Tag Archives: monasticism

St. Stephen of Sweden: Of Odin, Evangelism, and the Ascension

2 Jun

“The blood of Christians is seed.”

We re-watched Thor: Ragnarok (2017) the other night. What a fun ride – lots of laughs, lots of fun amid the wreckage and (bloodless) carnage. It’s representative of the best in superhero films – the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously, and their characters don’t either. Thor and his movies are particularly enjoyable, however, because of the cognitive dissonance: You’d expect a guy named “Ant-Man” to be self-deprecating and goofy; you wouldn’t expect the Norse god of thunder to be so.

Not that there aren’t darker moments in Ragnarok – like when Odin, a preeminent deity and Thor’s dad, fades away (or dies, or its equivalent – you’re never quite sure in the Marvel universe). In a sense, though, Odin is still very much with us: We commemorate his legacy the middle of every week, for Wednesday (that is, Woden’s day) is named in his honor.

Did you know that? Yes, the days of our modern week are residual shout-outs to ancient pagan gods and their associated planets. Sun-day and moon-day, plus Thor’s day and Saturn’s day, and the rest. Yet, if the worship of Odin and his crew was so entrenched in the past that we’d still be remembering them every day of the week today, how is it that they and their followers have disappeared – just like Odin did in Ragnarok?

We can credit the likes of St. Stephen of Sweden for that, and this happens to be his feast (June 2). Stephen was an 11th-century monk of Saxony’s New Corbie (or Corvey) Abbey. “From its cloisters went forth a stream of missionaries who evangelised Northern Europe,” reads the Catholic Encyclopedia, and Stephen was among them.

He was consecrated a missionary bishop and dispatched to Sweden where paganism stubbornly held sway. Apparently St. Stephen was tremendously successful in his efforts to preach the Gospel, for conversions were rife. So much so that Swedish devotees of Odin decided the good bishop needed to be silenced, and they murdered him in a murky forest around the year 1075.

Now, there are some historians who say that Stephen of Sweden never existed, and that he was an amalgam figure concocted via folk traditions to account for a variety of secular cultural practices – namely festivals and horse racing and other mid-winter rioting on and about December 26, St. Stephen’s day (but that other St. Stephen, the deacon and protomartyr from Acts 7). Maybe, but these kinds of tricky historical conundrums are hard to sort out a thousand years later.

In any case, there’s no question that somebody like St. Stephen got in there and starting mixing it up with the Odin-worshippers around that time. “Norse beliefs persisted until the 12th century, and Sweden was the last Scandinavian country to be Christianised by Catholic missionaries,” reports the country’s official website. “In 1164, it became a so-called ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church and Catholicism became firmly established.”

In addition to St. Stephen’s feast, today is also Ascension Sunday for most U.S. Catholics, and we heard in the Gospel the Lord telling the Apostles that they’d be his witnesses everywhere. “Behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” Jesus tells them before he ascended, “but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

He’s talking about the power of Pentecost, and it’s the power that St. Stephen and his ilk must’ve drawn on when they fearlessly proclaimed Christ throughout pagan Scandanavia. Such actions may have cost them their lives, as it did the Apostles, but their drawing on that power nonetheless made it possible for the Church to take root there and flourish.

We could use some of that power today. Come Holy Spirit.

A Glimpse of Mary’s Garden

22 Feb


“The whole Mountain’s my home.”
~ Br. Klement, a monk of Athos

Do you have a short list of retreat books? I don’t mean books that you’d take on retreat for edification and spiritual insight. No, I mean books that are themselves retreats – books that you can escape into and can do so repeatedly with confidence: Every time you re-read one, without fail, you find yourself interiorly slipping away to some foreign realm of refreshment.

My list of retreat books includes A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth saga and virtually any Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse. Better tolerated than pharmaceuticals and booze, and cheaper than weekend tropical jaunts, retreat books are allow us to calm the spirit and shed a day’s stress by ushering us into parallel worlds – however briefly – that become ever more familiar and comfortable with each successive immersion.

Many books do those things, but retreats books do so repeatedly and predictably, and there’s no way to know ahead of time which ones will make the cut – which ones, that is, that will stand up to a second reading after an hiatus, and then a third reading, and more.

On the other hand, we can sometimes have a hunch about new reads, and it can take two different forms. The first is palpable disappointment that a book we’re finishing for the first time has an ending at all – as in, “Phooey! I only have two chapters to go!” The second form of the hunch crops up once we’ve actually reached the end, the last page is turned, and our minds are flooded with enthusiastic anticipation – “Maybe if I set it aside for a year (or six months, or a month?), I can jump back into it afresh!”

Then there’s that rare volume that elicits both responses in abundance. Such was the case recently as I finished reading Sydney Loch’s Athos: The Holy Mountain. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable place. Mt. Athos is the Greek peninsula that has been populateathos_bookd exclusively by Orthodox monks for over a thousand years. Its claim to fame in the popular imagination is its total exclusion of females – entirely and completely. Nothing politically correct about Athos, that’s for sure, but the intention isn’t at all misogynist but rather penitential: The celibate monks of Athos are deadpan serious about their laser focus on holiness, and so they’ve created an entire society where, in the words of Peter Maurin, “it is easier for men to be good.”

I inherited Loch’s book from Tom, my bibliophile father-in-law, along with numerous other books associated with Mt. Athos – like Pennington’s O Holy Mountain! and several copies of the multi-volume Philokalia. “Here,” he’d say, shoving another volume at me, virtually every time I saw him, “have you read this yet?” Assembled on Mt. Athos by St. Nicodemus in the eighteenth-century, the Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual writings that has exerted a tremendous influence on Orthodox piety, and it’s a testimony to the far-reaching influence of Athos itself.

Catholics don’t really have anything that parallels Athos in terms of spiritual clout. We have the Benedictine tradition and the Franciscan tradition and the Carmelite tradition – a host of spiritual traditions, in other words, that appeal to individuals according to their particular tastes and inclinations. For the Orthodox, however, monasticism is the dominant spiritual heritage – the “very soul of the Eastern Churches,” according to St. John Paul II – and Athos is like Orthodox monasticism’s 800-pound gorilla. Its origins as a monkish settlement trace back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, and tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself designated the land as her own special garden.

Tom and his recommendations about Athos came to mind as I rummaged our stacks last month and happened upon Sydney Loch’s memoir of the Holy Mountain. I was in desperate need of a reliable retreat read – the polar vortex had swooped down on us with a ferocious bite, and the stress of nighttime hospital clinicals was weighing heavily – so I was tempted to go with the tried and true. In the end, however, I decided to skip my trustworthy Wodehouse and honor Tom’s memory by giving Loch a shot.

It was a fabulous and providential choice, and my only regret was that I didn’t put it off a few weeks so that it could be Lenten reading. Delving into Loch’s Athos book was like following a seasoned author’s travel blog in real time – evocative, punchy, occasionally reflective, always engaging. What’s more, it was a travelogue that doubled as a succinct and illathos_mapuminating history, mapping out the contours of the unique promontory’s rich and ancient past. Plus, on account of its subject matter, Loch’s Athos turned out to be a retreat book that not only provided escape, but spiritual refreshment as well.

And it was a spiritual refreshment of an unusually ecumenical character. Loch himself was a Scottish Protestant, but he was clearly comfortable with Roman Catholicism, he worked for Quakers, and he eventually became intimately familiar with Orthodox doctrine and practice. This cosmopolitan religious sensibility, so evident in his plainspoken and respectful manner of taking the Athonite monks on their own terms, was rooted in a lifetime of travel, service, and experience, both in peacetime and in war.

As a naturalized Australian, Loch joined his adopted country’s army at age 17 and fought in the initial stages of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. A bout of dysentery took him away from the front and gave him the freedom to write up his observations about the horrors of battle.

Loch’s memoir of Gallipoli, The Straits Impregnable, was so graphic that it could only be published as a work of fiction (and under an assumed name, Sydney de Loghe) in order to avoid scaring off new recruits. Eventually, the truth surfaced that the book was in fact a realistic depiction of the conflict, agallipol3__jpg_633x270_crop_q85nd it was banned by the military censors.

Regardless of the book’s fate, Loch himself was intent on exorcising the demons of his wartime trauma – a phenomenon captured by the title of the latest edition of his Gallipoli book, To Hell and Back – and he devoted the rest of his life to selfless humanitarian work. He and his wife, Joice, a celebrated author and humanitarian in her own right, worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of war and persecution in Poland, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Eventually, the couple settled in Ouranoupolis, a village at the very threshold of Athos and its effective gateway community.

That proximity to Mary’s garden and the peaceful world of the Athonite monks seems to have provided the healing that Loch yearned for, and he became a regular visitor on the Mountain, recording details about his wanderings and contacts that he began assembling into a book in the early 1950s. Sydney died unexpectantly after finishing his manuscript, but with only the first six chapters edited and typed. His beloved and devoted wife put together the final chapters of the book after Sydney’s death, remaining in their village home in order to, in her words, “edit and type the book in the atmosphere in which it was written.”

And Loch himself? Was the lingering anguish of his Gallipoli ordeal dispelled in the end? Neither he nor his wife refer to it directly, so you’ll have to read Loch and draw your own conclusions – that is, if you can locate a copy of Athos, because it is long out of print. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that this entire essay is a tathos_lochhinly veiled attempt to conjure up popular support for getting Loch’s book back in print and into the hands of readers.)

As for me, I have no doubt. Throughout his book, and despite sectarian differences, Loch assumes a unanimity with his tranquil brothers of the Mountain. He exudes equanimity and peacefulness, and his accounts of events, places, and, especially, people, are replete with affection and even playfulness.

And then there’s this – a confessio of sorts that appears without warning or fanfare in one of the earlier sections of the book, and worth quoting at length:

Wakening to the transcendence of God. God in the stones, in the sky, in the trees. In the gnat. And the trumpeting elephant. On with the sandals. Down from the shelf with the script. Along the highway to reality.

Wakening to the Immanence of God. Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out. The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss! To the desert! To the cave!

Loch had been to hell and back, and he was now living on the doorstep of paradise and Mary’s own spiritual greenhouse – a foretaste of heaven, where God’s infinite transcendence and condescending immanence are right there for the taking, right there in reach!

It’s Lent and time for a parched desert of deprivation and sacrifice. Even so, make room for some refreshment along the way, and track down a copy of Loch’s Athos. It’ll be like a visit to a garden – a very special Garden indeed.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.


3 Nov

Last Saturday, NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Eric Pulido of the Texas rock band Midlake. In the course of the interview, Pulido passed along this tip to start-up bands everywhere:

I remember Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips once told us, ‘You know, if I could give you one piece of advice … .’ And we’re all waiting with bated breath to hear what Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips would send down from heaven and give us this piece of advice. And he says, ‘Just stay together.’

Just stay together. Pulido went on to say, “You know, it was so simple, but it’s right.”

Indeed, it is a wise bit of counsel, and it’s been around a long time. Monks, for example, have always known about staying together — at least, they’ve lived it since the sixth century when St. Benedict instituted the vow of stability.  Stability is one of the defining characteristics of Benedictine life: When a novice makes a final profession of vows, he or she isn’t just committing to the Order or to a way of life in general, but also to a particular spot, and to the other people who have permanently tethered themselves to that same particular spot.Monte_Cassino_Opactwo_1

Benedict was hoping to avoid the pitfalls that other forms of religious life had taken in his day. For example, when describing a nomadic form of religious life, St. Benedict decried its rootlessness and its concomitant decadence:

But the fourth class of monks is that called Landlopers, who keep going their whole lifelong from one province to another, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite.

Benedict’s solution was simple: His monks would stay put, and in so doing, they’d be forced to overcome their faults and curb their excesses rather than indulge them.

A few years back, Gretchen Rubin wrote a piece for Slate about some contemporary applications of this wisdom, most notably in reference to our troubled institution of marriage:

Marriage is a vow of stability, made with the conviction that by committing yourself to one person, you’re better able to achieve happiness than by searching continually for the ‘perfect’ person and that the ordinariness that descends on it after the early exhilaration and novelty wear off is, in fact, one of its most prized aspects.

Really, a terrific jolt of clear insight — one borne out by those of us who have abided by the stability part of the marriage vows through thick and thin, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and all the rest. But, is that really all there is to it? Just stay together — that’s it? Stay together, no matter what, and you’ll have a successful rock band, monastery, and/or marriage?

Not a chance. For one thing, there are clearly extenuating circumstances which might require the busting up of any one of those relations of stability — marriage being the most painful example. When there is abuse or neglect or mortal peril, then stability no longer applies. If heeded regardless of toxic circumstances, stability in marriage becomes a tool of manipulation and guilt, and no longer something oriented to nurturing joy, fruitfulness, and love.

Yet, even without such extreme conditions, good marriages — stable marriages in other words — clearly require more than merely staying together. Stability is not an end in itself, but rather makes possible the conditions required for communions and communities to flourish — namely proximity and time. People who live together get on each others’ nerves. Stability means that we learn to work out our differences instead of fleeing.

Consider again Benedict’s directives for new monks. As important as stability was (and is) to Benedict’s followers, it was never meant to be a panacea. Instead, it’s like a canvas — rather, it’s like the frame of a canvas. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.” Monastic life — and married life, and family life for that matter — explodes with a hundred colors on a taut, blank fabric, forming a landscape of reckless imagination. Stability is like the frame which provides limits and delineation, compelling the artist(s) to be disciplined in expression and creativity.

marriage.pToward that end, the other two characteristic Benedictine vows need to be highlighted here: Obedience and conversion of morals. Through mutual respect and deference (obedience), as well as the pursuit of holiness and the avoidance of vice (conversion of morals), those in monastic and married life can create something beautiful. They can find true bliss within the confines of their stability. And it is confining, but confining in a liberating way, for the confinement compels them to liberate themselves from pettiness and pride.

Chesterton, himself a devoted husband, wrote of nuptial stability in this startling way: “Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.” Yes — until death do us part. Love, to be sure; joy and delight, no doubt. But between the vows and the final leave taking, there are battles of will and agenda and different visions of the future. The spouse-combatants have bound themselves together for the purpose of getting each other to heaven, along with all the little souls God chooses to entrust to them, so they must come to terms. Survival (eternal and otherwise) is goal number one, and it is contingent on husbands and wives surrendering to Providence and, through Providence, to one another. In truth, it’s contingent on them becoming saints — not isolated on some desert isle, but right smack dab in the midst of turbulent family life!

Hang on. Stability is a wild ride.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Off the Grid…kinda’

27 Oct

I suppose this is a sequel of sorts to my post about getting “Off the Grid” and fostering silence in our busy lives. A version of that post appeared on Catholic Exchange, and it generated a response from one “Mugger Malcolmridge.” Here’s Mugger’s comment in full:

Richard, I’m very much in agreement with you regarding the value of silence. But why listen to NPR?

As they used to say on Monty Python, “It’s a fair cop.”

Alright, I admit it: I listen to NPR — lots of it. Diane  Rehm, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Car Talk on the weekends. I also listen to Rush Limbaugh from time to time. And the audio from the PBS NewsHour on WSND in the evenings.

Plus, I read the Wall Street Journal daily. And the South Bend Tribune on the weekends. And The Economist. And The Utne Reader when I can get it. And The Week.

That’s a lot, I know. But then, I’m not a monk. I’m a dad. With a job. I have kids to raise. I vote.

“Mugger” was right to challenge somebody who urges silence and detachment from worldly media noise while quoting stories from NPR and major newspapers. And I’m grateful, of course, that he took the trouble to make any kind of response to my post, positive or negative. (Thanks, Mugger, btw).

But I feel compelled to defend myself: The call to silence and detachment for those of us in the world is a relative one.

Recently, a friend reminded me of a familiar saying attributed to Karl Barth:Barth_Writing

Pray with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.

Profound, yes, but apparently Barth never actually said those exact words. What he did say, though, was more subtle, and even more profound.

Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.

That’s a quotation lifted from a 1963 interview in Time, and here’s some more:

A theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash.

Barth was suggesting that Christians not only pray with both Bible and newspaper in hand, but also to do theology that way, yet always with an eye toward the Bible first. We need to know and understand the world we inhabit and hope to minister to, true enough. Nevertheless, that knowledge and understanding must be framed and informed by our knowledge and understanding of Divine Revelation.

This is something the Carthusians have always known and practiced, and why I imagine St. Thomas More so readily adopted their spirituality to his busy secular life. On the one hand, the Carthusians are bound by their charism and their Statutes to cut themselves off from things like NPR:

[G]reat abnegation is required, especially of the natural curiosity that men feel about human affairs.

We should not allow our minds to wander through the world in search of news and gossip; on the contrary, our part is to remain hidden in the shelter of the Lord’s presence. We should therefore avoid all secular books or periodicals that could disturb our interior silence.

That’s all well and good, of course, and certainly understandable given their cloistered and rigorously detached vocation. Nevertheless, the Cathusian Statutes continue:

The heart, however, is not narrowed but enlarged by intimacy with God, so that it is able to embrace in him the hopes and difficulties of the world, and the great causes of the Church, of which it is fitting that monks should have some knowledge.

If it’s true that even Carthusian monks should have some knowledge of the world, how much more so those of us who actually live and function in it. And, if I may be so bold, this is especially true for those of us blessed IGS12with children who require guidance and instruction and familiarization regarding the world they themselves will have to inhabit and navigate.

Still, and in deference to Mr. Malcolmridge, it’s true that we Catholics, lay and religious alike, have to be cautious with regards to the degree to which we sully our souls with the things of the world. Here, too, the Carthusians guide our way forward:

Nevertheless our concern for the welfare of men, if it is true, should express itself, not by the satisfying of our curiosity, but by our remaining closely united to Christ. Let each one, therefore, listen to the Spirit within him, and determine what he can admit into his mind without harm to interior converse with God.

No doubt, I listen to my radio more than I need to, and I could probably skip the newspaper from time to time in favor of more time in prayer. In silence.

All true. But it’s a matter of balance, and not complete abstinence. Even the Carthusians, in their solitude, know what’s going on in the world. We do well to follow their example.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

%d bloggers like this: