2019 Christian Greats Challenge

2019 Christian Greats Challenge

A very unexpected challenge popped up at Carol’s place, Journey and Destination, the 2019 Christian Greats Challenge, and after some mulling over, I’ve decided to join.  I have a few books that might fit these categories that I’m reading or want to read and it might help me get through them (Augustine’s City of God, I’m looking at YOU!)

The following are the categories and my choices:

The History of the Church Eusebius Paul Maier

1)  A Book on Early Church History

  • The History of the Church by Eusebius or
  • City of God by Saint Augustine or
  • On the Incarnation by Athanasius or 

Why?  I’ve always wanted to read Eusebius.

Continue reading

The Bible: Genesis Chapters 12 – 25 ~ The Abraham Cycle

While we have a genealogical continuity between Noah and Abram, Abram’s family did not worship God and were in fact polytheistic, residing in the city of Ur.  God appeared to Abram and commanded him to leave his country for a new land.  God’s encounter with Abram was unexpected and now signifies a personal relationship with man. Initially, He instructs Abram and offers him blessings for his obedience, and a convenant between the two is later established.

Genesis 12 – 26 (The Abraham cycle)

Abraham’s Departure (1850)
József Molnár
source Wikipedia


Chapter 12

……. Now the Lord said to Abram, “Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you.”

On the Lord’s command, at seventy-five years old Abram left Haran for the land of Canaan with his nephew Lot and their families and possessions.  In Canaan at Shechem near the oak of Moreh they built an altar and then, because of a famine, continued into Egypt where Abram convinced Sarai to lie and say she was his sister as, because of her beauty, he was worried the Egyptians would steal her and put him to death.  But the Lord visited a plague on the Egyptians and pharoah deduced Sarai was Abram’s wife and after a scolding, sent him away.

Seperación de Abraham y Lot
Pedro Orrente
source Wikimedia Commons



Chapter 13


Abram returned to Bethel.  Both he and Lot were so rich in possessions that they decided to part, Lot choosing the plain of Jordan near Sodom and Abram going to Canaan.  The Lord declared He would give Abram all the land and Abram settled near the oak of Mamre in Hebron, building an altar to the Lord.

Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (1464-67)
Dieric Bouts the Elder
source Wikipedia



Chapter 14

A number of kings in the area were fighting against other kings and Lot was taken by the aggressors.  Abram armed his servants and defeated the kings, not only rescuing Lot, but bringing back the calvary of Sodom.  The king of Sodom came out to meet Abram and the priest, Melchizedek, blessed him and the Lord who delivered the enemies into his hands.  The king offered Abram his calvary but Abram refused to be beholden to him.

Chapter 15

The Lord made a covenant with Abram, promising that although he was childless, his heir would be his own son and his descendants would be as numerous as the stars.  “And Abram believed God, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”  The Lord revealed that his descendants would be in a foreign land for 400 years but He would judge that nation and Abram’s people would return to this land.  Then, as the sun went down, a flame appeared with a smoking oven and lamps of fire.  Then the Lord made a covenant with Abram telling him of the land he would be given.

Hagar and the Angel in the Wilderness (1665)
Francesco Cozza
source Wikipedia

Chapter 16


Frustrated with her lack of children, Sarai sent her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram, telling him to sleep with her and Abram “obeys”.  Hagar conceived but Sarai despised her and treated her harshly so the maidservant fled to the wilderness.  By a spring of water near Shur, an angel of the Lord spoke to her promising that if she returned to Sarai, she would have many descendants.  So Hagar obeyed and bore a son to Abram whom he named Ishmael.


Chapter 17

God came to Abram at ninety-nine, informing him that he would be the father of many nations.  No longer was he to be called Abram, but Abraham, and God would establish an everlasting covenant with him and future generations to be their God.  The covenant required that all males be circumcised.  Sarai was now called Sarah and she would bear a son.  Abraham laughed at the thought of a hundred year old man having a child and tried to present Ishmael to the Lord but the Lord was adamant that Sarah would bear a child, Isaac.  Ishmael was blessed with begetting 12 nations but Isaac would have the covenant.  That day, all males in Abraham’s household were circumcised.

Abraham and the Three Angels (1865)
Gustave Doré
source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter 18

Three men appeared to Abraham as he sat outside his tent in Mamre and Abraham recognized them as God (I think God and two angels).  He gave them hospitality, and fed them choice food.  God then asked for Sarah, promising them a son and saying, “Is anything impossible with God?”  The Lord then revealed that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were great against Him.  The (two?) men went towards Sodom but Abraham stayed with the Lord, pleading for leniency for these cities asking if there were fifty righteous men, would the Lord destroy the city?  The figure gradually reduced to ten where the Lord agreed if that many righteous men could be found, He would not destroy the city.  The Lord left and Abraham returned to his place.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)
John Martin
source Wikipedia



Chapter 19

Two angels appeared to Lot in Sodom who took them in, and gave them hospitality.  But the men of Sodom surrounded the house asking to have relations with the men, yet Lot forestalled their wickedness by offering them his two daughters.  However the men tried to seize Lot and the men (angels) pulled him inside, striking the men outside with blindness.  They then revealed to Lot that they were going to destroy the city and that he should take his relations and leave.  In the morning they led Lot and his family out of the city, cautioning them not to look back, and telling them to flee to the mountains, but Lot pleaded to be able to go to the city of Zoar.  And as Lot entered Zoar, the Lord rained down fire and brimstone over the cities but Lot’s wife did not heed the instructions of the angels, looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.  Abraham looked towards Sodom and Gomorrah and saw their destruction.

Chapter 20

Abraham journeyed to the south between Kadesh and Shur and attempted to pull the same trick on Abimelech, king of Gerar, saying that Sarah was his sister.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream, even as he had taken Sarah, and warned him.  Abimelech professed his ignorance and pleaded with God not to destroy him.  When he returned Sarah, he chastized Abraham but the prophet said that he feared he would be killed.  Abimelech gave Abraham goods and land, whereupon Abraham prayed to God and Abimelech and his household were healed from afflictions.

Hagar and the Angel (1780)
Cecco Bravo
source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter 21

Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son, Isaac, and Abraham circumcised him on the eighth day as God commanded.  When Sarah saw Isaac playing with Ishmael, she demanded that Abraham send him away and while Abraham was uncomfortable with this request, at God’s word he heeded his wife as God promised that Ishmael too would be a father of nations.  Hagar and Ismael set out but when their water was exhausted, Hagar feared death for her son, but an Angel of God arrived with God’s promise and a well appeared before them.  Ishmael became an archer, lived in the wilderness of Paran and his mother took a wife for him from Egypt.  Knowing that God favoured Abraham, Abimelech, with his friend Ochozath and his commander-in-chief of his army, Phichol, made a covenant with Abraham that Abraham would never be an aggressor towards him or his offspring and that they would live in peace.  They called the well at this place the Well of Oath and Abraham remained in the land of the Philistines.

Sacrifice of Isaac (1603)
Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

Chapter 22

God decided to test Abraham and commanded him to go to Moriah to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.  Abraham immediately set off.  When they reached Moriah, Isaac innocently asked where was the offering and Abraham replied:

“My son, God will provide for Himself the sheep for a whole burnt offering.”

He laid Isaac on the altar and prepared to kill him but the Lord called to him, staying his hand.  God now knew Abraham’s fear and obedience was true, and a ram was provided for the sacrifice.  God promised Abraham that because of his faithfulness and obedience that He would multiply his seed and he would conquer the cities of his enemies.  Abraham returned home.  We then learn of the children born to Abraham’s brother, Nahor.

Isaac Embraces his Father Abraham
early 1900 Bible illustration
source Wikipedia


Chapter 23

Sarah died at 127 years of age in Hebron (Mamre).  Abraham asked for a place to bury her and was granted by Ephron, the son of Heth, a cave and field in Machpelah, opposite Mamre.

Chapter 24

Abraham ordered his servant to travel to the land of his tribes to get a wife for his son, Isaac, being very clear he did not want him to choose from the Canaanites.  The servant was worried that the woman would not be willing to come, but Abraham said an angel would go before him and if she would not come, he would be released from his oath.  The servant placed his hand under Abraham’s thigh and swore to carry out the task.  Stopping by a well in Nahor, he prayed to God and asked that the woman who offered him a drink would be the future wife of Isaac and behold, Rebekah, the beautiful granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor fulfilled this request.  Both Rebekah and her brother, Laban invited him to their house.  The man explained his quest and Laban and Bethuel, his father, agree to him taking Rebekah, and she agrees to go.  Isaac went out to the Well of Vision and saw the camels approaching.  When Sarah realized he was her betrothed, she veiled herself and Isaac took her into Sarah’s tent to be his wife and was comforted from the loss of his mother.

Jacob offering a dish of lentils to Esau for his birthright (1799)
Zacarias Gonzalez Velasquez
source Wikipedia



Chapter 25

Abraham took a second wife called Keturah and she bore him many sons.  He gave all his possessions to Isaac and gifts to his concubines as he sent them away.  He died at the good age of 175 and was buried by Isaac and Ishmael in the cave with Sarah.  Isaac continued to dwell at the Well of Vision.  Ishmael had many sons but Rebekah was barren.  Isaac pleaded with the Lord and she conceived twins but they struggled within her.  The Lord revealed that two nations were in her womb, one stronger and the older would serve the younger.  The firstborn was red and hairy and called Esau and the second, with his hand holding his brother’s heel, Jacob.  Esau became a hunter, a favourite of Isaac, but Jacob was a simple tent-dweller, beloved of Rebekah.  Jacob cooked a stew and Esau requested some as he was dying of hunger, but Jacob convinced him to sell his birthright for it.






The Bible : Genesis Chapters 1 – 11 ~ Primeval History

Initially I was going to use either my New King James or ESV translation for this read-along, but I recently acquired an Orthodox study bible so I thought it might be interesting to read it.  There are extra books included in the Old Testament accepted by the Orthodox church that I’ve always wanted to read and what better time than this read-along?  So here we go ……..

Source Wikimedia Commons

The name Pentateuch is used to refer to the first five books of the old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  A Greek word meaning “five scrolls”, it was popularized during the first century, however the Hebrew speaking Jewish people called these five books the Torah or “instruction”.  It is best read as a five-book volume.
Genesis begins with the breaking of the relationship between God and man and continues with the restoration of it through his convenant with Abraham.
The author of Genesis is unknown.  There is no evidence to connect anyone to it, however as the other books of the Torah are connected to Moses and most of biblical literature treats the Torah as a unit, a sensible guess would label Moses as the author, although at least some of the material would have existed before his time.

Presentation of the Torah (1860)
Edouard Moyse
source Wikipedia
Genesis 1-11 (Primeval History)
Chapter 1

……. In the beginning God made heaven and earth.

Chapter 1 takes us from the beginning of creation to the end of the sixth day.
In the beginning, the earth was “invisible and unfinished”. …
  • Day 1:  God made light and divided it from the darkness.
  • Day 2:  God divided the waters from the “firmament” and made Heaven
  • Day 3:  God gathered the waters together and called the waters, “Sea” and the land, “Earth”  The Earth bore grasses and (fruit) trees each according to their seed.
  • Day 4:  God made the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, dividing light from darkness, as well as signs for seasons, days and years.
  • Day 5:  God made creatures of the sea and birds of the air.
  • Day 6:  God had the Earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind. He made man in His image, giving him dominion over living things, then he created woman.  Everything the plants and trees produce are food for man and the animals.

The Garden of Eden (copy of Jan Brueghel 1661)
Frederik Bouttats the elder
source Art UK

Chapter 2
  • Day 7:  God rested, and blessed this day, sanctifying it.

There had been no rain and when God made Man; a huge fountain came out of the Earth, watering it and God made man from the dust.
God made a garden (The Garden of Eden) where every beautiful tree grew including the tree of “learning the knowledge of good and evil”.  A river with four heads flowed through the garden, Pishon circling the land of Havilah, Gihon which circles Ethiopia, the Tigris near the Assyrians and the Euphrates.  
God placed man in the garden, commanding him not to eat of the tree of good and evil, then decided,

“It is not good for man to be alone.  I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

Although God brought all the animals and birds, as none were comparable to Adam, God put him to sleep, removed a rib and turned it into “woman”.  She was “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone” and they were one.  
They were naked and unashamed.

Adam and Eve chased out of theTerrestrial Paradise (1841)
Jean-Achille Benouville
source Wikimedia Commons
Chapter 3
The serpent tempted the woman, promising she’d be like God if she ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  She complied and convinced Adam to eat as well, but when they heard God, they hid.  Their sin was revealed whereupon Adam blamed the woman and the woman blamed the serpent. As punishment, God declared the serpent would crawl on its belly and would have enmity with man and vice versa, women would have pains at childbirth and be subject to their husbands, and men would toil the earth for survival.  And finally the woman was named: “So Adam called his wife’s name Life, because she was the mother of all living.”  
Because God was concerned that the pair would also eat of the tree of life and live forever, he clothed them and cast them out of the garden, stationing a cherubim with a fiery sword at the door.
Rather than literally die, Adam and Eve’s (Life’s) old paradisical life died to them and they entered a new harsher one.

Cain and Abel (1542-44)
Titian
source Wikimedia Commons
Chapter 4
Eve gives birth to a son called Cain and next, a brother, Abel is born.  Abel was a shepherd and Cain a tiller (farmer); both brothers bring sacrifices to God but while God “respected” Abel’s offering, he did not “respect” Cain’s.

“… Did you not sin, even though you brought it rightly, but did not divide it rightly?”

Cain in his anger and jealousy rose up and killed his brother.  When God asked where Abel was, Cain gives the famous response:

“I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”

However, God knows his sin and curses him from the earth which will no longer give him sustenance but He also forbids anyone to kill Cain who goes to dwell in the land of Nod, opposite Eden.
Cain has a son, Enoch, whom he names the city he builds after, then proceeds a genealogical list of Cain’s family.
Adam and Eve have another son, Seth.
The Building of Noah’s Ark (c.1675)
a French master
source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter 5
We have a list of the descendents of Adam, beginning with Seth.  Some live 700 or even 900 years, others in the hundreds.  The list ends with Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Noah’s Ark (1846)
Edward Hicks
Source Wikimedia Commons

Chapter 6
Men began to exist in great numbers on the Earth and the sons of God began to marry the daughters of men (I’m puzzled by the distinction between the two).  God was grieved at men’s wickedness on earth as “every intent of the thoughts within his heart was only evil continually.”  He planned to destroy all he had created but Noah “found grace in the presence of Lord God.”  He commanded Noah to build an ark.

“And behold, I am bringing a flood of water on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life. Whatever is on the earth shall die.  But I will establish My covenant with you: and you shall go into the ark — you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.  From every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you …”


Noah and his Ark (1819)
Charles Willson Peale
source Wikimedia Commons
Chapter 7
Noah was six hundred years old when the flood came. It rained forty days and nights. Water covered the highest mountains and all mankind was blotted out.  The waters stayed for 150 days.

The Deluge (1834)
John Martin
source Wikipedia

Chapter 8
The rains ceased and God sent a wind to help the water subside.  On the seventh month and the seventeenth day the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.  On the first day of the tenth month, the tops of the mountains could be seen.  Noah sent out a raven and a dove but neither could find a resting place. Seven days later, after being sent out, the dove returned with an olive leaf.  The waters had receeded!  Seven days later the dove returned not and Noah left the ark, building an altar to sacrifice to the Lord.  The Lord promised never again to send a flood to destroy man even though man’s inclination was to do evil.

Dankgebet nach Verlassen der Arche Noah (1901)
Domenico Morelli
source Wikimedia Commons
Chapter 9
God now appears to give Noah a new authority over the animals and says that “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” (assuming because of the flood there will not be enough vegetation and man will now have to eat meat to survive?) God makes a covenant with Noah never to destroy the earth again and sets a rainbow in the sky as a sign.  Noah becomes a husbandman and plants a vineyard but becomes drunk and naked.  Ham tells his brothers of his father’s indiscretion but Shem and Japheth cover their father without looking at him.  Noah later curses Ham and blesses his other two sons.  Noah died at 950 years of age.
Noah and his Sons (17th century)
Andrea Sacchi
source Wikimedia Commons
Chapter 10
We receive the geneology of Noah through his three sons, mentioning Nimrod who was a descendent of Ham and became giant-like and built cities.  
The Tower of Babel (1563)
Peter Brueghel the Elder
source Wikimedia Commons
Chapter 11
Mankind has one language and speech and decides to build a city and temple to hold themselves in unity and power, but God descends and confuses their language so they were unintelligible to each other.  He then scattered the people over the earth and the city and tower were called Babel because of it.

Now follows a geneology of Shem to Terah (most people are only living 100-300 years now), the father of Abram.  Terah also had sons named Nahor and Haran, who begot Lot.  Terah led his family out of Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan and when they reached Haran, they dwelt there.

The Bible As Literature Read-Along                      Genesis Chapters 12 – 25 →

The Bible As Literature Read-Along

At the beginning of this year Adam at Roof Beam Reader hosted a Bible as Literature event that I wanted to participate in so badly.  But knowing my overloaded schedule as late and knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace, I unhappily decided to pass.  Yet how excited I was to see O’s recently announced the Bible As Literature read-along which will take just over two years.  It may seem long, but the pace is perfect for me and having other readers to push me along will be just what I need.  I can’t wait to start!

The schedule will be as follows:
The Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses


Genesis: 1st October – 22nd October 2018.
1st October 2018: 1–11. Primeval History.
8th October 2018: 12–25. The Abraham Cycle.
15th October 2018: 26-36. The Jacob-Esau Cycle.
22nd October 2018: 37–50. The Joseph Story.
Exodus: 29th October – 5th November 2018.

29th October 2018: 1–18. History of Egypt, the Exodus from Egypt, 
and the Journey to Mount Sinai.
5th November 2018: 19–40. The Covenant and Laws.
Leviticus: 12th November 2018 – 17th December 2018.

12th November 2018: 1:1 7:38. Laws on sacrifice.
19th November 2018: 8:1–10:20. Institution of the priesthood.
26th November 2018: 11:1–15:33. Uncleanliness and its treatment.
3rd December 2018: 16. Day of Atonement.
10th December 2018: 17–26. The Holiness Code.
17th December 2018: 27. Redemption of votive gifts.
Numbers: 7th January – 21st January 2019.

7th January 2019: 1:1–10:10. At Sinai.
14th January 2019: 10:11– 20:29. At Kadesh-Barnea.
21st January 2019: 21–36. The Wilderness, to Moab, and on the Plains of Moab.
Deuteronomy: 28th January – 18th February 2019.
28th January 2019: 1:1-4:43. Sermon I of Moses.
4th February 2019: 4:44-11:32. Sermon II of Moses.
11th February 2019: 11:32-33:29. Sermon III of Moses.
18th February 2019: 31–34. The Song of Moses, the Blessing of Moses, the Death of Moses.
The Historical Books
Joshua: 25th February – 4th March 2019.

25th February 2019: 1:1–12:24. The transfer from Moses Leadership to Joshua, 
and the entrance into and conquest of Canaan.
4th March 2019: 13:1–22:34. Division of the land among the tribes.
4th March 2019: 23:1–24:33. Covenant at Shechem and the deaths of Joshua and Eleazar.
Judges: 11th March – 18th March 2019.

11th March 2019: 1–3. Prologue; 3:9–11. Othniel and Chushan-Rishathaim; 3:11–29. Ehud and Eglon of Moab; 4–5. Deborah and Barak, and Jabin of Hazor and Sisera; 6–8. Gideon, Midian, Amalek, and the Children of the East; 9–10. Abimelech and all the Israelites in opposition.
18th March 2019: 11–12:7. Jephthah and the Ammonites; 13–16. Samson and the Philistines; 17–18. Micah’s Idol; 19–21. Battle of Gibeah.
Ruth: 25th March 2019.

1:1–22. Prologue and Problem; 2:1–23. Ruth Meets Boaz;
3:1–18. Naomi Sends Ruth to Boaz; 4:1–22. Resolution and Epilogue.
1 Samuel: 1st – 8th April 2019.

1st April 2019: 1–15. Samuel and Saul.
8th April 2019: 16–31. Saul and David.
2 Samuel: 15th – 29th April 2019.

15th April 2019: 1–8. David’s rise to power.
22nd April 2019: 9–20. David’s reign.
29th April 2019: 21–24. Narratives, psalms, and lists.
1 Kings: 6th May – 20th May 2019.

6th May 2019: 1:1–2:46. The Davidic Succession; 3:1–11:43. Solomon.
13th May 2019: 12:1–13:34. The political and religious schism;
14:1–16:34. The two kingdoms until Elijah.
20th May 2019: 17:1–2 Kings 1:18. The Elijah cycle.

2 Kings: 27th May 2019 – 10th June 2019.

27th May 2019: 2:1–13:25. The Elisha cycle.
3rd June 2019: 14:1–17:41. The two kingdoms to the fall of Samaria.
10th June 2019: 18:1–25:30. The last years of the kingdom of Judah.

1 Chronicles: 17th June – 24th June 2019.

17th June 2019: 1–9:34. Genealogies from Adam.
24th June 2019: 10–29. The reign of David.

2 Chronicles: 1st July 2019 – 8th July 2019.

1st July 2019: 1–9. The reign of Solomon.
8th July 2019: 10–36. The kingdom of Judah, its destruction by the Babylonians,
and its restoration under Cyrus the Persian.

Ezra: 15th July 2019.

1–6. The return of the Jews to Jerusalem (c. 539 B.C.);
7–10. The return of Ezra and a group of Jews to Judah.

Nehemiah: 22nd July – 29th July 2019.
22nd July 2019: 1–6. The return of Nehemiah to Jerusalem.
29th July 2019: 7–10. The Feast of Tabernacles and the events after;
11–13. Repopulating Jerusalem and Nehemiah’s return to Susa.
Esther: 5th August 2019.

1–2. Exposition: Life in the Persian Palace; Esther becomes Queen;
3–8:14. Haman’s plot to kill Mordecai and the Jews; 8:15–10. The resolution and the results: the Jewish victory.

The Wisdom Books
Job: 12th August 2019 – 2nd September 2019.

12th August 2019: 1–2. Prologue on Earth and Heaven; 3. Job’s prologue.
19th August 2019: 4–27. The three cycles of dialogues between Job and his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
26th August 2019: 28. A Poem to Wisdom; 29–31. Job’s closing monologue; 32–37. Elihu’s speeches.
2nd September 2019: 38–42:7–8. Two speeches by God and Job’s response; 42:9–17. Job’s restoration.

Psalms: 9th September – 7th October 2019.

9th September 2019: 1–41. Book I.
16th September 2019: 42–72. Book II.
23rd September 2019: 73–89. Book III.
30th September 2019: 90–106. Book IV.
7th October 2019: 107–150. Book V.

Proverbs: 14th October 2019 – 4th November 2019.

14th October 2019:1–9. Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel.
21st October 2019: 10–22:16. More Proverbs of Solomon.
28th October 2019: 22:17–24:22. The Sayings of the Wise; 24:23–34. More Sayings of the Wise; 25–29. Other Proverbs of Solomon.
4th November 2019: 30. The Words of Agur; 31:1–9. The Words of King Lemuel of Massa; 31:10–31. The Woman of Substance.

Ecclesiastes: 11th November 2019 – 18th November 2019.

11th November 2019: 1:1–1:2–11. Title and Initial poem; 1:12–6:9. Kohelet’s investigation of life; 6:10–11:6.Kohelet’s conclusions.
18th November 2019: 11:7–12:8. Concluding poem; 12:9–14. Epilogue.

Song of Solomon: 25th November 2019.

1:1–6. Introduction; 1:7–2:7. Dialogue between the lovers; 2:8–17. The woman recalls a visit from her lover; 3:1–5. The woman addresses the daughters of Zion; 3:6–11. Sighting a royal wedding procession; 4:1–5:1. The man describes his lover’s beauty; 5:2–6:4. The woman addresses the daughters of Jerusalem; 6:5–12. The man describes his lover, who visits him; 6:13–8:4. Observers describe the woman’s beauty; 8:5–14. Conclusion.

The Major Prophets
Isaiah: 6th January 2020 – 27th January 2020.

6th January – 13th January 2020: 1–39. Proto-Isaiah, containing the words of the original Isaiah.
20th January 2020: 40–55. Deutero-Isaiah, the work of an anonymous Exilic author.
27th January 2020: 56–66. Trito-Isaiah, an anthology of about twelve passages.

Jeremiah: 3rd February 2020 – 9th March 2020.

3rd – 10th February 2020: 1–25. The earliest and main core of Jeremiah’s message.
17th February 2020: 26–29. Biographic material and interaction with other prophets.
24th February 2020: 30–33. God’s promise of restoration including Jeremiah’s new covenant.
2nd March 2020: 34–45. Zedekiah and the fall of Jerusalem.
9th March 2020: 46–51. Divine punishment to the nations surrounding Israel; 52. Retelling of 2 Kings 24.18–25.30.

Lamentations: 16th March 2020.

1. Jeremiah mourns for Jerusalem and Judea; 2. The anger of the Lord;
3. Jeremiah’s suffering; 4–5. The Justice of God.

Ezekiel: 23rd March – 13th April 2020.

23rd March – 30th March 2020: 1–29. Prophecies against Judah and Jerusalem.
6th April 2020: 25–32. Prophecies against the foreign nations.
13th April 2020: 33–48. Prophecies of hope and salvation.

Daniel: 20th April 2020.

20th April 2020: 1. Daniel and friends at the tale of the king; 2. Daniel interprets the king’s dream.
3. The fiery furnace; 4. Nebuchadnezzar’s madness 5. The handwriting on the wall.
6. The lion’s den; 7. The vision of the son of man; 8. The vision of the ram and the he-goat.
9. Daniel’s prayer and the seventy years of the devastation of Jerusalem; 10. The final vision and promise of resurrection.

The Twelve Minor Prophets
Hosea: 27th April 2020.

1–2. Hosea’s marriage with Gomer (biographical).
3. Hosea’s marriage (autobiographical).
4–14:10. Oracle judging Israel.

Joel: 27th April 2020.

1:1–2:17. Lament over drought and plague of locusts.
2:18–32. Promise of future blessings.
3:1–21. The coming judgement.

Amos: 4th May 2020.

1.3–2.6. Oracles against the nations.
4.1–8.8. Addresses to groups in Israel.
7.10–9:8. Five symbolic visions of God’s judgement.
9:8–15. Epilogue.

Obadiah: 11th May 2020.

The vision of the fall of Edom.

Jonah: 11th May 2020.

1–2. Jonah flees his mission.
3–4. Jonah fulfils his mission.

Micah: 11th May 2020.

1–3. Judgement.
4–5. Restoration of Zion.
6–7. God’s judgement against Israel.

Nahum: 18th May 2020.

1. The majesty of God.
2–3. The fall of Nineveh.

Habakkuk: 18th May 2020.

1. A discussion between God and Habakkuk.
2. An Oracle of Woe.
3. A Psalm.

Zephaniah: 18th May 2020.

1:1. Superscription.
1:2–13. The Coming Judgement on Judah.
1:14–18. The Great Day of the Lord.
2:1–15. Judgement on Israel’s Enemies.
3:1–7. The Wickedness of Jerusalem.
3:8–13. Punishment and Conversion of the Nations.
3:14–20. Song of Joy.

Haggai: 25th May 2020.

1:1–15. The first prophecy.
2:1–23. The second, third, and fourth prophecy.

Zechariah: 25th May 2020.

1–8. The teachings of Zechariah.
9–10. The first and second oracle.

Malachi: 25th May 2020.

1–2:9. Israel preferred to Edom.
2:10–17. The Covenant Profaned by Judah.
3:1–7. The Coming Messenger.
3:8–15. Do Not Rob God.
4:1–5. The Great Day of the Lord.

The Gospels

Matthew: 1st June 2020 – 15th June 2020.

1st June 2020: 1:1–2:23. Birth and Childhood of Jesus; 3–4. Baptism and early ministry.
5–7. Sermon on the Mount; 8–9. Healing and miracles; 10:1–11:1. Mission Discourse / Little Commission.
8th June 2020: 11:2–13:52. Responses to Jesus; 13:53–17. Conflicts, rejections, and conferences with disciples; 18. Life in the Christian community; 19–20. Journey to Jerusalem.
15th June 2020: 21–22. Jerusalem; 23. Woes of the Pharisees; 24–25. Judgement day;
26–28. Death and Resurrection.

Mark: 22nd June 2020.

1–9. Galilean ministry; 10. Journey to Jerusalem; 11–16. Events in Jerusalem.

Luke: 29th June – 6th July 2020.

29th June 2020: 1:1–4. Introduction to Theophilus; 1:5–4. Jesus’ birth and boyhood;
3:1–4:13. Jesus’ baptism and temptation; 4:14–9:50. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.
6th July 2020: 9:51– 19:27. Jesus’ teaching on the journey to Jerusalem;
19:28–24. Jesus’ Jerusalem conflicts, crucifixion, and resurrection.

John: 13th July – 20th July 2020.

13th July 2020: 1:10-18. Introduction; 1:19-12:50. The Book of Signs.
20th July 2020: 13:1-20:31. The Book of Glory; 21. Epilogue

Acts

Acts of the Apostles: 27th July 2020 – 3rd August 2020.

27th July 2020:1. Preface to Theophilus; 2:1–12:25. From Jerusalem to Antioch (Petrine Christianity).
3rd August 2020: 13:1–28:21. From Antioch to Rome (Pauline Christianity).

Epistles

Romans: 10th August 2020.

1:1–15. Prologue; 1:16 –8:39. Salvation in the Christ;
12 –15:13. Transformation of believers; 15:1 –16:23. Epilogue .

1 Corinthians: 17th August 2020.

1:1–3. Salutation.
1:4–9. Thanksgiving.
1:10–4:21. Division in Corinth.
5:1–6:20. Immorality in Corinth.
7:1–14:40. Difficulties in Corinth.
15:1–58. Doctrine of Resurrection.
16:1–24. Closing.

2 Corinthians: 24th August 2020.

1:1–11: Greeting.
1:12–7:16. Paul defends his actions and apostleship.
8:1–9:15. Instructions for the collection for the poor in the Jerusalem church.
10:1 – 13:10. A polemic defence of his apostleship.
13:11–13. Closing greetings.

Galatians: 31st August 2020.

1–2. Paul’s testimony on the gospels; 3–5:12. On faith and the commandments;
5:13–6. Fruits of the Spirit, the Law of Christ, and final warning.

Ephesians: 31st August 2020.

1:1–2. The greeting; 1:3–2:10. On the blessings that the gospel reveals;
2:11–3:21. On the Gentiles; 4:1–16. On unity;
4:17–6:9. Instructions about ordinary life and different relationships;
6:10–24. On imagery of spiritual warfare.

Philippians: 7th September 2020.

1:1–11. Preface; 1:12–26. Paul describes his present life; 1:27–2:30. Practical Instructions in Sanctification; 3:1–4:1. Polemical Doctrinal Issues; 4:2–23. Epilogue.

Colossians: 7th September 2020.

1:1–14. Introduction; 1:15–23. The Supremacy of Christ.
1:24–2:7. Paul’s work for the church; 2:8–23. Freedom from Human Regulations through Life with Christ; 3:1–4:6. Rules for Holy Living; 4:7–18. Final Greetings.

1 Thessalonians: 14th September 2020.

1:1–10. Greeting; 2:1–20. Past interactions with the church;
3:1–13. On Timothy’s visit; 4:1–5:25. Specific issues;
4:1–12. Relationships among Christians; 4:13–18. Mourning those who have died;
5:1–11. Preparing for God’s arrival; 5:12–25. On proper Christian behaviour;
5:26–28. Final greetings.

2 Thessalonians: 14th September 2020.

1. On the return of Jesus and the persecution of the Thessalonians;
2–3. On the Holy Spirit and the Antichrist.

1 Timothy: 21st September 2020.

1:1–2. Greeting; 1:3–20. Negative Instructions: Stop the False Teachers;
2:1–6:10. Positive Instructions; 6:11–21. Personal Instructions.

2 Timothy: 21st September 2020.

1–2. Paul in prison; 3–4. Paul urges Timothy to be faithful and asks for some personal effects.

Titus: 28th September 2020.

1. On choosing church leaders; 2–3. On Christian living.

Philemon: 28th September 2020.

1–3. Introduction; 4–7. Thanksgiving and intercession;
8–20. Paul’s plea for Onesimus; 21–25. Conclusion.

Hebrews: 28th September 2020.

1–10:18. The sovereignty of Jesus over the angels and on the New Covenant.
10:19–13. On faith and the Old Covenant.

James: 5th October 2020.

1. Putting faith into action; 2–3. On faith and deeds;
4–5. Instruction and the importance of prayer.

1 Peter: 5th October 2020.

1:1–2. Greeting; 1:3–12. Praise to God; 1:13–2:10. God’s Holy People.
2:11–4:11. Life in Exile; 4:12–5:11. Steadfast in Faith; 5:12–14. Final Greeting.

2 Peter: 5th October 2020.

1–2. Guidance to churches; 3. Day of Judgement.

1 John: 12th October 2020.

1–2. Reassuring believers; 3–4. On the love of God;
5. The importance of faith.

2 John: 12th October 2020.

1. On love.

3 John: 12th October 2020.

1. On truth.

Jude: 12th October 2020.

1. Warning against false teachers.

Apocalypse

Revelation: 19th October 2020 – 2nd November 2020.

19th October 2020: 1–3. Seven letters warning against deception and lawlessness; 
4–7. Seven seals on a heavenly scroll opened by the Lamb.
26th October 2020: 8–14. Seven trumpets of warning.
2nd November 2020: 15–22. Seven bowls of God’s final wrath.

If you’re intrigued, please feel free to join us.  Head over to O’s post for all the details!

Born Again by Charles W. Colson

My WEM Biographies Project has been thrown out of order by my library who doesn’t carry most of the other titles, so I’ve been forced to wait for them on inter-library loans.  Which means that I have no idea when they are going to arrive or which is going to arrive first.  After two months, the first book has arrived, Born Again by Charles W. Colson.

Colson occupied a position high-up in the United States government, serving as Special Counsel to Richard Nixon during Nixon’s years in the presidency.  Named as one of the Watergate Seven, he was tried and sentenced to one to three years in prison.  His autobiography is a story of his rise and fall, and finally his rise again to a higher calling.

Colson briefly covers his early life as a U.S. Marine, his education, and the opening of his law practice in Massachusetts, then quickly moves to his initiation into politics and his service to President Nixon.  Called Nixon’s “Hatchet Man”, he was quoted as saying that he’d walk over his own grandmother to get the job done.  Yet at the time, Colson saw these qualities as necessary in the political world.  Using an “ends justifies the means” mentality, he felt that he was helping the president build a world of peace and safety.  Ironically, with those altruistic sentiments, came an anger and intolerance against anyone with different opinions:

“….. a Holy War was declared against the enemy — those who opposed the noble goals we sought of peace and stability in the world.  They who differed with us, whatever their motives, must be vanquished.  The seeds of destruction were by now already sown — not in them but in us.”

Colson shows how good intentions, however noble, can be corrupted without the values of a higher authority than man himself.

Watergate Complex
source Wikipedia

With Colson assisting in Nixon’s re-election yet not planning to stay on into the second administration, on June 17, 1972, a security guard discovered five men inside the National Democratic Commitee offices in the Watergate Complex.  As the story leaked, a bugging system had been installed in the offices by Nixon’s men. Although Colson had nothing to do with this “scandal”, being Nixon’s henchman, he immediately began to take the heat.

Yet even before Watergate broke, Colson was having a crisis of conscience over his behaviour and the accepted unscrupulous behaviour of others in this political machine. His mind became opened to the immorality rampant in Washington and he strove to reconcile it with his moral principles.  When Watergate hit, his turmoil increased:

“In the whole sordid Watergate struggle, the Weicker episode (a senator who told him he wanted to break his nose) for me was the most unpleasant; being falsely accused before millions on national TV, then coming almost to blows with a United States senator.  I was used to playing as rough as the next guy, but Watergate was creating a madness I had never witnessed in twenty years in Washington, reducing political morality to the level of bayonet warfare ……… The feeling of empitness was back as well, the questions about myself, my purpose, what my life was all about …. ” (p.118)

Curiously at this time, he began to meet Christians, including Doe Coe, Harold Hughes, Graham B. Purcell, Jr. and Al Quie, congressmen and senators who were part of the political machine, understood the mess but managed to live with integrity and morality within the turmoil.  These “brothers” were both Republican and Democrat, and yet party polarity meant nothing to them, as their bond was formed based on the common love of Christ.

In a nationally syndicated column, reporter Nick Thimmesch wrote of the growing prayer meetings:

 ” ….. spurred by Watergate ….. They meet in each other’s homes ….. they meet at Pryer Breakfasts, they converse on the phone ….. a Brotherhood in belief …. there are many here and more are forming ….. I am not about to say that virtue and nobility are about to envelop the nation’s Capital — this is a tough, hard town.  But Watergate has created a great introspection, especially about personal values and this underground prayer movement can provide some peace, and a better sense of direction to many afflicted with spiritual malaise… ” (p. 204)

Nixon announces release of edited transcripts of
the Watergate tapes
source Wikipedia

While Colson stuck by the president, professing both of their innocence, with the release of Watergate transcripts, it became apparent that the president knew more than Colson suspected.  While Colson had been urging exposure for those involved, behind closed doors Nixon was stonewalling the investigators.  Among other regrets, Colson felt that the transcripts showed Nixon at his worst, instead of the complex man he was, a man who was passionate about his country, altruistic, and industrious, yet with faults that were all too common within political culture.  The transcripts, however, appeared to vindicate Colson.  Even the prosecutor finally acknowledged to the press:

“Colson’s alleged roles in the cover-up and burglary would have been more difficult to prove than those of the other alleged conspirators …… because this man was outside the main stream of the overt acts.”  (p. 260)

Finally, with Colson’s indictment, on his lawyer’s advice he pleaded not-guilty, but took the fifth amendment, yet this plea did not assuage Colson’s conscience nor align with his new-found Christian belief.  While he was not party to the Watergate affair, he was complicit in a break-in 10 months earlier, a break-in of a psychiatrist’s office to search for information on Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst,  planning to use the data as a smear tactic against him; Ellsberg was suspected of leaking Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.  Burdened with his part in this particular campaign, Colson, with the support and prayer of his new friends, decided to tell the truth.  It was a shocking decision from a man who, if he’d kept silent, would likely have been acquitted and could have gone on to live a very comfortable existence.  However, Colson had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and was convicted by these words:

“The first step which follows Christ’s call cuts the disciple off from his previous existence.  The call to follow at once produces a new situation.  To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible.” (p. 242)

Colson’s resolution, not only sent his lawyers into fits but came with a cost.  However, the new life he discovered held infinity more success and contentment and freedom than his old life had supplied.

On June 21, 1974, Colson was sentenced to one to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

White House Special Counsel Chuck Colson
source Wikipedia

Sent originally to Fort Holabird prison, where he was needed as a witness, Colson spent most of his sentence at Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama.  Initially, while the experience was foreign and unsettling, while reading his Bible, Colson noticed a beauty and wonder in the words, understanding the Trinity in a deeper sense and with a personal message woven within it:

“Just as God felt necessary to become man to help His children, could it be that I had to become a prisoner the better to understand suffering and deprivations?  If God chose to come to earth to know us better as brothers, then maybe God’s plan for me was to be in prison as a sinner, and to know men there as one of them.  Could I ever understand the horrors of prison life by visiting a prison?  The voice inside of me answered: Of course not.  No one could understand this life without being a part of it, feeling the anxieties, knowing the helplessness, living in desolation.  On a tiny scale, it was the lesson of Jesus coming to us.”

Colson began to see his incarceration as an opportunity to reach out and help people. He began immediately to connect with the inmates, meeting with some to pray, helping others with their letters to gain parole, and even helping smuggle dye into the facility to dye some coats prison-brown so the prisoners would not have to freeze during the winter (Later, he regretted this breaking of the rules, an evidence of his old habit of manipulating situations).  Colson had true empathy for these men, many some of who were imprisoned due to mischance, or harsh sentencing.  Through his love and caring for the prisoners around him, he began to change some of their outlooks and behaviour, and when he was released from prison seven months later, there were many whom he’d call “friend”.

Colson on one of his prison visits
photo courtesy of martyangelo.com

While the book ends with Colson’s release, his interactions with inmates didn’t end there.  Having an enormous heart for their plight and the struggles they faced, he began Prison Fellowship, an organization that grew to become the nation’s largest, helping both prisoners and their families.  In the epilogue of the book based on a study done at the University of Pennsylvannia, Colson reveals that when comparing the inmates who have gone through his program with the general prison populous, only 8% of the his prisoners reoffended within 2 years, compared with 20% of prisoners from the control group and 50% nationwide.  With these very impressive statistics, I found some online controversy about them, complaints that of the 177 people in Colson’s study group, that only the 75 people who graduated were used for the study, skewing the figures to his advantage.  These complaints appear inconsistent with the purpose of the study.  The intent of the study was to show the re-offending figures of Prison Fellowship graduates compared to the standard prisoner.  To use prisoners who didn’t fully complete the program would be senseless and not within the study’s parameters.  The report as is, does show that if a prisoner stays in the Prison Fellowship program and completes it, he has much better chance of returning to society, becoming a useful member of it, and living a fulfilling life.

Some reviews (and even the introduction to Colson’s book) claim that the main focus of the book is Colson’s conversion and not the Watergate scandal, which isn’t quite accurate.  While I won’t argue with the verb “focus,” practically most of the book relates Colson’s political career, and with perhaps ¼ covering the period of his incarceration, the book ending right after his release.  However, I do think that the back-story is imperative to build and explain his journey from a cut-throat politician to a committed Christian with not only a love for his fellow man, but a desire to put that love in action to better the lives of others.

The Rule of Saint Benedict

“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Benedict of Nursia lived in Italy during the collapse of the Roman Empire and during his life, the empire was in constant battle with barbarian tribes.  Leaving his home in Nursia, in the region of Umbria during the reign of the barbarian king, Theodoric, Benedict arrived in Rome to attend school but, disgusted with the paganism and dissolution that he witnessed, he eschewed worldly cares, taking residence in a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles east of Rome.

Saint Benedict (circa 1437-1446)
Fra Angelico
source Wikipedia

During three years in his cave, Benedict became admired for his spiritual devotion, and when an abbot in a nearby monastery passed away, Benedict was convinced, against his inclination, to take his place.  But twice, monks envious of Benedict attempted to poison him, from which he was saved by miracles.  He eventually took some disciples and founded a monastery on the mountain above Cassino, located eighty miles south of Rome.  As his fame spread, even the great king of the Goths, Totila, sought out an audience with him.

Benedict called his Rule, “a little book for beginners,” and he covers such disciplines as obedience, humility, contemplation and living in community.  Yet he first introduces us to four types of monks, the cenobites (belonging to a monastery and serving under an abbot), the anchorites or hermits (having lived in a monastery for a long time and their zeal for the monastic life has cooled), the sarabites (detestable monks who have “a character as soft as lead”, and are captured by worldly delights, a law unto themselves), and gyrovagues (drifters who are captives to their own selfish desires).  His rule is to assist the first class of monks.

Some specific areas Benedict covers are church songs and readings, excommunication and re-entry, working hours and manual labour, personal gifts, community rank, etc.  The importance of humility was highly emphasized:

The Rules of Humility

  1. Keep the fear of God always before your eyes
  2. Love not your own will but the Lord’s
  3. Submit to your superior in obedience
  4. In obedience, submit to unjustice and difficulties with endurance
  5. Do not conceal (from the abbott) any sinful thought or wrongdoing
  6. Be content with low or menial treatment
  7. Admit with not only your tongue, but with your heart, of your inferiority
  8. Do only what is endorsed by common rule in the monatery
  9. Control your tongue and be silent unless asked a question
  10. Be not given to ready laughter
  11. Speak gently, seriously and with modesty
  12. Manifest humility in bearing, as well as in heart

There were a number of interesting revelations in the rule, which I found rather interesting.  Benedict states that the Lord usually reveals what is best to the younger monks, yet still the abbot has the final decision.  This is a fascinating merging of both older and younger wisdom in a hierarchical framework which is designed to work best for all parties.

Totila and St. Benedict (1400-10)
Spinello Aretino
source Wikipedia

While Benedict’s rule is, in many ways, strict, I was actually surprised at the flexibility within it.  There is grace for those who stumble and understanding of human weaknesses, as is evidenced by the description of abbots and their moral duties:

“……. He must hate faults but love the brothers.  When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.  He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed.  By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.”

Apparently prior to Benedict’s rule, the theological view was that each person was struggling towards God, and spiritual direction had a very personal aspect to it.  Benedict’s rule signified a turning point in perception, eventually making the process more regimented than personal.  The Rule has further reaching implications as well, being the forerunner to the rule of law and written constitutions, assisting in the shaping of medieval ideas.

Benedict’s abbey at Monte Cassino was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, having to be rebuilt afterwards.  A bit of trivia:  author Walter J. Miller was part of the bombing raids on Monte Cassino and was severely affected by them.  His dystopian book A Canticle for Leibowitz has echoes of both the monastery and his struggles to come to terms with his part in its destruction.  It’s a great book, if anyone is looking for a recommendation.

Rebuilt abbey of Monte Cassino
source Wikimedia Commons

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

“This book is an account of the virtuous asceticism and admirable way of life and also of the words of the holy and blessed fathers.”

The Desert Fathers were a group of faithful monks and nuns who chose to settle mainly in Lower Egypt, mostly around the desert of Scetes. While some of them lived in groups and had at least some contact with the outside world, some were hermits who preferred to live in seclusion.  Asceticism was also practiced by many to purify their souls.  While Paul of Thebes was the first monk to retire to the desert, Saint Anthony the Great was the one to begin the exodus.  These Desert Fathers served as the early model for Christian monasticism.

As expected, there are many sayings that deal with religion:

Abba Epiphanius:

  • He also said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.” 
  • Someone else asked him, “Is one righteous man enough to appease God?”  He replied, “Yes, for he himself has written: ‘Find a man who lives according to righteousness, and I will pardon the whole people.’ (Jer. 5:11)

We also find sayings from fathers instructing their disciples:

Abba Agathon:

  • The same Abba Agathon was walking with his disciples.  One of them, finding a small green pea on the road, said to the old man, “Father, may I take it?”  The old man, looking at him with astonishment, said, “Was it you who put it there?” “No,” replied the brother.  “How then,” continued the old man, “can you take up something which you did not put down?”

And fathers who seek harmony:

Abba Paul the Barber:

  • Abba Paul the Barber and his brother Timothy lived in Scetis. They often used to argue.  So Abba Paul said, “How long shall we go on like this?”  Abba Timothy said to him, “I suggest you take my side of the argument and in my turn I will take your side when you oppose me.”  They spent the rest of their days in this practice.

Coptic icon of
St. Anthony the Great
source Wikipedia

Philosophical fathers:

Abba Anthony the Great:

  • He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”

Abba Poeman:

  • He also said, “Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.”

And somewhat grumpy fathers:

Abba Arsenius:

  • Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius.  He questioned the old man to hear a word from him.  After a short silence the old man answered him, “Will you put into practice what I say to you?”  They promised him this.  “If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.”
  • Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him.  Arsenius told him, “If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here.”  Hearing that, the archbishop said, “If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go anymore.”
    Saint Arsenius
    fresco at Mt. Athos, 14th century
    source Wikipedia

And lastly, not only sayings from the Desert Fathers, but saying from the “Desert Sisters,” as well:

Amma Syncletica:

  • She also said, “It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says: “Let no the sun go down.” (Eph. 4:25)  Will you wait till all your time is ended?  Why hate the man who has grieved you?  It is not he who has done the wrong, but the devil.  Hate sickness but not the sick person.”
  • She also said, “Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honour and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.”

I was expecting to have to slog through this book, but what a delightful surprise.  While these Fathers obviously knew their Scriptures and spent time with God, their focus was on themselves: refining their souls and being a good example to those around them. The personalities of each of them shone through in their sayings and, in spite of many of the sayings being quite short and compact, they brought a window into their lives of asceticism, their values and struggles that was very compelling.  An enlightening read that gives not only a fascinating window into this era of history, but also imparts values that are as relevant today as they were in the 3rd and 4th century.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

“I seemed to be standing in a busy queue by the side of a long, mean street.”

If you found yourself in Hell and then were offered a chance to leave and spend an eternity in Heaven, you’d jump at it, wouldn’t you? …….. Or would you …….??

The Great Divorce tells of a journey of souls from the grey town, which we soon see represents Hell, to a wide open space of meadows, rivers and mountains.  Yet when the people disembark they are dismayed.  They now appears as Ghosts and all the vegetation is dense and tough in a way that makes movement difficult and, at times, dangerous.  And who are these shining Solid People coming towards them, and what do they want?  Full of joy and laughter, it appears that they only wish for the “Ghosts” to shed their prejudices and grudges and self-absorption and “rights”, to accept help and rescue from their troubles.  ‘Come to the mountain’, they say, yet most are unable to, so firmly have these detrimental traits taken root within them, to the exclusion of anything good.

The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini
shows three hierarchies and nine orders of angels
source Wikipedia

The Great Divorce is Lewis’ The Divine Comedy.  As Dante is the narrator of The Divine Comedy, so too, the narrator in The Great Divorce is Lewis himself. George MacDonald, the well-known author of The Princess and the Goblin, Phantastes, and At The Back of the North Wind, a man whose writings had a profound affect on Lewis, serves as his Virgil, a guide to bring him understanding of Heaven and similarly, the grey town of Hell.

Yet while analogous in structure, the Hell of The Great Divorce is very different than that of Dante’s Hell.  It is not a world of men trapped in flaming tombs, immersed in rivers of blood and fire, whipped by demons or eaten by foul creatures.  In The Great Divorce, Hell looks surprisingly like Earth, but a corruption of earth, holding only the negative components of greed, envy, self-worship, revenge, jealously, grudges, etc.  The setting mirrors the emotions, being bleak, desolate and lacking any human goodness.  Rain and dingy twilight permeate the town, and a perpetual feeling of hopelessness is ever-present.  Yet while the souls of this dreary place, recognize intellectually what they live in, and practically understand their actions, they have become drowned in them through excuses, trends, weakness of character, reliance on intellect only, and have become blind to their effects.  In life, they allowed their choices and actions to carry them in the wrong direction and now have little desire to escape.  They have chosen Hell and are unable to conceive of anything outside of it.  Similar to the dwarves in the The Last Battle, ignorance has overcome them and they cannot escape it.

A vision of Hell
from Dante’s Divine Comedy
source Wikipedia

Lewis’ presentation of Hell is not only easily understandable, it is quite fascinating.  Lewis’ Hell is not a Hell for people.  Each “person” there, is there of their own choice, and their descent into it has been a gradual process, and not because of one big sin.  Each of their choices has progressively dehumanized them; it is not that they are beyond salvation, rather that there is no shred of humanness left to save.  Lewis also emphasizes the smallness of Hell by having the bus, not actually travel but grow, sprouting from a small crack in the soil to emerge in Heaven.  Hell, to Lewis is a tiny place and anything that lives there is already withered away.

On the other hand, the Bright or Solid People of Heaven did not get there through moral perfection.  One had been a murderer and confessed to doing worse than that, while another was hardly known on Earth but the people and animals that came into her presence were enriched by her love and charity.  And again, we have another echo from The Last Battle, that Heaven is much more real than earth, exemplified by the tough grass, the hard rivers and terrain that the Ghosts experience and would only have a change of perception if they chose to accept the invitation to become more real.

While Lewis states in his preface that this book is an answer to William Blakes’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he makes if very clear that it is not a story that is meant to be taken in a literal sense; like his Narnia Chronicles, it is a supposition.  More, it is a work that explores human biases, perceptions and attitudes that either allow us to or prevent us from getting closer to God.

C.S. Lewis Project 2014

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton (Classic Club Spin #5)

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.”

I had heard many stories about Thomas Merton, the “Buddhist Trappist monk” and I was interested in finding out the commonalities he discovered between Buddhism and Catholicism. However, as it turns out, The Seven Storey Mountain is an autobiography of Merton’s early life, before he converted to Catholicism, and covering a few of the years after he entered the Trappist monastery, so I’ll have to search further to read about the Buddhist-Catholic component.  Nevertheless, this book, which was featured in the National Review’s 100 Best Books of the Century, was charming, funny, heart-warming, spiritual, serious, emotional and intellectual.

Born in Prades, southern France on January 31, 1915, and during the First World War, Merton had a somewhat nomadic life as a child.  Perhaps gaining perspective and creativity from his artistic French father and a certain practicality from his American mother, he draws the reader into the book in the first chapter:

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.  Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born.  That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers …… My father and mother were captives in that world, knowing they did not belong with it or in it, and yet unable to get away from it.  They were in the world and not of it —— not because they were saints, but in a different way: because they were artists.  The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it ……… I inherited from my father his way of looking at things and some of his integrity and from my mother some of her dissatisfaction with the mess the world is in, and some of her versatility.  From both I got capacities for work and vision and enjoyment and expression that ought to have made me some kind of King, if the standards the world lives by were the real ones.  Not that we ever had any money; but any fool knows that you don’t need money to get enjoyment out of life.”  

From Merton’s early life in France, we move with him to America and then, after the death of his mother, his return to France with his father, while his brother, John Paul, is left behind with his grandparents.  When Merton is 13 years old, they move to England, but when his father dies of a brain tumour, he eventually moves to the U.S. again, and finds himself enrolled in Columbia University, on his way to a possible promising professorship.  Yet life intervenes and through various circumstances, Merton finds the church and from there, a personal relationship with God.

Merton was not a man who was searching for an escape from life. Fascinatingly, he did not find the monastery; the monastery found him. Initially, as a young man, his life consisted of university, friends, bars, girls and fun.  Calling himself a true child of the modern world, he was a mirror of its afflictions: selfishness, ambition, irreligion, materialism, etc.   His expectations were to graduate and find employment, as other young men in his situation.  Yet within the social activity and superficial amusements that he experienced as a typical American youth, he nevertheless felt an emptiness that came with an increasingly strong desire to be filled.  Perhaps Merton had tried it all and the only thing left was God.

Merton’s prose is delightful, both beautifully description and harmonious, yet he is also adept at injecting light humour into situations:

“‘France!’ I said, in astonishment.  Why should anybody want to go to France?  I thought: which shows that I was a very stupid and ignorant child.”

And an excerpt from a trip to Switzerland with his family when he was about 11 years old:

“The rest of the time was one long fight.  We fought on pleasure steamers, we fought on funicular railways, we fought on the tops of mountains and at the foot of mountains and by the shores of lakes and under the heavy branches of evergreens ……………. By the time we got to the Jungfrau koch, everybody was ready to fall down from nervous exhaustion, and the height made Bonnemaman faint, and Pop began to feel sick, and I had a big crisis of tears in the dining room, and then when Father and I and John Paul walked out into the blinding white-snow field without dark glasses we all got headaches; and so the day, as a whole, was completely horrible …………… John Paul humiliated the whole family by falling fully dressed into a pond full of gold-fish and running through the hotel dripping with water and green-weeds.”

Merton’s deep understanding of human nature is punctuated by intelligent comments throughout the book.

On school:  “But when a couple of hundred of these southern French boys were thrown together in the prison of that Lycée, a subtle change was operated in their spirit and mentality.  In fact, I noticed that when you were with them separately, outside of school, they were mild and peaceable and humane enough.  But when they were all together there seemed to be some diabolical spirit of cruelty and viciousness and obscenity and blasphemy and envy and hatred that banded them together against all goodness and against one another in mockery and fierce cruelty and in vociferous, uninhibited filthiness.”

On literature:  “A course in literature should never be a course in economics or philosophy or sociology or psychology …….. the material of literature and especially drama is chiefly human acts — that is, free acts, moral acts.  And, as a matter of fact, literature, drama, poetry, make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way.  That is precisely why you will miss all the deepest meaning of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest if you reduce their vital and creative statements about life and men to the dry matter-of-fact terms of history, or ethics, or some other science.  They belong to a different order.”

On capitalism:  “It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness.  And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money.  We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”

courtesy of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University   

Through his writing, Merton’s connection with the outside world was only enlivened and strengthened after he entered the Trappist monastery. Most of his most vibrant and inspirational work was produced while he was cloistered, as if being in the world made him understand it less, but by being removed from it, he gained a greater understanding.  While his post-monastery accomplishments were vast, he initially felt the vocation of a writer in conflict with his vows, but under the urging of his abbey superior, he became a prolific author, producing more than 70 books on spirituality, social justice and pacifism, and The Seven Storey Mountain gained him a world-wide reputation.  He became more interested in inter-faith dialogue and amassed a huge correspondence with a great number of influential people.  In 1968 he attended an inter-faith conference for Catholic and non-Christian monks in Thailand, and, after stepping out of the bathtub in his hotel room, Merton was accidentally electrocuted by touching an electrical fan. He was 53 years old.

Upon its publication, The Seven Storey Mountain won critical acclaim, appealing to a post World War II society looking for meaning and stability.  Grahame Greene had high praise for it, saying: “Is is a rare pleasure to read an autobiography with a pattern and meaning valid for us all.  The Seven Storey Mountain is a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it one’s own.”  By 1984 it had sold 3 million copies, and to-date is in continuous printing and is published in 15 different languages.

The value of a book such as this is that it takes you out of life as you see it from your own perspective.  Like it nor not, society influences our thoughts, our choices, our perceptions and our actions.  We often see situations from one vantage point and must struggle to get a different view.  Merton starts with the familiar, living the status quo, but then takes you out of the normal, the complacent, the mundane, and allows you to see life from a completely different aspect.  The door is open and you are free explore.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Merton’s work.  He examines so many fascinating ideas in so many different areas, and really gets me thinking.  And I actually finished my Classic Club Spin #5 so I’m going to celebrate!  Yay!

Paradise Lost by John Milton

                                                                           “Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
 Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the Oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”

 

Samuel Johnson declared that Paradise Lost is “a poem …… which respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind …..”   It is a poem about the rebellion in Heaven and the ejection of the fallen Angels; it is about the Garden of Eden, the deception of the snake, and the fall of Man.  But it is much more than all these points, separately and as a whole. Just as Satan falls into the depths of the burning pit of Hell, Milton delves into the depths of the human Soul and conversely soars to the heights of the God of Heaven, weaving a tapestry of images and profundity that will leave the reader amazed and speechless.  Initially, the reader believes he is following Milton’s lead, not realizing until later that he is part of the tapestry itself and Milton’s words have become part of his soul.

 

John Milton’s Cottage
courtesy of Old Skool Paul (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

In this poem, Satan’s actions are especially shockingly compelling as we follow his fall from Heaven, his brash, swaggering leadership of the fallen angels, and then his quest to best God to get his spiteful, yet senseless, vengeance.  We think of Hell as a place, full of fire and brimstone, burning and torment, and while Milton gives Hell a location in this poem, it is much more than that.  Satan carries Hell inside him.  It torments him, not only with thoughts of rage and hate and revenge, but almost more effectively with thoughts of despair, regret and impossible hope.  Conflicting emotions scrape and tear at him incessantly.  For him, Hell is not external; it is an internal condition from which he cannot escape.

Milton’s superlative crafting of the character of Satan has led many people to believe he was perhaps too successful, making Satan the most exciting and heroic character of the poem.  William Blake stated that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it”.  It is certainly true that Milton intimately understood “the devil’s party”.  Like us all, he experienced sin within himself and within others:  rage, treachery, deceit, the desire for power, etc.  And with his astonishing talent, he was able to craft a character that is perhaps the most Satan of all the Satans in the history of literature.  Milton’s Satan is capable of tricking not only Adam and Eve and angels, he is able to trick the reader of Paradise Lost as well, in such a subtle manner that certain readers admire his bravado, respect his machinations, and feel sorry for his plight.  While Milton’s brilliance in this area of the poem is breath-taking, it is also unsettling.  C.S. Lewis in his lectures on Paradise Lost, approaches this issue in a dexterous manner, saying that if the reader chooses to admire Satan, he must only realize what he is admiring:

“No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from this place, nor shunned, nor hated —- he only thought himself impaired.  In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige …..


……… Satan lies about every subject he mentions in Paradise Lost.  But I do not know whether we can distinguish his conscious lies from the blindness which he had almost willingly imposed on himself ……


…….  What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything.  This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.  And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at this own bidding  …..


……. the design of ruining two creatures (Adam & Eve) who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy (God) whom he cannot directly attack ……


…….  From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake  ——-  such is the progress of Satan.  This progress, misunderstood, has given rise to the belief that Milton began by making Satan more glorious than he intended and then, too late, attempted to rectify the error.  But such an unerring picture of the ‘sense of injured merit’ in its actual operations upon character cannot have come about by blundering and accident.  We need not doubt that it was the poet’s intention to be fair to evil, to give it a run for its money —- to show it first at the height, with all its rants and melodrama and ‘Godlike imitated state’ about it, and then to trace what actually becomes of such self-intoxication when it encounters reality.”

 

Depiction of Satan
Gustave Doré (1866)
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the beautiful images painted amid the stark reality, Milton seems to rush the end of the poem, packing the whole Old Testament into the last two books and surprisingly uses a more direct narrative instead of showing the reader with his usual subtle yet beautiful verse.  Lewis remarks on the lack of genius in the last books in comparison to the earlier wonderful artistry of the poem:

“It (Paradise Lost) suffers from a grave structural flaw.  Milton, like Virgil, though telling a short story about the remote past, wishes our minds to be carried to the later results of that story.  But he does this less skillfully than Virgil.  Not content with following his master in the use of occasional prophecies, allusions, and reflections, he makes his two last books into a brief outline of sacred history from the Fall to the Last Day.  Such an untransmuted lump of futurity, coming in a position so momentous for the structural effect of the whole work, is inartistic.  And what makes it worse is that the actual writing in this passage is curiously bad.  There are fine moments, and a great recovery at the very end.  But again and again, as we read his account of Abraham or of the Exodus or of the Passion, we find ourselves saying, as Johnson said of the ballad, ‘the story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind’.  ……….  If we stick to what we know we must be content to say that Milton’s talent temporarily failed him …….”

Yet even with its flaws, Paradise Lost is an epic that is at once majestic, beautiful, poignant, tragic and instructive.  It opens a window into the Biblical story of the fall, allowing the reader to live the experiences and emotions first-hand.  What a task Milton took on and how well he succeeded!  I predict this read be my favourite of the year.  My feeble summary only covers the surface of its significance; you will only have to read it yourself to discover its grandeur!

Further reading:
         A Preface to Paradise Lost – C.S. Lewis
         Charles Williams Selected Writings (contains an essay on Milton)