Friday, November 12, 2010

Monastic Wisdom

As the WCD group has been reading through The Philokalia, a collection of Christian monastic writings from the 4th-10th centuries, we’ve had lively discussions about what it must have been like to be a monk back then and the relevance of their writings for today.

Is the disconnected nature of monastic life irrelevant for living in today’s world? Is their extreme asceticism too radical for us to learn from? Can we relate to that type of isolation? If so, how? I mean… some of them lived in caves. CAVES!

And the whole time we’ve been reading I have been regretting something… I wish I were more familiar with the popular television show “Monk”. Think about it! How convenient would it have been to plop in a quote by that guy who severely struggles with OCD? It’s a shame, really. This entry could have been great. Let’s try to move on.

Back to the cavemen, but not those kinds of cavemen who ride dinosaurs and carry Fred Flintstone-esque weapons. I’m talking about one of the writers in The Philokalia, Saint Mark the Ascetic, also called the Hermit, or Mark the Monk (Now that is a name!).

Saint Mark is brilliant. At least I think so. For a part of his life he lived in the desert as a hermit, which is a religious discipline that seeks solitude with God, far away from other people. There have been days where this sounds appealing, right? But let’s not idealize it… This dude gave up many good things in order to seek after God in a very particular kind of way.

Now before I share some of Saint Mark’s most profound ideas, I want to say that monks like him are interested in living a life, a certain type of life - a radically committed and converted life. I grew up in the Church. I’ve always known that Jesus loves me, and that is beautiful and a gift. But I remember going on youth retreats and singing this song with tears in my eyes. The song went like this:

I'm giving you my heart, and all that is within
I lay it all down for the sake of you my King
I'm giving you my dreams, I'm laying down my rights
I'm giving up my pride for the promise of new life

And I surrender all to you, all to you
And I surrender all to you, all to you

I'm singing You this song, I'm waiting at the cross
And all the world holds dear, I count it all as loss
For the sake of knowing You for the glory of Your name
To know the lasting joy, even sharing in Your pain

Growing up, I sang this song a lot. And my little middle-class, small town self cried and cried to this song. I felt bad for all the sins in my life. And I was genuinely touched by God’s love for me in spite of all that. But, as I sang along to the words on the projector, “I surrender all to you” (which I read through the machine made fog) in an air-conditioned room with other white kids from the Midwest, I was agreeing to surrender a couple things – lusting after pretty girls, belittling other classmates, and my Wednesday nights for weekly youth group attendance. This surrender is certainly part of my story and shouldn’t be forgotten or mocked too severely. I mean Saint Mark’s struggles included lust and anger – and need I remind you that he lived in a cave? So obviously my youth group tears meant an awful lot, but encountering the writings of Saint Mark and the other monks has encouraged me to think about surrender differently, more deeply. Saint Mark is interested in a certain kind of life, a life pursuing holiness. And he offers some insights into how we can “surrender all”.


In one of his writings, which is written to Nicolas, a fellow solitary monk, he says that we pursue holiness by being attentive to three things, three dangerous things: forgetfulness, ignorance, and laziness. Of course, I’m quite learned in the discipline of being attentive to other people’s forgetfulness. For example, some people don’t believe that time really exists, or at least that’s my diagnosis for their lateness. At this point Mark would slap me with a big wooden spoon, and remind me that this attentiveness is to be directed toward our own vices. Mark’s wisdom calls us to be attentive to the ways that forgetfulness, ignorance, and laziness leads us to be disoriented and unfaithful.

…Control of the Intellect…

Once recognized, Mark tells us to use the weapons of mindfulness (which combats forgetfulness), spiritual knowledge (that expels ignorance), and true ardour (that drives out laziness) to battle them. The language of battle might rub you the wrong way or get you supremely pumped; either way, it’s describing this process as a difficult one. He says we are to pursue holiness by “making every effort to conform to God’s will”. Every effort involves an incredible amount of control over our mind and intellect. And here is where I find Mark to be most brilliant. How do we do this? By being thankful. His wise words ask us to “continually and unceasingly” call to mind the blessings in our lives. Stop for a second. What are you thankful for? Sometimes this is an absurdly annoying question and other times we’ve been whistling happy tunes all afternoon and it seems quite natural. Saint Mark’s words cause me to imagine what life would be like if I pushed myself, through controlling my intellect, to be thankful. I mean, eventually, you’d actually get good at being thankful, and not naively and annoyingly pleasant, but truly grateful for the gift of life.

Mark says that this thankfulness, through attentiveness and controlling the intellect, instills in us a fear and love of God that moves us to repay him “as far you can, by your strict life, virtuous conduct, devout conscience, wise speech, true faith and humility – in short, by dedicating your whole self to God”.

And I surrender all to you, all to you.

How do we pursue holiness? How do we surrender? Mark’s wise words, straight from the cave, call us to live attentive and self-controlled lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and for the glory of God.

1 comment:

  1. i remember crying to that song too!

    thanks for the reminder. :)