“Capacitated For Living Baptismally: Martyrial Living, Liturgical Asceticism, and Quotidian Existence”
Mark S. Medley
Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (Georgetown, KY)
The award-winning 2010 film Of Gods and Men is based on the true story of a small group of Trappist monks who inhabit the Notre-Dame de l’Atlas monastery in the Atlas Mountains near Tibhirine southwest of Algiers in northern Algeria. The fictionalized subject of the film is the internationally-publicized 1996 incident during which seven monks were caught up in the drama of the ongoing Algerian Civil War and assassinated. The film artfully captures the formative reality of the liturgy and liturgical prayer into which the community routinely enters. The viewer of the film sees “the brothers gather in the chapel to sit in rows facing one another and pray the antiphonal psalmody” that comprises the bulk of the liturgy of the hours. It is this life of prayer and worship (along with work), which trains the monks to embrace martyrial life, an “already surrendered life.”1
The convergence of martyrial living and liturgical asceticism is especially poignant in the last scene in which the brothers gather for their customary chanting of the divine office. As the monks sing the office a helicopter approaching the monastery grounds drowns out their voices. The viewer is then brought into the chapel and sees the monks. “At first [the brothers] hesitate in their singing. Then instinctively they move together from their antiphonal arrangement to form an interlocked semi-circle. . . . Looking upward toward the sound above, they resume their prayerful song. As the helicopter noise swells, so do their voices.”2 Cognizant and scared of the potentiality of violence, the brothers prayerfully sing, embracing their “already surrendered lives.”
In Why Study the Past?, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams claims that the martyr’s story “is the most dramatic but also the simplest possible demonstration of what ‘church’ means.”3 Yet, for Williams, today’s public performance of martyrdom, as the reception of one’s being in Christ, is chiefly witnessed in the undramatic, mundane, and ordinary routines and activities of daily life. This is not to say that martyrdom is not a possibility latent in Christian existence, for all Christians are called to the witness of Christ that might result in literal martyrdom.4 However, Williams recasts a reception of the concept of martyrdom so as to call Christians to martyrial living in the quotidian character of daily existence. As such, martyrial life is a living into and out of the rite of baptism, every Christian’s dying and then rising to new life in Christ, as a confession of a life “defined by the sovereignty of God’s free gift.”5
To further explore Williams’s understanding of martyrdom and quotidian existence (and illuminate the convergence martyrdom and asceticism identified in Of Gods and Men), I will appeal to liturgical theologian David Fagerberg’s concept of “liturgical asceticism.” Liturgical asceticism is the life-long training to be capacitated for living through what believers see, smell, taste, and experience in the liturgy, namely, human being in filial communion with God the Father. Liturgically rooted, askesis has as its goal the cultivation of a life of “right worship” in the quotidian character of human existence.
After placing Williams and Fagerberg in conversation in order to reflect on living baptismal existence in an “ordinary,” martyrial-ascetical key, a concluding section explores how the (liturgical) ascetical practice of prosoche (attention), of beholding the beauty and brokenness of others, ourselves, and the world with fierce attention, as learned in the season of Epiphany, disciplines believers to see, inhabit, and tend to the world fully and deeply.
Baptism, Martyrial Living, and Quotidian Existence6 In his chapter on the church in Tokens of Trust,Williams offers an extremely concise understanding of baptism. Drawing upon imagery from Genesis 1 and Romans 6, Williams says that baptized persons “have disappeared under the surface of Christ’s love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads, and then, like the old world rising out of watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world. So when the Church baptizes people, it says what it is and what sort of life its people live.”7 Baptism, for Williams, submerges the believer into the kenotic movement of Jesus’ life- death-resurrection. The profound depth of the transformation from an old identity to a new one is expressed in terms of the community being utterly “overwhelmed” by the life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus.
Williams declares that the baptized person disappears under the surface of Christ’s love and reappears as a different person. He has in mind baptism as an imprinting upon the baptized “the mark of Easter,” committing the baptized to testify to and manifest the risenness of Jesus in life shared in his company.8 For Williams the sacramental action of baptism as tracing “a transition from one sort of realty to another” is an act in which the personal, the interpersonal, the social and the political are inseparable.9 It is “for the specific commission to die at the hands of the powerful of this earth, to realize God’s power through the gift of one’s own life to him . . . , so that the washing of the convert becomes an identification with [Jesus’] death, [his] gift and [his] empowering.”10 In the living water the baptized pledge, as creatures pneumatically inducted in Christ, to be formed and transformed in “the social idiom of the Gospel” vis-à-vis the idiom of the empire.11 In other words, baptism is not only a political but a martyrial act whereby believers hand over their future to God without denying or retreating from the world, committing themselves to witnessing to God’s purposes and God’s hope in the daily routines of life. While literal martyrdom is, in fact, simply the completion of one’s baptismal vow, what Williams has in mind is baptism as one’s martyrdom, as the commencement of a daily, existential death in Christ. If baptism is martyrial in character, how does Williams understand the act and discipline of martyrdom?
While literal martyrdom is a political and spiritual act which fulfills baptismal confession, martyrdom can also be understood as a spiritual askesis that calls Christians to adjust one’s bodily existence in the world so as to perform the radically new way of life that God has wrought in Christ’s kenosis. In living into and out of their baptismal vow and identity, the martyr’s actions witness to a disciplined way of life rooted in “an unwillingness to grab hold of a handle on history and a willingness to accept the cost of this decision.”12 The logic of such a witness is “the antithesis” of “self-directed choice.”13 Martyrdom is a most explicit way of life that gives up the assumption of being in control, the desire to seek security; it is an expression of a way of living life as a condemnation of all our attempts to secure for ourselves a kind of consolation, the kind of security which Christ refused.
The literal form of martyrdom is still a possibility for some global Christians. Yet, for North American and European Christians the political, cultural, and religious environment is significantly different from the second and third centuries, or the religious upheavals of the Reformation. Perpetua’s form of living martyrially, for example, is not likely to be experienced today. Fully knowledgeable of the contextual chasm between then and now, and suspicious of “heroic death,” Williams seeks to discern a different, or non-dramatic, form of martyrdom.14 He calls upon contemporary Christians to imagine how to always carry in their personal and ecclesial body the kenotic death of Christ, considering what holiness is and how it can be performed in the routines of daily existence. In the “daily art of faith” God’s freedom and mercy irrupt, pneumatically gifting the wounded body of Christ to obedience without drama.15
In Christ on Trial Williams recalls his time in South Africa during the mid 1980s. The oppression and violence of Apartheid brought about a “moral clarity” in his thinking while living there, and lead him to consider the question: how can martyrdom be conceived of today for the Christian? Martyrdom, according to Williams, disciplines the Christian to live “at home in the world.”16 He argues that part of Christian formation is learning to live life which renounces drama or the dramatic gesture.17 What he means is that a contemporary interpretation of martyrdom is not about a historic or heroic literal or analogical reenactment of the martyr’s public trial in the contemporary situation. Rather, martyrdom is about “freedom from the imperatives of violence.”18 That is, it names a way of living that exemplifies the conviction that Jesus is Lord in the non-dramatic, quotidian context of daily life. Martyrdom is “the ultimate statement of belonging in and to the world as God made it, not to a particular order of earthly authority.”19 It is a mode of living into and out of the baptismal vow, a pattern which embodies a way of life not ruled by calculation and efficiency but by a “faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat” and failure, even death, “by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works” among his followers, a people “aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.”20 It is a pattern of living in which the believer dispossesses herself of security and control, just as Christ did, with the knowledge that human life is sustained from the depths of God’s triune life.
It is here asserted that Williams’s vision of the quotidian character of martyrdom as truthful living “where we are” can be understood as a meditation on the practice of Christian life as the full acceptance of the risky nature of pursuing faithfulness to Christ in this world as pledged in the baptismal pool.21 Believers must learn to engage in faithful, kenotic performance to Jesus Christ in mundane tasks, in ordinary time, in the present moment.22 The art of living such a life, according to Williams, requires that the believer learn to renounce expectation of the world. “I have to face, and face down, my boredom, my expectation that the world will always give me satisfying roles to play. To put it more positively, I have to make an art of ordinary living.”23 In a sense, “to face down . . . my expectation” involves, for Williams, a matter of being crucified, and of being raised to new life, in Christ. It is a serious and faithful working out of baptismal life, which is a matter of “switching off . . . those very systems and stimuli” that claim to make sense of the world, and freed to hear, to receive, and to be in what Christ is saying, doing, and suffering in the present.24 In this sense, baptismal life as martyrial life is not “unworldly” but worldly.
With an active confidence that we live in God’s time, according to Williams the art of ordinary living requires, among other habits, that the Christian person and Christian communities learn to live toward the “otherness” of the other, living freely from the grip of fear and control dictated by the powers of the world. It is to live “not out of anxiety that if something is not done our whole reality will collapse or deliver us into the hands of someone or something else, but out of the inner pressure to ‘incarnate’ what has been given to us, to give it flesh, voice and locality.”25
“Living in the truth,” Williams concludes, “involves the same sober attention to what is there--to the body, the chair, the floor, the voice we hear, the face we see--with all the unsatisfactoriness that this brings. Yet this is what it means to live in the kingdom where Jesus rules, the kingdom that has no frontiers to be defended.”26 This challenging characterization of living a Christian life calls one to truthful living--humble, peaceful, patient, non-dramatic living in the temporal moment and in one’s local place in an anxious world that has yet to acknowledge the Lord.
Liturgical Asceticism If William offers a conception of the quotidian character for martyrial existence for a 21st century North Atlantic context, then how can martyrial living be cultivated? How can Christians be capacitated for living into and out of dying and rising in Christ? By what possible discipline can Christians learn to perform bodily the self-dispossession of Christ in the ordinary routines and activities of daily existence? To address these questions I wish to appeal to the idea of liturgical asceticism.
A neo-logism coined by Notre Dame theologian David Fagerberg, as far as I can discern, liturgical asceticism expresses the effort to integrate the Eastern Orthodox tradition of asceticism with recent Western thought on liturgy. He argues that asceticism is necessary for understanding liturgy as the ground of theology. While asceticism is quite often associated with the desert sands of Egypt and Palestine, it is, in fact, the demand of all Christians. Asceticism is not something esoteric to, or on the edges of, Christianity, rather it is, as Aidan Kavanagh puts it, “native to the Gospel and required of all.”27 It is a disciplined, traditioned way of ordering our desires in relation to God in order to perform Christian existence so as to make oneself available to God’s kenotic love in the daily pilgrimage towards one’s deification.
What is Liturgical Asceticism?
Evagrius of Ponticus, a fourth-century Egyptian desert monk, developed an ascetical theology, which identified three stages of the Christian life: praktikē, physikē, and theologia.28 Ascending to the summit of prayer, identified with the third stage, theologia, is an arduous, ascetical exercise. “Reaching this liturgical zenith require[s] disciplined training, which is just what the word askesis means.” The root of the word asceticism implies a disciplined regime of training designed to produce a pattern of action, thought, attitude, and disposition. “Within [an ascetical] context, theology is less the ‘fruit’ of an academic program, and rather the fruit of a rightly-ordered existence.”29 Such an ascetical capacity of theology, inspired by liturgy, is born in waters of the font of life (even if the efforts to perfect it took place in desert sands). As Fagerberg says, asceticism “capacitates a person for liturgy. It is the asceticism that liturgy directly inspires.” It is liturgical because its telos is theosis not moral accomplishment. While liturgical asceticism involves moral re-formation, it is a synergistic union of divine love for humanity and human desire for the divine. Its involves the “energies of the Holy Spirit at work through the sacramental life of the Church” charismatically gifting human transfiguration so persons can take the divine hand for ascent up the ladder that attains to beatitude. 30
Indeed, liturgical asceticism, according to Fagerberg, is how the liturgy capacitates the baptized for becoming Godly.31 He defines liturgy as “the Trinity’s perichoresis kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.”32 Such a definition of liturgy evokes Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity where the viewer is invited by the Holy Spirit’s outstretched hand to join the eucharistic, self-giving life of the Three-are-One. To ascend pneumatically into the life of God, like the sweet fragrance of incense arising toward the heavens in worship, is to be caught up in the relational currents of ecstatic love so as to cooperate in the martyrial leitourgia of God. If liturgy is the participation of the body of Christ in the praise and contemplation of the triune God and asceticism is the capacitation of the baptized for that participation, then “the end of liturgical asceticism is sharing in God’s life, rightly called theologia.”33
Why is Liturgical Asceticism Necessary?
Liturgical asceticism is thus the discipline that transforms our body and vision so as to apprehend, or at least to be on the way toward apprehending, the mystery of God and God’s rule in its fullest capacity. It is the embodiment of, or the somatic disciplining for, the Christian (liturgical) life;34 it is “the cost of being made more Christoform in order to commit liturgy.”35 In Christian liturgy—at its best—Christians are trained not only to confess, repent, petition, bless, praise, and so forth. Christian are also disciplined to interrogate the world and to imagine alternative ways things should be. In other words, a dimension of the costly practice of committing the liturgy is an asceticism of vision and imagination, body and desire, whereby Christians learn to feel at home in God’s vision of life and the world (and learn to feel not so quite at home in the world as it is). Liturgy trains Christians to recognize the more real, to have “a half-tied vision of things,” gradually transformed into an emerging clarity, freed to see things as they truly are.36 To attain our divinely ordered end—“the liturgical posture of homo adorans”—and to come to understand something new and significant about the mystery of Christ in whom all things hold together (cf. Col 1:15) requires liturgical asceticism.37 So, liturgical asceticism is a form of divine therapy intended “to fulfill our liturgical vocation of standing in union with Christ before the Father and as Christ’s body in the world.”38 Such asceticism is possible, says Fagerberg, because “baptism has already initiated a believer into the paschal mystery of Christ to share in his Resurrection.”39
Askesis as the Cure
In the ascetical tradition, human beings are created for happiness (understood as growing into the likeness of God), yet such happiness eludes us, “because we have recanted our vocation of homo adorans. The fall is the forfeiture of our liturgical career.”40 The passions debilitate our liturgical identity, contravene our doxological posture, and disorder our love for God, for the world, and for ourselves. If the malady of our human condition is the propensity for what Evagrius called the eight evil thoughts, or the passions, what is the cure?41 For our created nature to be reordered and restored, asceticism is required. As mentioned earlier, Evagrius identified in his Praktikos three stages of the ascetical (therapeutic) life: praxis and two forms of contemplation.42
The initial stage of the ascetic life (praktikē) can be identified as the beginning of Christian life. Rooted in a “sense of awe and gratitude for the wonders of what God has done,” praktikē is defined as “the spiritual method of cleansing the passionate part of the soul.”43 Evagrius taught that this stage involves struggle toward the purification of the concupiscible and irascible parts of the human soul.44 In a more positive perspective, this stage of ascetical life involves spreading out our desires before God, ordering them aright, and acquiring virtues.45 In the end, the goal of praktikē is “freedom from the dominance of the passions” and freedom to fall on God’s mercy.46 For the ascetic to gain such a freedom, which may take many years, is to acquire apatheia, a reorientation of the soul toward a state of health that comes in stages and degrees. It is a process of honestly “bringing [one’s] thoughts and longings into [God’s] presence without fear and deception,” and in the confidence that God can forgive and heal.47 Furthermore, apatheia occurs when “[v]irtue becomes natural—or, better, the soul’s God-given nature produces virtue naturally,” and the soul is no longer disturbed by its passions.48
Apatheia, in turn, produces love. It is learning to love our created selves as God intends—in a sense, apatheia is the disciplined journey in discovering what is normal (and abnormal) for created human being.49 It is also learning to love others free of subtle impulses and compulsions as well as hidden agendas to control in order to secure our desired outcome. In other words, it is learning to love others as they really are, despite their propensities toward vice, by teaching us to see the face of Christ in the face of the other.50 And, lastly, it is learning to love God because apatheia is the precondition for theologia.51
The askesis of the first stage of the ascetic life provides the foundation for progress in the next two stages, which involves a life of contemplation. The second stage is called physikē. It involves examining creation in order to see God’s presence in the visible creation, “of revealing the truth hidden within all beings.”52 Human fallenness results in spiritual cataracts, clouding, if not blinding, us to God’s presence and meaning in the world. Such spiritual visual impairment is akin to the Lutheran idea of cor curvum in se. To see created reality in God as it really is, “freed from private prejudices, which are rooted in the disordered creation in our hearts by the passions,” requires corrected vision by the contemplative discipline learned and sustained by pneumatic therapy.53
The final stage is mystical knowledge or theologia. For Evagrius, “theology” is not something read in a book or examined in a classroom. Rather, it is an experiential knowledge of God that comes through prayer. Not that Evagrius doubts the importance of reading and study of theology, nor the value of doctrine. Yet, for him, theology, in its strictest sense, “is the encounter of the praying mind with God.”54 The goal of theology is not to become a professor but a saint.
Where liturgy and asceticism most explicitly intersect is in Fagerberg’s consideration of theologia.He writes: “Participation in the life of the Trinity is the ultimate goal of ascetical prayer. . . . [Thus] the whole aim of asceticism is to capacitate a person for prayer, and the highest experience of prayer is theologia.”55 As Fagerberg claims, liturgy is vital to this capacitation:
A lifetime of liturgy in all its dimensions—the liturgical year, the liturgy of the
hours, the Divine Liturgy, the fasts and feasts, the sacraments and sacramental—is required to give a person this calm, steady, ascetical regard of the Godhead. . . . By [our] ascetical formation in the liturgical life, [we become] a theologian.56
Theologia is a unique form of knowing best understood as a form of participation in the ecstatic, loving life of God and an embodiment of love in one’s life in the world. Capacitation for such participation begins with the purgation and transformation of the mind, senses, and desires in the baptismal font and cultivated in an ascetical life.57 It is a realization that sharing in the divine life is ungrasping, kenotic love. It is looking through and beyond “the hall of mirrors called experience . . . so that our gaze on the Father is neither distracted nor broken.”58 Celebrating faith in the Resurrection every eighth day, we, as liturgical ascetics, are being made theologians. Bathed in the eschatological light of the mysteries of Christ, our actions, affections, dispositions, thoughts—our love—are being reordered to the Life of the world, our hearts to the heart of God, and our minds to the Truth. Hence, “liturgical asceticism consists of overcoming death by death,” a being formed in a martyrial identity, so as to exegete Christ before the world.59
Throughout his book, Fagerberg’s emphasis is largely on asceticism. His engagement with the liturgical dimensions of his concept is at a broad, theoretical level. As already noted above, Fagerberg claims that “[a] lifetime of liturgy in all its dimensions . . . is required to give a person [a] calm, steady, ascetical regard for the Godhead.”60 Yet, it is the liturgy in all its specific dimensions that is missing from Fagerberg’s argument. Engagement with the ascetical formation in the liturgical year, in the practice of baptism, the Eucharist, or another sacrament, in the patterns and practices of the weekly liturgy, and the liturgy after the liturgy, is noticeably absent. If “liturgical asceticism is the act of maintaining the life bestowed in baptism,” how is such a life imagined, shaped, and nurtured in and through the liturgical life of the church?61 Before attempting to modestly address this question, I need to establish more fully connections between martyrial existence and liturgical asceticism.