Thursday, February 23, 2006


Immo ille vir fuerit, qui perculis undique imminentibus, armis circa et catenis frementibus non alliserit virtutem nec absconderit; non est enim servare se obruere. Vere, ut opinor, Curius Dentatus aiebat, malle se esse mortuum quam vivere; ultimum malorum est e vivorum numero exire, antequam moriaris.

That one is truly a man who, when faced with imminent danger - encircled by weapons and hemmed before and after with the din of battle, neither binds up his virtue nor hides it; one is not saved by being buried. "Truly," Curius Dentatus said, "it would be better to actually die than to live as one dead; there is no greater evil than to be counted among those who have departed this life before you have died."

-Seneca's On the Tranquility of the Soul (v.4-5)

So far as I know, everyone who reads this blog is preparing to enter into parish ministry or is already in parish ministry. For the faithful pastor, but truly for every Christian, Seneca aptly describes the situation we face as he describes the State: we are "encircled by weapons and hemmed before and after with the din of battle." What will we do? How will we respond to this situation?

With conscious allusion to the mounts of cursing and blessing that stood before the people as they entered the Promised Land, "I place before you this day both life and death." To be faithful - to be real men and those proud to be called by the name we have been given - is life itself. This is drinking the cup of human experience deeply, even to the dregs. To be unfaithful - to conceal our virtue when faced with danger - is death.

We all know tired and retired pastors who look back on their ministries with sorrow and regret. They will say, "I was unfaithful." They buried their virtue before the onslaught of church politics, cultural invasion, and open and unrepentant sin. They were not real men, and now there is no better way to desribe them than as those who, "are counted among those who have departed this life before they have died."

I knew an old pastor who preached with fire and excitement. He said he remembered as a young man preaching in the pulpit of an older, tired pastor. The pastor clapped his hand after the sermon and said with a hint of nostalgia, "I wish I still had that enthusiasm and fire." That day, the young pastor perceived what Seneca tells us; he resolved to never be forced into such an admission/submission.

You are a Christian. You are a pastor. Whoever you are, live as a real man. Be faithful and do not bury your virtue when it is most needed. Someday, perhaps, as an old man you yourself will be able to say with humility and without shame: "I have truly lived." Live every day until you die.


To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
"These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."
-The Apocalypse (2:8-11, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Non quicquid nos offendit, et laedit. Sed ad rabiem nos cogunt pervenire deliciae, ut quicquid non ex voluntate respondit, iram evocet.

"Not everything that offends us injures us; but we are driven to raving by our whims of pleasure, so that whatever does not respond as we will evokes our anger."

-Seneca's Moral Epistle XLVII

The most pervasive and dangerous anger is also the most childish and full of pride. St. Benedict of Nursia alluded to the reality that all anger is rooted in sinful pride in his Rule, teaching that humility is the proper poultice for rage. Seneca also points to this truth.

A man does not only feel anger when he perceives himself harmed at the hands of another man; he more commonly becomes angry at Lady Fortune, God, or the universe. Why? Men are quite convinced that the entire world should serve their whims. The stoplight turns red at an inopportune moment and a man takes offense. Who has wronged him? He is angry at reality itself for not bending to his will as though he were the transcendent deity.

Here is the true sin of pride at the root of anger: part of man's desire to be "like god" is the conviction that reality itself should bend to his creative will. When it does not, he perceives himself to have been wronged! How absurd to pridefully imagine that Lady Fortune, so indiscriminate in her attacks on all flesh, should step down from her throne and wait on him as a maidservant or as her unique favorite among the sons of men!

Translated from Seneca's paganism into Christian terms: we are childishly angry at the world so often because we pridefully expect (nay, demand) that God Himself should step down from His throne and allow us to command all of creation according to our whims.

For the Stoic, humility leads to the greatest achievement of the human being: life in accord with Nature. For the Christian, humility alone leads to the recognition of man's true potential: the potential to live as human creatures and leave off our prideful assault on Heaven.

How does a Christian realize such humility in this life? What tools have been given us to battle our own pride and its subsequent anger? I will point to only one here: The Second Petition of the Lord's Prayer - "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." When you find yourself struggling with this pervasive and childish anger that Seneca identifies, quietly pray: "Thy will be done." In this way we can humbly remember that "whatever does not respond to our will," was never obliged to respond to our will. Only one Will commands all things, and it is not our own.


"How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.'"

-Book of the Prophet Isaiah (14:12-13, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Quid est hoc, Lucili, quod nos alio tendentes alio trahit et eo, unde recedere cupimus, inpellit? Quid conluctatur cum animo nostro nec permittit nobis quicquam semel velle? Fluctuamur inter varia consilia. Nihil libere volumus, nihil absolute, nihil semper.

"What is this, Lucilius, that draws us elsewhere than where we are trying to go, even compelling us to go headlong toward the very place from whence we desire to flee? What is this thing that wrestles with our spirit and prevents us from willing anything singularly? We fluctuate between intentions. We never will anything freely, never absolutely, never with permanence!"
-Seneca's Moral Epistle LII

Ah. Here is the question that every person should be asking. What is this thing? You don't need St. Paul to tell you that you are a house divided against yourself. Even the non-Christian has a will to do good, live honorably, and be at peace with neighbors divine and human. Well then, why isn't the world filled with good, honorable, peaceful persons? Well, there's this thing that wrestles with us.

It is as plain as the nose on your face, and yet it seems like a fantastic insight when someone verbalizes it: there is this thing. It thwarts our intentions and compels us to do the very opposite of what we desire. You don't need a theological diploma to discuss this; if you are talking to a human being, this is familiar territory.

This is a great place to begin a discussion with someone who is reasonable but not necessarily sympathetic to Christianity. This is common experience. Ask the question that Seneca asks: What is this thing? Why can't we fulfill our good intentions? Why do we turn aside from good and even do the very things we hate ourselves for doing? Don't ask rhetorically! Wait for an answer.

Any answer to the question is going to be a mess, because here is the great "black hole" created by sin. What is it? I don't know. Pat answers are not only silly, but insulting to any rational person. "Sin is anything contrary to God's will." Really? I don't think that will get you very far with a thinking person, since now you end up with a god who can't effect His own purpose. "Did God create this thing?" "Is it a thing at all, or maybe an un-thing?"

Whatever it is (or isn't), every human being has first-hand knowledge about it. We may not be able to describe it very well, but we KNOW it intimately. That's what makes it such a great topic for discussion - everybody really IS an expert on this matter.

While we may not be able to define this tendency or evil or... well, whatever it is or isn't, one thing is obvious even to pagan Seneca: it is the nature of our battle with this thing that we can't escape it - it leaves us hamstrung by its very nature. He goes on to write in his epistle:

"Stultitia," inquis, "est, cui nihil constat, nihil diu placet." Sed quomodo nos aut quando ab illa revellemus? Nemo per se satis valet ut emergat; oportet manum aliquis porrigat, aliquis educat.

"'Is it not the fool,' you say, 'that is never constant, never satisfied for very long?' Rightly so, but how will we extricate ourselves when we realize that we are such fools? No man is strong enough in himself to escape; he needs someone else to reach out his hand and pull him out."

Discussing the existential struggle we endure within ourselves leads us inexorably to this conclusion: we need someone outside of ourselves to get us out of this mess. This wrestling isn't natural (a very important conclusion for those familiar with Stoic teaching), and there must be an end to it. There is, in fact, an end to the struggle. Someone else has reached out his hand to pull us out of the struggle - not today, but on the Last Day. It requires faith in the faithfulness of God in Christ to fulfill His promise of deliverance through death and resurrection. Far from being an irrational faith, it is a rationally necessary faith if an end to the struggle is ever to be found!


"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you."
-St. Paul to the Romans (Chapters 7 and 8, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library: