1 John 3:2-3
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Today we commemorate John Cassian, who, according to A Great Cloud of Witnesses, struggled with the problems of living the Christian life in a time when the world seemed to be falling apart.
Don’t we know that guy? He goes to my church, right?
No, he doesn’t go to any of our churches, but we do know him. If he is not me or you, then he is my friend or your father or someone’s neighbor. He could be a priest. The only reason we don’t know John is because he died in the year 435 in Marseilles, France, but we do know him. John spent his life working to find balance in discerning how the human in each of us could help integrate the soul in each of us and prepare to truly know God.
What could be more relevant for us today? How do we live as Christians when the world doesseem to be falling apart? There is a reason the top three priorities of The Episcopal Church under Bishop Curry’s leadership are creation care, racial reconciliation and evangelism. There is a reason our own Bishop Sutton’s priorities include building a community of love, mentoring our city’s youth, and ending gun violence, among others. The world seems to be falling apart… In order to seek wisdom on living the Christian life when the world seemed to be falling apart, John Cassian, born in Romania is the year 365, set out from home for a monastery in Bethlehem and later went to Egypt to seek the wisdom of the desert fathers, the nearly church leaders who withdrew from the world to be closer to God.
With them he learned tradition of asceticism. Ascetics withdraw from the world to live an ascetic life, which includes imposing sometimes sever forms of self-discipline and avoiding all forms of indulgence. What could be more relevant for us today?
So I’m kidding but not kidding. Some ascetics live in solitude and some in community in monasteries, not entirely alone. But there is a form of asceticism called worldly asceticism where people live lives of self-discipline and limited indulgence but do not withdraw from the world. I think that could work.
There has been a concept in the world of spirituality in the past couple of decades described as being a monk in the world or a mystic without a monastery. This concept has fascinated me. I am one of those church nerds that has a part of me with a strong desire to live in a monastery, because I think that life would offer simplicity, intimacy with God, a community of love, and peace. On the other hand, I want to live in the world, know all the people, play live music and eat at restaurants.
John Cassian was a mystic and a monastic and though far more self-disciplined and unindulged than most of us, he believed in the importance of community. He believed that ascetics must at least live in a monastic community to garner mutual love and support for the journey – a community of love. From a Great Cloud of Witnesses – “One should enter a house where other monks are pursuing the same goal, live according to a time-tested rule, and thereby gain the guidance and companionship of the community.” Where is that house for you? What community or communities provide this for you? What are you doing to follow a rule of life?
In 399 John was forced to leave Egypt and the desert fathers due to political unrest. He traveled to Gaul, modern-day France, and in 415 founded a house in Marseilles for monastics. It was important to him to also provide a house for women monastics, which he later did. He took with him what he’d learn from the desert monasticism, the idea that the image of God in each person, tarnished by sin but not destroyed, yearns to and has the capacity to love God with the purity of heart with which God loves us.
John believed in a balance between the thoughts of Pelagius and St. Augustine, Pelagius believing that the Holy Spirit works through us to achieve our salvation through our own will. That essentially, we must do all the work or we are doomed. Augustine believed, in brief, that essentially there was nothing we could do. That we are entirely dependent upon God’s grace – an almost “predestiny” kind of faith.
From a blog called Ancient Faith – St. John “sets forward the basic principle of synergy in the Christian life. Pelagius was wrong that fallen man can do good and act under his own natural powers. Likewise, however, St. Augustine was wrong that God acts upon a passive (or actively fighting to fulfill opposite impulse) humanity. Rather, at the center of St. John’s text, every Christian ought, to quote St. Paul, ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’ The Divine Energies are the beginning, end, and basis of salvation, but do not negate, overpower, or snuff out the human.”
Because of its proximity to Pelagius, John’s concept was dubbed “semi-Pelagianism.”
Some years ago, when I was a mentor in the Education for Ministry program out of Sewanee at my church in South Carolina, we had kind of a mini-Pelagian fan club going. JPelagius is also known for teaching the notion of “original goodness,” rather than “original sin.” That were are born innocent and free of sin instead of tainted from the start. We all have the choice that Eve had. We all have the opportunity to accept or reject God, to remain humble or to let our egos get in the way and be tempted by the power of the divinity within us.
We LOVED the original goodness idea in our EfM group. It seemed to jive with God’s love for his children. If God saw it and it was good, how does that not apply to us? We were born with free will, of course, and are therefore more than welcome to make choices that separate us from God, but does that negate the divine spark that resides within us?
But what role does will have to play in salvation?
This – is a huge question. Have you ever thought about it? My guess is that, knowingly or not, you have. In the Western Christian tradition, most especially in America, most of us grew up following an Augustinian theology, whether we knew how to label it or not. We grew up in a dualistic world, one where bad counters good, Christians counter non-Christians, the rich counter the poor, and white counters black and where a woman is the object of hatred and blame because of a choice she made. We grew up in Sunday school tradition of original sin, learning that man is fallen and thereby flawed, not pure. I think the guilt associated with that teaching tells us we’d better have a will of steel if we are ever to be reconciled with God.
I even dare to suggest that we grew up in a world where human counters divine. If we are fallen and flawed and therefore not pure, what are we? Humans without a spark of the divine in us? Are we divine beings whose spark is buried by separation from God – sin? Think about that for just a minute. What is your personal theology or the theology you were taught growing up about the nature of the divine in the human being? Were you taught about the divine in the human or did you see yourself and your fellow humans as separate from God?
Our own presiding bishop has helped develop a modern-day rule of life for Episcopalians called the Way of Love. This speaks to the importance of being a monk in the world, a mystic without a monastery, of taking care of oneself, loving oneself, achieving balance in life in order to have the energy, the wisdom and the spirit to healthily serve the world. As one of my priests once taught me, we are born to be co-creators WITH God. God made us and God wishes for us to choose love, to be completely human and completely divine, like Jesus came to show us.
How we get there is another story altogether. We are all different but I for one am not a very disciplined person. In fact, I dislike routine. I am a P on the Meyers-Briggs and have a circular and symbolic way of thinking that might be most easily described with some language around the traits of a person with ADD. I can benefit from a rule of life in different ways than someone who craves routine. But we can all benefit, no matter our personality structure. What are some ways you curb self-indulgence – a special method of eating? Do you have a daily prayer practice or ritual? Do you religiously attend yoga once a week? Do you take sabbath days on a regular basis? I’ve been working on the food thing for a long time and am getting to a place where I might be getting close to having some self-discipline and a handle on self-indulgence. But that’s just a drop in the bucket.
There is a brokenness in the human psyche that I believe is an inherent part of the human condition. But we have done ourselves no favors in feeding ourselves a negative, unloving self-narrative. That narrative is catching up with us and is wreaking havoc on the world, rising up from the shadow of pretend that we live in to tell ourselves we are ok.
We have to KNOW we are ok. We have to believe that God loves us. We have to forgive ourselves. We have to forgive others. We have to know that God forgives us. Jesus wasn’t kidding about this stuff. And it’s hard. It’s so hard and we are failing. Changing this narrative inside our own lives is the way we can change the world. When we live individually in God’s kingdom, seeing ourselves as God sees us – fully human and fully divine – and a big mess, we are free.
John Cassian provided the western church with a theology to support its preexisting devotion to the spiritual value of asceticism. St. Benedict leaned heavily on John’s writing in developing his form of monasticism and writing his ruled of life.He even recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian, the most famous being his series of Conferences. Benedict’s rule is still followed by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks, and John Cassian’s thought still exercises influence over the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the WesternChurch.
We’ve got a lot of work to do to heal the world, beginning with ourselves. As some of you know, I’m a big believer in having fun, in enjoying life. What John Cassian brings to me is the understanding that the body plays a critical role in our how close our relationship to God is. It cannot be rejected. It is part of the system. For us in the West, one of the best things we can take from John is try to have a rule of life. Bishop Curry has offered us one. We can create our own, but we cannot leave the body out of that. Body-inclusive practices, such as centering prayer, walking and eating healthy food actually bring us closer to God. They help to connect body, mind, and spirit, the composition in which God made us. Incorporating these elements into our lives requires community, some will, God’s grace, willingness and asking. Taking the first steps toward God, according to Cassian, allows God to enter in. John said that only in community can we “lose sight of earthly things in proportion to the inspiration of its purity so that . . . with the inner gaze of the soul it sees the glorified Jesus coming in the splendor of His majesty.”We have that community here in this diocese.
What will our first steps be today? Let’s heal the world together from the inside out.