Tag Archives: monastic

Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.
From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

Wasting Time With God

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The Monks of St. Mary Magdalene at Mass

Could you live every day wasting time with God? In the majestic documentary Watchmen of the Night, viewers follow along the daily routine in the life at St. Mary Magdalene Monastery in Le Barroux, France. These holy men, following the Rule of St. Benedict, have their whole lives shaped by prayer, and everything that is not prayer and worship (either corporate or personal) is lived under obedience to the Abbot (a term derived from “Abba,” or Father, who is in charge of the monastery).

As one of the monks interviewed put it, “You make one choice: to become a monk. After that, you have no more choice.”

And yet, there is a profound freedom in the discipline and order of their days, and we see joy interspersed in and with their work and worship. For me, the most profound statement came near the end, in a voiceover during Compline (the last of eight offices of prayer celebrated each day). This addresses what many viewers no doubt wonder as they watch the Benedictine day unfold:

“People often say to us,
‘You serve no purpose. What do you do? Praising God for 5 or 6 hours a day. That’s pointless.’

That’s the highest compliment we can be paid.
It’s true, it serves no purpose.
We do not serve a purpose.
We serve someone.
We serve God.”

As Marva Dawn put it, worship is A Royal “Waste” of TIme. It serves no purpose, it has no utility in the conventional sense. The purpose of worship is union with and adoration of God.

Who needs a “purpose” when you can have that?

I recorded Watchmen of the Night on EWTN, but it is also available in its entirety on YouTube. I commend it to your viewing and would love your own feedback. What appeals to you about the monastic life? What would you ask these monks? Have Protestants lost something in largely rejecting the monastic vocation?

St. Diadochos of Photiki on Blogging

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Well, more or less.  In the Philokalia, St. Diadochos reflects thus on the danger of talking too much:

When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates itsremembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.  Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy.  Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. (“On Spiritual Knowledge,” in the Philokalia Volume 1, 276)

If indeed “ideas of value shun verbosity,” then is it possible to gain much through blogging?  I think the 5th century Bishop has a point.  Granted, it can be taken too far – scholarship of every kind is built on a kind of “verbosity.”  We wouldn’t have PHDs without forests of trees being destroyed to put ink on pages.

I suppose these matters are on my mind because I’m preaching tomorrow on humility, based on the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.  It strikes me that blogging doesn’t seem like a very humble activity – a way for those unsuccessful in traditional media to put their thoughts out there for the world to see.  Most social media is built on this desire.  Is there such a thing as “humble blogging”?  Is it possible, in the verbosity that is the blogosphere, to find ideas of value?

My own thought, at least today:  I’m not sure that anything I’ve written is worth the time, either in my writing of it or your reading of it, when compared to the Scriptures or to the writings of the Church Fathers or the greats like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Barth.  For that matter, I don’t know if I’ve read any blogs good enough to justify spending the time there versus any of the above.  What say you?

(And don’t be too verbose.)