Some Standard Wisdom on Asceticism

We pick back up our quotes series from the 1880 Christian Standard with some thoughts on asceticism, which appeared to have the same negative connotation in nineteenth century American Protestantism that it has today.

Too much is said in these days against “asceticism,” but the danger of the Church does not lie in that direction. […] in cloaks are more in vogue than “hair shirts.” Daily food is a lawful indulgence. But fasting is sometimes profitable to both body and soul. Many luxuries of domestic life are lawful in themselves; to give them up in order to have more money for benevolent uses, or in order to discourage social extravagances, is a dictate of pure Christianity. John Wesley had a right to own silver plate, yet he nobly refused to possess more than two or three silver spoons “while so many poor people were lacking bread.” An excellent man in my congregation sold his carriage just as soon as he found that his horses were eating up his charity fund too fast. My friend is no ascetic. He is a very sensible and sun-shiny Christian. If the same spirit which actuated him were more common in the church, there would be fewer luxurious equipages, fewer wine bottles, fewer card tables, fewer sumptuous evening parties; but there would be more missionaries in the West, and more Bibles in China and Japan. Self-denial soars above them.

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Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

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Creation vs. Evolution vs. Catholicism

The Barna Group, commissioned by BioLogos, has just released an intriguing new study about sharp divides among “today’s pastors” about science, faith, and the origin of species. The study shows an almost even split between those who believe in Young Earth Creation and those who do not, with the do not group being divided between proponents of theistic evolution and progressive creationism. Young Earth Creationists have their stronghold in the South, while theistic evolution is most common in the Midwest. Most clergy think that questions of faith and science are important, but, at the same time, a majority fear that disagreements are distracting from the greater Christian witness.

There is little there to shock, unless you realize one glaring omission: Catholics. While the survey of Protestant ministers actually excludes both Orthodox and Catholic leaders, the Orthodox have only about one million members in the United States, making their omission excusable (at least from a statistician’s point of view). Catholics, on the other hand, are no minority to be trifled at. As the largest single Christian denomination in the United States–one in four Americans belongs to the Roman Catholic Church–their absence from a survey about the origins of life suggests an array of possible biases, all of them disturbing. It is likely that, in lockstep with history, that Catholics are still being treated as second class Christians or (perhaps implicitly) not real Christians at all. It would not be the first time the self-proclaimed Protestant establishment drew a sharp line between Christianity and papism–even if it can no longer express the dichotomy in those terms in our politically correct age. Equally possible, Catholics may have been excluded because their presumed answers would have tipped the scale away from a picture of conflict between conservative and progressive thought on origins. The Roman Catholic Church never engaged in the kind of systematic anti-evolution campaigns that so many Protestants did at the turn of the twentieth century in response to Darwin. In fact, for more than sixty years the official Catholics position has been that there is no conflict between evolution and Christianity, leading to a de facto triumph of theistic evolution among leading Catholic divines. Admitting Catholics into the dialogue would throw off both the slim majority of Young Earth Creationists and the geography of creationism (with the South and Southwest being an area of significant Catholic presence).

Or maybe the Barna Group just never thought to include Catholics. But would that really be better?

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Some Standard Wisdom for Managing Canals

In 1880, long before the canal would come to fruition but while it was certainly in the minds of many, the Christian Standard came out in favor of the Panama Canal. At the time, the French were preparing to build a canal, and in fact would make an expensive and deadly attempt at it in the following decade. The Christian Standard was very much opposed to this, for reasons that display the editors’ profound naivete and almost criminal patriotism.

It is nevertheless clear that the United States government, the only considerable government in the world, not committed to the war policy should guard this great highway of nations. Every such international work, however, is a great preserver of peace. The greater the interest of each nation in all other nations, the greater the interest of that nation in the preservation of peace. And there is no work in which all civilized nations would have a greater interest than in this canal. It is commerce that rules the world now, and it is commerce that always suffers in war. Therefore we may assume that a work in which the commerce of the world is directly concerned will diminish the possibilities of war. Let it be in the hands of a nation whose policy is peace, and no limit need be put on its influence on the affairs of men.

Funny. I always thought it was people, not commerce, that suffered in war.

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Some Standard Wisdom for Hiring Help

Continuing with the amusing theme of anti-Irish racism picked up in the Deseret News, this week’s tidbit from the Christian Standard has it all: racial, class, and religious chauvinism.

The people who need house servants find the Chinese more serviceable than any others they employ, and they have relieved them from the tyranny of the Irish girls. Mr. James Redpath says, “The real secret of this outcry against the Chinese is that the Catholic Church can no longer levy a tax on every Protestant family on $5 a month, which used to be added to the Irish girl’s wages; and the Irish girls openly avow it.”

The world has changed so much. Whereas once Americans advocated switching to Chinese domestic labor, now Americans are content to let the Chinese stay in their own country and do American labor (all the while, of course, complaining that no labor is domestic anymore).

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Good Ol’ Fashioned Racist Humor

Reports the Deseret News, December 26, 1855:

An Irishman, on arriving in America, took a fancy to the Yankee girls and wrote to his wife as follows: “Dear Norah–These few lines are to inform you that I died yesterday and I hope you are enjoying the same blessing. I recommend you to marry Jemmy O’Rourke, and take good care of the children. From your affectionate husband till death.”

Those Irishmen. Scamps, every last one of them.

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Rejoicing on Pasca

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

I love Easter. I love it more when the Christian community, East and West, by delightful coincidence happens to be celebrating it on the same day, but on years like this, when they don’t, I do my best to look at the silver lining: I get twice as many resurrected Christs. My intent had been to share another passage from John of Sinai today, but he has nothing very pleasant to say about Easter.

The gluttonous monk…counts the days to Easter, and for days in advance he gets the food ready. The slave of his belly ponders the menu with which to celebrate the feast. The servant of God, however, thinks of the graces that may enrich him.

Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment. The warrior monk enjoys the heat of battle, but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Easter. In his heart, the glutton dreams only of food and provisions whereas all who have the gift of mourning think only of judgment and of punishment.

Well, I’m not a warrior monk, and I left my mourning on Great and Holy Saturday where it belongs. I suppose there is a reason why John of Sinai is standard Lenten reading for the Orthodox and not standard Easter reading. Though I admit the possibility that this is duplicitous of me, and I’m sure John of Sinai would accuse me of just that, but I’d like to think that I can think both of the physical feast and of the spiritual feast afforded by the resurrection. In fact, I rather like to believe that the two are related. With sacramental flavor, the feasts of holy days are intended to make tangible to our bodies and minds–more accustomed and attuned to the immediacy of physical stimuli than spiritual ones–the great joy which we have received from God. Today being the remembrance of that consummate joy of Christian existence, I intend to make that as holistic an experience as possible, letting my body partake of the joy of my heart, and vice versa. I can only hope that God consecrates that effort rather, and I don’t run headlong into gluttony and dissipation.

On that note, happy Easter everyone (even those of you who thought Easter was more than a month ago).

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Mourning on Great and Holy Saturday

Today Jesus is in the tomb and the Orthodox Christians around the world are mourning the savior. But this mourning cannot help but anticipate it relief, as the Paschal feast is within sight and the Lord is eager to spring from the tomb, resurrected, triumphant, and regnant forever. It is because of this that John of Sinai can speak of sorrow the way that he does.

Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted…Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow…and do not cease laboring for it until it lefts you high above the things of the world to present you, a cleansed offering, to Christ.

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Contemplating Death on Great and Holy Friday

Today Christians in the Orthodox world are recalling the crucifixion of Christ, perhaps the most famous death in human history and, if our testimony is to be believed, the most important one as well. Christ death is itself a victory over death, which has a rightful claim on all humanity except the undefiled Christ. With his death, Jesus has sapped death of all its finality, taken from death its sting. It is a truth which warrants endless rejoicing, but just as the victory over death was not complete until the resurrection and our freedom over death not complete until the eschatological future, so today is not a day for the ruminating on victory but for contemplating death. John of Sinai believes that the remembrance of death is a necessary product of our sins, but he also insists that it is a spiritual virtue if rightly practiced.

As thought comes before speech, so the remembrance of death and sin comes before weeping and mourning…To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one’s departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour…Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community…Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it the bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity.

Someone has said that you cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.

Remembering that humanity must still die keeps our sins in the forefront of our mind standing in judgment of our behavior now so that they will not stand so before the Lord in the last days. Considering our own deaths also reminds us of the inadequacy of them when compared to the atoning death of Christ, for “the day is not long enough to allow you to repay in full its debts to the Lord.”

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Learning Humility on Great and Holy Thursday

After a couple excellent years of sharing the date of Easter (Pascha) and one year of reasonably close proximity, the holiest day in Christianity is once again being celebrated at completely different times by Catholics and Protestants, on the one hand, and the Orthodox, on the other. While for most Americans, Maundy Thursday is just a distant March memory (if it’s remember at all), but today is Great and Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Church, the day when, like their Western counterparts, the Orthodox remember the washing of the disciples feet and the last supper on the night when Jesus was betrayed. Both these events–the radical servanthood of Jesus and the betrayal of the Christ for material gain–ought to inspire in us an enduring sense of humility. Humility, unfortunately, has a bitter taste to Christians, being one of those virtues which we know we ought to have but we never really aspire for because its no fun and (unsurprisingly) garners us little praise. John of Sinai, standard reading for the Orthodox during the Lenten season, views humility differently.

As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. WE rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard all our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact as loathsome…We have risked so far a few words of a philosophical kind regarding the blossoming and the growth of this everblooming fruit. But those of you who are close to the Lord Himself must find out from Him what the perfect reward is of this holy virtue, since there is no way of measuring the sheer abundance of such blessed wealth, nor words nor could word convey its quality.

Humility, after all, is only the rejection of false blessings in favor of real blessings, divine blessing of eternal import. To eschew earthly praise is only to suggest that we prefer the praise of God our Father to that of the devil our enemy. It is this humility which Jesus embraced in kneeling before his disciples, and this humility which Judas rejected in turning Jesus over to be crucified.

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