Essay / Misc.

Listful Christianity

I have attended a number of churches in a number of different states and countries over the years and one thing that they often had in common was a spiritual life simplified into lists. For example, to be a good Christian I was told to (1) attend church each Sunday (morning and evening); (2) to give to the church (preferably 10% or more); (3) have a daily quiet time (or at least read Our Daily Bread); and (4) pray. Now, don’t get me wrong, each of these is good and right. My issue was that my spiritual life was reducible to a list, sort of like a “Things to Do” list or the grocery list hanging on the refrigerator door. It all seemed too simple, too North American, if you will. Well, I sit corrected. Making lists for the spiritual life is nothing new. In fact, it is at least as old as the early fifth century.

John Cassian was probably born about 360 somewhere within the area of modern Romania. By the year 400, Cassian had spent time in the monastic enclave known as the Egyptian desert and then found himself in Constantinople being ordained to the diaconate by the great bishop and homiletician John Chrysostom. Thereafter, Bishop John sent him to Rome where Bishop Innocent ordained him to the priesthood, finally settling down in Marseilles (in modern France). At Marseilles, he founded two monasteries and wrote three important works: The Institutes, The Conferences and On the Incarnation of Christ against Nestorius. He died sometime in the 430s. His list appears in Book 4.41 of The Institutes and though technically written for monks, its applicability to all Christians is, I think, unquestioned. The list only contains four items:

1. Do not hear
2. Do not open your mouth
3. Do not rebuke anyone
4. Make yourself foolish in this world

These are done, writes Cassian,

so that–putting aside the contemplation of him who has been rightly chosen by you as your model of perfection–you should be like a blind man and not see any of those things which you find to be unedifying, nor be influenced by the authority or fashion of those who do these things, and give yourself up to what is worse and what you formerly condemned. If you hear any one disobedient or insubordinate or disparaging another or doing anything different from what was taught to you, you should not go wrong and be led astray by such an example to imitate him; but, ‘like a deaf man,’ as if you had never heard it, you should pass it all by. If insults are offered to you or to any one else, or wrongs done, be immovable, and as far as an answer in retaliation is concerned be silent ‘as one that is dumb’… exercising no discrimination and judgment of your own on any of those matters which are commanded to you, but always showing obedience with all simplicity and faith, judging that alone to be holy, useful, and wise which God’s law or the decision of your superior declares to you to be such.

Well, it’s a list all right but it’s a far cry from the lists that I have been exposed to over the years. The lists given to me were, in fact, too simple. I could check the items off “my” list each day that made me feel good about myself and how I was maturing as a Christian. “My” list made me feel good, Cassian’s list frightens me. You see, I’m a talker and a university professor. Neither bodes well for one who is not supposed to open his mouth, rebuke someone or make himself foolish. Did I mention that I do not always listen well either?

Cassian’s list helps me to see that you can, in fact, make a list to quantify the spiritual life. It also helps me to realize that such a list should have items on it that are difficult to attain. Cassian’s list would rarely have check marks next to it indicating that the item has been “done.” Rather, it is a list that one strives over a lifetime to achieve. For Cassian’s audience they needed the assistance of a monastery to help live up to this list! In God’s grace we may not need a monastery but we will need His help.

So, is it wrong to have a spiritual life list that includes church attendance, giving, Bible study and prayer? Of course not. Perhaps that list is just too short. Perhaps we need Cassian’s list as well. A list of eight items — or more. Did I mention that Cassian also has a list to gauge the level of one’s humility? It has nine items. I am beginning to like lists. I think I’ll make one.

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