Last night the Integritas program had its fourth seminar of the year, on "Paths to Holiness," led by Professor David Fagerberg of the Theology Department. The seminar explored questions such as: How are the works of mercy lived out by the saints? How can such diverse characters as Thomas Merton, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas all be said to be holy? How can there be such a variety of ways to follow Christ? What do they have in common? What cause is there for a perceived tension between the corporal and spiritual works of mercy? How is this tension resolved? through readings by G.K. Chesterton (St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox), Thomas Merton (Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation), and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Prof. Fagerberg began by giving the students an introduction to the origins of Christian monastic life, describing the experience of the first monks in the deserts of Egypt. The monks pursued a radical ascetical program in the desert, stripping away everything from their lives that might distract them from single-minded devotion to God. To this end, they took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and, in the case of Benedictines, stability of location. They divested themselves of their material attachments by their vow of poverty. Their celibacy served as a sign of their radical hope in the resurrection: they put their faith in Christ, not in genetic survival through children. Obedience is the perfection of poverty and chastity, because it is the giving up not of just particular objects or pursuits but of one's whole self.
The first monks fled to the desert to do battle with the passions through ascetical discipline. They understood the word 'passion' not as we use the word currently in a positive sense, but rather as a purely negative temptation. The passions, under their understanding, are the mistaken use of thoughts, resulting in vice. The world is created good, but through the abuse of human freedom, we find ourselves entering into disordered relationships with good things. As Prof. Fagerberg put it, "There's nothing wrong with money, sex, and beer. It's avarice, lust, and gluttony that are the problem." Askesis, the athletic training of the spirit, puts us into right relationship with the created world, giving us the clear vision and purity of heart that contemplation of God requires. The road to contemplation begins with fasting, with prayer, and with alms giving. The destination is theologia, knowledge of God, which meant a relationship of love founded on prayer long before it meant an academic discipline. "Theology does not begin with the card catalogue; it begins with fasting."
The seminar helped us to prepare for our upcoming retreat this weekend to Gethsemani, Kentucky at the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton was a monk. Pray for us, that our time of silence, prayer, and fasting there will lead us into a more intimate knowledge of God.