Grow Into It: Wisdom, Spirituality, and Suffering
“You don’t get over it; you grow into it.” Here’s our full interview with Gerald Sittser of Whitworth University, where he discusses our struggle to be sanctified; ancient Christian wisdom; the monastic tradition and what we can learn from the “Desert Mothers and Fathers”; carrying loss and grief; and his own trial of losing his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters in a single car accident.
Gerald: Well in addition to being ridiculously good looking I’m also ridiculously articulate.
Man: Oh good!
Gerald: Now did you get the ridiculously good looking?
Man: Yeah yeah.
Interviewer: Give us blue steel right? [laughing]
Interviewer: How do you conceive of your vocation? How do you think of your call?
Yeah I’ve thought a lot about that actually I have over the years kind of revisited that I think most people do, they have a good sense of calling and then life experiences take them in a direction and then they circle back to the question again.
I would say my central calling is to be a bridge between the world of the academy, the world of ideas, great texts great ideas, and the world of ordinary people and the church. And so I have to kind of live in both worlds and that’s pretty demanding and I try to write in both worlds too, but that’s where I think my sweet spot is.
Interviewer: Comment on that, what’s the challenges that you face living in that middle space?
Well I mean on the one hand the rewards system the culture of higher ed is constantly encouraging only the capacity to speak to people like yourself, and so your write your peer-reviewed articles and you work on your books and that sort of thing which I’ve done, but it can be a pretty incestuous world, the language you use, the in group vocabulary for example, the ideas that become incredibly inaccessible and often irrelevant to ordinary people, so you’ve gotta negotiate that world and live in that world but figure out how to distill it, and so you can communicate to a larger world that needs to learn from these ideas and adapt them and grow and wisdom, so I wanna make those at least in part accessible so I do try to live in both worlds as best I can.
Interviewer: Comment on Christian wisdom and the church, what’s the relationship of the church to sources of ancient wisdom, contemporary wisdom, what’s the need for the church?
Well actually I was initially inspired to get my PhD assuming I was gonna go back to the church and be a pastor because early on in my Christian life I was converted when I was 20 by the time I was 24, 25, some of my heroes many of my heroes were Christian intellectuals who were pastors, and some of the best theology to come out of the church, or I should say some of the best theology to come out of the great teachers of the Christian movement have been pastors. John Calvin, Johnathon Edwards, Augustine, Chrysostom, the Cappadocian fathers, many of these people were pastors, Ambrose was a pastor, on and on I could go, Athanasius was a bishop for 45 years.
So these folks knew how to preach and they knew how to speak to lay people, I mean think about it John Calvin preached over 200 sermons a year for 15 years, and yet we read him as a scholar, so their example really inspired me to think about becoming at least somewhat learned, I’ll never be as learned as they are, I feel like I’m a little astroid revolving, orbiting around Jupiter when I study these folks but their example really inspired me to want to pursue something of the same calling only a much more modest kind of way.
So it’s only been in the last maybe 200 years that the wisdom of the church has become a little bit more isolated in the academy, and I’d like to see it brought forth and made more accessible to ordinary people again, at least that’s one of the things I’d like to do and not the only thing. [calm spiritual music] I recall this great line that pastor Paul writes in First Corinthians four where he’s dealing with the party spirit in the church of Corinth, Peter, Paul, Apollos and he says at the end of this argument, all things are yours he says. In one sense this exclusive commitment to Peter or Apollos to some sort of party within the church was cutting them off from other sources of wisdom and insight that they could gain by embracing it all, obviously with a critical eye, with a submission of the gospel and so he says all things are yours, whether Paul or Peter or Apollos all things are yours and you’re Christ and Christ is God, so he says take advantage of this resource that you have and don’t cut yourself off by identifying exclusively with Peter for example.
So I say to myself, Augustine is yours, and Calvin is yours and Julian of Norwich is yours and Hildegard is yours and Melania is yours and Macrina is yours and so on and so forth, these people, they’re part of my resource, they’re members of my family and I wanna come to know them and love them, to think critically about them obviously, no ones ever entirely right except scripture, but they can give us an angle of vision on our understanding of the Christian faith that actually protect us from becoming a prisoner to our own age, the questions that are fashionable to us, the ideas that are binding us from living a fuller and richer Christian life.
Now I’m gonna say that they’re really odd in many cases. But often in the history of the church you read about people, you read about movements, and after a while you get the idea that we’re odd to them, and you wonder who’s right. Let me give you an example.
Our church today, especially in the West, almost entirely refuses to talk about money and wealth, and yet in other parts of the Christian community in other parts of history they have addressed that in a very robust way, you know when Wesley started his class system for example, the method behind the Methodist movement, one of the things that they did every week was they talked about money, can you imagine that happening in a small group today in a typical church or an evangelical church, we wouldn’t touch that subject.
So I just like multiple voices, that can all bear witness to Jesus Christ and draw us into a deeper, richer life with him and those voices are not simply somebody else in my church, but the voices that speak to us through the history of Christianity. And my job is to try to make them accessible.
And that means I have to study them a lot too, which I try to do. [calm spiritual music] I’m studying John Cassian, very usual and interesting figure I mean he was kind of one of these well connected we’d say today networked people in the ancient world, grew up in the Baltic area, fell in love early on with the stories of the early desert fathers and mothers and with his friend Germanus he eventually went to Bethlehem, stayed there for a while, grew disillusioned because it was a little soft, and eventually made his way down to Egypt where he met the stars of the desert in the later part of the 4th century, interviewed them, traveled around, learned as much as he could, eventually was forced out of Egypt, too long story to tell, made his way to Constantinople where he was ordained a deacon, came to know John Chrysostom went to Rome, maybe Antioch, eventually ended up in Gaul so this guy’s really well traveled, and one of the bishops in Gaul asked him to write a report and to reflect on all that he’d learned in Egypt and so he wrote two books, the Institutes and the Conferences, and the Institutes he outlines in detail and reflects on the wisdom on the idea of the eight deadly thoughts or vices.
Reading these things is like feeling you’re being flayed alive, I mean honestly they are so psychologically insightful, his reflections on gluttony or averse or sadness, yes sadness is one of the eight deadly thoughts or vices, and of course pride and so on, and I love to teach these things because they give us a kind of diagnostic tool to understand human nature at its worst and to see it redeemed by the work of Christ. And he also tells some great stories in those books too. [calm spiritual music] A desire for a shortcut, that’s really what it implies that’s why they call it the noon day demon. By the time noon hits when you’re living in a monastery and you prayed for the 4th or 5th time of the day you look outside and the sun has basically stopped moving.
You look at the clock and it’s stopped ticking, and you feel overcome, athletes experience acedia when they’ve gone through drills again and again and again, they feel like they’re not making an improvement and they grow bored with them, and restless or musicians, or scholars, so that
Interviewer: Creators right?
That’s right, that particular deadly vice or thought applies to those who want to figure out how to take a shortcut to excellence. Or to flee in fact Cassian talks about the desire to flee the place he says, oh he says putting words into an imaginary monk if only I could find a better abbot, if only I could find a better monastery, if only I could find a better coach, a better teacher, a better set of circumstances that would simply make the Christian life easier for me, and more convenient and I could get to excellence somehow more quickly, that’s really what he’s referring to.
Interviewer: And that syndrome, the if only syndrome is just rampant
Interviewer: Our society,
It’s a habit of our society. Sadness on the other hand would best be translated at the lighter side of things, self-pity and at the harder side of things, despair. Where you face circumstances, experience in life that are simply so hard and you fall into a deep kind of sadness it’s not depression, I hesitate to use modern words and apply them easily ancient wisdom, that takes some nuancing that I’m hesitant to do.
So self-pity I think is about right, self-pity to despair. Envy is the active side of that by the way Evan because envy is really a way of saying I hate the people who are succeeding and have not, or somehow succeeding and have not faced the difficulties that I’ve faced in life, so I wanna see them fail. And that’s the deadly sin that Gregory the Great eventually decided on. [calm spiritual music]
We can make some of these great texts more readable texts simply more available and encourage study groups in churches, in colleges. I am absolutely committed to having people read primary sources as much as possible, I mean that’s all I have my students read, they don’t read texts.
Interviewer: Read the old books.
They read the old books, as C.S. Lewis called them. The fresh breezes of the seas blowing in to our world. So I have students read Cassian’s the Institutes they read On the Incarnation by Athanasius, they read Julian or Norwich, they read Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship or On the Priesthood Chrysostom’s book, I have them read Chrysostom’s sermons, and then I will often provide a little reading guide so they can get inside those texts, maybe a little bit more easily.
That’s one thing I do. I have a pastors reading group that I’m leading right now all young church planners in Spokane none of them have been disseminary, none of them, and they’re reading nothing but early Christian sources so last week we spent an hour and a half discussing Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching and it was so rich because he’s the first one who came up with the idea of the significance of story and doing theology in light of the biblical story and there were sparks flying everywhere.
Now they’d never heard of this guy before and yet he became their friend as well as their teacher by spending a lot of time in the texts and then discussing it together, so I’d wanna do that with Cassian and then you have little study groups and then you have teachers who are able to explain some of these ideas in ways that are translatable and accessible and applicable. [calm spiritual music]
They have a very clear view of human nature, how it’s fallen and how it can be reclaimed and redeemed. So I always start there and then I try to explore the depth of their understanding of how human nature can be informed and reclaimed. There’s a kind of psychology that comes into play there. I would argue that a lot of modern psychology in it’s very schools, I don’t wanna be over simplistic here but in its very schools tends to be more reductionistic than they are, I mean depending on where you go you may discover you’re pretty much the product of your gene pool and that’s it, or it could be you’re pretty much the victim of your background and that’s it, and they have a more nuanced view of things than we do in many cases, I’ll give you one example so John Cassian is outlining the thought of abbot Daniel and abbot Daniel says human nature is a war between what he calls the flesh and the spirit by flesh he means our desire to indulge our appetites as much as we possibly can and by spirit, it’s the part of us that really wants God and to know God and follow God and practice disciplines that call us into a deeper life with God, and he said the soul is right in the middle, and what the soul wants is the best of both worlds.
It wants to sort of indulge the flesh so it can experience pleasure and it wants to be spiritual but not too much, and so it’s constantly wallowing in luke warmness, and he said God will never let us get away with that, and so one of the things, the tools that God uses is adversity to break us of our luke warmness and to move us gradually toward a deeper life with God so that we become more spiritual I guess you could call it but never at the, but not indulging pride at the same time and that’s why the spiritual journey he says has to be hard and long. Easy success leads to spiritual pride and that’s the most damnable vice of all.
Interviewer: And we often look to psychology we often look to spirituality for an easy, very fast transformative experience. You good?
Man: Yeah I was just [mumbles]
And they will simply not allow us to do that. There is nothing simple and easy about the desert fathers and mothers now, I’ll say it’s not the world of Augustine, not the world of Calvin, they’re very different, their view of grace is not a reformation view of grace I admit that, I teach that I clarify that as much as I can. You know they would grace would operate like this imagine you have a young, well you do have young children so how old your oldest?
Okay so let’s just say he sleeps on the top
She sleeps a top bunk bed which obviously too young to do, but let’s just say that for the case of our conversation here, and there is no way she could ever jump to that top bunk bed, ever. And so playing with her and encouraging her and loving her you say, jump, jump and daddy will help you get to the top bunk bed, so she jumps, you lift her up and you say to her oh you are such a big girl I can’t believe how strong you are, I can’t believe how high you can jump, well of course she didn’t do anything to get to that top bunk bed, you did it all.
There was no contribution she made whatsoever, and yet you are encouraging her at the same time, that was her view of grace. It isn’t that God helps us, God does it all, and yet our efforts, our response give a cue to God that we want his help, that we hold up our arms to him. [calm spiritual music] One story that comes from Cassian’s Conferences really underscored their view of grace and also their humanity so the story goes like this there was a young monk he’s staying in a cell as these monks in Egypt did, and he was battling the vice, the thought, the temptation of lust, he had done this for several years, he kept failing, and finally he gave up.
And of course the cue there, the sign there is he decides to leave his cell and return to the city and return to the world. So he’s marching out toward the city and runs into I think it’s the Abba Apollos if my memory serves me well. And Abba Apollos can tell that this young man is deeply troubled, and so in a conversation he finally draws this out of this young monk and he asks what ails you and the monk says I’ve been fighting this demon of lust forever and I’m failing, and then he said I went to another old man who lives in the desert and I shared this problem with him and he said you lazy terrible monk you are unworthy of being in the desert, you are a failure and you are a shame to us all.
Well Apollos is furious at this old man. So he first to the young monk and he says you know I’ve been in the desert for seven years and I still struggle with this problem of lust. You go back to your cell and just for 24 more hours seek the mercy of God. Then he goes to the cell of this old man, he stands outside and he prays to the Lord, let the demon of lust afflict this man as it did the young man, and this old man is tormented and within hours he decides to leave his cell and return to the world well Abba Apollous finds him as he’s leaving and says why are you leaving your cell?
Oh I’ve failed miserably because I’ve yielded to the demon of lust and Abba Apollous says I prayed that you would face the same affliction as the young man you gave him bad council because you did not encourage him or understand the weakness of human nature. You should repent of your own sin for your failure. The old man does, goes back to a cell but then he finds the young man again and he said, you know with these vices, if it weren’t for the grace of God all of us would fail all of the time. God in his mercy gives us grace and sometimes that means he afflicts us with adversity, with struggle, with failure but in the end it is to rescue us, and save us and deliver us. [calm spiritual music]
Here’s another one of my favorites so there’s young man it’s always young men right, it’s a young man, and he goes to visit an abba it’s always a wise abba, and he notices that other young monks involved in this little loose monastic community are working and he’s shocked by this, says to the abba, these young mean re working instead of praying, they’re living like Martha rather than Mary I mean how could this be?
Well the abba’s a wise man, you could just see this wry grin on his face right and he says well I’ll just put you in a cell so you can pray all day long to be like Mary he says, well the day goes by and at the end of the day, this young man is wondering where his dinner is, goes out to the old man, the abba and says where’s my dinner? And the old man says well you wanted to pray all day long I’m assuming you’re so spiritual you don’t even need any food, well we do and so we have to work for our food.
Well immediately this young man is stricken in the heart and repents of his sin and said oh I’m so sorry for my pride and then the punchline, they’re always punchlines you know the abba says to him, you know in a normal Christian life among ordinary Christians, Mary needs Martha as much as Martha needs Mary. We have to live like both if we are to be truly spiritual in the world. Now what a lovely punchline. [calm spiritual music] This is a story of the great Macarius, there were two Macarius’ by the way, one of Alexandria and one of Egypt. This is I think abba Macarius of Egypt.
Well one day he’s praying he’s been out in the desert living in a cell, practicing these severe ascetic disciplines for years, and an angel comes to him and says you have not yet reached the level of spirituality of two women living in the city. Well he hears the word woman and then city and already he realizes he’s in trouble right, he can’t believe that women and city would actually lead to a deeper spiritual life than he has, well he’s curious so he goes in the nearby city, and I don’t know how long this happens but somehow finds these two women, knocks on the door, they come to the door and he said tell me what you’re doing, how you can live such an amazing spiritual life, and they said well we don’t know we were just with our husbands last night. Now that’s a code word for had sex with their husbands so now Macarius is not just dealing with women in city but sex!
And then they say we’ve been sisters living together for a long time, and we asked our husbands if they would release us from the demands of marriage so we could go to the desert to practice the kinds of life you live. But they said no, you stay and live with us and so we have simply tried to live for God every day right where we are. And the punchline of the story is Macarius says all of a sudden I realized that it’s not whether we live in the city or the desert, whether we live as married people, as single people, whether we live strict celibate ascetic lives or lives in the world, it’s that we learn to live for God right where we are.
And they poke fun at themselves a lot I mean there are so many little code stories that are mocking fanatics, old men who haven’t become wise as I’ve indicated, somebody’s gotta translate this stuff soon. I use these stories all the time in my teaching and in my preaching. [calm spiritual music]
I’m an academic so I make my living as an academic teaching, writing, research and that sort of thing, but one of my callings is to figure out how to try to serve as a bridge between that world and the world of ordinary people, and I’m an ordinary person sometimes I think academics almost live double lives, they don’t do it intentionally or deceptively but they do their research in the library and they read their books and write their articles and then they go home as married or single, living in apartments or homes and raising children or not, and they don’t realize that their own subjects do or can make a difference in people’s lives, and I’ve been acutely aware of that because of my own journey, I married when I was very young, my wife, first wife Lynn and I had troubles conceiving children, finally we had four in six years, two years after she gave birth to our youngest son John, she was killed in a tragic drunken driving accident.
I was driving, all our kids were together, I lost a daughter and I also lost my mother who was visiting us for the weekend so three generations of women disappeared, literally in a moment of time, my mother Grace, my wife Lynnden, my daughter Diana-Jane, and so all of a sudden I realized, more acutely than before that my world in this case a world of unbelievable tragedy and loss, and pain, also needed to hear the wisdom of the ancients, and in a strange kind of way I don’t even know if this is gonna make sense, I began to study more and more for myself.
I remember the first time I read Calvin’s, or re-read Calvin’s golden book of the true Christian life and he’s got this fabulous section of living in both adversity and prosperity, and I’ll tell you that just pierced me, me!
Because I was reading more for myself, trying to figure out how to raise my children, then eight six and two, and how to be a good dad and how to be a good citizen of the community and how to handle and live under these kinds of very painful conditions, and I’ll give you one example of what I learned. In our modern culture, the language we tend to use is to get over something, and I learned really by studying ancient wisdom that you don’t get over, you grow into.
You begin to wear it, it becomes a part of the landscape of your life. It’s not over, it’s into. It’s not through, it’s absorbing, wearing it, growing into it until it becomes clothes that fit better. We should carry loss in our hearts for the rest of our lives Jesus said blessed are those who mourn, he didn’t say blessed are those who’ve overcome mourning. It’s who mourn.
Maybe our own sorrows, but also other people until we realize that we belong to a community of mourning that goes back thousands of years and wraps itself around the world today. So we spend so much of our time trying to escape these things, avoid these things, and the call of discipleship is to grow into them. Now that I learned, not just through my own experience, I learned from my study, and those two worlds came together more and more.
Interviewer: Thank you, thank you Gerry. And that says it a ll. [calm spiritual music]