Tag: Forward in Christ magazine

Resisting Temptation to The Last Breath

Via Forward in Christ:

By Ray Sutton

“This is the great work of man; always to take blame for his own sins before God, and to expect temptations until his last breath.” St. Anthony the Great

So wrote St. Anthony the Great, considered to be the father of monasticism both East and West. Having inherited enormous wealth after both his parents died, Anthony was orphaned. Then one day he heard the words of Jesus Christ from St. Matthew’s Gospel, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions” (19:21). He sold and gave away all that he had.

Subsequently he entered the monastic life. At the time the way to do this was to live in community with other monks. Instead, Anthony of Egypt or Anthony of the Desert, as he is also referred to, chose life in a cave to live as an ascetic. There he engaged the hermitic (hermit or life alone) tradition of monasticism. 

In his life of solitude, Anthony also discovered spiritual warfare as he had never known it before. He fought virtually every kind of demon of temptation. St. Athanasius, his good friend, records and preserves St. Anthony’s teachings in the classic biography of his life, the Life of St. Anthony. Thus began the influence of St. Anthony on saints East and West.

Perhaps the most famous bishop and theologian in the West to be influenced by St. Anthony was St. Augustine; in the Eastern Church he is recognized as Blessed Augustine. The famed Bishop in North Africa, also considered to be one of the four Doctors of the Church, learned about St. Anthony from his friend Ponticianus. 

Ponticianus shared a story with Augustine about two of his friends who had discovered Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony. These two read St. Anthony’s Life together. One of them, an Imperial Inspector, found himself blurting out in the midst of their reading, “Tell me, please, what is the goal of our ambition in all these labors of ours? What are we aiming at? What is our motive in being in the public service? Have we any higher hope at court than to be friends of the Emperor… But if I should choose to be a friend of God, I can become one now.” It was then that he discovered through St. Anthony’s life that all his worldly ambition was nothing compared to friendship with God. Both men were converted from their reading of St. Anthony’s Life.

Upon learning of what happened to the two about whom Ponticianus related, Augustine read St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony. He writes in his Confessions of how at one point as a young, nineteen-year-old, he had prayed his legendary prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence but not yet.” After reading St. Anthony’s Life, he began to realize the time of “not yet” had come to an end. 

Shortly thereafter, he sat outside the Cathedral in Milan listening to St. Ambrose preach on the Epistle to the Romans. There on a bench he heard a child singing a song in the background, tolle et lege, which means “take up and read.” Looking down he saw a text from Romans. He read it and the rest as they say is history. Augustine converted, returning to the faith of his mother, Monica, who had prayed for him all during his sojourn resisting the call of God on his life.

Significantly, both the Eastern and Western traditions on resisting temptation emerge from St. Anthony. In the West, St. Augustine forges a path in his own autobiography, Confessions. Combined with his other commentaries and writings, he develops a theology and way of fighting sin and temptation on which others would build. From Dante to C.S. Lewis, we learn much about the techniques of old Scratch, the Devil. 

As for Lewis in particular, while studying at Oxford I joined the C.S. Lewis Club that often met at Pusey House, where I was doing most of my own doctoral research. I recall one evening that a speaker said, “Lewis provides in his writings perhaps the most extensive insight into the struggle with evil of any other in the Western Tradition of Christianity.” He went on to explain that Lewis had lived on the other side in the world of evil for much of his life. When he converted, he brought with him the detailed insights of the dark kingdom’s intrigue that entices so many with Faustian promises. Indeed, and he was given the gift of prose with which to communicate his insights about the ways of the Evil One with stories for children young and old. All of his writings if read carefully, are a tour de force on the corporate and individual ways of temptation.

In the Eastern Church, however, we find a tradition that provides perhaps the best analysis of the actual process of temptation. It is most clearly sketched in a work called the Philokalia. It is written by the 12th century St. Peter of Damascus, based on a collection of writings going back to the Church Fathers and other Eastern monastics. The process of temptation presented in the Philokalia builds primarily on a text from the Epistle of James in the New Testament. James writes:

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. “ (ESV)

James explains clearly that God is not the author of temptation; Satan is. God allows temptation as part of our testing. The classic example is Job. In the first chapter of this massive Old Testament book we learn that Satan had to ask permission to tempt Job. God gave it for the purpose of perfecting Job. The desired end for God was as James explains, “to receive the crown of life,” the ultimate reward for any believer. And as St. Anthony explains, temptation continues to our last breath. Temptation is endemic to our life in Christ just as it was part of His.

However, temptation is not sin. The fact that one is tempted does not mean he or she is weak or that a sin has been committed. Yet, temptation is the beginning of what can give birth to sin, to use James’ analogy. The Eastern Fathers and Desert Monks in the Philokalia provide us with a lucid development of the process. It is: 1. Provocation/bait; 2. disturbance/interaction/coupling; 3. assent; 4. captivity; 5. Passion. Sometimes disturbance and coupling are separated into two explaining why some will speak of six steps into the plunge into sin. The following is a simple explanation. I’ll explain them as a fivefold process combining 2 & 3.

First, temptation begins with provocation or as is sometimes called, bait. Fleeting thoughts or a surprising, unexpected situation enters the horizon of our journey with God. Satan is always ready through his minions, demons, to put bait on the hook to lure us into sin. Even when we’ve placed ourselves in a dangerous context, a target rich environment for sin, Satan takes advantage to offer temptation. He’s always ready to do this even if we’re not, and often especially, least expecting it.

Second, once the bait has been cast, a disturbance in our soul erupts leading to a coupling with sin. The thoughts and desires aroused are entertained. We begin to dwell on the sinful by forming images in our mind. We play with the image. We think we’ll be “okay” just for a moment to find pleasure in it. We often begin to experience emotional arousal over the images. This is a critical moment when we cross over into the beginning stage of sin.

Third, we give into conscious assent. This is sometimes described as the onset of seduction. We continue to find pleasure in the sinful thoughts. At the same time the soul may become further disturbed and even struggle. Then if not resisted, one decides to take action on the thought. Assent is given.

Fourth, the struggle continues to the point of becoming captive. A rationalization begins to provide a way to continue into some kind of action. No doubt by the grace of God we can choose to break free. If not, we become captivated to the point of being a prisoner to evil desire.

Fifth, passion overtakes us. The thoughts that have been enticing and increasingly envisioned begin to control us. They even start to form a habit. There may be a back and forth. But by being allowed to stay around too long in our thoughts, hearts, and lives, too persistently, and by being too passive to the temptation, the desire becomes a passion dominating our existence.

St. Maximus the confessor summarizes: “First the memory brings some passion-free thought into the intellect. By its lingering there, the passion is aroused. When passion is not eradicated, it persuades the intellect to assent to it. Once this assent is given, the actual sin is committed.”

The Good News of the New Testament is that Grace is greater than all our sin! Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the Liberator clad in His glorious armor to fight for us. But we must make a conscious choice to resist and to fight. We have a conscious choice at every stage of the temptation. St. Paul tells us to put on Christ and His armor (Ephesians 6). If we will, we can resist temptation.

Again, St. Maximus summarizes well the help that God will give to those who resist. He says, “Some temptations bring men pleasure, some grief, some bodily pain. The Physician of our souls by means of his judgments applies the remedy to each soul according to the cause of its passion” (The Ascetic Life and Four Centuries on Charity). 

The hope we have is perhaps best stated by St. John Climacus, “The sea is bound to be stirred up and roused and enraged, so to cast out of it again on to the dry land the wood, the hay, and the corruption that was brought down into it by the rivers of the passions. Let us watch nature, and we shall find that after the storm at sea there comes a deep calm.” In this life we taste of those intermittent calms. But to end where we began, the ultimate calm will not come according to St. Anthony until we take our last breath.

God help us to stay in the fight against the world, the flesh and the devil until we breathe our last. And then there will be calm as never known beside the still waters of heaven.

The Most Rev. Ray R. Sutton is the Presiding Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) and the Ordinary of the Diocese of Mid America.

Hark How all The Welken Rings

By Ray Sutton via Forward in Christ:

One of the best loved Christmas Carols is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Rightfully so. Charles Wesley, brother to the great Anglican evangelist, John Wesley, wrote the original lyrics in 1739. It’s a classic, even though adapted from its initial version. I still sing it with joy every Christmas, realizing the meaning of the original opening line.
A little-known fact is that Wesley’s version of the first sentence of the carol was actually, Hark How all the Welken Rings. The word welken is Middle English for heavens. The version altered and eventually handed down to us was modified in 1758 by George Whitefield. He was the Calvinist associate of the Wesleys, another Anglican evangelist. He changed the first line to, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The difference from heavens to angels on the face of it may seem insignificant. In reality the change loses the full force of not only the original biblical scene, but Wesley’s interpretation of it. Nothing against angels; they were indeed there gloriously singing the Gloria in Excelsis. The shift in language, nevertheless, loses something of the enormous cosmic and sacramental elements of the birth of Jesus Christ. For starters, heavens is more than the angels involved in the Incarnation.
To understand the dynamic difference of terminology, we should first consider the biblical passage on which the carol is based. The combination of the text and the theology of it, clarifies to whom and to what are the clouds of the heavens where angels dwell. The text is St. Luke’s account of the visitation of the Angel of the Lord to the shepherds in the field. 
The verses say that when the angel appeared, “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” a multitude of the heavenly host” joined him “praising God,” and they sang The Song of the Angels, as it’s also called. When the heavenly chorus stopped, St. Luke records that the angels “went away from them into heaven” (Luke 2:9). Yet he does not say that this heaven left them. It remained open releasing a series of miracles. 
A mysterious star appears, descends over the place of Christ’s birth, and leads kings from the east to the Christ Child. An evil king is thwarted. The Son of God is born in a manger amidst animals. The place of feeding became the food of the world. All of creation ends up beckoned into service of the Incarnation. This is the point of Wesley’s use of heavens and not only the angels. Whatever these heavens of heavens were and are, as the Ancient Church referred to them, much more was occurring than only singing angels.
If one reads the passage of Luke 2 observantly, the heavens that opened unveiled the glory of God. This was not simply the heaven as we know it by the term, sky. It was more. Rather, this heaven is what Wesley means when he says in first line of the second stanza, “Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord.” At the same time, that which we know as sky to the naked eye was apparently enveloped by the highest heaven. The implications are much more cosmic and sacramental with the word welken as Wesley conveys in his carol. 
First, let’s understand what the Scriptures mean when referring to the highest heaven. It is what the Bible calls the glory cloud of God. It is the glory space around the throne of the Triune God. Hence, when this highest heaven opened to the shepherds, we’re told and the angel of the Lord appeared, and more importantly, “glory shown all around.” Clearly this is the heaven to which Wesley refers in his carol when he says, “Christ by highest heaven adored.” 
Elsewhere in Scripture, this glory cloud is described in much the same way. A cloud of glory led Israel. It was just any cloud. It appeared as a cloud by day and fire by night. Eventually it came surrounded the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Angels were in this cloud. Cherubim stood at the four corners of the mercy seat extending their wings to form a canopy over it. 
Ezekiel saw into the same glory cloud with considerable detail provided, as recorded in the first chapter of his prophetic book. On the inside, Ezekiel observed a throne, a sea of glass, myriads of angels, and the same massive cherubim with faces of an ox, a human, a lion and an eagle. Their wings canopied altar throne on which the Lord God Almighty sat (Ezekiel 1). The fiery light of His presence penetrated the whole glory throne room. 
Isaiah the Prophet is also ushered into the highest heavens, resulting in his getting low and declaring, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6). St. John is also allowed to see and even enter into the same glory cloud. Not surprisingly he records identical phenomena presenting continuity between the heavenly worship of the Old and New Testaments. St. John even witnesses all the company of heaven bowing before God and saying exactly what Isaiah heard.
From the outside looking in, the glory cloud as described by Ezekiel and John, as well as other places in Scripture, is like an enormous raging cloud. This is why the Israelites saw what led them as a cloud by day and a fire by night. Elijah hid from this glory cloud in the cleft of a rock as it passed by him in the form of a storm, from which the Living God spoke to him. It is cosmic of enormous proportions. When it appears, it swallows up earthly sky as we know it.
To be even more biblically precise, the glory cloud is not an inanimate object. It is personal as in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Third Person of the Godhead throughout the Scriptures is actually the One who creates the glory space around the Living God seated on the altar throne. For this reason in the Old Testament He is called the Shekinah Glory. His fiery presence creates the glory of God. At Pentecost He births the Church where we’re told a great cloud filled the Temple. It is this very glory cloud that fills the Temple. The same the highest heaven opens upon the Apostles (Acts 2). 
Wesley captures this presence of the Person of the Holy Spirit in welken in the second stanza of his carol. He says, “Light and Life to All he brings, Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.” Whose wings would these be? 
They are the wings of the loving Dove of Heaven, the Holy Spirit, descending in the glorious cloud surrounding the shepherds to bring healing to the earth. The Holy Spirit surrounded the angels and all the shepherds that birth night. He came with the birth of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the wings of His presence that convey the glory of God shinning all around. More than simply the angels were present, and much more was happening than their singing, on that sacred birth night. Hence the word welken!
Second, with a more complete understanding of what was happening biblically and theologically when glory shone around the shepherds, we can begin to grasp the cosmic and sacramental effects of the Incarnation. This is what Wesley’s great hymn is about. Again, Wesley’s original version helps us to grasp this emphasis. 
In the second half of the first stanza of Wesley’s lyrics we find the words: “Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumph of the Skies, Universal Nature say, ‘CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!’” It’s true that Whitefield’s version says, “Joyful all ye Nations rise, Join the Triumphs of the Skies; Nature rise and worship him, Who is born at Bethlehem.” 
Whitefield could not escape the complete force of Wesley’s powerful insight. He says, “Nature rise and worship Him.” His version, however, does not entirely capture the sacramental implication of the cosmic reality of the highest heavens opening around the shepherds. Yes, all of creation worships the newborn Christ. There is so much more, however, in Wesley’s version. 
We find in his language, “Universal Nature says, ‘Christ the Lord is born this Day!’” That is, creation in some sense speaks. Heaven is swallowed up by the highest heaven, the glory cloud of God. All of creation is sacramentally restored by the coming of Jesus Christ to be what it was originally intended.
God initially made the created world to convey the spiritual, His presence. In the pages of the creation account in Genesis, God did not simply create a symbolic, physical world and then leave it run in some Deistic sense. Rather, God was really present in, with and through His creation. A Tree of Life was there with His presence such that to partake of it would have given eternal life. Then too, God walked in the garden. 
No doubt after the fall of humanity, some sense of God’s presence was lost from the earth. Yet even St. Paul tells the early Church at Rome that all of creation is revelational. It so bears the fingerprints of God that even the Doctrine of the Divine Trinity is embedded in the natural order (Romans 1:11ff.). He goes on to explain that so powerful is God’s presence with nature that humans worship the creation instead of the Creator. The two are not to be confused even though one is conveyed by the other. 
Nevertheless, the reality of God’s presence in the natural order was always intended to be there. Heaven participates in earth and vice versa. It is this heavenly participation between the highest heavens and shepherd’s fields that is restored at the Incarnation. In the words of Wesley, “Universal nature say, ‘Christ is born this Day!’”
Through the Incarnation, God once again used the physical to convey the spiritual. The world and its sky was overcome by the highest heavens. To begin with, Mary the Blessed Mother had already become Theotokos, God-Bearer. The highest heaven had opened to her. God became the physical, Man. He was born of this Holy Virgin when heaven opened again. 
Furthermore, the highest heaven would continue to be opened as a result of the Incarnation. At Jesus’s baptism the waters of the earth were re-valorized to be used in a sacred way. His baptism is remarkably similar to His birth. 
At this event, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove on Jesus (Luke 2:21). Is it any wonder that Jesus would later associate birth with baptism and a new birth! Thus, the Ancient Church emphasized the highest heaven opens at Holy Baptism, replicating Incarnational birth, only it’s the second birth for the one receiving it. With consecrated water, the baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity are really incorporated into Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6). 
Then too, the creation is used to feed the People of God in the New Covenant. When Bread and Wine are consecrated, they mystically become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. As He Himself declared over Bread and Wine at the Last Supper with those immortal words, “This is My Body; This is My Blood!” (Matthew 26). In short, in and by the Incarnation heaven really participates in earth and vice versa once again. The physical conveys the spiritual that it was originally intended to do. “Universal nature says, ‘Christ is born today!’”
Sadly, the later version of Wesley’s powerful carol based on Whitefield’s alteration, comes down to us today. The sacramentality of creation is somewhat denuded, though not completely. The version most of us know says, “Join the triumph of the skies, With the angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem.’” There is indeed a triumph of skies which we commemorate at Christ’s Mass, Christmas. We can still enjoy this great carol. Perhaps though, we can now read those words, “Join the triumph of the skies,” with a fuller comprehension of what Wesley intended. 
Even more, we can sing with joy the rest of Wesley’s great carol: “Mild he lays his Glory by, Born—that Man no more may die, Born—to raise the Sons of Earth, Born—to give them Second Birth”! So sacramental is the opening of the highest heavens at the Incarnation, the collect for Christmas Day via the celebration of Christ’s birth calls us back to our second birth in Holy Baptism:
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
May the welken ring anew for all of us this Christmas!