Uber-commenter LCB was kind enough to provide a guest post while I’m in the middle of a madly busy stretch — closing on houses, moving houses then moving a daughter to where she’ll be dancing — all in 8 days. We’re talking “hair on fire” busy. Mercifully, it has gone pretty smoothly, though it has cut into my blogging time severely (Google Reader = “844 new items” and number of new posts = 0.).
I’ll be phasing back in over the rest of August (still lots of home projects to do, and my boss does like me to make an appearance at work now and then). In the mean time, enjoy this excellent and challenging piece by LCB.
In a previous comment section a few of us chatted about liturgy, a fancy word that describe our collective worship of God. Almost all Christians are in agreement that liturgy is a core component of Christianity, though there is often debate about what that liturgy should consist of. There is no doubt that, from the earliest days of the Church, Christians gathered together to worship. St. Paul even provides us, at various points, with hymns that were likely used in early Christian group worship (no doubt followed shortly after by early Christian complaints about the music).
Today I’d like to look at what the early Christian monastics (such as The Early Desert Fathers, some of whose wisdom can be found here – http://www.amazon.com/Desert-Fathers-Sayings-Christian-Classics/dp/0140447318 – can teach all Christians of all stripes today in 2009. In this we’ll consider 3 things:
1) The vocation to prayer
2) Psalms– giving God back what he has given us
3) Rebuilding Christian culture and communities in an anti-Christian world
The early Christian monastics faced a surprisingly similar set of circumstances as we do today in America– Christianity had become so widespread that it was ‘too easy’ to be a Christian. Further, the cities which Christians often lived in had become increasingly corrupt and sinful. By the fall of Rome its debauchery was so well known that one story says, “The women, when they heard the barbarians had broken through the gates, asked excitedly “When do the rapes begin?””
Facing this set of circumstances, many decided to ‘flee’ the cities. Though St. Benedict would become the most famous of these, Anthony Of Egypt (or Anthony of the Desert) probably played a more crucial role in ‘popularizing’ what become monasticism. I think these early monastics serve as a fruitful topic of authentic ecumenical dialog (not the wishy-washy watering down of doctrine that sometimes occurs) because their circumstances were similar to ours today, and because most the early monastics had no connection to the always-controversial Catholic Priesthood. They had a very specific vocation: to pray.
1) The vocation to prayer should be at the core of evey individual Christian’s relationship with Christ. Though few are called to the radical life of prayer of these monastics, all of us are called to daily prayer and communication with God. Further, these Monastics demonstrate how seriously we should take that daily prayer and communication and provide an excellent way to examine our own prayer lives. Are we living the poverty level that God wants us to live at? Are we praying with the frequency that God wants us to pray at? Do we fast with any frequency, even in small ways? Are we dedicating some time each month/season/year to being really and deeply alone with God, perhaps through retreats?
And finally, do we seriously work at opening ourselves to God’s grace, especially to overcome our temptations?
2) The primary form of prayer for these monastics (and monks to this day) is the Psalms. The significance of the Psalms to the prayer life of a Christian is difficult to overstate. These are the prayers that God has giving to us, His people, for use in praying. These are the same prayers that Jesus prayed regularly throughout his life. These are the words that are on his Sacred Lips at the very moment of his death.
Praying the Psalms daily (usually from memory– when was the last time you memorized a Psalm?) forces a person to really engage in mature spiritual growth. A person will quickly reach the plateau where the prayers become ’empty words’, in that they aren’t filled with emotions and often seem point. And yet we return to them every day. Even when it’s hard we learn to remain consistant, to trust that the prayers God gave us are indeed pleasing to Him. Further, we will be forced to enter deeper into the mystery of these prayers, to understand their infinite depth and boundless wisdom in new ways. But this won’t be done alone.
3) When we pray these prayers, as the early monastics did, we should do so as a community. This can be as small as our family, or it can be some of our neighbors, or an even larger groups. But, when we pray as a community, we help support our brothers and sisters in Christ. We learn in a deeper way that we have an obligation towards each other, to help each other stay the narrow path and make it to heaven. And to help each other to pray.
Once I spent a few days at a monastary, and it was a wonderful experience. Until the 4 AM bells woke me up for early prayer. I just couldn’t get out of bed, I was so tired. But the bells were so loud, and the community expected me there, to join them in praying to the Lord Our God. When my own desire to pray wasn’t enough, the community was there to ‘keep me on track.’ This lesson I feel is especially important. That in the hard times we help our brothers and sisters to ‘stay on track’, and continue to pray. It is easy to stop praying in the hard times. But as anyone who has tried to follow the Lord knows, when prayer stops evil surely follows.
Further, aren’t these the kind of communities we want to live in? Communities with our Brothers and Sisters in Christ? Communities where people are helping each other prayer and journey towards the Kingdom? Communities where prayer and worship of God become a central value?
In an anti-Christian world, where Christianity has become so ‘easy’ and the cities are filled with morality, many of us can not flee the cities. But we can flee the immorality and begin building new Christian communities and a new Christian Culture. The monastic dedication to prayer preserved Christian culture during the utter collapse of civilization in Europe. By embracing the lessons of those early monastics, and embracing their foundational dedication to prayer, I am convinced that we can rebuild Christian Culture new again.
And I believe that is best done by praying the Psalms as a community.