Epilogue

In the foregoing sections I have stressed the diversity of approaches discernible within the patristic period. What has been said by no means exhausts the riches of the spirituality of those early years. Above all they saw the rise of the monastic movement, spearheaded in about 270 in the deserts of Egypt by Antony, and spreading from Egypt to Palestine, Asia Minor and further west to France, culminating in the life and Rule of Benedict in the middle of the sixth century. The whole movement in its divergent forms is a witness not only to the desire for God, which also inspired Origen and Augustine, but to the further conviction that this desire required a 'flight from the world' in order to be realized. Sometimes, as the case with Antony, the flight was solitary, sometimes—and this became the prevalent pattern— it was a flight indeed but not in solitude. Pachomius, who died in 346, founded several communities of immense size who sought God in a common life of prayer and manual labour. Basil of Caesarea's work as bishop and theologian is perhaps surpassed by his work as a writer of Rules for his own foundations on the shore of the Black Sea. So popular did the ideal of withdrawal become that writers could speak of the desert as a city.

It is hard to account for the genesis of this powerful movement. It is not easy to see why the monk found it hard to realize the call to perfection and the love of God within the city. Part of the reason must be that the search for God was felt to be increasingly difficult in the presence of the noise and distractions of normal life. Again, with the departure of the age of martyrs at the accession of the Emperor Constantine in 306 and his subsequent victory in 312 at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, it became, in the eyes of many, too easy to be a Christian. The challenge of the Gospel declined when a Christian did not have to endanger his life or property in professing the faith. In other words, monasticism was a response to the challenge of indifferentism. It appealed to the heroic in man and came to be seen as a sort of substitute for 'red martyrdom'. Finally, it was, as Peter Brown has suggested (1989), a way of rejecting the demands of society to be, in effect, a slave of it and to surrender all one's life and powers to its service. This was above all true of women, who were expected to produce children and often to see themselves as mere agents of reproduction in a predominantly male society.

Whatever the precise cause of the rise of monasticism, it shares certain important features with other forms of early spirituality. It and they all believed that the origin and shape of their call were determined in response to some direct prompting from God, mediated by the words of the New Testament. Antony of Egypt heard the words of Christ addressed to the rich young man, 'If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, give to the poor and come, follow me' (Matt. 19:21), and went and obeyed them. Basil, in his Rules, bases his idea of corporate life on passages at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which speak of the importance of the common life. Origen's spiritual conception of the Christian ideal is often linked to 1 Cor. 6:17, 'The one that is united to the Lord is one spirit with him', and Gregory of Nyssa's fondness for Philippians 3:13 has already been mentioned. In other words, whatever we may think about their differences of emphasis and ethos from biblical Christianity, they clearly supposed themselves to be acting under its inspiration and with its clear warrant.

In addition to this external and formal similarity, all the writers acted following a deep-seated desire for the vision and possession of God himself, as the one alone capable of satisfying a profound desire placed by God in the heart of each of us. In the first chapter of The Vision of God, Kenneth Kirk (1977) writes that 'the thought of the vision of God as the goal of human life...came rapidly to its own'. From Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century to Denis the Areopagite in the sixth, a desire for God amounting at times to passion is the spring of all their upward movement. For Ignatius in his Letter to the Romans, this expresses itself as a passionate desire to 'attain to God'; for Denis it is part of the upward yearning of the finite spirit to be one with the infinite. In both cases the desire is for satisfaction and completion by a God who is quite distinct from themselves. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa found in the Song of Songs a powerful vehicle for articulating the love of the creature for its Creator; and, as we have seen, it was the restlessness of the human heart ever spurred on by God's presence that forms the centre of Augustine's Confessions.

Nowadays we are accustomed to make a distinction between what we call theology and spirituality. For us, the theologian is primarily concerned with an abstract, cerebral knowledge about God. It need imply no change in life, no relationship to God forged in the crucible of prayer. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a personal affair, partly of the head, partly of the heart, which presupposes a moral life, perhaps even one which entails a good deal of self-discipline by fasting and lack of sleep. This distinction between theology and spirituality is not particularly new. It can be traced back to the fourteenth century, if not earlier. It was caused by a quite new approach to theology and probably owes a good deal to the spirit of Aristotle, under whose influence theology became more of a science. So wide did the split become between theology and spirituality that a fifteenth-century writer could say that 'mystical theology and scholasticism are no more related than the art of painting and shoe-making'. Nowadays, again, we do not necessarily expect to find that the theologian is particularly moral, or the spiritual man particularly intellectual.

This dichotomy would have been quite unintelligible to the Fathers. For them it was impossible to be a good theologian unless one were living a moral life. In other words, the purity of heart of which the Beatitudes speak was a necessary precondition for the vision and correct understanding of God. So Gregory of Nazianzus (329-89) insists in his Second Theological Oration that any attempt to understand God without purity of heart is doomed either to failure or to danger. A deeper understanding of God issues from a serious moral life and accurate thinking about the things of God. The close alliance between knowing about God and knowing God may help to explain the difference between patristic and modern approaches to spirituality. It may also help to explain why we find so little reference in the writings of the Fathers to devotion and the place of feeling in prayer. It was not because they had no word for it, or knew nothing about it, but because to know God was simply assumed to mean something much richer than simply a series of abstract truths. It meant the expansion of the heart in the presence of one who was infinitely attractive, and a life lived under the influence of such a conviction.

The distinction we make, and one the Fathers did not make, between knowing God (=spirituality) and knowing about God (=theology) corre— sponds by and large to a further distinction between their anthropology, or way of understanding human nature, and ours. For them the word 'heart' did not mean simply the organ we feel with as distinct from the mind, as that with which we think. Even the distinction we commonly assume between mind and will only began to take shape with Augustine. For us, on the other hand, the mind, will and feelings are quite distinct. This means that for us thinking about God and willing his will and feeling for him are quite distinct activities, and it would be quite possible to know about God and yet have no sense of relationship to him. It is hard to say precisely when or why this separation took place; but its presence in the post-Reformation Church is quite clear. To put it succinctly and perhaps crudely, it was possible thereafter for the academic theologian to be lacking in devotion and moral seriousness, for theology had become primarily, if not entirely, an affair of the head. Conversely, it was possible for people to be obedient and devout, with little or no understanding of theology. Such a compartmentalization of the self would have been unfamiliar to great saints like Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, for whom the movement of the self towards God meant one's involvement in that quest for the God who can satisfy head and heart and will.

The Marketers Success Affirmation

The Marketers Success Affirmation

Learning How To Be An Internet Idol And Using Affirmations Can Have Amazing Benefits For Your Life And Success! Utilizing affirmations and some tools is a way to restrict criticism of yourself and other people. Affirmations help you in training your brain to be more about final results and to a lesser extent about quibbling. How we talk to ourselves really does regulate the type of energy we vibrate and what that draws into our life experiences.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment