From Our Archives
For other essays on this week's texts, see Debie Thomas, Welcome the Prophet (2020); and Dan Clendenin, A Rabble of Blasphemous Conspirators (2011); and A Terrifying Text: Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah (2014).
For Sunday July 2, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Genesis 22:1–14 or Jeremiah 28:5–9
Psalm 13 or Psalm 89:1–4, 15–18
This Week's Essay
In the summer of 2002 I attended a conference of the Theological Students Fellowship of Europe. About sixty seminary students from sixteen countries gathered at a retreat center called Schloss Mittersill, a castle about two hours south of Munich that dates back to the 12th century.
I have many fond memories of that trip, like my eleven-year-old daughter traveling with me, how she slept till the afternoon because of the time change, and our day trip to Salzburg to see Mozart's Geburtsplatz. But what I most remember, like it was yesterday, is a single sentence from a talk by the British theologian and Anglican priest Gerald Bray.
I don't remember what his talk was about, I just remember Bray saying that the Christian life is difficult because (and here I quote verbatim) "there are so many things that we don't understand about ourselves." I've thought about that sentence for twenty years.
Bray's simple observation liberated me from a horribly unrealistic view of my self, and helped me to embrace the many complexities of (my own) human nature. He helped me to understand what the Trappist monk Thomas Merton called "the basic and most fundamental problem of the spiritual life," namely, "this acceptance of our hidden and dark self." Stated positively, Bray introduced me to a spirituality of imperfection.
Consider the New Testament commentary on the story of Abraham for this week — that he "went out not knowing where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8). His obedience was rooted in ignorance.
In this week's epistle to the Romans, Paul struggles with feeling like a "slave" to the powers of death and darkness, even though he's been "set free" from them. He says that we are "weak in our natural selves." He experiences in himself "every kind of covetous desire."
And then Paul's remarkable concession that echoes Bray: "I do not know what I am doing. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate to do. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do, this I keep doing." A few pages later, he says that we "groan inwardly" due to our many weaknesses, and that "we do not know how we ought to pray."
The holy grail of perfection, in both church and society — moral, spiritual, financial, physical, psychological, familial, vocational — is so seductive. But in the end it's the voice of the oppressor. Eventually, I discovered in the early desert monastics the liberating way of befriending my brokenness instead of denying, ignoring, or rationalizing it.
The early ascetics fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the lonely solitude of the remote desert. Sometimes they lived in communities, while others chose "open combat" as solitary hermits. They sought what John Cassian (360–430) called "integrity of heart" or "integral wholeness."
That's what they sought, but what they found was something far different. With remarkable candor, brutal realism, unqualified empathy, and even wry humor, the desert monks described how they experienced in the vast silence of the Egyptian desert a cacophony of voices in the geography of the human heart. They sought wholeness but discovered brokenness.
Their reports from the front lines of spiritual battle reveal a disarming transparency, "without any obfuscating embarrassment," as Cassian put it, and that never, ever "despises anyone in belittling fashion."
Here's a sampling of what I underlined in reading Cassian's two books Institutes and Conferences about their self-diagnosis — lethargy, sleeplessness, disturbing dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, seething emotions, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, self-deception, clerical ambition and the desire to dominate, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, and the dreaded "noonday demon" of acedia ("a wearied or anxious heart" that suggests close parallels to clinical depression).
In another echo of Bray's observation, Cassian further admits that "there are [also] many things that lie hidden in my conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to me."
He wondered why a monk who joyfully renounced great wealth later succumbed to intense possessiveness for a tiny pen knife, needle, book, or pen. He observed monks giving each other the "silent treatment." What provoked a brother's anger at a dull stylus? Or consider his description of a church service that included "spitting, coughing or clearing our throat or laughing or yawning or falling asleep."
Or why is it, Cassian's friend Germanus asked, "that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?" Where was the off-switch for a psyche in overdrive, for what my wife calls "whizzy brain?"
Despite their unrelenting realism about human nature, the desert mothers and fathers didn't live like helpless or hopeless victims. Far from it. They exuded confidence in God's unconditional love. They extended tenderness and patience toward one another and to their own selves. They avoided the faintest hint of judgementalism like the plague, they rejected every manifestation of extremist zeal, and chose not to compare themselves with others or even to be overly anxious about their own progress.
"We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2), and for many reasons. What we all need when we flounder and fail is not moral condescension or pious platitudes but human compassion, not humiliation but empathy, not shame but hope.
I've always loved the tender wisdom of St. Maximus the Confessor (seventh century): "The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone… He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress."
George Herbert (1593–1633)
BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortur’d in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.
My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scatter’d smart,
As wat’ring pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.
All my attendants are at strife,
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.
Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.
Then shall those powers, which work for grief,
Enter thy pay,
And day by day
Labour thy praise, and my relief;
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org