The Taser's Edge

A Theology of Marriage from the Monastery

“There is a great deal to be done by way of breaking yourself in, if you mean to preserve peace and harmony when you are living in community.”  So begins chapter 17, “On Life in a Monastery”, in Book One of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  For some reason, most of the chapter seems to me to be just as applicable to Christian marriage (itself a lifelong “living in community” where “peace and harmony” are accomplished by hard work and even “breaking yourself in”) as it is to the monastic life.  Roman Catholic sacramental theology and Karl Barth would agree—Christian marriage is just as much a vocation as Christian monasticism.  (Here I must say I’m anxious to hear Holly’s take on this.)

So here’s more of Thomas a Kempis, continuing directly after where I left off, and with bracketed commentary from yours truthfully: “To enter a monastery or a congregation [or a Christian marriage], live there without reproach, and be true to your vocation till death [i.e., ‘till death do us part’]—all that is a serious undertaking; no greater happiness than to live a holy life in a cell, and make a good end…To take the habit, to get the tonsure, [to dress up and exchange some rings] does not carry you far; what makes you a real religious [or marriage partner] is the changing of your life, is dying completely to your own inclinations.  If you came here looking for something that wasn’t just God and the salvation of your soul, you mustn’t expect to find anything but trouble of mind and unhappiness…You came here to obey orders, not to issue them.  A vocation means having a hard time and doing honest work…This place is meant to test people, like the furnace in which you assay gold; and only one thing will help you to stand up to the test—whole-hearted self-abasement for the love of God.”

Sounds pretty rough to most of us contemporary marrieds, but I kind of want to offer the parallels between monastery and marriage to anyone I marriage counsel in the future.  (Maybe if I had marriage counseled anyone in the past, I would know whether or not such a sharing is a good idea.)  At this point, I think the challenge for us is to read Thomas a Kempis twice.  The first time we find ourselves repelled.  Marriage as a cell, a test, a furnace?  But then we can read it again.  What are we looking for in marriage?  I think a 15th century monk may have some insight.

In Which Pope Gregory Keeps Me Honest

In my last post, I wrote of my own reticence to embrace Christian leadership, my false labeling of that reticence as the Christian virtue of ‘humility’, and of the cover for myself that I can find in both the Christian tradition and in Christian Scripture, specifically in the Catholic tradition represented by The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  It turns out that I was only looking at one part of tradition and one part of Scripture.  (Funny how often it happens that even when we are well-intentioned, as I was in that post, we see in our sources of authority the things we want to see.)

Back to this post, Thomas Oden was a liberal mainline Protestant (Methodist, in fact) who became widely known only when he broke with that tradition for a return to patristic sources as resources for theology and pastoral care.  Among the books he has written is 1984’s Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition (available online through this link)part accusation and lament that the Christian tradition had been largely removed from 20th century pastoral theology (others have had to agree that he was right on this point, whether or not they agree that it is a problem), part monograph on the pastoral theology of Gregory the Great.

Oden writes (to me!):

“Everyone who has seriously thought about ministry has encountered the special temptation that says, yes, I feel called to ministry but I do not want to be thrust into this gravely responsible position of guidance of souls…Gregory answered candidly out of his own intense struggle with his vocation: It is hardly genuine humility to refuse responsibility when you have understood that it is God’s call for you to take a certain kind of leadership.  Here the vice of obstinacy may be parading under the guise of humility.  This vice gains its power from the burdensome awareness that we still do not desire to take on responsibilities for which we have in fact been thoroughly prepared because they run counter to our egocentric inclinations.”

I am as quick as the next modern to dislike labeling myself as ‘obstinate’ or ‘egocentric’, but to get caught up in that part is to miss the point.  I, to quote Oden, ‘have, in fact, been thoroughly prepared.’  I have a Duke degree, some very good and ever-growing experience, some gifts, some talents, some weaknesses, some struggles, and a calling.  I’m not comfortable with claiming all that all the time, but I do believe it (nearly all the time).

And, just as I last week presented Thomas a Kempis as truly representing a Scriptural tradition (which he does), I should mention in closing that Gregory also has a Scripture at his back, a Scripture I’ve heard many times, but never as speaking to my particular leadership ‘issues’, even though now it seems plain enough.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Lk. 12:48)

Lord, have mercy.  Really.  Amen.

Humility, To Be Seen or Not to Be Seen, and the Imitation of Christ

 “Never trust yourself to appear in public, unless you love solitude; to speak, unless you love silence; to come to the front, unless you would sooner be at the back; to give orders, unless you know how to obey them.” (The Imitation of Christ, Book I, chapter 20b.)

During my Parish Discernment Committee (a component of my ordination in which a number of people, mostly laity, from the local congregation and community join with me to help discern my calling to ordained ministry with me), there were a few questions on Christian leadership.  When I hear “Christian leadership”, I have a next-to-involuntary strong negative reaction.  So strong of a reaction, in fact, that it makes me suspicious.  Why do I care so much, if my claim is that I don’t care?  Why can’t I just live and let live?

The first part of that answer is that I get really defensive when people in authority (yes, the ‘in authority’ part matters) ask for me to talk about Christian leadership.  On the Parish Discernment list of questions: “What kind of leadership style is most comfortable for you? Have there been instances when your favorite leadership model needed to be modified? In what way? Why? What was that like for you?”  On the rational level, I dislike the question because is it corporatespeak rather than the language of the Church.  Corporate-mindedness has damaged the American Church, its members, and its image (and the image of the Church is important, because its face is the face of Christ in the world).  But there is, as always, an irrational level.

It’s not that I don’t think some Christian leaders have a lot to teach others.  It’s that I believe the basis of Christian leadership is character development not skill development (Aristotle by way of Hauerwas, but with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit that Aristotle—understandably—and Hauerwas—regrettably— lack).  God calls me to be a Christian leader, because in the divine economy, the way God is saving me is by binding me to a particular people as their leader.  I ‘work out my own salvation with fear and trembling’ by serving others.  It’s not works righteousness but a way of salvation, a process by which God saves me.  Ministering to others is the way that I am broken down, chiseled, and sanded into the image of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  Others are saved through other processes, but I have been called into this.

But putting the light back on me emotionally, my incredibly strong emotional reaction to ‘Christian leadership’ is not from any burning desire to save the American Church from wrong understandings, as dangerous as I believe those understandings to be.

Well, if it’s not that, then what is it?

In CPE, I have been challenged on my reticence to claim the good work that I do as the good work that it is.  In Anglican Missional Pastor (my ordination training), I have been challenged to speak up more often and I have been told that I have good things to say when I do speak.  In my church small group, I have heard the same thing.  And in my Parish Discernment Committee, I have had something important named for me: “You do not like to be seen.”

This matters a lot for my calling, as I wrestle back and forth with the idea of being a parish pastor, and eventually the rector (head pastor) of a parish.  I truly do not like to be seen, and I don’t currently have any better words to name it in.  Several years ago, I took some version of the Myers-Briggs personality test, and one of the things it said of me was that my personality type is one of very capable and competent leaders whose ‘leadership style’ is to sit back and let other people lead, even if those people are less capable, even if they are screwing things up, and even if we of this personality type have something substantial to offer.  At the time, it was very accurate; now, I have made some good movement away from that, but there are echoes still.

At the same time I have been hearing this naming of my desire not to be seen from various sources, I have been reading Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  It’s a divine convergence to me.  The Imitation of Christ is the definitive verbalization of my particular way of understanding Christian humility.  Reading it now, having not been raised by anyone or any community which particularly prizes it, I see that I come honestly to this not wanting to be seen, and claiming it as a virtue.  It’s not just the Catholic tradition, but Scripture.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says over and over again that we are to practice our piety in secret.  St. James says that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”  And those are only two examples of many.

But how far does this go?  What does true humility look like?  I prize it, I desire it, I seek it, I pray for it.  I have always been struck by Numbers’ characterization of Moses as the most humble man on earth (proof that Moses did not write Numbers if it’s true).  I have always seen Jesus as the actual most humble man.

But then I have to realize that, for all their similarities, Jesus’ humility and Moses’ humility look very different.  Moses whines to God in the desert over and over that he is not capable of being saddled with this people and their cares.  (Perhaps I could pick an example that makes Moses look better, as there are plenty examples, but this one sounds the most like my own response to God’s call.)  Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and dies the death of a slave.  The only critiques that will stick to Jesus are the ones that Nietzsche noticed for me; all of them amount to Jesus being weak rather than asserting his strength.  The basic accusation is that Christ’s humility—Christian humility—is not a virtue.  Nietzsche is right—Christ was too humble for his own good.  And that is the point.

I haven’t gotten to the bottom of why I have such a strong, from the gut, emotional reaction to the idea of being seen, of being out in front, of being noticed, of being in charge, of being in power, of being in the lead, of being responsible.  But I have come to the end of two pages.

One last thought, though: God sees me.  As uncomfortable as that is, as much as it makes my skin crawl at the thought of absolute vulnerability—shame, nakedness, unholiness, being seen as I actually am—the belief that God sees me is really what all my hope rests on.