Visitors to the Egyptian and Palestinian wilderness in the fourth century, would ask the elder monks for ‘a word.’ The words given them, flowed out of the prayer and spiritual lives of the Desert Fathers. These words were collected into anthologies of sayings and circulated, allowing wider (and later) audiences to receive their ‘pearls of wisdom’ (introduction, xiv). These ‘words’ were echoes of the Word and reflected the prayer life, communal wisdom and understanding of scripture that came to us through the desert.
Enzo Bianchi is the founder of the ecumenical monastic Bose Community in Italy (founded in 1965, just after Vatican II). He is prior of this community and has published books on the spiritual life which have been translated into several different languages (Goodreads lists 30 separate entries for him, mostly not English). In Echoes of the Word: A New King of Monk on the Meaning of Life, Bianchi draws inspiration from the collections of ‘words’ of the desert saints. This too is a collection of words on various aspects of the spiritual life. Bianchi writes:
In these pages, then, I have sought to let myself be guided by the biblical and patrisitic tradition that has preceded and formed me in responding to the requests of those who continue to ask me, with sincerity and passion for “a reason for my hope” (see 1 Pet. 3:15). In this nonlinear but always directed journey, the reader will at times find him- or herself returning to terrain already traveled, but each time a different perspective is revealed,the point of view changes, a different choice is made at the crossroads. (Introduction, xv).
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who writes the forward to this collection, says of Bianchi’s book, “I feel like I’m in the presence of someone who’s really alive. And it makes me want to go deeper–to tap into the same living water from which this abba drinks” (x). I had a similar experience reading through these ‘words’ Each of these 45 meditations consist of 3-5 pages, making this book appropriate for supplemental devotional reading. I will not do Bianchi the disservice of trying to summarize the full contents of his book here, but allow me to share several insights that emerged for me as I mulled over his words:
- Bianchi describes the experience of the desert as a place where God speaks (as to the Israelites or Elijah). But this is liminal space–a places between places. We are not meant to settle in the desert. Where my spiritual life has felt desolate, and I felt like ‘deserting,’ the challenge for me is to keep walking and trusting that God has a place for me. This is a poignant word for me right now, as I feel like I am at a stuck place.
- Several ‘words’ circle around the theme of vigilance, attention, listening, remembrance. The spiritual life is about listening. It is about watching and waiting. It is about cultivating attentiveness. When I think of seasons where I’ve been adrift–spiritually, relationally, emotionally–it is times where I have not paid attention to God, to others and myself. Bianchi’s words exhort me to cultivate awareness and to listen well.
- Prayer is of vital importance. This is basic Christian truth and Bianchi devotes a significant portion of this book to describing the inner dynamics of prayer. Bianchi emphasizes God’s alerity (otherness) as much as he does God’s closeness. Yes, God is omnipresent and available to us, but the posture of listening in prayer (and in life) means that we are cultivating responsiveness to something outside ourselves. This is different than mere mindfulness, or the popular pantheism in some of the new spiritualities. Prayer honors God’s otherness and so allows for the possibility of real and true relationship with the King of the universe.
- Our spiritial life has a direct real world impact on our relationships and communities. In his first word, Bianchi quotes Maximus the Confessor, “Our divinization takes place when the divine love comes to dwell within us, to the point where we forgive our enemies as Christ did on the cross. When is it you become God? When you are able like Christ on the cross, to say, ‘Father, forgive them,’ or even, ‘ Father, I give my life for them’” In later chapters, Bianchi describes loving enemies, humility, self-knowledge, solitude, community. Each of these are aspects of our communal life. Our spiritual life is meant to transform all of life.
- Our experience of the spiritual life is bounded by limitations in the here and now: illness, old age, death. This is part of what it means to be human. Communally we share in each other’s weakness. Theologically we have hope, even as we grown under our earthly tents.
This is a helpful collection of words. I find some ‘words’ more poignant than others, but do not doubt that if I inhabited a different spiritual season, other words would reveal their depths to me. This is a book to be read and savored and then re-read later. I plan to return to certain chapters later (i.e. I loved his summaries of the spiritual life, asceticism and Lectio Divina). Bianchi also does a great job of synthesizing patristic and monastic wisdom and applying it to today’s world. I warmly commend this book to anyone who seeks to deepen their spiritual growth. I give it five stars: ★★★★★
Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review.
Albert Haase, OFM’s Catching Fire, Becoming Flame begins with this inscription of this story from the Desert Fathers:
Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him,”Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoghts. What else can I do?”
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”–The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Like this Desert Saying, Haase’s new book is not primarily a book about rules or spiritual disciplines. This is a book about spiritual transformation. At a retreat that Haase led at a retirement home, an elderly nun told him a secret, “God l-o-n-g-s to turn you into a saint! If you respond to God’s yearning you will be amazed at what happens(3).” This is a book which helps us respond to God’s yearning and allow him to set our hearts ablaze.
The book consists of thirty-three short chapters divided into five sections. The first two sections layout a conceptual framework while the final three sections deal with practical concerns. In part one, “the Spark from God,” Haase introduces readers to the spiritual life and the process of transformation. He talks here about the nature of spiritual awakening, the stages of the spiritual life (purgation, illumination, and union) and how to deal with imperfections, sins and bad habits. He also talks about the necessity of CPR–Community, Prayer, and Repentance– if we are to grow and change in our relationship with God. In”Kindling,” Haase’s second section, he explores in depth various spiritual concepts. Haase exhorts his readers to be secure in the love of God, to be attentive to prayer, have an attitude of Gratitude, cultivate Spiritual senses to see where God is at work, be aware of our ‘false self’ and the way suffering functions in the Spiritual life.
Inthe third section, “Catching Fire” Haase presents various prayer methods: the examen, meditation and contemplation, lectio divina, Imaginative prayer (Ignatian meditation), wonder-ing with creation, praying the stations of the Cross, and praying the Lord’s prayer. Haase is able to draw together the insights of various writers on prayer and the Spiritual life and summarize their insights.
The fourth section, “Fanning the Flame,” describes Spiritual Discernment. As in the other sections, Haase articulates insights from a number of writers on the Spiritual life, but he uses his own story of listening to God’s call to missions in China as an example of how discernment works (Haase was a missionary to China for twelve years before being forced to leave). He talks here about the nature of discernment, decision making and the experience of dryness, darkness and depression even when you feel like you are answering God’s call on your life. Haase recommends ongoing Spiritual direction, appropriate self-care and creating a personal rule of life to help us counteract the confusion that comes as we try to walk in the ways of God.
In his final section, “Becoming All Flame,” Haase speaks about dynamic commitments necessary for living out the Spiritual life. Some of these are ongoing practices (i.e. the Examination of the Conscience, Sabbath Rest, Silence and Solitude, Pilgrimage, etc.). Other commitments are ongoing orientations (i.e. surrender and abandonment, forgiveness, Revealing everything to God).
Haase writes as a Franciscan preacher, retreat-leader and spiritual director. His writing inhabits Franciscan spirituality but he also draws on the insights of Benedictines and Jesuits and occasionally, Evangelical protestants. The insights and practices Haase commends are instructive for any who seek to deepen their faith and be transformed into the image of Christ. What I especially liked about this book was how down-to-earth it was.
While I certainly found things I disagree with in these pages (i.e. I’m suspicious of some aspects of centering prayer), I admire the depth and insights of Haase’s writing and happily recommend this book. I give it ★★★★★ and think that Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate this book. Why not become all flame?
Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.
[Note: Paraclete Press also has a DVD Curriculum available based on this book]
Historically Lent has been a time where Christians pay attention to where our appetites have led us astray. So I thought it made sense to start my reflections on the seven deadly sins by examining the sin of Gluttony (for information on my approach, track back to the last post). But another reason for starting here is more personal. I am a 7 on the Enneagram which means I enjoy life and all its various pleasures. When I am healthy, I am enthusiastic, imaginative and full of joy, but the sin I am susceptible to is gluttony. I am someone who left to my own devices avoids pain by self medicating. However I am not really alone. We live in a consumer culture which feeds our personal preferences, appetites and desires at every turn. When things are going well we enjoy the sensual pleasures of a well cooked meal paired with fine wine (or beer). When things are going badly we find our favorite comfort foods: ice cream, chocolate, Tapitio Doritos, homemade chili or spam musubi. We feed ourselves to cope with what can’t be changed and we indulge the guilty pleasures of too much far too often. This is personal issue for me but it is a broad cultural issue as well (statistics on obesity back this up). So while I may be tempted towards gluttony my whole culture conspires against me.
The reason that Gluttony is so prevalent in our culture is that we regard it as no big deal. The Christian tradition regarded Gluttony as one of the deadly sins. Today we regard some of the physical problems associated with over-eating deadly but do not really see Gluttony as a spiritual problem.
So how do you know you are a Glutton?
So I am a glutton, are you? How would you know? The assumption is that we all know gluttons when we see them because we’ve stood behind them at Taco Bell. Yet there is so much more to Gluttony than overeating. Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung says that in the Middle Ages Gluttony was described with this slogan, “Too daintly, too sumptuously, too greedily, too much. (Glittering Vices, 141). Overeating is Gluttony, But Gluttony is more than just overeating. It includes any sort of practice which involves letting your personal appetites run wild. Catering to your inner-foody or your delicate tastes is a form of Gluttony. As Deyoung observes, “It is possible to eat healthy and appropriate foods in a manner that betrays desire gone awry. The question is not whether we are fat or thin, polite or impolite, but whether we are eating to satisfy our own wants, in a way that elevates our own satisfaction above other goods (Glittering Vices, 145).”
DeYoung also observes that modern inventions such as chewing gum and Diet Coke are ways that we can give into our appetites and personal desires but minimize the physical impact of our choices. The result is that we eat and drink ‘guilt free’ but we are still eating and drinking for our own personal gratification (147). Sin isn’t just crouching at the door; Gluttony is squatting in the stall because we let it in and regard its presence as no big deal.
What to do about our Gluttony
In the Christian tradition one way to become aware of the ways we are enslaved to appetites and unhealthily feeding them is to fast. Fasting reveals to us the things that control us. This is why many of us give up coffee, chocolate or alcohol during Lent. These are all good things to be enjoyed in their place but fasting from them reveals the ways in which we have allowed our desire and dependence on each to rule us. So fasting during Lent is one way to set the reset button on our appetites so we can freely enjoy all these things properly without being mastered by them.
Kallistos Ware describes the value of a Lenten fast:
The Primary aim at fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence on God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food… involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we feel the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow confident in our own abilities, aquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency (quoted in Glittering Vices, 157).
The Virtue of Temperance
The goal of fasting is not simply to eat less but to be content in God. While I agree with Ware and DeYoung above about how fasting breaks the bonds of Gluttony in us, fasting is a step on the journey towards finding contentment in God. A severe fast would be an over-correction and would do little to reign in our appetites. The virtue of Temperance implies appropriate self restraint not heroic asceticism. John Cassian records some sound advice from one of the Desert fathers:
We must rapidly ensure that we do not slide into danger on account of the urge for bodily pleasure. We must not anticpate food before the time for it and we must not overdo it; on the other hand, when the due hour comes, we must have our food and our sleep, regardless of our reluctance. Each battle is raised by the devil. Yet too much restraint can be more harmful than a satisfied appetite. Where the latter is concerned, one may, as a result of saving compunction, move on to a measured austerity. But with the former this is impossible (John Cassian, Conferneces-Classics of Western Spirituality, 76).
So I recommend for you and for me that we overcome Gluttony through gentle discipline, curbing our appetites so that they do not master us. I personally didn’t give up anything food related this Lent, but in small ways I am looking for ways to guard against Gluttony and enjoy God’s good things without being controlled by them.