I recently posted a couple of pieces on ‘masculine Christianity’. One name that deserves to be better known in this regard is Peter Orseolo (928-927) – little known today but a role model in many ways.
His life reads rather like a novel. Adventure, intrigue, unusual twists in the plot, it’s all there. He was a nobleman from Venice and even as a youth had a reputation for strength. So, when Venice needed a commander to lead a fleet against the pirates who terrorised the Adriatic, they chose Orseolo – aged only 20. And he won, sweeping the marauders from Venetian shores.
In 976 there were riots in Venice. The Doge (the chief magistrate and ruler) was murdered and a large part of the city destroyed by fire. A strong and competent leader was needed, so whom did they choose? Peter Orseolo was made the new Doge and set about the huge task of reconstruction.
He showed himself a remarkable statesman and one of the greatest rulers of Venice. He made peace between enemies. He built hospitals and set up social programs to care for widows, orphans and pilgrims. He began rebuilding St Mark’s Cathedral, icon of the city.
Then, in September 978, at the height of his powers, Orseolo disappeared! Not even his wife and son knew where he was. An extensive search finally traced him to a Benedictine monastery in the mountains between France and Spain. Had he felt crushed by responsibilities? Perhaps, but he revealed later that God had been troubling his heart for ten years over the call to renounce everything to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Orseolo cut himself off from all his past life and achievements and put himself under the guidance of the abbot of Cuxa, dedicating himself to prayer. The fighter who had defeated pirates and political enemies now took on the harder conflict of dethroning self. The man who had ruled a city state now took a vow of obedience! It sounds ironic, but did not Jesus himself teach that true greatness lay not in lording it over others but in humbling oneself and becoming a servant? (Matthew 20:25-27)
But the lion did not altogether become a lamb! He brought to the monastery his fighting spirit, attracting spiritual brothers and sons by his steely determination and innate leadership charisma.
John Cassian (c. 360–435 AD) was a monk, theologian and mystic based in Marseille, France. His spirituality and writings had far-ranging influence, not least on Benedict of Nursia and Gregory the Great.
Cassian was deeply attracted to the desert monasticism of the Near East. He and a monastic friend Germanus toured Palestine and Egypt, visiting monasteries and recording impressions and conversations. This formed the basis of Cassian’s work, Conferences, dated to around 415. It is available in PDF format here.
In Conference 16: On Friendship, he and his friend record a conversation with Abbot Joseph at a monastery in Egypt. The abbot touches on human relationships:
Nothing is more damaging [to true friendship] than anger and vexation. Our enemy, the devil, sows the seeds of discord even between spiritual persons, on the ground of some difference of thinking. Therefore it is of no use to have removed the first ground of discord, which arises from the outward things of this world, unless we also cut off the second, which arises from wrong feelings. In everything we must gain humble thoughts and harmonious wills.
He goes on to look at the subtle differences between love and affection. Joseph maintains that “agapé” love (the New Testament word for Christ-like, self-sacrificing love) can be shown by Christians to anyone, on the basis of “doing good to all people, especially those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Genuine heart-affection, however, he sees as shown only to a few: those who are united to us by kindred dispositions or by a tie of goodness. There are levels to this, he points out, and they are variable: not all parents love their children to the same degree.
The remainder of Conference 16 is concerned with a more specifically monastic danger: of conforming and going through the motions of true brotherly affection, when the heart has lost the desire for it. This is the danger for any church, community or missional movement today, since drift is endemic to human nature.
All this made an impression on Cassian and Germanus, who conclude: Thus the blessed Joseph discoursed on spiritual friendship, and fired us with a more ardent desire to preserve the love of our fellowship as a lasting one.
John Piper, in a perceptive article on Spurgeon and adversity, sees several contributing factors to Spurgeon’s depression.
Overwork. His friend, missionary David Livingstone, said he did the work of two men every day: running his orphanage (Spurgeons, still a leading charity today) and a church of 4,000 members (the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London); editing a magazine, writing books, answering several hundred letters a week – the list goes on. Spurgeon saw this as a virtue (“If we die early because of excessive labour, there is more of heaven“). Today, many would seriously question his ‘work – life balance’.
Pain and sorrow. He married Susannah in 1856. Their twin sons were born the day after the horrific events described in may last post, so his fatherhood was always a mixed blessing. They had no more children. When she was 33, Susannah became an invalid and remained so until he died, 27 years later. Spurgeon himself suffered so badly from gout that he felt he was being bitten by snakes. He was known to say that the pain would be the end of him.
Hostile criticism. Perhaps because he was a larger than life figure and popular, Spurgeon was attacked from all quarters of the Church. In 1857 he wrote: “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”
Yet it was the trauma of the seven people trampled to death in the Royal Surrey Gardens that broke something in him, at only 22 and newly wed. In his first book, The Saint and His Saviour, he described his agony:
When the storm was over, a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I sought solitude, where I could tell my griefs to flowers and the dew could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My thoughts, which had been to me a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage.
In time, Spurgeon learned to rise from this deep pit of ‘shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness‘ and make his mark on church and nation. Eventually, he could even see divine providence behind it.
By nature a fighter, Spurgeon initially refused to accept depression. He called it his “worst feature.” “Despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.” With the passing years, as bouts of depression continued to lay him low, he came through to various conclusions, which may be of help to anyone who struggles with the ‘all-beclouding hopelessness.’
In an early (1859) sermon, ‘The Sweet Uses of Adversity‘, he writes: Perhaps in your own person you are the continual subject of a sad depression of spirit? and offers some thoughts. These could be seen as the standard Christian answers, even a little pat.
- It may be that God is contending with you that he may show his own power in upholding you (much as the parent of a gifted child delights to see it put through hard questions, because he knows the child can answer them all).
- Perhaps, O tried soul, the Lord is doing this to develop graces in you. Afflictions are often the black mounts in which God sets the jewels of his children’s graces, to make them shine the better.
- God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.
We sense two things emerging. First, an undefensive acceptance that bad and painful things happen, and we may never know why. The great preacher who could analyse most things in life and present them in a 3-heading sermon, could not analyse pain and depression.
Second, a more mature response to the issue of depression, born of his experience. In a later sermon, ‘When a Preacher is Downcast‘, he stresses the need for wisdom, recreation, for time spent enjoying nature, and for vacations to maintain a healthy soul. He also brings in the positives of his experience in the dark valleys of depression.
- This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry. The cloud is black before it breaks and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy.
- Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing. So have far better men than I found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults. At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.
Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.
Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were trampled to death. Spurgeon was devastated. ‘Perhaps never a soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity,‘ he wrote later, ‘yet came away unharmed. ‘From that day on, he knew bouts of dark depression.
What’s more, he suffered from Bright’s disease, rheumatism and gout, so severe that, in his final years, he was regularly too ill to preach and had to go the South of France to convalesce. Even so, Spurgeon continued to pour himself into God’s work, not least through his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and his many books (which are still widely read today). He stood as a bulwark against Higher Criticism, the rationalist theology coming from Germany, which threatened to undermine the true biblical faith.
One fruit of Spurgeon’s battle with depression is that he wrote about it. When a Preacher is Downcast was one sermon, pregnant with his own experience.
‘Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited with it at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts on it…
Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically… As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of service…Where in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them.
The preacher’s work has much to try the soul. The loneliness of God’s prophet tends to depression. How often do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us? After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.
In 1858, at the age of 24, he wrote: “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” In his ‘Lectures to My Students’, he made this observation:
Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discourses. One would as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.
Yet even here he can sound a note of hope: The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. It was to this heavenly hand that Spurgeon constantly looked, as we will see in a following post.
It seems the term “muscular Christianity” was coined in the 1850s in a review of a novel by Anglican priest and author, Charles Kingsley. Across the Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt was a keen advocate (read more here).
It was an age where industry was mechanising many processes, leaving working people more time for leisure than before. There were also threats of war with several nations, and key voices of the day proclaimed the need to raise up young future leaders. These, they said, needed to combine the moral character of Christianity with physical strength and fitness.
A friend of Kingsley, Thomas Hughes, author of the much-loved novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, distinguished between “musclemen” (athletes without Christian faith) and “muscular Christians”. “The only point in common between the two is that both hold it to be a good thing to have strong and well-exercised bodies. Here all likeness ends. [The Christian belief is] “that a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, then used for the protection of the weak and the advancement of all righteous causes.”
The writers of the research paper discuss the role of Muscular Christianity thinking in, for example, the foundation of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and even the modern Olympic Games, begun by Baron de Coubertin in 1896. They also cover opposition to the concept by equally weighty figures like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who foresaw the physical emphasis outstripping morality and the aspects of the heart.
I recommend the article for your own reading and further study. I would also appreciate hearing any comments you may have.
“Why can’t I make ‘real’ friends? I feel lonely all the time,” writes a 20 year old to Yahoo Answers. The advice in this case (join a sports club) struck me as a travesty. OK, the malaise might be temporary, a teenage angst, and joining a club might sort it. But surely the issue is more existential, reaching to the deepest parts of our conscious human need. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.
Jesus Christ knew how vital friendship was. He became a friend to the friendless and unwanted (Luke 7:34). As he neared his death, he reserved the highest accolade for His inner circle: “I have called you my friends” (John 15:15). And most telling of all, in the horror of his own personal agony in Gethsemane, he wanted his closest friends near him – and opened his heart to them in the most open, vulnerable way (Mark 14:33-34).
With this in mind, it is certainly surprising that Christian writers down the ages have been remarkably silent on the subject of true friendship, heart-brotherhood and the like. In the next few posts I hope to unearth some of what has been said on the subject and see how it may apply in our own society today.
First up in my trawl is John Cassian (c.360-435). As a young man, he was exercised over how to live a godly life with true brotherhood. So he and his best friend, Germanus, travelled from his native Romania to visit the hermitages and monasteries of Palestine and Egypt. Here, Cassian documented the structures, lifestyle and teachings of the Desert Fathers. Years later, in 415, when he was abbot of a monastery near Marseille, he published these under the title Conferences. They are a seminal tool for the student of early monastic life.
For this blog post, what concerns us is Conference 16: The First Conference of Abbot Joseph, on Friendship. In conversation with Cassian, the abbot first looks at many kinds of friendship outside the Christian framework, which he says can be motivated by self-interest, nepotism, the longing for recognition, or selfish desires. True Christian friendship, on the other hand, he sees as founded on two things: like-mindedness and a common purpose.
“Love can only continue undisturbed in those in whom there is but one mind, to will and to refuse the same things. This is the sure and indissoluble union of friendship, where the tie consists only in being alike in goodness and having a union of character in God.”
For such friendship to come into being, “whatever things the world might offer cannot be regarded more highly than what is most valuable: love of a brother. Everything, even what one deems useful and necessary, must be subordinate to the blessing of love and peace. Realising that, all too soon, one must pass from this world, one cannot permit any vexation to linger in the heart.”
“For if one is walking along the the path outlined above, how can he ever differ from his friend, if he claims nothing as his own and entirely cuts off the first cause of any quarrel. He observes to the best of his power what we read in Acts 4, verse 32: The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.”
The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.
One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.
As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.
“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.
“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.
“So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.
“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”
Generosity, in Christian understanding, goes further than simply the wallet – it reveals the condition of the soul. There is a natural selfishness in our conditioned responses, which instinctively says spend and not give. But is this really the mindset that we want to pass on to our children? As someone has said, “we must teach them the greater joy of giving before they figure out the lesser joy of receiving.”
One very early Christian text can back this up. The ‘Didache‘ (pronounced “didder-key”, it’s Greek for “teaching”) is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.
Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.
Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.
Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.
Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].
Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?
Another early Christian writing gives us valuable insights. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides, a converted philosopher from Athens. Some authorities suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.
Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.
“Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.
“They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.
“Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.”
I came across this article on The Generosity of the Early Church, which gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament.
It makes sense to start with what the New Testament really says about true generosity. What comes out looks rather different from the almost unquestioned acceptance by evangelical Christians today of tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving. What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.
God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians 9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.
In the gospels, there are examples of ‘giving to charity‘ in today’s sense, e.g. John 13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing what we have with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That’s why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other’s financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46]. It was the Holy-Spirit-inspired pattern for all ages.
Everyone must give, and the New Testament way is “the apostles’ feet”: you give to your church for God’s work. How much to give? Tithing is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way: give everything you can – which is usually more than you think you can.
The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:
* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].
Several articles have caught my attention on the subject of generosity.
Larry Jones writes about “Is Giving Really Giving?”. He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a “universal law”, whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.
There is even a Global Generosity Movement, with its own blog. Here you can find an array of useful articles, infographics and suggested ways of increasing Christian generosity.
David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people’s pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.
Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on “financial peace” – the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.
Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:
‘I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders “how far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual?
‘The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.’
So, what do we do about this? How do we start to effect change in our giving? Operation Church offer a graphic: The Paradigm Shift in Religious Giving. Click on the image above to see it. It makes thought-provoking reading, but any Christian who is conscientiously exercised to build generosity into their life ought to look hard at the paradigm shift it advocates.