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The Christian Imperative of a Grateful Heart

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Image: flickr.com

I have been considering gratitude. Living as I do in the UK, where it is almost expected to moan about almost everything, it can seem that gratitude has all but died – a quaint hangover from former, more stilted days.

It has been said that thanksgiving is a lens through which to view our entire lives. In a perceptive article, Michael Zigarelli calls gratitude “a parent virtue” from which others spring. He sees gratitude as a pathway to permanent change in the human heart.

King David in the book of Psalms often makes mention of ‘the sacrifice of praise’. This is usually interpreted as a public act of thanksgiving in the context of worship. To David, it is clearly a delight to offer such gratitude. By contrast, there is a sober reminder in the New Testament: Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. (Romans 1:18–21)

An old post on Christianblog.com, since taken down, made this useful point:

The attitude of gratitude takes a conscious effort to master. Bombarded by negatives every day and surrounded by selfish people who are only looking out for themselves makes it extremely difficult to stay thankful. But, if the effort is made to always remain thankful no matter what the circumstances; the reward will be one of peace in the midst of the storm, joy in the midst of despair and a willingness to share of all one has.”

Here, David Burchett considers the correct response when our act of generosity towards someone is not received as rapturously as we would secretly like and expect.

Going back in time (hey, this is a history blog!), I am also reminded of this section from the “Long Rule (alternatively “Detailed Rule”) for Monks, by Basil of Caesarea († 379).

“What words can adequately describe God’s gifts? They are so numerous that they defy enumeration. They are so great that any one of them demands our total gratitude in response.

[Basil lists the beauty of creation, God’s constant provision, His merciful care, redemption through the cross, release from the slavery of sin, and adoption into God’s family for eternity.]

How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that He asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessings I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities.”

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Worship and Musical Instruments in the Church: the First Millennium

Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite, and how while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.

The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny used the same phrase (Latin carmen dicere). Does it suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.

We could usefully bring in Augustine of Hippo here, who in the 4th century described church singing in Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise and wrote some beautiful lines in praise of dancing (though with no mention of instruments).

 

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines Image: artship.org

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines    Image: artship.org

Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome, also 4th century, wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.

Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.

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One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Communion or Eucharist, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapé, the ‘love feast’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when many of the apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.

In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:

‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’

The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.

Image: disciplemagazine.com

Image: disciplemagazine.com

It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.

We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. For the arrival of the earliest church organs we must wait until the mid-11th century.

 

 

 

What is a Canticle? More on the Origins of Christian Hymn Singing

The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.

They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.

The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:

Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.

Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.

The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:

He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.

Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:

For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).

For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).

 

 

Why Sing Hymns? Insights From Some Early Church Fathers

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A subject that fascinates me is Christian hymns. In this post, I’ll start at the very beginning: why sing hymns at all? In today’s churches they have largely been supplanted by choruses, after all. Yet there has been a heavy price to pay.

In the introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote this about hymn singing: A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.

It would seem that, for the first Christian centuries, believers sang their hymns without stopping to analyse the process. One of the first who did was John Chrysostom (347-407). In his ‘Exposition on Psalm 41’, he points out that music is an integral part of the human condition: To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep.

Mixing this innate sense of music with the power of words is, Chrysostom continues, a powerful vehicle, affecting the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer.

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.

In words very relevant to today’s i-pod culture, Chrysostom warns that there are bad words and bad music too, and these can similarly affect the human soul. “Those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker.” That is why, he maintains, the devil is keen to fill the mind with dirty things through music.

From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.

 

d490b-notescolor1Another early Church father who understood the ‘why’ of hymn-singing was Basil of Caesarea (†379). In his Discourse on Psalm 1, he writes:

The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.

The first Christians understood the need to confess spiritual truth aloud: not just to ‘believe in your heart’, but also to ‘confess with your lips’ [Romans 10:9]. Or in Basil’s words, to impress doctrine more deeply on their souls. For this they had a clear and obvious model: the Jews. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple and to attend synagogues. It was therefore inevitable that Jewish methods of performing music were incorporated into Christian worship.

In particular, the church continued to use the book of Psalms. Basil again:

Now the prophets teach certain things, the historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorialises history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings.

In other words, if it is important to confess God’s truth aloud, then how better than to sing scripture. Not only is there no risk of emotionalism or error, but also the addition of music aids the memorising of the words.

In the next post, I’ll be looking more at the Jewish roots of Christian spiritual song and choral worship.

The ‘Odes of Solomon’: the Earliest Christian Hymnbook?

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An early papyrus fragment (not of this text)

 

I am putting on the love of the Lord…
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved.
Because I love Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, whoever is joined to Him who is immortal, shall truly be immortal.

These striking words come from what has been hailed as the earliest Christian hymn book. Prior to 1909, nothing was known of the Odes of Solomon except one quotation by Lactantius (died 320). Then a Syriac manuscript was found containing, among other writings, 40 odes. Subsequent finds have shown that there were originally 42, though because of the fragmentary nature of the papyri, Ode 2 and part of Ode 3 have not survived.

An ode is simply a piece of lyrical poetry written for a particular occasion, which in Greek at least had a fixed form. Scholars quickly established, however, that the Odes of Solomon are not from a Greek stable but a Jewish one. Dating evidence suggests late 1st – early 2nd century, at any event before the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-135, when Christian Jews were evicted from synagogues.

These verses are not odes other than in a general sense, then, and there is nothing to link them to Solomon except by analogy of phrasing with the Song of Solomon in the Bible. For these Odes are clearly Christian (at one time scholars thought Gnostic, but the consensus today is that they are orthodox) and praise the person and attributes of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the titular use of Solomon’s name was a way of safeguarding the documents in a volatile political time when radical Jews were highly suspicious of Jewish followers of Christ.

What makes the Odes particularly exciting is that they clearly emanate from a community of Jewish disciples of Jesus, almost certainly from Syria. Church history from earliest times has majored on Gentile Christianity to the extent that the average reader can forget that Jewish believers continued at all beyond the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

An early representation of Jesus, from the catacombs in Rome

A fresco of Jesus, from the catacombs in Rome

 

There is a Helper for me: the Lord… He became like me, that I might receive Him.
I trembled not when I saw Him, for He was gracious to me.
Like my nature He became, that I might understand him; and like my form, that I might not turn away from Him.    Ode 7:3-6

It becomes clear that the writer was familiar with the biblical book of Psalms. It is nowhere exactly quoted, but in many places there are direct parallels. To give just one example, Psalm 84:10 reads: For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and in Ode 4:5 we find: For one hour of Your faith is more excellent than all the days and all the years.

What is also clear is that the writer, almost certainly a Jewish Christian in Syria, was very familiar with the writings of the Apostle John. If, as is generally agreed, the Odes date from the very end of the 1st century, it is well possible that the writer was a disciple of John. The link is noteworthy, because other (fragmentary) Jewish Christian texts, like the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes‘ and the ‘Gospel of the Ebionites‘ lean heavily towards the more obviously Jewish slant of Matthew’s gospel (follow this link for a scholarly overview of early Jewish Christian writings).

Some of the odes are meditative expansions of Johannine themes like light and dark. John 1:1-18 presents Jesus Christ as “the light of the world”: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [v.3-4]. Ode 15:2 says: He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; His light has dismissed all darkness from my face.

Christians worshiping, from the catacombs in Rome

Christians worshiping, from the catacombs in Rome

The general tenor of the Odes is similar to John’s gospel in its meditative, worshipful response to the truths of Jesus. See, for example, the writer’s treatment of the incarnation [Odes 7,19], death [Ode 28], resurrection and ascension [Ode 42].

A fine example is Ode 27, which is only three verses long and which clearly grew out of worshipful contemplation of the Cross:

I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
For the stretching out of my hands is His sign,
And my stretching upward is the upright cross. Hallelujah.

To read the Odes of Solomon for yourself, follow this link. The Odes have of recent times been set to music – for more details, visit The Odes Project.

‘In My Dead Moments’: George MacDonald’s Reflections on Life, Pain and God

Dead Moments

I have long valued the writings of Victorian clergyman and author George MacDonald (1824-1905). I’m not alone! C S Lewis openly acknowledged: I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. J R R Tolkien cited him as an influence. W H Auden valued him highly and wrote an Afterword to Macdonald’s fantasy novel ‘The Golden Key’.

MacDonald was friend and mentor to the young Lewis Carroll, who tried out sample chapters of Alice on MacDonald’s children. It was largely on the strength of their enthusiastic response that Carroll submitted his manuscript for publication, and the rest is history!

It is chiefly MacDonald’s fantasy novels and fairy tales that are still read today. As Lewis and Tolkien were to do after him, he found that by removing moral and spiritual truths from their usual context and relocating them in a different world altogether, they can be brought to life and shine with fresh revelation. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”  This essay by Robert Trexler explores further MacDonald’s use of myth. See also Catherine Barnett’s perceptive piece, ‘Tolkien, MacDonald and the Cauldron of Story’.

MacDonald and two of his children

MacDonald and two of his children

But it is a very different work that I want to flag up here. At an uncertain date, following the deaths of two of his adult children, MacDonald produced A Book of Strife, in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul. It is available for download in various places, like here and here. So personal is it that he published it privately for his circle of friends, printed only on right-hand pages, so that the reader could make comments or notes on the other. It was made public only after his death.

MacDonald muses and wrestles with God in imagined conversations, set in 7-line stanzas, one for each day of the year. Stripped of easy answers by deep pain, he reflects upon God, crises of faith, the human condition, sickness, suffering and loss.  The whole collection is intensely personal and rooted in the here and now, all myth laid aside.

Can anything go wrong with me?, I ask,

And the same moment, at a sudden pain,

Stand trembling. Up from the great river’s brim

Comes a cold breath; the farther bank is dim;

The heaven is black with clouds and coming rain;

High-soaring faith is grown a heavy task,

And all is wrong with weary heart and brain.  [September 12]

This stands in the tradition of Christian mystical verse, and it is clear that MacDonald was a poet (esteemed, indeed, by Tennyson, Longfellow and Walt Whitman). The mystics sought to raise the profile of intuitionexperience and desire in the process of faith. ‘Consolations’ and ‘desertions’ were their bread and butter. For MacDonald, trust and hope are never far away, however, and end up strengthened.

When I no more can stir my soul to move,

And life is but the ashes of a fire;

When I can but remember that my heart

Once used to live and love, long and aspire;

Oh be Thou then the first, the one Thou art.

Be Thou the calling, before all answering love,

And in me wake hope, fear and boundless desire.   [January 10]

 

 

 

Studies in the Apostolic: Aidan and Alopen, 7th Century

In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.


AIDAN: APOSTLE OF THE NORTH

Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.

One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.

He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.

Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.

But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.

Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.

 

ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST

In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.

The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.

The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.

Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.

Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.

An early inscribed slab from China mentioning Alopen

An early inscribed slab from China mentioning Alopen

From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.

The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.

Antony of Egypt: the Inner Pull of the Desert

Image: artmajeur.com

Image: artmajeur.com

Antony of Egypt was a true pioneer, whose influence is still felt today. What makes him so remarkable is that he did what he did long before it made sense to do such things, but by doing it he blazed a trail for posterity.

Evangelical Protestant historians explain the migration to the desert by thousands of monks, nuns and hermits as a reaction against the political “Christendom” created by Constantine I and his successors in the 4th century. Yet Antony had already made his statement a generation earlier, at a time when the Early Church was still supposed to be in its bloom.

Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus’ words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matthew 19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly priest.

Yet his heart grew restless. He didn’t belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.

So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; all else depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower – and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focusing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.

Remains of monastic settlements

His reputation spread and men came to the desert to be near him. Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were under his authority. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.

Antony was well aware of the prophetic power of his act of renunciation of ‘normality’. A time is coming when men will go mad, he is recorded as saying, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

A monastery built in the vicinity of Antony’s original community still exists and is a popular tourist destination. But Antony himself found celebrity unpalatable and withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be over 100. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and to counter a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men’s idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the founding ‘Desert Father’ (though Paul of Thebes was the first hermit); the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living ‘wineskin’ (Matthew 9:17) for the Holy Spirit’s life.

Irritability, an Underestimated Foe: Wisdom from John Cassian

 

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.

Humanity, Spirituality, Community: William Carey Advocated Them All

One of the households of the New Creation Christian Community, UK

One of the households of the New Creation Christian Community, UK

I note that I omitted to conclude my series of posts on the Serampore Covenant (or “Form of Agreement”) drawn up in 1805 by pioneer missionary William Carey. You can find the start of the series here.

The document ends with three shorter sections. Numbers 9 and 10 deal with the spiritual side of the mission. Here we are on known ground. The ‘Serampore Trio’ pledge devotion to the Bible and to religious education. We consider the publication of the Divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up until it is accomplished.

This meant translation (in time, Carey and his team would translate the gospels into forty Indian languages and dialects, in addition to Christian tracts) and publication, for which they had their own printing press, run by William Ward. Over and above this, the missionaries covenant to explain and distribute, and to excite attention and reverence for, the Word of God.

Free schools for Indian children were seen as a priority. The progress of divine light is gradual, so religious education for children was a vital tool. The missionaries should establish, visit, encourage and recommend these at every opportunity.

Section 10 is a commitment to fervent, believing prayer, both individual and corporate.

Carey’s Bengali Bible translation

The concluding section 11, however, is anything but traditional missionary fare! It is a passionate recommendation of common purse Christian community living (the Bible, Acts 2:42), and a withering blast against any lessening of covenant commitment or a turning back to selfish, independent ways. Let us give up ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own.

The Serampore team had embraced a shared purse around 1804,  so they are able to testify: No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we resolved to have all things in common. This book looks at the biblical and historical evidence for Christian community living; this one looks at its relevance for today.

Having renounced self-centred living for the sake of the gospel, and having reinforced this by a pledge of loyalty and accountability, Carey, Marshman and Ward warn severely against turn back from it. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards doing things on his own. The moment it is admitted that each brother may act independently, a worldly spirit, quarrels and every evil work will succeed.

It is this formal, solemn and very human pledge of covenant that makes the Serampore mission both different and compelling. High standards indeed, but they were crowned with success. If we are enabled to persevere [in these principles], we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His gospel into this country. And succeed they did, as these links eloquently show.

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