In his Exhortations to Monks the great ascetic teacher Evagrius of Pontus writes, “Better a community of a thousand in charity than a solitary individual companioned by hatred in remote caves” (9). At the thought of a solitary angry monk far off in his cell, filled with bitterness and anger about who-knows-what, for some reason my first reaction is a wry smile; and then I find myself moved to compassion for this silly man who simply can’t get over whatever keeps him from achieving the noble goals of the solitary life. What fuels his rage? Why has he cut himself off from enjoying fellowship in any form, either with God or his brothers in Christ?
And yet, the more I meditate on this sorry hermit, I realize he haunts me because he is me, at least to a degree. Once a free-roaming evangelical, I embraced the Catholic community of the Anglican Communion because I longed for fellowship in the apostolic faith. I longed not only for an ancient tradition I could trust, but for like-minded brothers and sisters who were eager to grow with me in the love and joy promised in Christ.
I have found these things in many ways, but like our hermit I’ve also found difficulty, even in the best of circumstances. I have a gratifying ministry in a very good diocese, and I have many faithful Anglican friends in North America, England, and beyond. Yet, despite the blessings I enjoy, the divisions and ambiguities that exist even between me and my relatively like-minded friends often pain me — to say nothing of the trials of trying to find honest, common ground with those with whom I sharply disagree. If I’m tired or under stress, the sorrow and resignation can feel almost debilitating at times. And it seems the difficulties in navigating the Christian life are in some ways made more existentially immediate through deeper engagement with the body of Christ in my ministry and fellowship.
What causes our divisions? Why do weak and heretical doctrines persist? I wish I didn’t find a solitary cave to be such a compelling option when I’m overcome by discouragement over the state of our Communion, or when I unfavorably judge my brothers and sisters for (what I perceive to be) inadequate doctrine or a lack of charity. In times like these it’s usually St. Paul who pulls me out of my funk. I find he’s best when he gives a dose of bitter medicine, explaining that both false doctrine and schism have their source not in a love of falsehood, but a love of self. As I begin to drink his medicine, I somehow sense that I’m not off the hook, either. And so I’ve decided to share my own encounter with Paul in my first Covenant blog post, hoping that by sharing the nature of my own sickness, I might encourage others to look to Paul (and through him Christ) and find for themselves the remedy that I’m beginning to embrace.
St. Paul’s descriptions of false teachers are telling: in Colossians 2 we learn that certain would-be teachers seek to “prey” upon the members of that church, to “delude” them with “beguiling speech.” Why? Such a one is “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” because he is “not holding fast to the Head,” that is, Christ. In 1 Timothy Paul describes heretics as “speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their consciences seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). In 2 Timothy he condemns them as “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. But they shall proceed no further, for their folly shall be manifest unto all” (2 Tim. 3:1-9a). And of the Judaizers in Galatia, he says, “They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to shut you out [from the Promise], that you may make much of them” (Gal. 4:17). And in the end he describes them as wanting
to make a good show in the flesh. They constrain you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For neither do they themselves who are circumcised keep the law, but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. (Gal. 6:12-13)
Where simple ignorance isn’t involved, persistent false teaching is idolatrous narcissism.
Dissension within the Church shares in this idolatry, even when false doctrine isn’t involved. “You are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?” (1 Cor. 3:3). But surely I’m not guilty of this; I’m just upset by those who hurt the Church.
And yet, St. Augustine cuts me to the bone in my self-righteousness:
Why are you troubled, please tell me; why are you upset? … you wouldn’t be troubled in the boat of your heart, unless Christ was asleep there. (Sermo 163B.5)
And suddenly I realize that through my communion in the Church I’m usually not seeking the truth of Christ, but am instead seeking the affirmation of my own opinions and insights. I’m seeking the praise of others. And in this same sermon and throughout his corpus Augustine exhorts me through the words of Paul to stand on Christ in the innocence of my own conscience when dealing with those who seem to be weak, checking my intentions:
Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each man will have to bear his own load. (Gal. 6:1-5)
St. Paul rescues me because he bids me do something that seems counter-cultural in today’s Church, with all its emphasis on community and the “other”: he calls me back to myself to find the source of my difficulty. Yes, there are dissensions in the Church; and Paul’s wish then and now was that we “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10), judging “all things” by “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:15-16). And yet, in the Christian Church today as in ancient Corinth we suffer the judgment of division because we fail to judge ourselves. Because I fail to judge myself.
Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself… if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. (1 Cor. 11:28-31).
This self-judgment according to the mind of Christ produces the humility and meekness Paul calls for in Ephesians 4 where, “strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16-17), Christ dwells in us and our lives are characterized by “all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3). This is because “there is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Individual participation in Christ always involves movement towards unity; and there is no true unity apart from the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit, moving each member within.
St. Paul is clear, this cannot come about for those who “live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:17-18).
Rather, in order to achieve unity Paul bids us to:
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life… and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24).
Only through such organic, spiritual, and individual transformation in Christ are his members able to come together into one body; only then do we
grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love (Eph. 4:25-16).
There is no room here for a debate between individualism “vs.” the corporate life: only when “each part is working properly,” that is, individuals participating in the life of Christ, are we able to be “joined and knit together” under Christ our head as the one body. And yet, the members of Christ can only learn to “work properly” as they enter more fully into the life and ministry of the universal Body of Christ; thus there is a cycle as individuals are enlightened and strengthened by the grace of God and the Church, and then as individuals they in turn are more firmly grafted into the life of the Church, etc. Further up, and further in.
This is precisely where I tend to fail. I suspect that my own personal angst comes from being caught up in the tension between the one mind of Christ (however dimly understood by my thick mind and hard heart) and the chaotic forces of his members (a chaos to which I contribute). Make no mistake, I believe this is the tension which threatens to tear us apart, corporately and individually. It’s easy to turn to political maneuvering and dialogue as possible solutions. But rarely does one hear discussion of the necessary preparations for exercising holy influence and engaging in principled yet charitable dialogue. St. Paul’s preparation for Christian engagement was to judge himself in the light of Christ, to pummel his body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others he himself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). Bearing his own burden in Christ was the foundation of his apostolic ministry. Very few voices suggest that the solution to our divided life might involve ascetic discipline (apart from Sarah Coakley’s), but in my own apostolic vocation I’ve found nowhere to hide from this specific call. But my call is not to a solitary cave, but to the communion of the catholic church, laying down my life for my brethren, that I might find instead the joy of the glory promised us in Christ.
Thanks to St. Paul and his better readers, my question is beginning to evolve from “How can I fix the Church?” to a much more modest, “How can I be saved, and how can I reduce the likelihood that I will contribute to our problems?” May God give me the presence of mind and the faith to bear my own burdens, and then perhaps I’ll be given the gift of being able to bear the burdens of my brethren as well, and thereby begin to fulfill the law of Christ, which is charity. And so, I humbly ask my brothers and sisters, please pray for me in this struggle, and I’ll pray for all of you. May the Lord have mercy on us all.
The featured image comes via Primates 2016.