The Next Faithful Step

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Spiritual Practices

History

There is a joke that goes something like this. A Jesuit, a Benedictine, a Franciscan, and a Dominican are praying together at Vespers when suddenly the lights go out. The Dominican immediately begins preaching a homily on light as a signification of the transmission of divine knowledge. The Franciscan composes a song in praise of God’s gift of darkness. The Benedictine continues praying from memory without missing a beat. The Jesuit goes down to the basement and fixes the fuse.

Of course, explaining a joke kills it. Let it be enough to say that it is intended to highlight and poke fun at the emphases and practices of various Catholic religious orders. It also doesn’t need to be said that it is a Jesuit joke. The Jesuit is the clear hero as he is the only one who actually gets something done. But it also highlights the variety of spiritual practices and approaches even in just a small cross section of the Christian tradition.

There have been extreme spiritual practices. This is probably the most appropriate light in which to view early Christian martyrdom. The martyrs of the first three centuries of the Church did not see their fate as an unfortunate consequence of faithfulness. The larger Church did not view it this way either. Instead, martyrdom was held up as an honor, a gift, even a goal. The second century Church Father Ignatius, while being led off to Rome for martyrdom, wrote to the Christians in that city asking them not to interfere in his coming fate, worrying that they might use their influence to cause his life to be spared. Similarly in the second century, the great theologian Origen was only prevented from following him father to martyrdom because his poor mother hid his clothes and he was unable to leave the house.

The successors to the martyrs were the desert monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. As Christianity moved from a persecuted sect to the preferred, and eventually official, religion of the Empire in the early fourth century, the deserts of Egypt and Syria began to fill with Christians fleeing the cities. These were not fleeing to spare their lives, but running toward a new kind of martyrdom. If the government was no longer going to kill them, they would have to seek other ways of giving their bodies to God. Among the most famous of the more extreme Syrian monks is Simeon Stylites. His spiritual practice consisted of sitting atop a sixty-foot pole with about a three-foot diameter for his adult life. He had no room to lay down and is said to have never descended, having food hoisted up to him and sending unmentionables back down in a basket.

Extreme spiritual practices have been common. We could additionally discuss St. Francis and the mendicants who took vows of extreme poverty as a manifestation of their spirituality. But the Church has also been quick to say that spirituality is not solely for heroes. The late fifth/early sixth century Benedict of Nursia (remember the Benedictines from the joke) is considered the father of Western monasticism. But the monastic spirituality Benedict spelled out was one of moderation. Over and against the extreme spiritual practices of many previous ascetics, Benedict wanted his monks to perform manual labor (they should be of some practical use in the world), and were given a pound of bread a day, fruits and vegetables when available, and two cooked dishes at meals. They were even allowed a half bottle of wine a day (unless it was very hot and they needed a bit more). Benedict writes, “We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess.” It may sound a bit silly to think of this as generous, but compared to Simeon on his pillar, this is quite a different understanding of the practice of spirituality. It is not meant for the elite and heroic. Instead, spiritual practice should be accessible and, while rigorous, should take into account the reality of human weakness.

And further along these lines we have the ancient practice of the Jesus Prayer that continues most popularly in Eastern Christian traditions today. This simple prayer, which (perhaps ironically, considering its extreme accessibility rather than just extremity) is said to have come from the desert monks, takes the form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is understood to be the sum of the gospel. In it we find the fall and redemption, the Trinity (you have to look hard, but it is there), and the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. One does not need to be, nor expected to be, a monk for this spiritual practice. But it has been and continues to be used by the faithful to attain the seemingly unattainable goal of praying without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17). The goal is not to continually pray the words—how would anything else get done? Instead, determined repetition of the prayer is the means of becoming so used to the prayer that it becomes second nature to the Christian and a continual inward and active presence in his or her daily life without ceasing.

Prayer without ceasing. It seems like a monkish goal if there ever was one. But, historically, something so “extreme” as continual prayer has found its way into common, regular-folk Christian spiritual practice. And so we have an interesting sort of circle in the history of Christian spirituality. There is a strong desire for rigor and discipline that combines with a drive for a more general accessibility of spiritual practice. And the result is not a lazy or watered down spirituality (could prayer without ceasing ever be considered lazy or watery?). The result is a deep, meaningful, and pervasive spirituality not reserved for spiritual superheroes, but open to all who would join the ranks of these more common “extremists.”