Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame
Senior Advisor of NDCL, Co-editor of Oblation
This talk was given at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy’s June Conference, Formed for the Liturgy, Reformed by the Liturgy.
So I think liturgical asceticism is the key to understanding what Aidan Kavanagh meant when he called Mrs. Murphy a primary theologian. She is a liturgical ascetic, though not of the monastic variety, and she is a liturgical theologian, though not of the academic variety.
But one more thing about the passions. Identifying them was only the half of it. Once a doctor has identified the poison his patient took, he is concerned to discover the antidote. The ascetical tradition offered these antidotes to sin. Sometimes the Desert ascetics did so in a fairly dramatic way, but I think they were just following the practice of an Old Testament prophet who acted out his message.
The liturgical asceticism is expected of all the baptized. Aidan Kavanagh writes, “it is a discipline open to all, required of all … Ascetics blaze the trail all must follow, but they do not walk it alone.” And Paul Evdokimov also affirms only a single asceticism.
Prayer, fasting, the reading of the Scriptures and ascetic discipline are imposed on all for the same reason. That is why the laity very exactly forms the state of interiorized monasticism. Its wisdom consists essentially in assuming, while living in the world … the eschatological attitude of the monks, their joyous and impatient expectation of the parousia.
Or in my own words, asceticism may have been perfected in the sands of the desert, but it is born in the waters of the baptismal font and is incumbent on every Christian. Two desert stories will illustrate my point; I promise not go through all eight passions.
First, regarding the passion of avarice.
The poison of avarice is combated with poverty, which should also produce a gentle spirit. There were two old men living together in one cell, and never had there arisen even the paltriest contention between them. So the one said to the other, “Let us have one quarrel the way other men do.” But the other said, “I do not know how one makes a quarrel.” The first said, “Look, I set the tile between us and say, ‘That is mine,’ and you say, ’It is not yours, it is mine.’ And thence arises contention and the squabble.” So they set the tile between them, and the first one said, “That is mine,” and the second made reply: “I hope that it is mine.” And the first said, “It is not yours: it is mine.” To which the second made answer, “If it is yours, take it.” After which they could find no way of quarreling.
The poverty of the monk is striking and literal, but John Climacus says that “poverty is resignation from care,” and how many cares do we in the world have from which we should resign?
I will take a second example concerning the passion of anger.
Evagrius says anger is the fiercest of the passions.
“In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury – or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. If it persists longer it is transformed into indignation.”
Living in community could get on one’s nerves. But here is a story of a monk who discovered where the problem really lay.
A brother was restless in his community and he was often irritated. So he said, ‘I will go into live somewhere by myself. I will not be able to talk or listen to anyone and so I shall be at peace, and my passionate anger will cease.’ He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. Suddenly it happened to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fell. This happened a third time. In a rage he snatched up the jug and smashed it. Coming to his senses, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said, ‘here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.’ So he got up, and went back.
Christians have read and profited from the sayings of the desert fathers for centuries but I admit I went through a lot of theology courses without ever having been introduced to them. I hope I have teased you into giving them a try because they stand at the source of the West’s reflection on the vices and virtues, too.
Evagrius had a pupil named John Cassian and he brought back an account of the sayings of the Egyptian monks (called the Conferences) and their lifestyle (called the Institutes) to his monastery near present-day Marseille before he died in 435. The writings of Evagrius influenced the Rule of Benedict written about a century later, and 50 years after that it influenced Gregory the Great’s writings on the seven deadly sins and the corresponding seven virtues. Thus the Egyptian desert entered western moral theology.
However, I do not want to follow that path into moral theology, but rather return to the relevance of this for liturgy. And will do so for Wednesday’s post.