Thomas Merton once wrote that it is impossible to live a truly contemplative life outside of a monastery. The folks at the House of the Archangel Michael would beg to differ. Nick Burdette explains that far from the escapism of monasticism, Jesus sent us into the world. But to live successfully in the world, we must “be kept from the evil one, sanctified by the truth of the Father’s word, and sent out with the same support and connection to Christ as he has to his Father.” When we live in this light, his wife Lauren argues, our spiritual lives become a lot like potty training a toddler. Conquering the passions, which stop us growing up to be the people God intended us to be, is a difficult skill. It requires hard work from both the toddler and our divine parent who patiently guides us through the process.
Not an intentional community or a church plant, this “house” in Pittsburgh is a loose gathering of Presbyterians committed to incorporating the teachings of the Church Fathers into their lives. After only four years, the results are remarkable. Although you would have to go to Pittsburgh to participate in their “intentional cohorts,” annual devotional conference, or Jesus Prayer evenings, their writings and music are available online, together with various manifestos and thoughts on what living out the spirituality of the Fathers in twenty-first century America might look like.
Where must a journey with the Fathers begin? At their 2013 conference dedicated to Simeon the New Theologian, Michael McKee argued that “Complete devotion, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, begins with repentance. Its result is a burning fire of desire, and of yearning … not the out-of-control yearning that feeds the passions and seeks to destroy, but the laser-focused, long-burning intensity of one who craves to see their soul completely purified. Simeon says that this yearning is the Holy Spirit. And when you discover this desire in YOUR heart, it is the Spirit working in you.” To facilitate the kind of prayer that goes together with such desire, Shea Cole has put together a CD of quiet, prayerful songs based on Holy Scripture. Repetitive lyrics played on an acoustic guitar encourage meditations on phrases like “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us,” leading us into what the Fathers called the prayer of the heart.
Cole’s song “Annunciation” asks that we might receive the Word just as Mary welcomed Him into her womb. But as Lisa Sayre warns, here “we are playing with fire.” “It’s a complicated thing, meeting God,” she says. “We’ve been translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, but none of us all the way. We are made in the image of the One Who is Light, but the judgment on our race has been passed: we love darkness. Each of us here harbors secrets – junk stashed in the closets of our souls that’s easy to hid with the click of a door when company comes. But what happens when the company moves in to stay? And so we flirt with God. It’s natural for us. We were made for Him and our deepest places know it and are filled with longing. But when God starts to flirt with us, we pull back. Because we know instinctively where this is going, and who can bear the full embrace of that all-encompassing, all-revealing Light?” Pursuing God’s presence and purifying work takes diligence, commitment, and companionship – none of us can do it alone.
Lest we give up, Cole gives us another prayer: “I renounce the works of the devil … and I bind myself to Christ.” This plea lies at the basis of Christopher Brown’s essay, So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down, where we see what sort of fruit comes out of such prayers. Brown describes his journey of repentance from drunkenness. Brown has never been an alcoholic, he assures us, and he rarely drinks to excess. But alcohol dulls our senses and stops us acting “intentionally with freedom in the world.” he explains, “when we are drunk, whether on food and drink or the distractions of noise and images around us, outside influences act upon us and we live in ignorance and denial of their impact. To repent of drunkenness is to refuse to passively receive the subtle spiritual attacks of the world.” As should be obvious by now, Brown is talking about much more than alcohol here. In this essay he explores watchfulness as a spiritual discipline, or as he says, as “the sort of rational thinking that leads to moderation and self-control. Brown quotes the Fathers selectively and sensitively, reaching to the core of their spirituality and making it his own in the complicated world of urban coffee shops and parenting. In the course of the essay he repents of idle talk, becomes intentional about how he uses Facebook, and is increasingly mindful about what he eats.
He sums up this process with the fourteenth century Eucharistic prayer known as the Anima Christi:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Separated from Thee let me never be
From the malicious enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints
Forever and ever