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Posts Tagged ‘monasticism’

I’d been meaning to watch Of Gods and Men for a while, and tonight I just finished it, along with some of the short, special features. It’s a based on a true story of Cistercian monks living in a monastery in Algeria, at peace with their Muslim neighbourhood. Some fundamentalists start causing a stir and a lot of the film is dedicated simply to how the monks decide whether they will stay in Algeria or go back to France. It’s beautiful. Below is the (famous?) testament of Christian de Chergé, recorded not long before he died. He was a reader of the Qu’ran and dedicated a lot of his life to understanding and living in peace with Muslims:

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

Christian, who wrote this testament

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!

Stolen from here.

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Depending on how seriously you take the story of Adam and Eve, singleness can legitimately be understood as a form of malnourishment. I appreciate the way we can use the Genesis story as a symbol for the human condition (it’s almost like there’s an invisible gradient in the bible that as you go further towards the end you can take it more literally, with a sudden dip at Revelation), but how far should this symbolism go? Are we to say that it’s just a wee parable for something like human depravity, free will (or quite the opposite), or our need for redemption? Or should we embrace the depth of its meaning so the words, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) be taken seriously?

One idea I haven’t yet managed to take seriously is that some people look at the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a euphemism for sex, which can be disregarded in light of the fact that the first commandment that appears in the Hebrew bible seems a little impossible without so doing, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). This positive affirmation of reproduction has often been overlooked.

Papaya, I learnt when in India, means sin (pap-) came (-aya) in some Indian language (Hindi? Marathi?) so it’s a wee joke that Eve tasted papaya.

If, however, we do take God’s observation of the lonely Adam seriously then the context in which he says it should have even greater bearing on our understanding of singleness. In the early chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve participate in their act of disobedience against God, resulting in the Fall, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Mainline Christian theology supposes that before the Fall mankind had everything; Eden is a metaphor for heaven, for perfection. When sin entered the world through disobedience then with that came suffering, death, etc. Since this time God has been restoring his creation through Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the Church, etc. I’m not at this point going to explore some of the problems with this theology, but I do want to examine what it says about singleness when we hold to it. It was in the Garden of Eden, the perfect world, before sin, suffering and death came that God observed something in his creation he could improve on. Adam’s loneliness was a need that had not yet been met, and for Eden to be perfect, there needed to be an Eve.

This is where singleness becomes a form of malnourishment. If health entails good eating habits, then, according to this reading of the Genesis story, it also entails relationship. It was before the Fall, before everything went wrong with the world that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Celibacy is a fast. Celibacy is a forgoing of something essential to healthy existence.

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A danger with the idea of celibacy is a confusion as to its function. Some adherents¹ of monastic orders wear wedding rings to symbolise the exclusivity of their being as wholly Jesus’. They enter into a marital relationship with their Saviour. I really don’t want to mock the sincerity with which they do this, even the positive function that it may have, but I just don’t think the practice is consistent with the idea of biblical celibacy.

The Carmelite monastery around the corner from where I used to live in Christchurch

The apostle Paul’s vision of celibacy is simple, but it gets confused amid his need to address a specific situation. He writes to the Corinthian church at a time when a few of them have problems controlling themselves sexually: “If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Corinthians 7:9 NIV)². The Corinthians had written to Paul in praise of celibacy (v.1), but Paul basically writes to them saying that singleness is not all bunnies and rainbows. Some of you really need to get married before you cause any more trouble.

Paul’s vision for celibacy is purely practical. He himself knows marriage is a good thing but he makes no use of it so that he can better serve the Lord³. He wishes that all those he is writing to could be celibate like him (v.7), and as he begins to conclude he gives some reasoning behind it: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided” (vv.32-34; cf. Jesus’ similar, but more ambiguous, words in Matthew 19:12). In a practical sense, God can use the single person more widely as they are less hindered by external commitments.

When God takes the place of significant other then, it distorts the practical function of celibacy. The celibate are those who can more fully express their relationship with God — they can love God — because they don’t have to give so much of themselves to another person. But really, Adam was alone when he had God in the Garden of Eden. We need each other. The part of yourself that loves God is not the same part of yourself that loves another. This is the sense in which celibacy is a fast: When you fast you go without something you cannot physically live without, which is food. We use our fasting as a way to say that God is all we need, although physically we would die if we went without it. Celibacy can be a way to say that God is all you need, but are you also going without something essential? The call to love God above all is not just for single Christians. The call to love God is a form of universal celibacy, celibacy for everyone, whereas those who are called to singleness are called there for practical reasons.

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“Come be the fire inside of me,
Come be the flame upon my heart.
Come be the fire inside of me
Until You and I are one.”

— Misty Edwards, Jesus Culture, You won’t relent

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The temptation in loneliness is to seek in God what we actually find in people. Note that this is a complete reversal of the warning of seeking in people what we should be seeking in God. I’m not sure if either have the power to fulfil the function we expect of them, unless we move beyond our present condition of humanity. Jesus Culture songs have had a profound effect on me. I have desired to have the same passion for God as I do for ‘worldly’ things such as reading, eating and good company. But my desire for God has been of an altogether different sort. Jesus Culture is made up of people who seem to actually love God (like I’m not mocking them; they probably really do) and they write songs that create the emotional environment for me to  experience feelings of loving God. Jesus Culture is attractive to me because it allows me to bring God into that place where he hasn’t occurred for me naturally.

To confront the state of your heart is, in reality, heartbreaking. I have desire for eternal life as some barely graspable, distant abstract possibility, but the idea that I could live in the Italian countryside, grow my own olives, and make red wine and become old is a lot more appealing. I have desire to know God as a wise life choice and existential experiment, but to woo, spend time with and bear my soul to some idealised form of human perfection is the fantasy that makes my heart beat. You can speak with God but you can hug a human. That these desires come more naturally and intensely to me than spiritual desires creates disillusionment: I signed up for Jesus and I still love the world. Jesus Culture allows me to experience desire for God.

Sigh…

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Contraception and the 20th Century have largely taken the place of celibacy in the West. The monasteries are slowly emptying (not that the monastery is the only place for the monastic). When I lived in Christchurch, the Carmelite monastery round the corner (pictured above, not directly though; that’s Italy) said they were being reduced to about one new sign-up every ten years. If you’re not procreating, then this isn’t a very sustainable alternative. But with reforms (?) in family planning and gender roles, the celibate are all married. You have the benefits of celibacy (practicality because you don’t have babies just yet and both you and your wife are equals), enhanced by the fact that you can have a partner to work together with, as well as the benefits of marriage (companionship, sex, etc — I really don’t know). Marriage is the new celibacy.

And if you think that celibacy is harder than marriage then you missed Jesus’ response to his diciples’ own marital insecurities:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”.

(Matthew 19:8-11 NIV).

It’s as if Jesus’ disciples are saying that all that stuff around adultery and divorce is just so much that I’d rather not risk it. And Jesus affirms them! In celibacy you’re accountable to God, who easily forgives and our experience of him is open to a lot of subjectivity. In marriage you’re accountable to the physical reality of another person in your life, someone weak and irritable like yourself, someone whom you can’t just say, “I bought us a new motorbike with our shared income because I know we’ll both get a lot of use out of it and God was leading me; it was on sale”. If you’re only accountable to God and not another person then you can easily say, “Whoops, that Xbox was a mistake, please forgive me; I’ll sort it out”. Marriage requires more of you. Marriage is the new celibacy.

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Before I conclude, maybe there’s something I’ve missed. Notice that throughout the bible the people of God are referred to as in marital relationship with God? One of my favourites is where God asks the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute as a symbol of his love for an unfaithful people. James echoes this sentiment when he refers to his readers as adulterers (James 4:4). Isaiah makes use of the marriage metaphor to speak hope to the post-exilic Jewish community (62:2-5), as does Paul to illustrate Christ’s love for the Church (eg. Ephesians 5:25-33), as Jesus also does when speaking on eschatological events (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13).

Maybe this is just a loosely balanced observation, but in these examples the marriage is between God and a people, rather than an individual. It is only as part of a community that we experience the marital love of God. God’s love for us in this sense is not love for you, but you all, us. If Jesus is my boyfriend then I don’t experience him as I would experience a boyfriend (girlfriend), because someone does not experience their boyfriend as part of a community. Human relationship holds a private sphere for human desire. If this aspect of human desire enters into the spiritual, it is not between God and I but God and us. The dating-the-deity is unnatural in the same way it is natural between humans because it is always in a communal sense that the marital metaphor is used with God. The words, “It is not good for man to be alone” take on a whole new level of meaning when community is necessity.

I now leave you with Jesus’ words to protect us from getting to attached to the idea of fulfilment in relationship: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

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¹A friend told about this and I have no proof of its veracity. Even so, the anecdote makes a good point I think!

²Interestingly enough, Paul maybe should have gotten married too, according to his rule (see 2Corinthians 11:29).

³”Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1Corinthians 9:5). In this passage Paul lists his rights as an apostle as an example of what he forgoes so that he can better serve the Lord.

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This is the concluding post in a series on the three monastic vows: Poverty, chastity and obedience. I suppose my goal, as much as I can have a goal in doing three short blogs, has been to call Christians to something higher. I think that at the same time as God shows us that our efforts are nothing and that grace is completely free (eg. Ephesians 2:8-9), He also calls us to perfection (Matthew 5:48). Bonhoeffer puts it like this when speaking of grace: “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life”.

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Earlier this year I was waitering at an Indian restaurant. I really enjoyed the nature of the work, considering I have this strange attraction to hospitality. However, I rarely got over twenty hours a week, which was alright, yet difficult at times to save money on. One good thing was that there was a plethora of opportunities to catch up with friends and do lots of recreational study. Mum knew I was looking for more hours and let me know that a local supermarket was looking for staff so I put in an application, not thinking much of it. I never got a reply. Until, like three weeks later I think, they called me up saying that they needed a trolley boy. Ha. I remember totally giving no attention to how polite I was on the phone because I was so self-conscious about being payed to push trolleys. I turned up to the interview and half-assed it a bit because I really didn’t care whether I got the job or not. Turns out that I got the job, which, strangely enough, was not really what I was hoping for…

There are a couple of details from stories in the Old Testament that can be a bit perplexing. I’m talking about the lingering effects of sin after forgiveness. Moses, whom God used to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt and establish the law, which includes the Ten Commandments, is an interesting illustration of this. The best bits probably make up most of the Book of Exodus. The story goes that the Israelites were a minority, a lesser-people in the land of Egypt without really their own national identity or a place called home. Through a series of miracles, God leads them out of Egypt, using Moses as a mediator, so that they may go into a land they can call home. They get that far: Getting out of the land. Yet, because of obedience and trust issues, the Israelites decide to go their own way, rejecting the Promised Land that God had prepared for them. Moses is one of their number (Actually, the texts are a little ambiguous as to why exactly Moses can’t enter the Promised Land. Compare Num 20:1-13; Deu 32:51-52, 1:34-37). The seriousness of Moses’ restricted entry to the Promised Land is illustrated when he asks God about it later on and gets a sterner reply: No, definitely not (Deu 3:23-26). What’s interesting about this story is that Moses maintains close relationship with God. Even though he has caused a stir and God has forgiven him, even though God continues to use him to lead Israel, it doesn’t change the situation he finds himself in: He will never enter the Promised Land.

I read a book with the most unappealing cover art ever. Sometime late last year I had nabbed a book from an old flatmate following the stories of two YWAM missionaries. It was one of those grow-your-own publishing jobs with that embarrassingly-Christian look about it. I think that’s why God wanted me to read it. And it’s cliche, but it turns out I couldn’t get enough of it. There was just so much adventure. The entire read more fully inspired me to be obedient to God’s calling in every part of my life. Later on in the story, one of the missionaries discussed with his wife two paths that God had laid before him. One was a path that would take some work, produce fruit and allow him to live pretty a good life with the family. The second path was one full of danger. There would be a lot of sacrifices, in a both a big sense and a daily sense. The calling and lifestyle would cost the family a lot (not monetarily, I mean). However, the fruit, the change for the good, would be amazing.

As I have been pushing trolleys, I’ve managed to move onto checkouts and now I’ve got shifts in the butchery. I’ve learnt a lot of new things — both practical things that relate literally to the job, and spiritual lessons through the experiences. I know there have been other things that I’ve previously put into the too-hard basket and ignored, missing opportunities, perhaps even permanently. Despite my disobedience, God has managed (No way!) to use me whatever situation I find myself. Hopefully, as we grow spiritually mature, we learn the importance of taking time to listen to the Spirit and not just listening, but responding.

‘As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”’ — Luke 11:27-28

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Image taken from http://biblescripture.net/Canaan.jpeg. Thank you!

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This is the second post in a three part introductory series on monastic vows. Probably one of the most distinguishing features of a monastic (monk/nun) to the modern eye is singleness/celibacy: What’s going on?

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Probably the best thing about living in Christchurch is Eastercamp. It’s a huge (relative to Christchurch) Christian youth camp that runs the duration of Easter and is filled with every kind of both aesthetic and spiritual goodness. I have this acute memory from the first camp I attended as a leader. In an attempt to maintain piety while away from home I was reading through Matthew. I came to the part where the Jesus and the disciples are talking about divorce: ‘The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it”‘ (19:10-12, NIV).

I remember feeling like poos after reading this. Having prized the prospect of marriage in life so highly, to think that I could be one that God called to accept celibacy was beyond what I could bear at the time. In a very good way, however, this experience helped me to give more of myself in realizing that there was still a lot of my life I was holding back from Him.

Fast forward a couple of years later: The question of celibacy is found to be still flailing tempestuously inside as I attempt to give myself completely over to God again. That question, “Do you require me to live a single life for you?” Maybe the answer goes something like this, “I require you to be willing”. Talking this over with one of the pastors at my church, I got the impression that I wasn’t going to know yet. In fact, there’s also the possibility of celibacy for a season, rather than a lifetime. It’s like in Star Wars Episode I when Qui Gon Jinn takes Anakin to the council of the Jedis so they can see if he’ll be a Jedi or not. There are pulls within Anakin’s spirit, leading him in two different directions and Yoda can’t make what will happen of it: “Clouded, this boy’s future is”.

* * *

At a recent youth group boy’s night (you know where this is going), we talked about the perils of unbridled sexual desire (because ‘unbridled’ goes so well with those words!). I don’t want to generalise, but it’s generally safe to say that when there’s a men’s event with a church group, pornography, lust and general sexual deviance is going to be a hot topic. Everyone tip-toes around it to start, but when some brave soul flings the poo at the fan, it’s everywhere.

A high point of this night though, was looking at the non-physical side of sex. You see, you don’t need to burn with lust while looking at a woman to objectify her. You don’t need to manipulate someone to fulfill your sexual desires to use them. Before I explain, there are two things I must say: Firstly, I don’t want to underplay the importance of discussing issues around lust by emphasising the ‘nicer’ side of sexuality. Secondly, I really hope you don’t get the impression that sexual desire and sex in itself are condemned by Christianity. Rather, they are things to be celebrated, but that’s a-whole-nother conversation.

Reflecting on this year so far, I’ve seen how awesome it’s been for my female friendships. I feel I’ve gotten to know more closely some of my friends ‘from the other side’ and been a lot more comfortable meeting and making new ones. One truly beautiful thing about being single is having the opportunity to hang out with a lot of girls. Wait. No, I’ve really enjoyed it, learnt a lot, and deepened some important friendships. But I’ve continually got to ask myself, “What needs am I seeking to be met through developing my female friendships?” And this isn’t a gender-biased question either because I’ve used a lot of male friends in the past to meet emotional needs. The point is that I’ve found it really easy to use girls to feel good about myself in the same way I could objectify someone sexually. Sounds intense? Sorry for ruining the fun. I’d love to hear some opinions.

But Camo, there must be an alternative? What I’ve been attempting to attempt to work harder at is considering other people’s needs in a friendship or hang out: What are they there for? How can we bring mutuality to the friendship? Even, how can we bring God to the center of this? Will any hurt arise out of this friendship if it continues or ceases for various reasons? At what point is transparency important to set boundaries, yet at what point does it limit a friendship going further? The alternative then, may very well be to take the focus off from myself and bring it onto God and others.

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Anakin from http://images.wikia.com/swfanon/images/4/46/LittleAnakinASWS.jpg

Pepe from http://www.blast-o-rama.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/pepe.jpg

Thank you!

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Hey friends, this is post #1. As I sometimes had some thoughts to share on Facebook, I thought a blog might be more appropriate. I’m hoping this will continue then!

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The title, which you may recognize, is the three vows monastics (think monks and nuns) take when they enter into the religious life. To some extent all of them have had an effect on my life. In sum — and by this I mean to do injustice to the definitions of the vows by defining them each in a couple of words — you take up to vows to say you’ll live on what you need or less, as a single man/woman, seeking to follow the direction of those above you (in your monastic order).

* * *

In a recent effort to curb the amount of possessions I own, I’ve met with idealism, failure, self-disillusionment, and success, sometimes in a very short space of time within that of each other. Firstly, if you want me to justify myself, I dreamt of the awesomeness of owning very little: You could move around so much. Imagine owning just a pillow, sleeping bag and mat, a couple or few sets of clothes, journal, pencil and a bible, possibly soap included? You could go pretty much anywhere, serving the church or for the sake of the gospel, whatever, and rely on God to feed you and look after you. Pretty keen to fight off wild beasts in Ephesus sometime too! One of the primary reasons for diminishing my stock is itinerancy: You are not bound to a place by the weight of that which you own. What else? Some of you will know how long you and I spend on Facebook. That’s all good, but I wonder how much more time we’d spend in prayer, study, preaching (?), social justice (?) if without a computer. Not that Facebook is evil, but its overavailability can be damaging sometimes, among other things. This question is probably better considered by practicing monastics, but here’s something I don’t think they had to deal with too much back in the day: Immaterial/semi-immaterial possessions. Facebook, bank account, email address, passport, etc. Practically, these ‘items’ don’t take up a lot of space so they might not limit one’s mobility as much as a bookshelf.

One thing I’m still mediating though, is the tension of settling in the land and being ready to move out at any moment. I’m sure many have felt the call to settle down as part of a community and contribute in some way long term. I’ve been slowly collecting important kitchenware to maximize future cooking opportunities, herbs and spices included. My arts and crafts collection is increasingly substantial. My library grows monthly in variety and depth. Some real men collect tools for their toolboxes too, etc. Ha. The difficulty is, at this time in life, making decisions regarding storing and saving or embracing bare essentials when you don’t know what the future holds. People have referred to the early church sharing everything they owned (cf. Acts 2.44-45) and then others have pointed out that it’s an ideal rather than a workable reality for modern times, or whatever. I like the former. What about even working towards it? What about rupturing the idea of individual ownership by freely allowing people to make good, unconditional use of your items? As Barnabas, a writer in the early church, said, “Give your neighbour a share of all you have and do not call anything your own. If you and he participate together in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?”

Another difficulty I have found in loosing the grip of that which I own is that I haven’t managed to be quite as consistent in working with fleeting possessions. In a moment of passion I can give away a trinket, sell a piece of furniture or consecrate and destroy a relic from my pre-Christian life. The effort required to regain the likes of these is withstandable. However, the effort required to pass by some expensive takeaways or a nice night out is a lot more unpredictable. Once a more permanent item has been rid of then that’s it. But the opportunities to splash out on expensive meals and social times are myriad and my dealing with them is often inconsistent. If I one day own less than twenty five items then I can only call myself a fake if my social and eating habits don’t match the humble non-extravagance of my non-perishables.

Where to now? The purpose of this is not so much to warn everyone in their sinfulness in hoarding possessions and expensive living (although, consider Luke 12:13-21), because the very danger of a monastic vow is that it is seen as a requirement for salvation. Rather, I hope you can see some of the ways that this could play out in your lifestyle, as well as some further questions, and some of the benefits for the Kingdom of God that come with that. Be blessed!

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Image from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/The_Great_Traveller_Charles_Alexandre_Lesueur_in_the_Forest_by_Karl_Bodmer_1832_-_1834.jpg

Thank you!

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