Editor: please enjoy this reflection by Brazos Fellow Emily Engelhardt.
Already it is Mid-February, and I am digging in my heels as the end of the fellows program looms on the horizon. Jesus’ question, “What are you seeking?” which he asks two of his disciples in the first chapter of John, has prompted me to refocus with these last few months of Brazos Fellows ahead.
We began in August asking the questions: Why devote nine months to the study of theology and church history? What is the purpose of this fellowship? Is it worth dedicating time and energy to this work?
The question of where to set our focus is not unique to Brazos Fellows. Life is ordered towards one thing or another, and we must all decide how to orient our lives. I fully expect to be on a lifelong journey of learning to focus and refocus my sight on God.
When I ask these questions, I immediately respond, how could I not study? Longing for God is manifested in seeking knowledge of Him. In the words of a prayer of St. Anselm: “I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves.” I love; therefore, I seek. As David writes in Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” In the next, Psalm 63, he cries: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry in weary land where there is no water.” This deep longing manifests itself in the lifelong pursuit of God.
The Desert Fathers offer one response to how we are to live in this pilgrimage on earth. They seek God through the discipline of their bodies. Ordering their lives towards heaven, as pilgrims passing through for a little while, they ask, How do we train our soul for this journey? Their answer: through the body. Physical disciplines are capable of molding the soul and orienting oneself towards God.
I am amazed at how the Desert Fathers order their physical and spiritual pursuits. Should you become prideful while fasting, stop your fast. Should a stranger visit your home, welcome them in and feast, for it is more important to be hospitable than to continue fasting. For who is their neighbor but Christ, and who could fast when the bridegroom is present? Even though bodily asceticism was crucial to the lives of the Desert Fathers, they sought to order their lives to Christ.
Several weeks ago, we dabbled in monastic theology by reading a chapter of The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean LeClercq. What distinguishes monastic theology, LeClercq points out, is the structured lifestyle that seeks to be ordered towards personal union with God, both on earth and in beatitude. The monastic life is marked by an intense desire and longing to be singly for God with one’s sight set on the telos of man: “loving union with the Lord in this life and in the hereafter.”
The monastic lifestyle is bent towards receiving, rather than achieving. Theology and understanding is revealed to them, not necessarily through the analysis and intense study of a text, but through contemplative prayer. What a different way of understanding knowledge! The object of love is Christ, and the orientation of their theology is one of receiving from Him: “God makes a total gift of Himself,” LeClercq writes, “in order to receive it, the Christian must make the commitment of his whole life.”
This raises the question: must I live in the desert or join a monastery to live a life ordered towards Christ?
St. Francis de Sales, the seventeenth-century spiritual theologian we studied last week, answers with a resounding no. There is a precious, and even necessary witness that the desert fathers and monks give to the Church and to the world, and they undoubtedly give themselves to God in a unique way that many of us cannot. It is difficult to overstate the importance of those who are willing to devote their lives to God in this way. However, this is not the only way to live a devout life. Rather, “the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strengths, activities, and duties of each particular person” so that “every vocation becomes agreeable with devotion”. Devotion adorns occupation, making a devout life possible in the secular world. “Wherever we may be, we can and should aspire to a perfect life,” de Sales writes. Wherever we may be charity and devotion can blossom.
Let us obey deSales’ exhortation to turn our eyes to Christ in meditation, allowing our soul to be filled with him. Let us use the gifts of bodily asceticism and structured prayer to seek the living God.
“Lord, here is this wretched heart of mine, which through your goodness has conceived many good affections. Alas, it is too weak and miserable to do the good that it desires to do unless you impart your heavenly blessing. For this purpose I humbly beg your blessing, O merciful father, through the merits of the passion of your Son, in whose honor I consecrate this day and all the remaining days of my life.”
–St. Francis de Sales