Friday, October 22, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 6

This series has been looking at monastic spirituality and how it can be appropriated in the church for today. One essential practice of any Christian spirituality is prayer. The monks were certainly no exception to this, so let us turn to one practice from the Eastern church which I believe can be very fruitful for our postmodern context: the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer, according to John Meyendorff, is "at the center of all hesychast spirituality." It comes in a few different forms, but is most usually:

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

Practiced in primitive form since ancient times, the Jesus Prayer is a primary tool for pursuing the monastic goal of "circumscrib[ing] the Incorporeal in a dwelling of flesh" (St. John Climacus, from The Ladder of Divine Ascent). According to Bishop Kallistos Ware (as cited by Father Edward Rommen), the Jesus Prayer has 4 main activities:

  1. devotion to the name of Jesus as something almost sacramental in nature
  2. an appeal for divine mercy, accompanied by inward grief
  3. frequent repetition
  4. the quest for silence
We are not monks. We do not spend 12 hours a day in prayer, nor are we free from the distractions of jobs, family life, and so on. Many of us, myself included, do not come from traditions in which we the use of formulaic prayers has been encouraged. Whether or not we should would require a whole separate series, but if we would like to begin learning from that tradition, the Jesus Prayer is a great place to start. It is not long, is easily memorized, and is useful for a variety of purposes, whether we are praying for some specific need, repenting of some sin, quietly contemplating, or in times of urgent distress.

Up next: A musical interpretation of the Jesus Prayer

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 5

Last post we looked at the monastic practice of poverty, and asked how this extreme way of live can be applicable today.

I believe one way forward is to look not to the hermits and anchorites, who lived as individuals in isolation, but to the cenobites who lived in community. These monks would gather together under an abbot and share all resources, following the same rule of life. They gave up their claim to ownership as individuals, but shared all things in common. This sharing of resources, which so pushes against our desire to have our own things packed away in a little cubby somewhere, so as not to be inconvenienced or have to rely on others, is exactly what we need as an antidote to our consumeristic lives today.

My wife and I have begun to practice some of this on a small scale even now with people from our church. Three or four nights a week we share meals with another couple from church who live across the street from us. We trade back and forth cooking dinner and hosting. We also share many household things like tools. We say frequently in church things like, "I don't need to buy a weedwhacker if so-and-so has one". This sharing of resources has allowed us to live more simply, own less things, and go into less debt.

It is not always easy. You sacrifice control; things aren't always available when you want them. Dinner isn't always what you would prefer. You sacrifice self-sufficiency; you have to ask people for things, and be interrupted by them asking you. But I am convinced that in this life of being both a borrower and a lender (contra Shakespeare) is the life of Christ. Because the truth is we aren't self-sufficient. Our very life comes from God, both directly and mediated through the created order and our community. We are not, ultimately, isolated individuals. Our value does not come from what we can do or how much stuff we have, but from receiving from God.

This small effort at communal life has been an experiment between two families in our church, but I think we can all pursue similar ideas in our own contexts.

What examples of living in community and simplicity have you seen or participated in?

But what about the inevitable complications? Human communities inevitably have to face their own brokenness and frustration. I think the example of the cenobitic house rule is helpful here. Living simply and in community is so contrary to our culture that we cannot expect these things to just happen. The monks are eminently practical about living as a group of human beings. They encountered the same frustrations, inconveniences, and struggles as we do as they collected diverse personalities and abilities under one roof. So even though their "one roof" was literal and ours may be figurative, we should learn from their life together.

They knew that to live freely in common there had to be procedures in place, like the dry wood that allows spiritual fire to be kindled. Contrary to their image as people of harsh discipline, the monks knew how to bear one another's burdens, living by the gracious example of God.

My favorite example of this comes from a story about two monks who go into town to sell their crafts. One monk falls into fornication, and tells the other monk he will not be returning to the monastery. The second monk, though he has done nothing wrong, says to the first monk, "The same thing happened to me; after I left you, I also fell into fornication. Let us go together, and do penance with all our might, and God will pardon us sinners." And so they both returned.

We do not have to live in a monastery to practice this kind of sacrificial love and solidarity, healing one another's brokenness, creating an environment of non-judgmental confession, so that the grace of God rules over all.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 4

The monks of the desert lived in near-total poverty. They were reacting both in obedience to their reading of Scripture (particularly the story of the Rich Young Ruler) and to the sudden influx of wealth and prestige the church experienced in the third and fourth centuries. Their choice of lifestyle seems incredibly extreme today.

One story is told of a monk who sold even his Gospel book because it told him to sell all and give to the poor. To me, someone who has several Bibles on his shelf, and many other books besides, that way of life seems quite impossible. It is similarly hard to understand the sayings of the desert fathers which celebrate the sick and elderly who refuse to save, or even to accept, just a few coins for their own well-being.

Except perhaps for the commitment to celibacy, poverty is the part of the monastic way of life that seems most out of touch and indeed inhuman to contemporary sensibilities. And yet it is for that reason the most needed, even if in a less extreme a form, because materialism and consumerism are surely the great idols of our age.

We are addicted to products, and to the status they signify. When catastrophe strikes the nation, our leaders (of both parties) warn us to keep shopping, lest the terrorists win. We are, as a people and as a generation, deeply in debt. The recent economic meltdown has a complex variety of causes, but while fingers point in different directions, one thing is clear: there is no security in wealth.

None of this is a new phenomenon, of course. The monks knew full well, as Jesus taught, the danger of placing one's trust and one's self-worth on material possessions. And modern culture is not blind to it either; the popular movie Fight Club features a protagonist who, unsatisfied by his comfortable material existence, finds solace in a violent and nihilistic but arguably monastic way of life.

But how do we live out this monastic commitment to poverty today? Move to the woods and forage for food? Become homeless and live on the streets? Are those extreme examples our only options, or are there ways to begin incorporating a monastic vision of life into our ordinary lives as workers and consumers?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 3

Last post I discussed how the celebration of the Eucharist was essential for the desert fathers & mothers, despite their seeming individualism. But what about us? To answer that question I'll look at my own specific church community: Emmaus Way, a non-denominational emerging/missional church here in Durham, North Carolina. I won't make sweeping generalizations; certainly this proposal would not be appropriate in Catholic or Orthodox traditions. But for those from a more low-church background who are tired of downplaying the Lord's Supper, consider this one way back to a sacramental life in Christ.

Celebrating the Eucharist at Emmaus Way is very different than for Palamas, the hesychasts, and the other desert monastics in many ways. For one thing, we are free-church sacramentalists. For us, what makes Eucharist more than mere bread and wine is not the blessing of a specially qualified leader, but the involvement of the whole community in the act of Eucharist. We do not simply receive the bread and the cup, but all actively share it with those in line around us. When we break off a piece of bread for someone we say, "This is Christ's body, broken for you". When we pour wine or juice for one another, we say, "This is Christ's blood, shed for you." Additionally, we practice an open table at which all are invited to participate, which is a significantly different practice from traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy in which Communion is restricted to baptized and confirmed members of the Church.

But these not-insignificant distinctions aside, at Emmaus Way we share with the monastics the conviction that regular participation at the Table is essential for our life together as the people of God. With St. Mary of Egypt we look forward to it with "irrepressible love and longing". It is the focus and high point of our gathered worship, which is liturgical in structure though not always in content; we use everything from contemporary songs to ancient hymns, organized so that before Eucharist we have a song of confession and a song of absolution, or sometimes we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer.

We celebrate the Eucharist every week, which is somewhat unusual for people in the free-church tradition, but for us has become essential. Indeed our very name, Emmaus Way, reflects that focus. "Emmaus Way" comes from the story in Luke 24, in which two disciples are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus. The resurrected Jesus appears to them as a stranger, and explains to them from the Scriptures the meaning of his death. When they arrive at their destination, the disciples invite Jesus in, and he breaks bread for them, finally revealing himself.

This story illustrates so many of our values: the importance of hospitality, a passion for the Scriptures, the missional, on-the-road nature of Christian life. But as important as those themes are, from this story we learn that it is truly in the breaking of bread together that Jesus is experienced for who he is.

What role does Communion play in your spiritual life and church community? Why is it important?

Up next: Community/Simplicity

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 2

When one thinks of the monastic life, isolation usually comes to mind. The hermit or monk would seem to be removed from the communal life of the church as celebrated in sacraments like baptism and Eucharist (aka Communion, or the Lord's Supper). But for the Eastern Orthodox monastic movement known as hesychasm, best summed up by the figure of St. Gregory Palamas, Eucharist was essential:

"The Christian mystic seeks a new life in Christ, an active life for his whole being, and he knows that the grace of baptism and the eucharist have already given him that life; moreover he seeks it in the interior of his own being. That is why the hesychast movement of the fourteenth century never deteriorated into individualistic and subjective mysticism but led in fact to a revival of ecclesiastical sacramentalism. Palamas himself says of baptism and the eucharist that in these two sacraments our whole salvation is found, for they sum up the dispensation of the God-Man...he also advises what would seem to be daily communion."
--John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality

So Eucharist was central for the monastics. But how can those of us who have very different theologies of Communion and very different ecclesiologies (how the church should think about and organize itself) practice this contested rite in continuity with the desert fathers and mothers?

Up next: A "case study" of Eucharist in one missional church

Series Index:


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 1

Church life in America, borrowing from the culture around it, heavily emphasizes the new. The weight of history has no weight.

But Christianity is a historical religion; it is about God's faithful saving action in history, through Jesus Christ and his people. We can and must learn from the great Christian movements of the past. To borrow Leonard Sweet's image of the porch swing, we must lean back in order to move forward.

In the next few blog posts I will trace connections between monastic spirituality and our own present-day context. I will be observing both differences and similarities, and proposing ways in which these ancient voices can be a resource for today, particularly for churches or individuals that are part of the emerging/missional church conversation.

I will focus especially on three areas of monasticism: emphasis on the Eucharist, commitment to living in community and simplicity, and the Jesus Prayer.

Up next: Eucharist.