Book Review: Toward God


Casey, Michael, Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer
Ligouri/Triumph: Ligouri, Missouri, 1996. 176p.

Michael Casey has been one of my favorite authors since I first read Living in the Truth about 5 years ago. A Cistercian monk living in Australia, he writes with wisdom garnered from decades of prayer and teaching. This is the fourth book of his I have read and in my estimation, it is his best work.

Toward God is not an academic survey of Western prayer. Casey freely admits in the opening lines that it is a personal account of one who has been steeped in the Western spiritual tradition. He quotes heavily from The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich and Bernard of Clairvaux. While the book is personal, it is not autobiographical. It is what I imagine sitting in retreat with him might be like — encouraging, honest, practical.

While this is an accessible book, I am not sure it is a book for beginners. Well, maybe it is, but only in the sense that in the ways of prayer, we are always beginners. He presents no seven-step plans, no formulas for advancement. What he does offer is sound counsel to continually and relentlessly place ourselves humbly and honestly before God.

Casey is realistic about what prayer is and what it is not. His decades of experience allow him to write about dryness because he has experienced it. It also allows him to share that what we perceive as dryness is not always so. He keeps reminding us that the goal of prayer is not about our feelings, but about our growth in God.

“Our glory is to be transparent. If the face of God shines through us, we will be perfect in both beauty and happiness. Efforts to leave our mark result only in obscuring that radiance.”

p. 158

Ultimately, Casey reinforces that prayer is not about us influencing God, but allowing ourselves to be influenced by him. The proper aim of prayer is not to use God to order the world to suit us, but to place ourselves in God’s presence so he can shape us to suit him. At different times, this prayer can happen with or without words. It may seem like nothing is happening most of the time and yet we must persevere if we are to truly know God and be known by him.

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Well Done

If you haven’t seen Mandy Harvey’s audition on America’s Got Talent (or even if you have), take a moment to watch this video. I’ve watched it about a dozen times in the last month and I get teary eyed every single time.

Let’s clear up a few things. First, she’s been working at singing while deaf for 10 years. She has 3 albums already, singing mostly jazz standards. She tours. She has also performed for various Christian and charity events and causes. She didn’t just decide, “Well, I’m deaf. I guess I’ll go try to sing on AGT today.” To get where she is, she worked hard before she lost her hearing, and she works hard now. She’s not “just” deaf (as if…); her connective tissue disorder affects her every day.

And yet, it’s a beautiful story and a great song. It’s not a story unrelated to what she’s doing on stage. Her being on stage is completely related to, and in defiance of, her deafness.

I really like how unassuming she is. I’m touched by how she gets choked up when everyone stands on their feet halfway through her song and she starts singing with her eyes closed so she can finish.

In a small way, I identify with her story. I was up to my neck in music in high school and had thoughts of studying music in college. Like her, it was a music theory class that crushed that dream. I didn’t sing; I played various woodwind instruments. But to really do music, to do music theory, you need to be able to sing, at least a bit.

I remember standing next to the upright piano in the music room while Dr. Montgomery played intervals. I was supposed to sing them back to him as part of a test. Thankfully, no one else was in the room. I couldn’t do it. Apparently I don’t hear music like most people hear music. I’m tone deaf.

There in about 10 minutes, my ideas about what I might do with music pretty well ended. My life took a different path, and with the perspective of almost 30 years, I can see how it was a good thing for my character. If I had been musically gifted, I could easily have become a prideful, insufferable jerk.

I still enjoy music. I still sing in the car when I’m by myself. But it’s just for me. I sometimes wonder what music sounds like to other people.

I also like Mandy’s video because it touches something else. We get to witness her being totally affirmed for a few brief moments. All of her years of hard work are recognized in a few glimmering moments. Those moments are rare in our lives. Even rarer is one so public as this.

I suppose I’ve had a few I can look back on. Two sermons come to mind (out of hundreds I’ve given). One blog post. Nowhere near a golden buzzer, but some genuine affirmation. It felt good. It was encouraging, but it was fleeting. No high lasts for very long.

I think we enjoy these kinds of moments, even vicariously, because they touch something even deeper within us. We are made to be part of something big. We are made to be God’s people and to have him be our God. As awesome as the golden confetti must be for those rare few on America’s Got Talent, how much more so if we hear our Lord say, “Well done.” That is worth striving for above any accolades we can earn from each other.

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Filed under Humility, Music, Success

I’m Stuffed

No more for me, thanks!

Independence Day affords us a long weekend. A chance to relax, enjoy family, and eat. I try to watch what I eat, to not over-eat, and to not eat too much of certain things that I know I’ll regret the next day. But food isn’t all that important. Jesus instructed the crowds, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles man.” (Matthew 15:11)

Psalm 123 is a short “song of ascents.” Praying the last two verses today clarified a thought that had been slowly forming in my mind concerning them.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 123:3-4 (RSV)

For years I read these verses along the lines of, “Have mercy on us because of all those nasty, proud people out there.” I still think this is a reasonable reading of the passage. But I think one more applicable to my life (and maybe yours) is also present.

I have had more than enough contempt in my soul. Contempt for those different than me. Contempt for those whom I deem less able than me. Contempt for those who injure my pride.

Too long has my soul been satisfied being at ease. Too long have I been willing to kick my feet up and coast. Too long have I not given my Lord the attention and obedience he deserves. (See verses one and two of the Psalm for what that should look like.)

Too long have I harbored the contempt of the proud. Too long have I launched scorn either silently or aloud at others.

Have mercy upon me Lord, have mercy.

May I not be filled with scorn, contempt, ease, and pride. When I am, I know that I will regret being so stuffed, either in this life or in the judgment to come.

I offer thee, O my God, all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions of this day. Grant that they may be thoughts of humility, words of humility, and actions of humility — all to Thy glory.

Fr. Cajetan, Humility of Heart

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Book Review: Holy Writings, Sacred Text


John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 1997. 210 p.

Published in England as: The Spirit and the Letter: Studies in the Biblical Canon
SPCK, London, United Kingdom. 1997.

I first discovered this book about six years ago through the footnotes of Christian Smith’s provocative work: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Smith challenges the presuppositions of what he terms “solo scriptura,” the evangelical (or even fundamentalist) view that the Bible is all-sufficient. In this view, anyone can read the Bible and discover what they need to know for salvation.*

He lists many problems with this view, but one of the most damning is the observation that if the Bible was really that clear, then why under this approach do we have such widespread interpretive diversity? Let’s park that thought for a moment and look into Barton’s book.

There are several interesting bits in Holy Writings, Sacred Text. Barton examines how different New Testament texts were handled in the early church, and whether or not those means of using them were consistent with how other Scripture (the Old Testament) was handled by these same authors.

He also examines different characteristics of what makes a work sacred, mostly from Judaism, and considers the possible implications for the New Testament. His insights into why Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs were questioned as being part of the canon are interesting.

Barton’s main goal in this book is to define the the term “canon” and to examine the implications of the various ways in which the term has been used over the centuries. He also tries to intuit what the Church Fathers thought about the New Testament in particular in terms of the various definitions of “canon.”

If you think this sounds like a niche book appealing mainly to those interested in theology with a bent toward epistemology, I won’t correct you. This is an academic work that is probably found mostly in theological libraries or as the text for graduate-level theological courses. But Barton does draw some conclusions that have implications for a much wider audience.

Much of the work deals with questions of authority, either explicitly or, more often than not, implicitly. After all, the question of canon is a question of what works are authoritative in the life of a believer. In the strictest sense, a canon is a body of works which are both granted authority and are deemed to be complete — no more can be added. This raises the secondary question (which Barton leaves largely untouched), “Who has the authority to grant this authority?”

Barton states this most explicitly in the middle of the book: “…it is universally true that traditions giving an authoritative interpretation of a written text are in effect — though not in intention — more authoritative than the text they interpret.” (p. 102) In other words, whatever person, institution, or “tradition” declares the teaching (or canon) of scripture to be authoritative has more authority than the scripture.

If that seems hard to swallow, consider a more humdrum parallel. When I have been overseas for extended periods, I have signed a general power of attorney for my wife in order to enable her to conduct business on my behalf. It is a very powerful document (and your attorney will caution you before you assign such power to anyone), but I can revoke it as well. If I can give and take away, I have more authority than the document itself, even if it can grant equal authority in terms of signing a lease or some other legal document.

Barton’s work placed a fundamental question in my mind when I first read it, and re-reading it recently has not changed it. “On whose authority do I accept that the Scripture is authoritative, trustworthy, and complete?”

Barton spends a fair amount of time considering the early church councils and the Church Fathers. He’s an Anglican priest in addition to being an Oxford scholar, so that isn’t all too surprising. I concur that those are authoritative sources, if for no other reasons than that they were much closer to the events recorded in Scripture than we are and large groups of people still appeal to them as authoritative.

For me, the real insight of Holy Writings, Sacred Text is that it forced me to examine what I thought about the role of tradition in my faith. It is a question for all believers to consider at some point. How do we know that what we believe is worth believing?

* Smith uses “solo” instead of “sola” purposefully to underline the ideal of “just a believer and a Bible.” Neither he nor I discount that Scripture can speak directly to a person, but as I detailed earlier, this is not normative. We need reason and tradition in order to protect us from drifting into heresy.

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Do What She Does

It is May, which, among other indications of spring, includes commencement exercises. At my daughter’s college commencement this past weekend, one speaker told of how he was taught basic dinner etiquette when an undergrad many decades ago. The faculty member he dined with told him to watch her and do what she did. Through this imitation he learned how to eat with fork and knife, and not just his spoon.

This lesson served him well soon afterward when he found himself the guest of a well-to-do family while traveling with a small group of fellow students. At dinner, a vast number of cutlery and dishes were on the table. None of the students were used to such finery and they quickly huddled to figure out how to not bring discredit upon themselves. The one who had recently learned how to use more than just a spoon knew what to do. He told the other to watch the hostess and do what she does. They did, and received praise for their fine manners at the end of the evening.

My mind took this image and ran, uncovering a true guide to life.

The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) craze inspired by In His Steps was at its height several years ago. While motivated by a desire to follow Christ, it failed to be a solid tool for most people because of two main problems. First, none of us are first-century itinerant Jewish rabbis. Our context is so different from Christ’s that trying to pattern our life so directly after his is difficult. Second, Jesus did and said a lot. We have four Gospels full of things he did and said, many of which we may not be able to do.

We can benefit from a simple, concrete example that is no less profound, but may seem more attainable. It is not easier to do completely, but it is less complicated to understand.

Do what Mary did.

Mary’s recorded words and actions in Scripture are few and attainable for all of us. In fact we can sum them up in two phrases. First, when the angel Gabriel came to her to announce what the Father intended to do through her, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Second, at the wedding in Cana, her one instruction to others, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)

In these two statements, we find the whole of the Christian life. Submit to God as a willing servant and guide others to do the same. May we watch Mary and imitate her life — quiet, faithful and devout — that we may receive her reward.

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Filed under Jesus, Mary, Obedience

Our Lives as Catechumens

Some churches offer a formal series of classes before confirmation, normally called “catechism.” It is designed to be an instruction in the faith so that those coming for confirmation are informed and equipped as they make the faith their own. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement in itself, and some particular churches do a better job than others. The problem arises when we think of catechism as a certification instead of as a process.

When one joins the military, a period of preparation follows. This basic training or “boot camp” is a catechism for the particular branch of service one is entering. A lot of learning and shaping takes place in those weeks. Just the physical training alone can make a significant impact. It would be ludicrous for a recruit upon completion of basic training to think they are “done.” No more PT for me! I can go on about my business as a Soldier and not worry about PT, rifle marksmanship, and all those other basic tasks. I have completed that.

Yet, often, we view catechism in that very way. I’m done. I can go back to whatever it was I did before my Thursday nights were spent at the church learning the creeds and the history of the church. To do that is not to be done with catechism; it is to change how we are being catechized.

We are all catechumens. Every day we are being informed and molded by our habits. As we were all told when we were growing up, “You are what you eat.” That is true in all aspects of our lives, not just physical nutrition. Jesus said that food does not make us unclean, but the Scriptures are clear that we need to mind what we take into our hearts and minds. Psalm 101:3 (KJV) reminds us, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.”

It is nearly impossible to keep everything from our eyes (or ears) that is not wholesome and edifying since we are bombarded by such intrusions every time we go out. But that does not mean we should slouch down and throw our hands up in surrender to the onslaught. We can control what we read, watch, and hear for at least part of each day. Are we being deliberate to make sure we continue to be catechized in the faith, instead of passively assenting to being molded by our culture? Are we seeking to continue to be informed and shaped by the Church?

Since we are all catechumens, the question is: what are we being catechized in and for? Are we passively assenting to be catechized into materialistic consumers? Or, are we consciously, deliberately, seeking to be catechized for Christ?

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, The Church

I Met a Saint Today

The first few verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews has long held a special place for me. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” is the opening phrase. What does it mean to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses?

I had a thought the other day as I was completing a “wellness assessment” for work. The survey asked if I had people I felt I could turn to in need, if I felt I had enough friends, that sort of thing. I realized that I do; I have a multitude I can turn to anytime I want.

The Church has long held there are three categories of the faithful: the church militant, the church expectant, and the church victorious. The church militant is us, the faithful still “fighting the good fight”. The church expectant are those who have died and are awaiting glorification. And the church victorious are those who have already been glorified.

The amazing thing is, as we say when we confess our faith, we have communion with the whole Church — the communion of saints. What does that mean? It means that because we share one head — Christ — we are one body. Death does not remove us from the Body of Christ.

That means I am surrounded by people I can turn to, both physically living and dead. And I feel like I am meeting new people all the time. I was just telling my wife yesterday that I “met” a new saint. In this case, it was Saint Vincent of Lérins. He was a fifth century monk and writer of whom not a lot is known, but he wrote a work call the Commonitorium, which has been frequently translated and preserved through the ages.

The quote that caught my eye and led me to this particular saint was this:

“Yet teach still the same truths which you have learned,
so that though you speak after a new fashion,
what you speak may not be new.”

Commonitorium, Chapter 22

Good advice, and another way to state Jude verse three, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Our duty is not to be innovators of the faith, but transmitters. I am glad there is a cloud of witnesses so that I don’t have to make things up, but I can largely see what the saints before me have believed and taught. If I can but faithfully echo what they have passed on, I will have been faithful in my duties as a minister of the Gospel.

So I continue to read, study, and pray as I enjoy my ever-widening circle of fellow members of the Body of Christ. I look forward to the day when we can worship God side-by-side in a the great multitude in Heaven. Maybe we’ll get to chat. Or maybe it won’t matter, because we’ll finally be face-to-face with God.

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Filed under Creeds, Saints, The Church