you’re asking these kinds of questions. To be honest, they’re making me a little uncomfortable. I think I – ”
“Please, Brother Christopher,” Mr. Eckey said, putting up a hand. “I don’t mean to pry. As I said, this is a peculiar and rather sensitive situation, not at all normal procedure. So, I do apologize for my rather tactless approach. Let me explain a little, if I can – ”
Christopher tried to relax.
“There is a remote monastery in British Colombia. It is of a separate Order, not Cistercian, but similar. It’s rather distinctive, as I am led to believe.”
“What is the Order?” Christopher asked.
Mr. Eckey shook his head.
“You would not be familiar with it,” he said. “There is actually only one monastery in the Order. But it has had a long, and quite fascinating history, to say the least. And, somewhat of a fantastic service.”
“So, why me, then?” Christopher asked. “I’m a novitiate. I don’t have much to offer. I’m not sure what you are asking of me.”
“The Vatican is asking a favor of you, Brother Ward. They are requesting that you take a leave of absence from Saint Joseph’s and visit this other monastery for a time.”
“I’m honored that the Vatican has called on me,” he said. “I really do feel settled here, though. I would not wish to – ”
Mr. Eckey interrupted.
“Consider it simply a sabbatical of sorts. Without strings attached. We are interested solely in God’s working here in this matter.”
“Are you wanting me to relocate?” Christopher asked.
Mr. Eckey smiled.
“How about we say the Vatican is open and interested in the Father’s call on your life. We simply wish to – test the waters – see if this would or would not be a good fit.”
Buy my book Ashen Monk Mountain to find out what decision Christopher will make.
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But, buckle up for the ride of your life. You’ll never guess what happens next!