Part of my spiritual discipline is to follow the Catholic, Benedictine litany. As I have confessed before, when I was younger, I had no clue what a litany was. Essentially the litany is daily planned readings. It includes Bible readings, always involving multiple Psalms and other short readings. I like the litany because it gives me a plan. It engages me and I can “do it” without having to think about things. It is both an effective and efficient way for me to practice some spiritual discipline.
Why I also like using this litany is the fact that the various saint days are indicated. Again when I was younger, I did not do saints. Quakers never talked about saints, except maybe for someone like St. Paul. But he wrote some parts of the New Testament, so obviously he was special. Other saints were unknown to me.
I began my saint learning in college and graduate school. When I took my first church history class, I encountered some of the biggies---saints like Augustine, Thomas, and others. Moving on into graduate school, I met even more of the saints. I even wrote a doctoral dissertation on one such saint---St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a fourth century church leader who was a rather amazing guy. This has set me up to look for the various saints, as their days come up, and to let them inspire and teach me.
Today I was pleased to see that one of my favorites, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, was being honored. Cyril is also a fourth century church leader. In fact, he and my dissertation guy, Athanasius, would have known each other and worked for similar ecclesiastical causes. They were leaders in two of the most important Christian cities in the world: Jerusalem and Alexandria. The only other major city would have been Rome.
On this saint day for Cyril, allow me to share some of the key points in his life and his witness. One of the stories I like about Cyril narrates the time he sold furniture during a period of a famine. This caused Cyril to be exiled from Jerusalem. Actually, I find this a laudable thing for a church leader to do. I think all spiritual people are called to love and care for each other. Surely, this is true for religious leaders. In times of duress, certainly some bold measures are required. This is a lesson Cyril has taught me. It is a lesson of courage and prudence---he is both bold and wise.
Theologically the 4th century was a tumultuous time. Much of what Christians today would consider “orthodoxy” (or right belief) was being hammered out in this century. There were also some church gatherings---or councils---that ratified this church belief. For example, if you go to a contemporary church---Catholic, Episcopal, etc.---that recites the Nicene Creed, you are reciting a creed written and published in the 4th century.
Many believers today may not care that much about “orthodoxy,” but it has been an important issue. And of course, many other Christian believers care deeply about “orthodoxy,” and these people deem the issue crucial to the faith. Whatever position I may take on “orthodoxy,” I appreciate that someone like Cyril was right in the middle of the conversation that was to determine what “orthodoxy” would be. I understand the need of the whole group of believers to come up with some kind of statement. In effect, it is a bit like a mission statement that many institutions have to write.
The most famous written document from Cyril’s pen is called the Catecheses. For a Quaker like myself, this is a very strange word. But then I learned Latin and realized it means “teachings” or “instructions.” The word is plural. So these are lectures Cyril delivered in his congregations to people who were being instructed in the faith in order to be baptized. This teaching would have happened in Lent—the time of preparation. A few of the lectures also would have come during the week of Easter.
I see Cyril here in his pastoral role. He was taking those who were new to the faith and helping them come into the community. In this he was mentor, encourager, and supporter. I appreciate the importance of community. And he was the visible leader of that community. I would argue that community is always an important ingredient of the spiritual pilgrimage.
I fear today that too many people claim to be spiritual and also claim they can do it anyway they want. After all, in their minds it is a solitary journey with their own set of rules and belief system. Of course, people can do it any way they want. But this version of solitariness is unprecedented and perhaps represents some of the rampant individualism of contemporary culture. I personally cannot imagine a spiritual smorgasbord of pick and choose.
I appreciate the fact and function of tradition to ground me in something larger than myself. I value the community that conserves and makes available this tradition. And I am thankful for St. Cyril of Jerusalem and a host of others who developed the tradition that welcomes me. I hope to do my part to support and serve others with this tradition and not strangle them.