Archive for January, 2013

Worlds Apart

Monday, January 14th, 2013

I’m glad you’ve been reading Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart; it’s a wonderful book. You’re rather worried, however, about Barfield’s “anthroposophical leanings”—and rightly so, I might add!—and you therefore write to ask, “speaking as one Christian to another”, whether I think this author is always “right”?

That’s a difficult question to answer when it comes to a dialogue, especially one with so many interlocutors and with such a degree of complexity. It seems, as I believe you’ll agree, that Barfield’s views are more or less evenly distributed between Burgeon and Sanderson. But having said that, I’m not sure how much we’re committing him to. However much it may be, do note the author’s characteristic sense of fair play in giving ample space to the objections of his friend C. S. Lewis, here represented by the character Hunter. As I see it, the provocative, dialectical interplay between these (and the other five) participants in some ways undercuts the very question of rectitude.

Note too the modesty of the Barfieldian voices, especially that of Sanderson, the more overtly and self-consciously anthroposophical of the two. If you recall, in response to the question of how indebted he is to Rudolf Steiner (the founder of Anthroposophy), Sanderson responds that while he feels he has personally verified one dimension of Steiner’s teachings and has a strong intuition as to the truth of a second, there’s a third dimension that eludes him entirely. Given my own conversations with Barfield during the last couple decades of his life, I suspect he would have said much the same in relation to Sanderson’s contributions to the dialogue.

As for how “Christian” all this may be, well, that of course was something Barfield and Lewis argued about in their decades-long “Great War”, the main points of which argument Barfield has nicely recapitulated in Hunter’s various objections to Burgeon and Sanderson. Whatever we end up saying about certain more subtle and controversial points—Are our physical bodies in some sense a function of a fallen consciousness? Does the spiritual life consist (in part) in cultivating a “controlled clairvoyance”?—the central claim that originally gave rise to the “War”, and arguably the central claim of this book—namely, that our knowledge is in some sense a participation in the creative work of the Logos—is an unexceptionably Christian idea, an idea reflected (among numerous other places, from the Alexandrian Fathers on down) in fellow Inkling J. R. R. Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation.

Monastic Spirit

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

This coming Maymester I’m once again planning to offer a short (three-week) course, 13-31 May 2013. “Monastic Spirit: A Journey to the Heart of Ancient Christianity” expands on my previous USC Maymester explorations of the “Mysteries of the Christian East”. This time I’ll be taking students to three monasteries. Here’s a brief description from the syllabus:

Starting in the late third and early fourth centuries A.D., spiritually adventurous Christian men and women began moving away from the major urban centers of the Roman Empire to the Thebaid and other desert locations in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

Their aim? To enter upon a path of rigorous ascetical and contemplative discipline, whether as hermits or in small communities of like-minded spiritual athletes—a path of “white martyrdom”, as it has sometimes been called, the kind of martyrdom still possible after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 312 and the end of persecution of the Church.

The “monastic spirit” that motivated these early men and women is still very much alive and well in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Our goal in this course is to get a taste of what drew, and still draws, such Christian seekers to distance themselves from the world around them and to undertake so demanding and, for most of our contemporaries, so strange a vocation.

To do this, we shall journey to the desert ourselves—the desert of the American Southwest—and spend time living and learning in three monastic communities:

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Roman Catholic Benedictine men’s community, located in the Chama Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico
The Holy Monastery of Saint Paisius, an Eastern Orthodox women’s community in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, near the small village of Safford
Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, a men’s community, also located in the Sonoran Desert region of southern Arizona

Students will learn about the differing monastic and liturgical practices of the Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox East; they will have the opportunity to attend worship services in Latin, Greek, and English, and to hear some of the most ancient (and hauntingly beautiful) music of the Christian tradition; they will be introduced to the mystical and iconographical symbolism underlying monologic prayer, meditation, and other contemplative practices; and they will be able to speak with monks and nuns about their otherworldly vocations.

Each monastery provides ample—and, perhaps paradoxically, quite comfortable!—accommodations for its guests. That said, students will be encouraged to participate as fully as they are willing and able in the challenging rhythm of these “ancient” communities, getting up well before dawn, eating a vegan/vegetarian diet, helping with gardening and other chores, etc. We shall meet as a class once a day for discussion of the assigned readings, but the emphasis throughout will be on experiential engagement and learning. Time will be available, too, for hiking and enjoying the rugged beauty of the natural environment.

Readings include the following: John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers; The Rule of Saint Benedict; and Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality.

Further insights, information, and background can be found via the following links:

A YouTube video featuring Christ in the Desert Monastery, including a taste of Gregorian chant and an interview with the abbot and prior.

A short sample of the ancient Byzantine liturgical music students will hear during services at Saint Paisius Monastery, as sung (in English) by the nuns of that community.

A YouTube video about Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, including some Byzantine chant as well as photos of the monastery and of the founder, Elder Ephraim of Philotheou on Mount Athos.

An earlier post from this weblog concerning one of my previous Maymester trips to Saint Anthony’s Monastery, with additional links, including a PowerPoint photo presentation at the bottom of the page.

A 60 Minutes special which provides an excellent introduction to the monastic life in general, as well as to the specific Athonite forms of spirituality to be found at Saint Anthony’s.

The deadline for sign-ups and travel deposits is in early February, and space is limited. USC students who are interested in taking the course should contact Jim Clark (, the Director of Off-Campus Education in the USC Honors College.