Forbear! The Power of Spiritual Habit




It has been said many times, perhaps too many times in the past year; we are living in unsettling times. Words and phrases like Pivot, doom scrolling, and resilience embedding in our psyche. Yet we can learn from history that it is also an opportunity for personal and social change.


But how?


James K.A Smith says that if you and I are what we love, then love is a habit shaped by imitation and practice.[1] Spirit-led formation of our loves - is a re-adjusting of the heart, a re-alignment of our loves by unlearning what we've absorbed from ways that do not point us to God.


But how?


The Last Roman Triumph!

Telemachus was a monk who lived in Asia Minor about the year 400 AD.

His life of worship and his desires formed by God honouring habits and practices resulted in Telemachus wanting what God wanted, desiring what God desired, hungering and thirsting after God - and craving a world where God was all in all."[2]

During his lifetime, gladiatorial games were very popular in Rome. The gladiators were often slaves or political prisoners condemned to fight each other to death for the spectators' amusement. Telemachus was very disturbed that the Emperor (who was a Christian) sponsored the games and that many people who called themselves 'Christian' went to see them. Telemachus realized that talking about this evil was not enough. But what could he accomplish - one lone monk against the whole Roman Empire? He had no power, and the games had been an established part of Roman life for 100s of years.

One day in prayer, Telemachus sensed the Holy Spirit encouraging him to leave his community and go to Rome. When Telemachus arrived in Rome, he was caught up in a celebration of a recent victory by the Roman Legions. Telemachus didn't know exactly where he was going in Rome. But he allowed himself to be swept along by the crowds. He soon found himself on the way to the Colosseum. Telemachus followed the crowd into the Colosseum. There, to his horror, he was confronted with callous gut-wrenching carnage. Gladiators fought one another to the death. They slaughtered their hapless foes without pity as entertainment for the bloodthirsty crowds.


Telemachus felt he had to do something. He simply couldn't stand by while human beings were being beheaded, disembowelled and dismembered before his very eyes. He ran down the steps of the stands, leapt into the arena, and began darting back and forth between the fighters crying: 'Forbear, forbear, in the name of Christ I beg you to forbear.'


When the crowd saw the scrawny figure of the monk running frantically about the arena, ducking and weaving between the combatants - they took Telemachus to be a bit of welcome comic relief and roared their approval. Some of the people in the crowd began to hear what 'the mad monk' was saying and more, and they came to realize that Telemachus was trying to spoil their bloody fun. Then they turned against him, hissing and booing and bellowing at the top of their voices for his death.


The gladiators lunged at the monk with their swords, and the audience buried him under a hailstorm of stones. Telemachus lay dead in the middle of the arena. During the silence that followed his death - it was as if the monk's last cry began to echo around the stadium: 'Forbear, forbear. In the name of Christ, I beg you to forbear.' Telemachus died - but not in vain.


The Emperor issued a proclamation that day - forbidding all future gladiatorial games.[3]

Telemachus' behaviour was reflexive – he did not give thought to his distinctively Christian actions.


It was the response from a life of worship and God honouring habits repeated so many times they re-formed his spirit and mind, imbedding the sacredness of human life deep down (Habitus).


James K.A Smith says discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.[4]More a case of formation through habit and practice than of acquiring information.[5]


And if you and I are what we love, then love is a habit shaped by imitation and practice.[6]


Anyone who can remember learning to ride a bicycle, drive a vehicle or shoot a basket, even tie a shoelace remembers choosing repeated practice over and over and over until the rhythms became habits.[7] Spirit-led formation of our loves - is a re-adjusting of the heart, a re-alignment of our loves by unlearning what we've absorbed from practices that do not point us to God.


[1] Smith, James K. A. (2016). (p. 19). [2] Smith, James K. A. (2016). (p. 2). [3] Foxe, J. (2017). Fox's Book of Martyrs: Or A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of the Primitive Protestant Martyrs. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). (chapter 111). [4] Smith, James K. A. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [5] Smith, James K. A. (2016). (p. 19). [6] Smith, James K. A. (2016). (p. 19). [7] Smith, James K. A. (2016). (p. 36).

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