Tag Archives: Asceticism

Discipleship in the Empire

There are times when the questions of someone else linger like the sweet taste of honey. These are the kinds of questions that you savor, and long for the answer but know deep down that the answer will never be quite as satisfying as the question itself.

My sister in faith Dana Cassell asked me one such question over lunch. “How do we live faithfully in the midst of Empire?” As soon as the point of the question mark lifted her intonation, I knew it was that kind of query. And it was one I knew that any thoughts would pale in comparison to the penetrating insight the question itself revealed. It was the question of first Christians as the Apostles spread throughout Rome. It was the question Hippolytus tried to articulate in his list of jobs a new Christian must renounce before baptism. And it was the question that drove the likes of Augustine and Chyrsostom to preach against attending the “spectacles” in the colosseums and theaters of the day. And though each one offered a short answer, it is in the question itself that we find the heart of our discipleship. So long as we can finally dig beneath the answers themselves to articulate the question itself. And like so many other times, Dana put words to the sweetness of the quest.

So I only attempt an answer with fear and trembling, and hopefully not gnashing of teeth.

In his book “The Way of the Heart” Henri Nouwen presented a captivating description of the desert in the spiritual life. In the desert, the monks sought a solitude that would transform them. This furnace, Nouwen said, refined them by melting off the bits of illusion that ran deep in their souls. Though we might think of the ascetic project as relative late comer into the history of the church, Nouwen pointed to Jesus’s journey in the desert. With forty days alone in the wilderness, Jesus confronted the temptations we all face, temptations that are precisely what Empire wants us to pursue.

Here is Nouwen’s account of the temptations:
“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give all these kingdoms’). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter— the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” 25-26

The stories of Jesus’ temptation were foundational for the growth of early Christian asceticism. By withdrawing to the desert wilderness, Jesus prefigured the necessary withdraw from the confines of Constantinian Rome, from the Empire. The wilderness, it was said, was the place where the demons could be confronted face to face. It was their domain, just as Satan confronted Jesus while he fasted and prayed.

As Christianity grew in social privilege and became increasingly intertwined with the Empire, throngs of people fled to the desert. There were those who sought to follow the example of Jesus, and those who came just to see how these spiritual athletes fared in the wilderness. Those spiritual athletes embodied a detachment that seemed admirable to many, all except those who found new power and influence in the relationship between church and empire.

However, the mythology of the desert hermits reveal that the retreat into the wilderness solitude was no easy feat. There are paintings and icons that depict the first monk Antony wrestling with demons who pulled his hair and beard, his body often in postures reminiscent of the cross. As Nouwen says, it was like a furnace that sped up transformation.

There in the desert, alone without the distractions of “normal” life, the monks confronted the illusions the Empire sought so hard to maintain. The same is true for us, though we clearly don’t see the struggle with solitude as a battle with demons. When we finally pull away from the drone of images and stories from our culture, we are left to hear the inner monolog— all the stories we have internalized both about ourselves and the world around us. Those tapes in our head are there all the time, it is just that in solitude there is nothing to distract us.

I remember my first day of solitude retreat. Honestly I kind of fumbled around. I took a nap for a couple of hours, and I walked around the grounds of the retreat house. But that only took up like two and half hours. There was a whole day yet. So I sifted through the book case, stared at the crack in the wall, and only fueled what I could only describe as boredom. There was nothing to do… no email to answer, no tv shows to catch up on, no commercials to make fun of, and no one to talk too. I honestly spent most of my time that day trying to avoid any kind of self-reflection. I simply did not want to do the work of solitude.

We are culturally shaped to avoid that kind of work. Marketers and TV execs do their best to keep us distracted. In fact, they work to make sure that we think and behave in ways that support the political economy of the society. That means keeping people from asking the tough questions. And they try to make sure we have a common understanding of what is good and right. Our flourishing, they tell us is tied to a thriving economy of goods and services, and the power and prestige of the state.

Even when they hold up the lives of significant men and women, they do so in ways that make them seem almost super human— they were powerful, relevant, and spectacular. They were able to meet the needs of the time, with insightful action, and do it in ways that captured the attention of everyone around them. And the spin doctors do their best to hold them up as icons of our time while trying to not make them too inspiring so that people don’t get the hair brained idea that too much needs to change around us. In order to be important people, we need to seek power and influence, and most of all be charismatic.

As Matthew tells us in the scriptures, this is nothing new. Even Jesus confronted that image of the charismatic and powerful leader. Or, in more theological terms, he too was tempted by the false stories about power, prestige, and relevance. As Thomas Merton has said, these were the stories of the false self— that self-understanding that is fueled by the needs and desires of the Empire. However, in facing these temptations head on, Jesus also reveals to us a way to hear the story, not from the perspective of the Empire, but from the wisdom of God. At each point, he rebuffed the false temptations with the words of scripture. He was not, then, alone in his solitude, left to face the temptations without another story.

The desert monk Evagrius of Pontus wrote an entire collection of sayings that followed the model of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan. In a small tract aptly titled “Talking Back” Evagrius offered the monks battling the stories of the Empire in solitude a list of scriptures that could be recited to rebuff their own temptations. Like Jesus, if they found themselves battling the temptations of particular demons, the monks could recite the promises and truths of scripture. As he says in the open of the book, “In the time of struggle , when the demons make war against us and hurl their arrows at us, let us answer them from the Holy Scriptures, lest the unclean thoughts persist in us, enslave the soul through the sin of actual deeds, and so defile it and plunge it into the death brought by sin.” (49)

This kind of instrumental approach to scripture, using small verses apart from their context, flies in the face of all the interpretive values we have learned in Sunday School. What is more, the idea that we combat demons contradicts our modern understanding of the world. So it is no wonder that many readers of Evagrius psychologize his system. By recalling the scriptures to mind in the moments of angst in solitude, the monk re-ordered his mind. The words of the Bible countered those tapes in their head that celebrate power, vice, and prestige. In the moment of distraction and temptation, the holy scriptures were a kind of detox from the false images of the self the empire banked on.

In solitude, accompanied by the scriptures themselves, we find a new way through the loop holes of Empire. How do we live in Empire, as disciples of Jesus? We follow his example. We make time for retreats into solitude, and confront our false selves with the words of scripture. This isn’t an easy answer to the beautifully sweet question Dana asked a few weeks ago. It isn’t even a complete answer. However, in our work around the denomination, it is one that pulls us from temptations to be powerful, relevant, and spectacular. For in rejecting these temptations with the holy words of scripture, we too might be attended to by the angels.

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Failure is Always an Option

I love Mythbusters. Of course the big explosions, ridiculous set ups, and humor go a long way, but it is more how they deal with failure that stands out to me. Adam Savage has a line he almost always repeats that plays on the famous words of NASA’s Gene Krantz— “Failure is always and option.” Or, in more scientific language, an experiment always produces a result. It may not be the result we expect, but it is a result nonetheless. 

That is how science works. Propose a hypothesis, test it, and learn from the results. Then, adjust the hypothesis and try again.

However, with so many technological advances in our culture in the last century, it is really hard to appreciate the role of failure in our everyday life. Nearly everything we use in a day is designed to work. It wouldn’t be in our hands or on our desks if it had not been tested for months and years. In fact, many of our common tools such as phones and computers are now designed to take away any friction in their use. Graphic interfaces make it so that we do not have to deal with the layers and layers of computer code that make the device work. All the possibilities of failure have been worked out, and the mechanics are covered over so that we can use the tool with as little effort as possible.

However, it is when something like a computer or phone does not work that we come face to face with failure. The object in front of us does not bend to our wishes or will, and thus we have to fix it. In trying to fix it, or in scientific language adjust our hypothesis and understanding, we are the ones who have to bend to the object in front of us. As Matthew Crawford notes in his book “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” fixing things takes humility and honesty. 

This is why Crawford argues that moral formation and work go hand in hand. For the mechanic, the computer technician, or even the doctor the object of their work is not of their own making. They haven’t constructed the car, computer, or body and thus must submit to the ways the thing actually works. No matter how ideal the picture of the object is in their head, they are confronted with the reality. So they must test, explore, and learn from their mistakes. Getting the car, computer, or body working is not so much a matter of the ideal portrait in their heads, as it is dealing with what actually exists and making it work better. 

Confronted by an object like this, something that does not follow my best of intentions, forces me to confront my own stuff. If I am sitting on the ground next to my motorcycle trying to figure out the latest hiccup, I am not only facing the breakdown of the machine, I am confronted by my own pride and frustration. I have to cultivate a new patience and new humility in the very process of trying to fix it. And at times, I have to give up and seek out others so that I don’t end up doing more damage to the thing in front of me. In classical terms, I work on my virtues (humility, patience, and honesty) in the very process of working on something else.

In our day of instant response, frictionless computing, and professional standards, we have lost sight of the necessity of failure. If someone misspeaks, spin specialists swoop in so that humility and honesty are set aside in favor of a spotless image. Or, even worse, we project the blame on others and on systems that fail to meet our expectations. The ego, then, trumps everything as we all seek to save face and skirt the humiliation of failure.

Unfortunately for our culture, failure is always an option. In fact, failure is necessary. For the early desert monks, failure was an opportunity to cultivate the virtues. Though they mythologized the desert or wilderness as the home of the demons, it was in fact the place where they were stripped of all the conveniences of city life and were thus brought face to face with nature as a thing beyond their control. Just like the mechanic faced with the engine that just won’t work, the monk was confronted with an environment that had no regard for his own health, well-being, or intentions. His pride and arrogance, fueled by such things as social class or even the ease with which he could find water in the city, had to be shattered in the wilderness. In essence, he was stripped bare of the conveniences that shielded him from failure so that he could see the state of his own soul. 

At some point, we must confront our own arrogance and pride. Though the late Roman city seems downright hostile compared to the conveniences of modern life and the glitches of our computers (#firstworldproblems), we do confront the world and our tools as something beyond the full reach of our will and intention. It is why the modern idea that ethics and knowledge (the formation of our character and the accumulation of knowledge) are never separate projects. Instead, in the midst of inevitable failure we come to know ourselves and cultivate the virtues of humility, honesty, and patience. For a world that often turns virtues into vices, this welcoming of failure is downright counter-cultural.

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