Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…

Healing of our Memory

Many of us go through life carrying heavy burdens from our past. Maybe we cannot shake off shame and regret over our sins and failings. Maybe we struggle to believe that anyone would actually love us for who we are. Maybe we keep clinging to bitterness and resentment towards those who harmed us. Maybe we find ourselves never truly trusting anyone, never letting anyone get too close, tightly guarding our innermost self. If so, over time, we will come to feel ever more alone, misunderstood, and unloved.

The saddest aspect of these burdens is that they prevent us from trusting and surrendering to God as a loving Father, placing ourselves totally into His loving hands, and truly obeying Him in Faith. That loving surrender to the Father is perhaps the deepest holy desire of my own heart – and also that of which I am most afraid! I have always loved the surrender prayer of Charles de Foucauld, although my heart usually clutches as I speak the words. I encourage you to pray it now, and gently notice the lines that you find difficult:

Father,

I abandon myself
into Your hands;
do with me what you will.
For whatever You may do I thank you.

I am ready for all,
I accept all.

Let only Your will be done in me
as in all Your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into Your hands
I commend my soul.
I offer it to You
with all the love of my heart.
For I love You, my God,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into Your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for You are my Father.

What a challenging prayer! But in reality, it is just a variation of the prayer that Jesus taught us. We are so familiar with the Our Father that we sometimes forget how radical the requests are!

Why is it so hard to surrender ourselves into the hands of a loving Father? He knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. His providence is so much more trustworthy and reliable than our own flimsy foresight. He is totally in charge of our past, present, and future.

But there is the challenge! If God the Father was Lord of my past, that means that He willed for me to be harmed in those ways. And if he willed such a painful past for me, then surely it’s just a matter of time before He will harm me again in the future… Blasphemous thoughts, you say? If we tell the unfiltered truth, most of us will admit that we have often felt that way.

The unhealed pain of our past fills us with anxiety and fear of our future. It also causes ongoing pain in our present, as we “overreact” to everyday situations that keep poking at old wounds. Well-meaning Christian friends urge us to “move on,” “forgive and forget,” and “leave the past in the past.” But that is not how human memory works!

Our memory is a marvelous and mysterious gift. Without it we do not know who we are. We’ve all seen TV shows or films in which one of the characters develops amnesia. Disconnected from their past, they are disoriented in the present, and incapable of knowing who they are.

“Memory” translates the Latin word memoria and the Greek word anamnesis. Both words have a strong sense of “mindfulness” in the present – not just dredging up the past. From our Jewish fathers in the Faith we have inherited a sense of “remembering” holy events like the Passover in a way that makes those events present here and now. Every Catholic Mass prays an anamnesis prayer that calls to mind saving events both past and future: the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as his coming again in glory. We enter God’s eternal memory and the healing it brings.

Memory is the root of our identity. Memory is what makes the virtue of Hope possible. The more integrated our memory of the past, the more our hearts can expand in a deep desire for eternal life – not merely as a future reality, but as something substantial that is present to us here and now. For the Saints, the joy and peace of the Kingdom is present in every moment of surrender to the Father’s will. They become the Kingdom, visibly present and active.

I recently returned from my annual retreat. I was blown away by my reading of Wilfrid Stinnissen’s book Into Your Hands, Father. It spoke deeply to my desire to surrender to God the Father and be blessed by Him. I wept over the pages about surrendering our past and allowing it to be healed by God.

Stinnissen makes a shocking claim: “We receive a completely new past.” As you allow your wounds to be touched by the wounds of Jesus, “the healing goes back into time and transforms the very moment when you were hurt into a moment of grace.”

How is that possible, you ask? Surely you cannot change the past! True. The past no longer exists. But our memory of the past abides, and is often laden with lies. It is partial and fragmented and distorted. It needs to be taken up into God’s eternal love and truth. Jesus teaches us that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He makes all things new – even our memory of the past.

Remember that our painful memories are often from the point of view of a very frightened little child. Even secular therapists can be quite skilled at helping an adult to go back in time in order to coach the hurting little child into seeing a much bigger and happier picture.

Faith can do much more. If we ask and seek and knock, God will reveal Himself in our painful memories. He was there blessing us. Our sorrowful memories are then transformed into glorious ones, and we discover our deeper identity in Christ. Our wounds become like the wounds of Jesus, radiating risen glory, and a source of healing and blessing.

Healing of our Memory is not an erasing of the past – quite the opposite. It is a plunging into the whole truth about our past, found only in the Father’s love. Our past becomes more God’s past than our own. We reach a point where we truly give thanks and praise God for our past, because it is part of an amazing story of a child of God who is fearfully, wonderfully made. Healed and integrated, our memory opens us to an abundance of God’s blessing in the present, and a total freedom to surrender our future.

Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.

God is Faithful

Advent is a season of promise and fulfillment. We abide in expectant hope, confident that God is faithful. He never breaks his promises. We can trust him with total vulnerability and receptivity.

I must confess that trusting God’s promises – really trusting them – has been a lifelong challenge for me. I often surrender myself in faith and hope and love. But I have a pattern of “crossing my fingers” and holding back a little something for myself. There can be a clutching in my heart, a nagging doubt, a lingering fear that God might not really come through for me. I don’t always verbalize that doubt or have awareness of it. But part of my heart still struggles. There is that temptation to cling to an escape clause, a golden parachute, or a “Plan B” – just in case. I am guessing the same is true for many of you.

Scripture offers us lively examples of faith in God’s promises: Abraham, Joseph, and Mary.

Abraham is our father in faith. God commands him to leave behind his country and go to a land yet to be named. God promises make of him a great nation. Abraham trusts and abides. God promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. According to those chapters of Genesis, Abraham is 75 at the time of God’s promise, and waits until the age of 100 for the fulfillment! Yet Abraham trusts and abides. Some years later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac. Abraham continues to trust and abide, proclaiming to Isaac, “God himself will provide a lamb” (Genesis 22:8). God celebrates Abraham’s faith, and does indeed provide the lamb. He sends his own beloved Son Jesus, places the wood of the cross on his shoulders, and invites him up the mountain of Calvary to offer and be offered as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

That promise of saving us from our sins is also given to Joseph in Matthew 1. God sends his angel in a dream, assuring Joseph that his wife is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is to name the child Jesus (“Savior”) because he will save his people from their sins. Joseph trusts and abides.

Joseph continues trusting and abiding in Bethlehem, amidst circumstances that would lead most men to panic or rage. This great savior-child is born amidst animals and laid to rest in their feeding trough. Joseph trusts and abides following another dream, in which God sends his angel to command him to rise, take the mother and child, and go into Egypt until commanded otherwise. Joseph rises, takes the mother and child, and goes. He knows not how long they will be there, where they will stay, or how they will be provided for. He trusts that God is faithful. Scripture never records any spoken word on his part. But every single time God issues a command to him, he promptly obeys, abiding in faith and hope.

Luke offers the example of the Virgin Mary. His Gospel begins with two parallel stories, as the births of John and Jesus are announced. Zechariah and Mary are contrasting figures. Both are righteous and pleasing in God’s eyes. Both are promised a very special son under quite impossible circumstances. Both ask questions about God’s promises.

But there is a great difference in their questioning. Zechariah asks, “How can I know this?” He does not fully trust; part of him desires to comprehend and be in control. Mary, meanwhile, trusts and abides. Elizabeth praises her for believing that God would fulfill his promises (Luke 1:45). Mary’s question is “How will this be?” In Greek the grammar is more obvious. If there were doubt about the outcome, Luke would employ the subjunctive or optative (“How could this be?”). But he uses the indicative mood. She believes that the promises will be fulfilled, and desires to understand more deeply. In her lively example, we see that trusting and abiding doesn’t mean that we have to be a helpless victim or a passive bystander. There is a faith-filled way of questioning God. Mary does not shrink back in fearful submission, nor does she willfully demand a total explanation. She freely and actively gives her “yes” and grows in her expectant hope as the mystery gradually unfolds. She does not succumb to any urge to panic or rebel.

Personally, I am quite skilled at what some of my friends call “future tripping.” My mind and heart fantasize about the “what if” scenarios, and I find myself consumed with anxiety or sadness as I grapple to stay in control. God keeps inviting me to be a little child, trusting and receptive. He will shepherd me. He will protect me. He will lead me. He will nourish me. He will heal me. He will wipe away every tear. He will provide for all my needs. He will fulfill each and every one of my deepest desires. He is the one who put them there in the first place.

Advent is a time of promise and fulfillment, a time to trust and abide. The examples of Abraham, Joseph, and Mary are truly inspiring. We can trust the living God, who never lies and never breaks his promises. Paul’s prayer for his people can be a prayer for each of us this Advent:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).