Monday, 25 January 2010

Evangelical Catholic Manifesto

Regarding myself, as I do, as a Catholic Evangelical (as opposed to a Protestant Evangelical), I found the manifesto here refreshing, rousing and, overall, excellent. And so I share it, repent of the ever-present temptation and inclination to simply coast along in my faith life and resolve to live up to such expressions of active fidelity to Christ more fully.

The Principles of Evangelical Catholicism

1. The Lord Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind, and no human person can fully understand his life or find his dignity and destiny apart from a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. It is not enough to know who Jesus is; we must know Jesus.

2. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is divine revelation, not human wisdom, and the Gospel is given to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition which together constitute a single divine deposit of faith transmitted authentically and authoritatively by the Bishops in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. We must surrender our private judgments in all matters of faith and morals to the sacred teaching authority of the Church’s Magisterium if we are to receive the whole Gospel.

3. The seven Sacraments of the New Covenant are divinely instituted instruments of grace given to the Church as the ordinary means of sanctification for believers. Receiving the Sacraments regularly and worthily is essential to the life of grace, and for this reason, faithful attendance at Sunday Mass every week (serious illness and necessary work aside) and regular Confession of sins are absolutely required for a life of authentic discipleship.

4. Through Word and Sacrament we are drawn by grace into a transforming union with the Lord Jesus, and having been justified by faith we are called to sanctification and equipped by the Holy Spirit for the good works of the new creation. We must, therefore, learn to live as faithful disciples and to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, which is the Good News of the Father’s mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

5. The sacred liturgy, through which the seven Sacraments are celebrated and the Hours of praise are prayed, makes present to us the saving mysteries of the Lord Jesus. The liturgy must therefore be celebrated in such a way that the truth of the Gospel, the beauty of sacred music, the dignity of ritual form, the solemnity of divine worship, and the fellowship of the baptized assembled to pray are kept together in organic unity.

6. Receiving the Sacraments without receiving the Gospel leads to superstition rather than living faith, and the Church must therefore take great care to ensure that those who receive the Sacraments also receive the Gospel in its integrity and entirety. Consequently, before Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Marriage are administered, there must be in those who request these Sacraments clear evidence of knowledge of the Gospel and a serious intention to live the Christian life.

7. Being a follower of Christ requires moving from being a Church member by convention to a Christian disciple by conviction. This transformation demands that we consciously accept the Gospel as the measure of our entire lives, rather than attempting to measure the Gospel by our experience. Personal knowledge of and devotion to Sacred Scripture is necessary for this transformation to occur through the obedience of faith, and there is no substitute for personal knowledge of the Bible. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

8. All the baptized are sent in the Great Commission to be witnesses of Christ to others and must be equipped by the Church to teach the Gospel in word and deed. An essential dimension of true discipleship is the willingness to invite others to follow the Lord Jesus and the readiness to explain His Gospel.

Decidedly Dodgy Syllabic Verse

Here is me trying my hand at syllabic verse. Not very good, I fear. The first is alternating seven- and five-syllable lines. The second appears chaotic but is actually chiasmic.


I love the smell of the earth
Before the rain. It's
Invigorating, vivid,
Tells you you're alive;
The whole world seems emboldened,
Like Dorothy, the first time
She stepped into Oz.


When I take
A show'r, it's a surreal
Naked with hot water falling-
It will take time
Adjust to the real world
After that.

Hmmm....perhaps I should stick with accentual verse.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Aggressive Inarticulate-ness

This is well done. Some elements are perhaps less applicable to Australians than others- the 'ya know's and 'like's are more characteristic of American speech (Australians prefer using other words as filler- 'actually' is a favourite) but the rising tone at the end of sentences which are not questions is very Australian (in fact I think that quirk began here). I recently read an article in a British newspaper bemoaning the fact that it was catching on among British youth, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Australian television shows in Britain.

On an entirely separate note, I've since had a look at some of this fellow's other material (turns out he's a professional poet!- I had thought that animal long extinct) and his manner and delivery remind me strangely of Mark Driscoll.

H/T to Hermeneutic of Continuity via Creative Minority Report vi Fr Z (it's been doing the rounds).

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Wicked- A Comparative Analysis

Last night I went to see Wicked at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney and, having read the book by Gregory Macguire on which it is based a couple of years ago, and this being the second time I have seen the musical, and having the whole thing fresh in my mind, I thought I might share some thoughts.

Wicked is a post-modern riff on characters and themes from the Wizard of Oz. Its major conceit is reversal- The Wicked Witch of the West is put forward as the hero, whereas the heroes of the original are portrayed as petty, duplicitous, compromised or of small import. Unlike some, I have no particular beef with post-modernism per se, (though I do with some of its fruits) and am perfectly happy to take such conceits at face value and see what is done with them. Indeed, this technique of reversal is suprisingly easy to do- a friend of mine a while ago thought of taking a similar tack with The Lion King and turning Scar into the hero (which could work- the outcast uncle, next in line to the throne, with plenty of ability and political experience for the position and a grand dream of uniting in a kingdom of mutual toleration and peace the two races of lions and hyenas who have been separated for generations by unfounded mutual prejudice, is pushed aside in a coup by the late king's long-lost son who has no political experience whatsoever, is as full of hate for the hapless and marginalised hyenas as anyone else and has come back from years of sowing wild oats in a far-off country to claim the throne for his own self-interested purposes).

Though having this same conceit of reversal, the book and the musical are quite different, so I shall treat of each in turn. The musical first. Underneath the Broadway glam, it is more than anything a meditation on the nature of public perception, both in present political life and in the view of the past by the present, i.e. history. Indeed, the Wizard sings an entire song on this latter theme. "Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist," he declares. This theme is embodied in the reversal that is the core of the story. The Wicked Witch, Elphaba, is portrayed as a noble figure who, as the story progresses, goes on to conduct a crusade for the rights of talking animals, who the Wizard's government is trying to suppress. Consequently, the Wizard launches a smear campaign against her, levelling at her every weapon of propaganda and using all possible means to destroy her credibility and, ultimately, dispose of her. Dorothy, portrayed largely off-stage, is only the final and (so it at first appears) most successful of these means.

Contrary to John C. Wright, I do not see the story as an attack upon innocence. I too have fond memories of watching the Wizard of Oz as a child (as my family has for three generations- my grandfather skipped school to see it back in 1939!) and was, like most children, terrified by the flying monkeys and exultant when the Witch met her doom. I don't think retellings like Wicked necessarily mar or undermine that experience. In any case, Wicked is not a simple case of calling good evil and evil good. Elphaba in the musical never really embraces evil at all. The closest she comes is near the end of the Second Act when, in a bout of disillusionment and frustration at how inneffective her efforts have been and how all her deeds have failed to produce the good she had intended, she sings "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" and declares, "No good deed will I attempt to do again." But even after this, none of her actions are particularly evil. She turns her love interest Fiyero into the Scarecrow so that attempts to torture or kill him will prove futile, briefly imprisons Dorothy in an effort to reclaim her sister's shoes (to which, she indignantly claims, Dorothy has no right) and then stages her own death amd goes into self-imposed exile. In the middle of all this, she and Glinda share a reconciliation. Not much evil here at all. If one wants to look for a glamourising of evil, one would be better served by seeing films like Seven Pounds or Jumper.

I think, if Wicked is an attack on anything, it is not innocence but the media that it sets its sights on. It would also be fair to say that it strongly encourages revisionist history. This may or may not be a bad thing. While the mention of revisionist history probably makes most people think of Holocaust denial (which, by rights, is not worthy of any description that includes the word 'history'), it is worth remembering that it can also encompass such things as Eamon Duffy's paradigm-shifting study on the English Reformation, 'The Stripping of the Altars'. For that matter, the Church is no stranger to media hype, as we would call it now, which is why there is a Devil's Advocate in every investigation of the causes of saints. So the encouragement of revisionist history inherent in the musical is, I would say, a strictly neutral thing.

On the other hand, it might be argued that Wicked encourages moral relativism. Dorothy does what is right in her eyes in The Wizard of Oz, but here we see that even the Wicked Witch was only motivated by good intentions. So goodness just depends on your perspective. This may or may not be the view of Stephen Schwartz (or Gregory Maguire for that matter), but if so, they write better than they think. Elphaba's inherent nobility is not relativised at any point. She is painted as a true victim, contra mundum, who, in an almost Shakespearean touch, seeks to do what is right but finds everything she does goes awry.

One point where the charge of moral relativism might achieve some traction is in the character of Glinda. Glinda is depicted as the popular girl at school, and never outgrows her deep hunger for popularity. This leads her to side with the Wizard's regime, in spite of her (on-again, off-again) friendship with Elphaba and the fact that she secretly sympathises with her. But her ambition and love of fame always win out over her better nature. In spite of this, she is a largely sympathetic character to the audience, never really being depicted as a villain, though she is more often than not in their company and is actually capable of great nastiness. This is a servicable argument. But it falls short, in spite of the fact that the musical is arguably the story of the relationship of these two women primarily, because Glinda is always seen as having taken an inferior path to that of Elphaba. Where Elphaba (somewhat ironically) has a clear moral compass and is willing to sacrifice her ambition on the altar of her principles, Glinda compromises and gets caught up in the moral ambiguities of the political process and of public perception. Where Elphaba, like the good man in Plato's Republic, is largely content to be good but be thought wicked, Glinda is determined to be thought good though she compromise her own goodness in the process. And the audience is clearly meant to regard the former position as morally superior to the latter.

_ _ _ _ _

To the book, then. Gregory Maguire's book is a very different animal to the musical. Much more complex. Much more mature. Indeed, in many ways, I enjoyed the book more. The conceit of reversal is still the same, but different things are done with it, and the plots are very dissimilar. Whereas the Elphaba of the musical remains in many ways adolescent- moved by romantic interest, motivated to a very large extent by the political idealism and activism so characteristic of youth- the Elphaba of the book, though passing through those stages, is a more mature and adult character. By the end of it, she is 38, and certain of her later actions and thoughts would not seem out of place in someone undergoing a mid-life crisis. As in the musical, Elphaba at first opposes the governmental policies of the Wizard and fights against them, taking up the cause of the talking animals and becoming an agent in some kind of anti-Wizard organisation. She also finds love with the character of Fiyero (a very different person in the book from the same character in the musical), though in this case Fiyero has had an arranged marriage and so their affair is in fact adulterous. But the plot takes a turn the musical doesn't when Fiyero follows Elphaba on one of her political missions, unbeknownst to her, and gets himself captured and killed in the process. Transfixed by grief, Elphaba leaves her life of political activism and takes refuge in what is, to all intents and purposes, a monastery. There, she stays for a few years, giving birth in the process to a son. Eventually, with a quintessentially post-modern sense of displacement, alienation and longing for she-knows-not-what, Elphaba sets out with her son to find Fiyero's wife and seek her forgiveness. She takes up with a travelling band who are headed in that direction and, while with them, begins to take on the classical characteristics of a witch, i.e. the persona of a solitary and aloof woman who doesn't much like company but can commune with beasts. When she finally reaches her destination, Fiyero's wife, Sarima, takes her and her son in, but refuses to discuss Fiyero at all, thus witholding the forgiveness Elphaba seeks and preventing her from obtaining any kind of closure on her past misdeeds. In spite of this, Elphaba continues to live with Sarima and her children and they become a kind of quasi-family unit, with Elphaba being a sort of eccentric and reclusive aunt-figure. Later, Elphaba goes to visit her sister and father in Munchkinland and, upon her return, finds that Sarima and the family have been taken prisoner by the Wizard's army in her absence. Desiring to get them back but unsure how to do so, she takes up residence in the family castle on her own. Shortly after, word reaches her of her sister's death and she goes back East for the funeral, where she meets the Wizard for the second time. Back in Fiyero's castle, Dorothy turns up, but she and her companions misinterpret Elphaba's welcome and slay the animals she sends to bring them to the castle (first dogs, then crows, then bees- here following Baum's novel and not the 1939 movie). When the flying monkeys succeed in escorting them, Elphaba, wracked with grief at the pointless deaths of her familiars at the hands of this girl, and having been informed that Dorothy has arrived to kill her on the Wizard's orders, is not sure how to approach her. She knows there is something other-worldy about the girl; indeed, Dororthy seems almost like an angel of death, bringing destruction in her wake, but Dorothy tells her that, though the Wizard told her to kill her, she herself had other ideas and wants to ask forgiveness for killing her sister. To Elphaba, this seems like the cruellest stroke of all; for she wanted the same thing from Sarima, who took her in and showed her every kindness, refusing her nothing save forgiveness, and how can she give to Dorothy the forgiveness she never received from Sarima? In her dismay, she accidentally lights herself on fire, and Dorothy, crying "I will save you!" tosses water on her and thus inadvertently kills her.

Inherent in the book are some of the same themes of public perception that characterise the musical, but there is more than that, and the themes are more complex. The book is far more concerned with the nature of evil, as opposed to the perception of evil. Elphaba slides closer to evil here also, though again, by the end, she is still a far cry from the unremitting villainy of Baum's Wicked Witch. Late in the book, in a scene that rather evokes Charlotte Corday, Elphaba seeks out Madame Morrible, her old headmistress who she knows to be responsible for the murder of an Animal professor and who, Elphaba suspects, has been manipulating events behind the scenes far more than anybody realises. She intends to kill her, regarding it as a quasi-act of tyrranicide. Her leaving behind of the moral high ground is symbolised and highlighted by the fact that, on gaining admittance to see Madame Morrible, she lies for the first time in her life. But when she finds Madame Morrible, she discovers, to her great frustration and ire, that the woman died of natural causes not five minutes before she arrived. Seeing this, Elphaba bashes in her skull with a trophy and then, determined to gain the credit for the 'murder', repairs to the house of the local Margreave (whom she knew at school) to confess the deed. Thereupon, the Margreave invites her to supper and, in a surreal scene, Elphaba and the guests argue about the nature of evil while the Margreave's wife deplores the fact that they are treating so abstractly the murder of an old woman in her bed, and becomes progressively more upset. Amidst lots of metaphysical talk, Elphaba gets in the last word:

"The real thing about evil,' said the Witch at the doorway, 'isn't any of what you said. You figure out one side of it- the human side, say- and the eternal side goes into shadow. Or vice versa. It's like the old saw: What does a dragon in its shell look like? Well, no one can ever tell, for as soon as you break the shell to see, the dragon is no longer in its shell. The real disaster of this inquiry is that it is the nature of evil to be secret.'"

The remark stands in marked contrast to her exaggerated efforts to have a crime she wanted to commit but didn't pinned on her. The secret is precisely that she did not perpetrate the evil that she wanted to, and that she is trying to attach to herself an evil which she didn't do. In this episode, Elphaba is not depicted nearly so nobly as in the musical, but there is ambiguity, even in her own self-understanding. Similarly to Charlotte Corday, she believes that the death of Madame Morrible will remove a great evil from the world and is remorseless about the deed itself, but her great desire to be known as a murderer after the fact even though she isn't is bizarre and seems to be fed on the one hand by guilt over her sister's death and her own largely ineffectual life and on the other by a feeling that might be expressed as, "If everybody thinks I'm wicked, it may as well be for something I've actually done (or at least intended to do)". When there is nothing in the paper about the 'murder' the next day, she is disappointed. The whole incident is more psychologically complex than it is morally complex. And, in spite of my suspicion upon reading that this would be the watershed moment when Elphaba turned to the dark side, she doesn't follow it up with any other misdeeds (although she does get somewhat narky with Dorothy later on, this is largely from fear and confusion, and she never actually raises her hand against her).

Wicked the novel oozes the standard modern preoccupations. Alienation and guilt figure prominently; a sense of aimlessness and loss, of desperation to know the meaning of one's life (a very different thing from the meaning of life in a general sense) are all clearly present and wrestled with in various ways throughout. In this, Elphaba is a typically modern literary heroine, buffeted by the vagaries, mysteries and misfortunes of life, trying to make sense of it all. Many things are left unexplained and none of the themes are given a solid answer. The novel ends with two cases of redemption denied, that of Sarima towards Elphaba and that of Elphaba towards Dorothy. It is not implied that either case was impossible, but both were left undone until it was too late; the former being rendered impossible by Sarima's capture and the latter by Elphaba's death. An enjoyable novel, not because there is any joy in it, but because in many ways it captures the modern malaise, the melancholia of existence, the weariness of life after the fires of adolescent enthusiasm have died and one finds oneself saddled with a particular past, particular regrets and a host of unanswered questions, some personal and some metaphysical.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Cleverly Done Halloween Theme

This is very clever, and appeals strongly to my poetic instincts.

Serious Answers to Serious Questions About Christian Unity

Here is a fascinating interview with Ioannis Zizioulas, the Bishop of Pergamum (a church to whose angel, it may be recalled, one of the letters in Revelation was addressed) on the possibilities and difficulties on the ground regarding reunion between the Western and Eastern churches. In particular, he talks about papal primacy.

There is some pretty heady theology here, but it has very practical implications. I particularly like this:

Primacy is not a legalistic notion implying the investment of a certain individual with power, but a form of diakonia. It implies also that this ministry reaches the entire community through the communion of the local Churches manifested through the bishops that constitute the council or synod. It is for this reason that the primate himself should be the head of a local Church, that is, a bishop. As head of a local Church and not as an individual, this will serve the unity of the Church as a koinonia of full Churches and not as a “collage” of incomplete parts of a universal Church. Primacy in this way will not undermine the integrity of any local Church.

If only all Popes had approached the exercise of their office with that in mind.

I'm not entirely convinced that biblical exegesis is such a dead-end as the Metropolitan claims (although presumably he knows the ecclesiastical terrain better). It was, after all, on such grounds that Pope Damasus defended, not simply the primacy of Rome (which actually wasn't under discussion at the time- Constantinople wanted to be counted as second most primal patriarchate) but the position of Alexandria and Antioch as holding second and third place after Rome respectively, based on Scripture and the biblical primacy of Peter, and on the subsequent association of those two cities' bishoprics with Peter (Antioch having been Peter's initial see before he moved to Rome, and because Alexandria's first patriarch was Mark, Peter's disciple). Thus Damasus answered precisely the argument of the first group of Orthodox theologians the Metropolitan mentions - that the primacy is a result of ecclesiastical politics and not of the essence of the Church as Christ instituted it. And that was in the fourth century. Surely the same argument could be offered now?

Anyway, there is great food for thought here, and reason for hope. The Metropolitan even speaks of putting off reunion for another thousand years as though it were something at once unthinkable and unlikely. What with this and the overtures the Pope has made to the Anglicans, the next couple of centuries could be very interesting indeed (a pity I won't be around to see the whole show)! May we continue to pray that our divisions may be healed and the vision of John 17 become a reality.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

St Antony in His Cave, or The Puzzle of Monasticism

Today, being Jan. 17, would ordinarily be the feast of St Antony. But this year today is Sunday, so it isn't. Still, why should that stop me venerating him and meditating on his life? Accordingly, I offer two related excerpts from the account I sent several family and friends of my own visit to St Antony's cave last October.

"Confronted by the life of Antony, my Protestant hackles go up. What kind of a response to Christ is it to flee into the desert and keep oneself away from all human contact? How does that fulfill the Great Commission? Expressions and images leap to mind- visions of fat friars, "so heavenly minded he's no earthly good" and such sayings. This instinct is strong, and has something in it. There are legitimate fears at work here- the fear that one will, through asceticism, believe one can work one's way to heaven; the fear that the obligation of evangelism will be neglected. Stereotypes of monastic and eremitical hypocrisy inevitably crowd in also.
To this there are two responses, which naturally overlap and interweave with each other.

The first is a story, one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. There are many such stories and sayings, collected by monks in the very early days of monasticism here in Egypt, and I have made the collection of them my spiritual reading this trip, dipping into them and meditating upon them whenever I have a moment. One such story tells of three brothers, who all decided to dedicate their lives totally to Christ. The first brother decided to be a peacemaker, following Our Lord's words in Matthew 5:9 and also in mind of James 3:18. The second chose to minister to those who were ill. The third decided to go into the desert and live in quiet and solitude. After some time had passed, the first brother became frustrated, because he could not settle everyone's disputes. He went to find the second brother to see how he had fared, and discovered he was similarly frustrated, drained and emotionally exhausted from his ministering. So they both went out into the desert to find the third brother. Upon finding him, the two poured out their hearts to him with all their difficulties and asked him how he had fared. The third brother was silent for a while, and then poured some water in a bowl. "Look at the water," he said, and they did, but they couldn't see anything in it. He waited a couple of minutes and then said, "Look at the water now". They did, and could see their faces reflected in it because the water had settled and become still. The third brother said to them, "This is why you are failing in spirit. You are working in a crowd and because of the turbulence, you cannot see your own sins and faults. But if you are still, you will see your sins." Only if we see our sins, what keeps us from God, can we allow grace to work on us in those areas. As long as we cannot see those things, they will not be healed and they will sabotage whatever kind of good work we endeavour to do.

How many evangelists, taking seriously the command to preach to all men, preach to others but neglect to preach to themselves? "All men" must include myself. Far better to preach to oneself alone than to preach to others and have one's unconscious sins and faults undermine the message. Only by preaching first to myself will I prevent myself from preventing God saving those I meet.

But, it will be protested, such a way of life, if undertaken seriously and rigorously, would prevent any real evangelism from taking place. If the serious Christians go out into the desert or off into the woods alone to live by working and praying in solitude and quiet, what will happen to those who have never heard the Gospel? Where will the missionaries come from?

That brings us to the second response to such questions. It is a simple recognition of an undeniable historical fact, and it is this. Almost all the peoples of Western Europe (and many in the East as well) were converted by monks.

This is simply a fact. The conversion of the Franks was set on foot when St Remigius preached to and baptised King Clovis. He was a Benedictine monk. St Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo) began and made great progress towards the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in England. His entire missionary team was composed of monks. St Boniface preached in the north of Germany and his mission had great success. He was also a Benedictine monk, hailing from a monastery near Winchester. In the East, Sts Cyril and Methodius began the conversion of the Slavic people, and Cyril's name is still attached to the alphabet he created to translate the Scripture into the Slavic language- it is called Cyrillic, and those are the letters you see on all those Russian signs. They were also monks. Nor should it be forgotten that it was principally because of the efforts of Benedictine monks, such as Dunstan, Aethelwold, and my good friend Aelfric, that the Faith was renewed in England after the wars with the Danes.

How is this to be explained? How does one reconcile the nature of the monastic lifestyle with such successful missionary efforts? How can something that begins with a man following Christ by running out into the desert to live away from people end with masses of people accepting Christ and whole cultures being drenched in the Gospel (in most of these countries, the people and the culture are only now, more than a millenium later, beginning to lose their faith- I'd call that some successful evangelism!)?

I don't have any easy answers to those questions. Indeed, it is something I am still digesting and mulling over. Part of the answer lies, I think, with the story above. So eager to get out there and win the world for Christ, we have not taken the time to let grace get its claws into us. Thus we sabotage ourselves. There is another story about a man who declared that he was completely sanctified and, taking Matthew 5:48 as his text, said that in Christ he had been made perfect. One of the monks went to visit him and asked him if he had really said this. He replied that he had. So the monk asked him, "Suppose you came in here and found a woman on your mat. Could you speak to her as though she was not a woman?" The man said, "No, but I would resist any temptation and refrain from touching her." The monk said, "Then you are not perfect. You have imprisoned lust but it is still in you. But suppose you were walking along and saw some stones on one side of the road and a jar of gold on the other. Could you think they were the same value?" The man said, "No, but I would resist any temptation and leave the gold where it was." The monk said, "Then you are not perfect. You have imprisoned greed but it is still in you. But suppose one man loved you and spoke well of you and another man hated you and slandered you, and suppose they both came to visit you one day, would they both be equally welcome to you?" The man replied, "No, but I would force myself to treat them the same." The monk said, "Then you are not perfect. You have imprisoned vanity, but it still lives in you. Your passions have been conquered but they have not been redeemed."

Another part of the answer, illustrated to some extent by the above story, lies in this. One of the things that strikes one about the monks is their total realism. Not for them lofty and abstract theological concepts. Grace, redemption and the work of Christ are found in the nitty-gritty. Sin is not a concept, an idea. It is a lived reality to be recognised and fought against intelligently, and sometimes one wins and sometimes one loses. Solitude and quiet are the prerequisites of self-knowledge, so you can know how sin gets at you specifically, and thus where grace is needed. The monastic lifestyle forces one to be honest. And only when we are honest about ourselves can we stand before God and let Him have His way with us. As long as we hide from ourselves, even subconsciously, we will also, like Adam, hide from God.

Another story tells of how a man tried to make a donation to a hermit. The hermit refused, saying, "I have enough for my needs from the work that I do." The man insisted, saying, "Then you could give the money to the poor," but the hermit refused even more vehemently, saying, "Then I should sin doubly. I would have accepted what I do not need, and then be vain from doing a good deed." That kind of moral realism, sprung from self-knowledge, is highly to be prized. To recognise that externals are ephemeral, and that whatever leads my soul to God, no matter what it is, should be sought, and whatever leads my soul away from God, no matter what it is, should be shunned.

I do not think these are the whole answer to this paradox, but they are clues.

What then, in a related set of questions, are we to make of Protestantism's traditional ambivalence towards monasticism? Of course, part of that no doubt owes something to Martin Luther's own experience of it as a bed of legalism and a hindrance to his relationship with Christ. That experience, being part of the foundational narrative of Protestantism, has, I suspect, been formative. There is also the general stereotype of monks (particularly during the Reformation period) being hypocrites, engaging in sinful and lewd lifestyles while putting forth a veneer of piety and devotion, entering the monastery because they were lazy and didn't want to work (the Desert Fathers would, one imagines, have stern words for such men), etc. It is undoubtable that these stereotypes, though open to the charge that many exceptions existed, had some foundation in reality during that period. One has only to read a little of the troubles Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross had in reforming the Carmelites in the same period to realise that monasticism was not in particularly good shape in the sixteenth century. And again, as that era was Protestantism's formative period, its birth and childhood, the contours of the culture of the time have characterised it to some extent ever since.

But I suspect it goes deeper even than that. The sixteenth century has been and gone. From an historical perspective it ought to be clear, especially in Evangelicalism whose origins are later than Protestantism more broadly defined, that monasticism as a way of life has a particular dynamic to it and that the abuses and dodginess widespread in the sixteenth century and afterwards are not of its essence. So why, apart from a few Anglican efforts which are clearly lifted pretty directly from Catholicism (the Anglican Franciscans leap to mind), has Protestantism not given rise to any monastic movements of its own? Is there a particular reason why it should, alone of all forms of Christianity, excise from itself a lifestyle that has proved vigorous, dynamic and gospel-centred in every other branch of Christians?

This is something I have wondered about for some time, primarily as simply an historical curiosity. I don't think I have a definite answer but I have some suspicions which may be more or less on the mark. I submit them for what they are worth.

It seems to me that Protestantism, particularly Evangelicalism, has a very specific understanding and practice of prayer. Prayer is there to get things done. All forms of prayer are subordinate to, and converge towards, petitionary prayer. One can see this in the kind of language used. The standard kind of opening, "Lord, we just want to praise You and thank You..." or "Lord, we are so blessed to be able to come into Your presence..." naturally leads to sentences beginning with verbs like 'help', 'use', 'allow', etc. All very active. Lord, do stuff! I should add, in case there is any doubt, that this is a perfectly legitimate kind of prayer and I am not criticising it, much less condemning it. But what I find interesting is that for Protestantism generally, and Evangelicalism in particular, this is the whole of prayer. And this naturally leads to an inherent suspicion of all kinds of prayer that do not have as their stated objective the intention of getting something done.

I think this idea of prayer is the basis for much that is good in Protestant culture. The gung-ho, pro-active "Let's win some souls for Christ!", "Let's church the unchurched!", "Let's reach out to the lost!", "Let's let our good works shine before men so that they praise our Father in heaven!", "Let's make Sydney 10% Christian by 2015!" attitude is laudable and challenging to those of other Christian cultures who are unused to such in-your-face Christianity.

But for those raised in such an atmosphere, monasticism constitutes a blindspot. "You can't cut yourself off from everybody. That's not biblical." "Following Christ means bearing witness to the good news in your home, in your workplace, not leaving everything behind and doing nothing on your own." For all of these objections, my suspicion is that the fundamental problem is that monasticism doesn't seem active enough. I recall a seminar offered once in the Sydney Uni Evangelical Union. The advertisement ran thus: "GET THEE TO A NUNNERY! Or, for a serious discussion of Christian femininity, come to the Women's Forum on Thursday at 1pm." The implication was that doing manual work, praying, and singing Psalms every day in an enclosed community was no way to be a Christian woman.Why not? At the risk of completely misreading the intentions of whoever came up with the advertisement, I would hazard a guess that it was because such a lifestyle appeared ineffective. It didn't affect anything. With no evangelistic or other outlet for outreach of some sort, the nunnery looks rather like hiding your light under a bushel. The scandal of that approach is that, with the Great Commission firmly embedded in her mind and heart, a person who takes up such a lifestyle seems to be opting out. Shirking her God-given responsibilities as a Christian.

There may, of course, be more to it than I have suggested, but I think that this dedication to what is outwardly and explicitly active and effective, this results-driven spirituality, is at least a large part of Protestantism's historic distrust of the monastic way of life. There may be more to it than that, and I may not be completely on the mark with that hypothesis. But its something to think about anyway.

To ingrained objections like these, the only thing to say is what I pointed out before- those two responses from earlier. Firstly, grace cannot work on sins of which we are unconscious and, unless we have the experience of being quiet and alone, engaging in contemplative as well as active prayer (i.e. prayer that does not seek to get things done but simply to know God), we will not see our sins nor will they be cured and they will sabotage all our efforts. Secondly, the counter-intuitive but undeniable fact that monks have been more successful and more effective missionaries and evangelists than anyone else to date."
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"To our right, leading up and behind one of the large formations of rock that characterised the mountain, we saw a set of steps. This, we assumed, must be the way to Antony's cave. So we left Ahmet with the car and began to climb. Having reached the top of these steps, we realised that an error of judgement had been made. We had assumed that the cave must be just beyond this rise. Having reached the top of it, however, and therefore being able to see farther than before, we perceived that in fact the steps led halfway up the great massif, and that we had a long way to go. Moreover, we had not brought any water with us.

With an ever-so-slight devil-may-care attitude, Tanta Suzie, Jeanne and I decided to continue up anyway. We wanted to see Antony's cave. Well, we would see Antony's cave! So the climb began.

There were actually huge numbers of people going up and down the mountain. Interestingly, every one of them was Egyptian and almost all of them were young. Coptic Christianity is clearly doing pretty well these days. To either side of the steps as we climbed were little plaques stuck into the ground, each featuring a verse of Scripture or one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers in Arabic. Tanta Suzie was kind enough to translate a couple of these for Jeanne and myself. The climb was maybe half the distance that the Steps of Repentance had been on Sinai (I found out later it was 1200 steps) and not as gruelling as the climb up Sinai had been. But it was still fairly gruelling, especially given that we had not brought water...

Eventually, after a good 45 minutes, we reached the small area where Antony's cave was. There was a precipice at its edge, and a tall fence had been built to prevent any accidents. The rockface stretched up from where we were more or less vertically, though in one small crevice one could see a Coptic cross placed, and in another one could see pigeons nesting (the first animals we had seen in the area- it is after all in the middle of the desert). Around the cave were quite a number of people, mostly young. One group of young men from a church in Cairo were eager to get a group photo with the curiously-dressed Westerner, and, slightly reluctantly, I obliged them. It was, at any rate, a good opportunity to practice my Arabic, much to their delight and occasional amusement.

The cave itself was tiny. A small gap in the rockface, nothing more. In gaps and small crevices in the rock around the entrance, pieces of paper had been placed with prayers inscribed, as at the Burning Bush at St Catherine's. And around the entrance on the ground were shoes and sandals belonging to those who had entered. The concept of going barefoot in holy places a la Moses is still very much alive among the Copts.

Jeanne and I went in, but Tanta Suzie, who was not feeling the best after the climb, decided to wait outside. It was, as I said, nothing but a crack in the rockface. I mean that literally. There was no floor as such and not enough space to stand, just two walls of rock that curved narrowly on either side, meeting in a sharp point below one's feet (or foot, as it was often too narrow to put both feet down at once) and the same again a short space above one's head. One was forced to half-crawl, half-skip, half-walk (yes, I know that makes three halves but one-third sounds odd) in order to progress, and this became even more interesting as the daylight faded behind and one became enveloped in darkness as the cave bent away and into the mountain. Someway in, it opened out to a space that was a little larger and where there were candles to give some light. There were a couple of steps down and there an altar, with one of those Bedouin mats laid out in front of it. Above the altar was an icon of St Antony and above that a larger icon of Our Lord. I thought that was as it should be. There was a man who came in with us and stood at the top of the steps where the cave opened out a bit. He spoke to us and gave us some background on the place, but, being in Arabic, I was only able to grasp a small part of what he was saying.

I knelt there for a while, praying, asking for Antony's prayers, and meditating on the significance of the place. Looking around and up at the cave walls, with the candle-light flickering and casting shadows among the formations in the cave ceiling, it was extraordinary to think that Antony had lived here for years, on his own in the dark. Getting to know himself truly. Getting to know God truly. Letting grace chip away at him bit by bit. How familiar these rock walls must have become to him. And yet how lonely. How far away from everything. This niche in a cliff-face was miles out into the desert, far from anything. Dangerous to live here. So little to sustain even basic necessities. What kind of happiness or fulfillment could a man find here? No one to talk to. Surely a person would go mad, like those people one hears about isolated on islands for years. Yet Antony did not go mad. In fact, the opposite. He became sane, saner than most anybody else around, so that people would travel out into the desert to get spiritual counsel and advice from him. Holiness and sanity are related, as Frank Sheed reminds us, because they both involve living in accordance with reality, a reality that ultimately derives from and consists in God. Far from going mad, Antony's relationship with the Lord made him into the kind of man that could ease the sufferings of the whole Christian population under Diocletian, and build up and encourage the orthodox in their struggle with the Arians.

It was not right to flee the world and isolate himself in the desert, cry the critics. It was not right to flee the world and isolate himself in the desert, cry my own spiritual instincts. What good did it do? demand both.

Ask that of the Alexandrian Christians under Diocletian. Ask that of Athanasius and the orthodox during the Arian crisis. Ask that of the Anglo-Saxons, of the Franks, of the tribes of northern Germany, of the Slavs. Ask that of the Coptic young people who climbed the mountain yesterday and placed their prayers in the rocks. Ask that of the Patriarch of Alexandria at prayer in his chapel. "Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor and come, follow Me."

I also thought of something else, which I had been thinking about since Sinai. It had always seemed to me that Moses got a rather raw deal. All those years of working, all those years of wandering. But no pay-off. The Israelites get their reward, their homecoming. They finally enter the Promised Land. But Moses, after everything, doesn't get a thing. It seems so unfair. Where is his happy ending? Shouldn't God reward him after all his faithfulness, his tireless work, his sacrifices? But then I realised. What am I expecting or wanting for Moses? I'm wanting something for him that God will give him. A crown, a sense of fulfillment, some kind of closure, something. But Moses has learnt the most important lesson, and I'm one step behind even grasping what that is- Moses has learnt to desire God Himself, in preference to any of His gifts. God Himself is Moses' reward at the end of his life. That is his only closure. That is all the closure he needs. All Moses' experiences have led up to that and it is that that is the essence of the Torah - "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength." - and it is that that Moses finally learns to desire on the mountain when he says "Show me Your glory." The Israelites have received their home, their land, a place for themselves. But they have not learned to desire God simply in Himself, and thus they will continue to fall from Him for centuries to come. Moses has learnt this. He has come to desire God simply for Himself. So, for him, the Promised Land is superfluous. In the desert, Antony learned to desire the same thing."