The Father of Monks

The Torment of St. Anthony by Michaelangelo

Anthony of Egypt is one of the most meaningful Christian mentors I’ve ever had, and he lived over a thousand years ago as a poor, solitary monk in the Egyptian desert.  All I have from him is a biography that someone else wrote (I mean, the famous bishop Athanasius wrote it, so, to be fair, it’s pretty good), a few letters of questionable authorship (they use some pretty technical terminology for a poor, uneducated monk), and some wise quotes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a collection of wise quotes from 4th century monks in the Egyptian desert).  Even though he doesn’t have the same body of work as someone like Augustine or Calvin, Anthony is so much more than his writings.  He’s the holy man that drew a generation of Christians out to the desert.  He’s the father of monks.  He’s the originator of monastic wisdom.  He’s a legend.

I love Anthony.  And since January 17th was his official memorial/feast day/commemoration/whatever other name for celebrating a saint the different denominations can come up with, I wanted to take a minute and appreciate him.

Anthony, or Abba (father) Anthony, as the desert monks would have known him, offers a spirituality that’s untethered by the quest for hedonistic pleasure and self-fulfillment that modern spirituality is so often tied to.  He didn’t pray because he needed a divine favor or because he was hoping that he’d get some sense of euphoria from the experience.  No, this is someone who gave everything for God.  He bled for God.  He hungered for God. He had an uncomfortable, no holds barred spirituality that commanded that he give over everything and spend every second in service to properly live the Christian life.

If all of that suffering makes it sound like he had some weird system of works righteousness or was a wild masochist, I assure you that isn’t at all what he was like.  He just loved God.  He would do anything that God asked of him, regardless of the physical toll it would take. Take, for example, his reaction to the classic verse Matthew 19:21:

[Anthony] entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man Matthew 19:21, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers

(Life of St. Anthony, 2)

Who actually does that?  It takes an iron will to legitimately actually do what Jesus said to do in that instance.  We usually spiritualize it away or say that it really only applied to the specific person that Jesus was talking to in the story, but Anthony?  He just… gave away everything.  He didn’t even take a week to think about it!  He knew what God wanted, and so he did it, regardless of the cost.

That leads to an intense war with devils and demons in the early part of his biography.  The devil comes in and reminds him of his past wealth, or tries to distract him with his own lust or boredom, and Anthony responds with prayer, conquering the Devil’s temptations through the power of God.  These scenes are often wildly dramatic.  My favorite is when he travels into a tomb filled with demons to pray and demons show up and beat him all night.  The villagers find him and take him back to town and try to heal him, but when he regains his consciousness, what does he do?  Asks to be carried back to the tomb, where he screams to the horde of demons:

Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more. Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ! (Rom 8:35)

(Life of St. Anthony, 9)

and then he starts singing some of his favorite hymns until the demons show up again in the forms of animals to resume their attack.  Now, is this a literal story?  Probably not.  I don’t think that demons can just physically show up in the form of animals and start pummeling you (at least, it hasn’t happened to me just yet), and I can’t imagine a village of people finding you half dead in a demon tomb and then throwing you back in the next day, even if you begged them.  But it’s a really neat way of expressing the spiritual journey that Anthony went on to die to this world, the temptations that he wrestled with with along the way, and how his efforts to live a holy life weren’t something that gave him any degree of physical comfort.  He didn’t do it to feel good.  He did it because he loved God and wanted to be closer to him.  He emerges from the tomb with an ultradramatic ray of light from heaven coming down on him, showing that Anthony’s love and obedience have made him holy.

The biography might be ultra-cheesy, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in there.  And his wisdom sayings are even more approachable, as found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  My personal favorite is:

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.”  The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4)

Some of the other quotes are more comforting than that one, but to me, this captures the rigorous spirituality of Anthony’s life.  You want to grow holy?  Stop talking about it and do it.  You don’t need a new book on your shelf.  You don’t need the right person to pray.  You don’t need some fancy new technique.  You need to get up, stop making excuses, and do it.  As John Chrysostom said so eloquently, “human effort is profitless without help from above; but no one receives such help unless they themselves choose to make an effort,” (Philokalia, Loc. 13,333).  Anthony’s little warning to pray for yourself is one that I come back to a lot.  When my spiritual life is bad and I’m frustrated, I have to ask myself, am I actually putting in time and effort?  Or am I just expecting God to work magic on me while I go about my life as I choose to live it.  It’s a call to repent and live life intentionally, and if there’s any lesson I hear from the father of monks, it’s that the Christian life takes effort and intention.

Here’s the prayer from the Catholic breviary (Christian Prayer, 1064) for January 17th.  Whether you feel comfortable praying it or not is up to you, but I’d like to close with it either way:

Father,
You called Saint Anthony
to renounce the world
and serve you in the solitude of the desert.
By his prayers and example,
may we learn to deny ourselves
and to love you above all things.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen

Christianity-and-Water with C.S. Lewis

Life hack: Taco Bell napkins make great bookmarks.

Continuing my grand tradition of reading way too many books at the same time, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again this week.  Lewis is so easy to read.  When he writes, I find that he doesn’t have to persuade me about much.  Instead, it’s almost like he’s uncovering all of the things I already believed in my heart, gathering them up, and presenting them back to me in a way far more logical and clever than I ever could have managed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I went through a period where I hated C.S. Lewis with a burning passion.  When you’re a Christian that wants to learn more about faith, he’s one of the only serious theologians that many pastors seem to be comfortable prescribing.  You’d get sick of anyone if they came up that many times!  But ultimately he’s prescribed for a reason: he’s phenomenally good.  Perhaps the closest thing to a mutual source of authority for Protestant churches in America.

In any case, this quote particularly struck me: 

I will tell you another view that is also too simple.  It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right- leaving out the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil and redemption.  Both of these are boys’ philosophies.  It is no good asking for a simple religion.  After all, real things are not simple.

Mere Christianity, 40

It was such a relief to hear that a man as distinguished as Lewis had experiences with pop faith that are so similar to ours today.  After all, how many people do you know that are just Christian enough to acknowledge that God exists, but can’t imagine that this God would want anything aside from their own happiness?  It’s so common! The term “moral therapeutic deism” is thrown around to describe that kind of faith today, and Lewis is talking about it all the way back in 1952.  That flimsy faith rarely gets further than this: God exists and he wants us to be happy.  Don’t be mean, love yourself, and everything will work itself out.  The best of secular wisdom is echoed back at an individual with a tint of religious nostalgia.  It’s distinctly frustrating to hear for those of us that are eager to dig in to Christianity as the core of our life, and a core that continually forces us to give things up, to repent, and to turn back to the baffling God that demands everything.  A faith less than that would seem frivolous to us!  As the famous agnostic philosopher Julian Barnes wrote, “there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything,” (Nothing to be Frightened Of, 64).

On one hand, it was self-justifying.  I remembering being in seminary and seeing that the United Methodist baptismal liturgy didn’t contain the traditional question “Do you reject the Devil and all of his works?”  I asked the professor about the exclusion and his answer was blunt: “Oh, yes, they replaced that with ‘evil, injustice, and oppression.’  The governing body didn’t think they would be able to get the traditional language approved by a vote.”  What a loss! It’s a tragedy to throw away a liturgy over a thousand years old because we’ve fixed the language with something moderns find more comforting.  That stuck in my head. I imagined myself as the bold Christian, right alongside Lewis, representing the real faith for the world.

But don’t’ worry.  That spiritual cockiness didn’t make it through the week.

I’ve been working on a little project to try to understand how we can be better at Christian service. And as since I want to be better at serving in a distinctly Christian way, I have to understand what “Christian service” actually is and how it differs from other ways of serving it the world (community service, quid pro quo, etc.).  It’s been a delightful adventure so far.  A challenging one too!  I’ve begun by recording each narrative of service in the book of Acts and then recording commonalities between the events to see what consistently comes to the top.  And geeze!  It’s convicting! 

Two of the most common pieces of service in Acts are the invocation of the name of Jesus, and the proclamation of the Gospel.  I have to ask myself, do I do them?  Do I actually use the name Jesus?  The name that caused scandal all those years ago because of the brash claims that accompanied it?  Not really.  I often use “God,” which is a name that’s a lot more culturally comfortable.  It’s easy to say, causes less tension with other traditions, and is printed on all the money for maximum cultural complicity.  And how often do I proclaim the Gospel apart from preaching and teaching in the church?   The popular (and probably fake) St. Francis quote “Proclaim the gospel always.  Use words when necessary,” suits my sensibilities so well.  But is that what the apostles did?  Or is it a way that I can comfortably move in a secular world without risking discomfort?  I suppose none of this is “theology” in the way that Lewis meant it, but it’s certainly a way in which the faith I’m living is not like that of the Christians in the Bible.  I may include the “terrible doctrines” about Hell and sin, but I exclude the terrible actions that would risk embarrassment as I move through the world.

Lewis not only believed uncomfortable truths in the comfort of his own mind, but he lived them out in the real world.  And not always in a way that won him admiration!  Close Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien thought he was too evangelistic, and more than a few promotions went to other people because he was “too Christian” for the taste of others (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 135).  He’s proven himself invaluable one more time on my journey.  On one hand, he gives a word that comforts.  On the other hand, the same word cuts to the core. I hope my faith is never too comfortable, in thought or in deed.

Church Growth with Charles Finney

Doesn’t he look fun?

Today’s entry is about a 19th century revivalist’s impact on the church.  Admittedly, the 19th century is a little recent for my tastes, but I’ve been mulling over what the Church is, what its primary tasks are, and what it’s corporate existence ought to look like, and Finney seemed like someone worth engaging with.

Finney was trained as a lawyer, and after a conversion experience, decided to become a pastor.  Legend has it that he showed up at a meeting with his legal client the next morning and told them, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and cannot plead yours.” (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 67)   He’s certainly got some good quotes!  He lived during the Second Great Awakening and worked in the “burned-over district” in New York, which was the cradle for all kinds of unorthodox and distinctly American religious traditions like Mormonism, spiritualism, and the Shaker community.  In all of this excitement, Finney rose up as an incredibly popular revivalist preacher, partially because of his emphasis on choice.  Americans were settling in to their new democracy and the power of personal choice was increasingly apparent.  Finney acknowledged that power and urged them to make the choice to accept Jesus as their savior.  Huge masses of people did just that at his urging.

One piece of his that has made its way through history are his “Lectures on the Revival of Religion.”  It’s a series to to help other preachers adopt his revival techniques.  A lot of it reads like any book on church growth today might, but what seems normal today was a landmark in it’s own time.  Books about how to preach, set up churches, and perform worship in a way that will numerically grow your church weren’t common until around this time.  This series represents a cultural watershed for the belief that pastors and churches ought to hold themselves accountable for proven practices that produce higher number of converts in their pews.

Here’s an excerpt that particularly interested me:

Without new measures it is impossible that the Church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind, such a running to and fro, so many that cry “Lo here!” and “Lo there!” that the Church cannot maintain her ground without sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear. (Measures to Promote Revivals, 2.5)

He’s all for change! Innovate as necessary to reach more people with the Gospel. “Novelty” is your most valuable tool. So much of the modern church growth movement seems to take this kind of stance.  The form of worship isn’t relevant.  Adopt whatever form increases your numbers!  The desirable end result is that people walk away claiming to have a relationship with God, not having followed some formula of when to sit, stand, and say the right thing.  Why not have church in a pub, a coffee shop, a hiking trail, or wherever else people might show up?  But I’m more than a little skeptical of Finney and his spiritual successors.  Is this really the end game of the Church?  And where is the fine line between reaching someone through familiar means and pandering to people?

At it’s worst, the logic reminds me a little of Odysseus and the Cyclops.  You remember that story from grade school! When Odysseus and his crew were imprisoned in a cave by a Cyclops that planned on eating them, how did they escape?  By blinding the Cyclops in the night, then tying themselves under his sheep.  When the Cyclops let out his sheep to graze, he felt each sheep to make sure that no men were sneaking out.  Sly ol’ Odysseus and his men escaped because they was hiding under the fuzz of the sheep!  Are we Christians doing the same thing? Hiding Jesus under the comfortable wool of pop-culture, hoping that the general public is blind enough that they’ll let him sneak into the gates of their hearts?

When did Jesus ever try to be cool?  I suppose this is where there’s some room for interpretation.  You could argue that Jesus wasn’t trying to be “cool,” but he was never restricted to the traditional worship settings of his day.  He reached out to people in new ways.  For every Bible story set in a temple, there’s several set out in the world with random people. This approach is what the pub churches, hiking churches, and other innovators are trying to emulate.  They want to reach out in new ways, just like Jesus did.  I think they’ve got a point.  If Jesus was following the strict religious orthodoxy of his day and emphasizing it above all else, one might expect more stories set in formal settings and more detail about official religious practice in the gospels.

Even so, I find that the Scriptures have a shocking amount laid out for what worship ought to look like, and that’s not even touching on the massive amount of stuff passed down through Church history.  If we pay it any heed, it really hinders our attempts to make church cooler.  For example, I’m not really one for singing.  I don’t enjoy it all that much, I’m not very good at it, and a lot of times I think that the words are pretty lame.  There was a period in my life where my ideal church didn’t have any singing at all because the REAL point of worship (in my mind) was being taught about the faith and responding with holy lives.  Singing was just a goofy removable element. 

And I was wrong.  2 Chronicles 29 shows a temple service in which song is a distinct, ordered part of worship.  The psalms are a whole collection of worship songs, many of which repeatedly urge people to make music because God likes it.  Colossians and Ephesians both urge people in churches to sing spiritual songs and psalms.  You get the picture.  Each of these instances are not only represented in Scripture; they were taken on by the people after them

Not to suggest that Finney hadn’t read all the same stuff.  Heck, he probably knew it better than I do.  And I’m well aware that every piece of tradition starts somewhere, and not all of it sticks around forever. Thank goodness, right? We’ve all suffered through some clumsy attempt of a pastor to make a new, awesome thing that just didn’t work, and we all rejoiced quietly when it died. Not everything is timeless tradition, that’s for sure. I guess it comes down to that question I’ve been mulling over, “what is Church?”  If church is primarily about passing on and popularizing certain ideas or spiritual beliefs, there can be little doubt that Finney had it right.  Cut out the older parts that don’t work anymore and add some new pieces that produce the desired results.  I think I’m too much of a traditionalist for all that.  Church isn’t just about making a decision for Christ; it’s transforming the self in light of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.  We are the end-result of God working through centuries of people.  Worship forms us as much as we form it. How could we just ditch certain elements and feel like we’ve not lost something?

That being said, I’m well aware that Finney has a point.  Sometimes we’re so addicted to the form of a thing, that we don’t honor the spirit of it.  He’s not wrong about novelty either!  When you mix things up, people pay attention!  In a religious landscape with Christianity distinctly on the wane, something that gets new eyes sounds great! But how do we mix things up, rather than water them down?  How do we innovate traditionally? How to we reform with the spirit of Christians in every era, rather than pander to our personal preferences?

If you want to give Finney a read, head on over to his lectures on the revival of religion on ccel.org (Christian Classic Ethereal Library) where they have all kinds of good stuff.