Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Abba Arsenius and Me

OK, you already know I'm different ...

I was one of those odd teenagers who love to stay in their room and read. Of course, I had friends, and I saw a lot of them; but if no one was around, no problem! I loved solitude. I stayed happily alone and read, or wrote stories.

My mother actually locked me outside in the summer! Fearing this, I often concealed a book in a plastic bag underneath the hydrangea bushes. I am fond of hydrangeas to this day.

As an adult, I still love solitude, especially when I get to share it with dogs. I spend my lunch hours reading, either in a remote corner of the courtyard, or in a cozy place I have discovered up in the stacks, by a sunny window. I love the anonymity of the subway, and dread to meet someone I know on the platform, since I'm not good at small talk. I have been known to scurry to the other end of the train if I see a familiar face (and am not seen first).

So I wasn't much surprised when, having recently picked up a copy of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I discovered in it others who found solitude agreeable to their nature and profitable to their souls. Of course, the solitude of the desert was rigorous: the abbas often did manual labor to support themselves, survived on a very simple diet, and were plagued by all sorts of temptations that arise in solitude. And yet ... I see myself, there in the desert.

Take Arsenius, for example. His sayings were among the first in the book, as it is arranged alphabetically.

Born in Rome about 360, he was well-educated and well-born, and served as tutor to two Roman princes. In 394, however, he left his well-appointed life, sneaked off into the desert and became an anchorite. He was well-known for his asceticism and habit of silence, and apparently other anchorites found him somewhat forbidding. In fact, his behavior sometimes approached the curmudgeonly:

Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him, "Will you put into practice what I say to you?" They promised him this. "If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there." (p. 10)

Obviously, he was a little extreme in his love of solitude (and his lack of manners!). But I do see his point. He probably would have liked to have as his epitaph my personal favorite:

IF YOU CAN READ THIS,
YOU ARE TOO CLOSE.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Just what I needed

I've been doing some interesting reading since I last posted. Did you ever come across a book which was exactly what you needed, just as you needed it? That's what this one was like for me. I may send a copy to my former Rector.

The book is Holy Adventure, by Bruce G. Epperly, a pastor and seminary professor in Lancaster, PA, and was written, in part, as an answer to the theological viewpoint expressed in The Purpose-Driven Life. This fact alone would be enough to make me giddy with glee, but in fact it's a really good read!

In contrast to the God of Rick Warren, a God who has planned out our entire lives prior to our birth, and who knows exactly what he expects from us, Epperly posits a God whose creation is not yet finished, who expects us to be companions and co-creators with him, and who is eager to see the results. This process-theological approach is about as far as you can get from the fundamentalist, reductive view of God as the omniscient creator who has everything figured out in advance (how boring!). The God of Holy Adventure gave us free will so we could choose among possible futures, for ourselves as well as for creation.

What comes through most strongly in this book is the sense of mystery and excitement -- two things I find completely missing in Warren's ho-hum, "it's-all-in-the-Bible-just-go-read-it" approach. Without a sense of mystery, basking in the certainty that we know all the answers, we would risk doing great harm:

A sense of God's deep mystery provides the antidote for too much certainty about subjects such as the afterlife. Too much certainty perpetrates violence upon persons and belief systems alike. It can lead to exclusion, objectification, and spiritual abuse in faith communities; intellectual abuse in academics; and emotional abuse in relationships. When we think we have all truth, we create artificial boundaries between companions and outsiders, saved and unsaved, orthodoxy and heresy. Those outside our religious camp can become the objects of spiritual warfare and violence when we assert that to become one of "us," others must forsake their deepest insights and understandings of the holy and unconditionally accept ours. We may even threaten anyone who does not hold our views with the ultimate act of spiritual and ideological violence: eternal damnation and alienation from God. (p. 193)

This book was a breath of fresh air for me, and left me uplifted and hopeful. I may be giving copies of this for Christmas!