01 February 2009

'The Great Secrets of the World Above'—The Spiritual Homilies of St Macarius

Although I wanted to focus my St Macarius post on his life, it seems appropriate to say something briefly about the Homilies that have come down to us under his name. Written in Greek toward the end of the 4th century, they are widely agreed to be one of the pinnacles of spiritual literature, not only in the Orthodox Tradition, but also by many outside of it. In his ‘Preface’ to the Classics of Western Spirituality Series edition of the Homilies, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has famously quoted the diary entry for 30 July 1736 of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, ‘I read Macarius and sang’ (Preface, Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, trans. and ed. George A. Maloney, SJ [NY: Paulist, 1992], p. xi). But John Wesley also included extracts from St Macarius’s Homilies in his A Christian Library (available here), writing of the author:

Whoever it was that first seasoned this holy vessel of mercy with the heavenly odour of Divine grace, it seems plain from the following homilies, that he was educated like Timothy, in the Holy Scriptures, and that his acquaintance with those Sacred Writings was not merely literal or speculative, but that it was a true and practical knowledge, able to save his soul; for whatever things he spoke or wrote came from himself, and were (as we are informed of the writings of the late Dr Henry More,) purely the genuine emanations of his own mind, a description of his own heart and soul.

Metropolitan Kallistos writes that the Homilies ‘are written with a warmth of feeling, an affectivity and enthusiasm, that are instantly attractive. Their message is one of hope, light and glory’; but he also observes that St Macarius is perfectly clear that the Christian life ‘is a struggle, a spiritual combat that continues right up to the end of our life’ (p. xi). Fr Andrew Louth, at the time a clergyman of the C of E though he has now come into the Orthodox Church, called them ‘a moving and profound account of the soul’s experience of God in prayer’ (The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys [Oxford: Clarendon, 1981], p. 115). The Jesuit, George Maloney (who, rumour has it, is also Orthodox now), calls the Homilies ‘a source of solid orthodox teaching for all who seek more seriously to journey inwardly and to surrender to the indwelling Trinity’s infinite love and transforming power’ (Introduction, Pseudo-Macarius, p. 25). Finally, according to Ivan Kontzevich (‘The Life of St Macarius the Great’, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, by St Macarius the Great, trans. A.J. Mason [Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox, 1974], p. xix):

[St Macarius’s] Homilies are founded on personal experience, and therefore their language is clear, expressive, and possessed of an extraordinary imagery and power. His teaching is the writings of a dweller of heaven, a heavenly man. To him, who had attained perfection, the spiritual world and its laws were open. He beholds the soul and sees all that takes place in it. He indicates to it the path to perfection. He is entirely caught up in the contemplation of God and in exaltation. To him the great secrets of the world above are open.

Not being a patristics scholar, I will not venture to comment upon the controversies surrounding the authorship of the Homilies, except to say that whatever the evidence may be against St Macarius the Great having written them, in the words of Fr Alexander (Golitzin), to call the author ‘St Macarius’ is ‘to give our author the name he has gone by for centuries’ (‘A Testimony to Christianity as Transfiguration: The Macarian Homilies and Orthodox Spirituality’). However uncertain we are of their precise identity, I refuse to bow to such conventions as referring to Holy Fathers as ‘Pseudo-Anybody’, as though there was something ‘false’ about them.

My reasoning about the supposed connection of the Homilies with something called ‘Messalianism’ is similarly based on Orthodox tradition. There is nothing heretical about the Homilies, or else they would not have been passed down with reverence by centuries of Orthodox Fathers. On the other hand, it seems to me that there were indeed some heretical tendencies not simply to be identified with Orthodox ‘Syrian Christianity’, since the Third Œcumenical Council, at Ephesus in 431, saw fit to condemn such tendencies, calling them ‘Messalian’. Now, as Maloney observes, it was from a ‘book of the Messalians, the Ascetikon’, that the Council took the propositions it condemned (p. 9). This leads me to think that Fr Seraphim (Rose) may be right when he suggests that these ‘Messalians’ had taken the teachings in the Ascetikon out of the full context of the Homilies, twisting them and ‘making them to serve a dualistic philosophy’ (‘A Note on “Pseudo-Macarius” and the “Messalian Origin” of the Spiritual Homilies’, Mason, p. xxxi). Similarly, Fr Alexander (Golitzin) writes that the propositions ‘appear to have been misconstrued’ (‘Et Introibo ad Altare Dei’: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to Its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition [Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1994], p. 374, n. 167). But again, it seems more likely to me that they were misconstrued by the ‘Messalians’ than by the Council, and that it was the propositions in the context of ‘Messalian’ doctrine that the Council was condemning rather than the in the context of St Macarius’s Homilies. This interpretation is lent great credence by the example Fr Seraphim chooses on p. xxx of his ‘Note’: comparing Homily 27:19 (Maloney, p. 182) with Proposition 2 (see St John of Damascus, ‘On Heresies’, Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr. [Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999], p. 132). Finally, Fr Georges Florovsky observes that, ‘One can note in The Spiritual Homilies only individual Messalian motifs. Moreover, the author not only does not share many Messalian views, but rejects them outright. . . . An orthodox author can also be close to, but not identical with, the Euchites [Messalians]’ (The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 10 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 153).

Anyway, I apologise, dear readers, for this foray into polemics and scholarly controversies on which I’m not really qualified to comment. I just mean to emphasise the point that all of this is rather silly. The Homilies are Orthodox, and their author has always been called ‘St Macarius’. That is good enough for me.

I shall close with two passages of practical spiritual wisdom from the Homilies themselves:

15.8. Christians, therefore, should strive in all things and ought not to pass judgment of any kind on anyone, neither on the prostitute nor on sinners nor on disorderly persons. But they should look upon all persons with a single mind and a pure eye, so that it may be for such a person almost a natural and fixed attitude never to despise or judge or abhor anyone or to divine people according to categories. If you see a man with one eye, do not make judgment in your heart, but regard him as though he were whole. If someone has a maimed hand, see him not as maimed. See the crippled as straight, the paralytic as healthy. For this is purity of heart, that, when you see the sinners and the weak, you have compassion and show mercy toward them. For it can happen that the holy ones of the Lord sit as though they were in the theater, watching the follies of the world, but in the interior they are conversing with God. According to their exterior they seem to be looking with their eyes at the things of the world. (Maloney, p. 111)

19.7. Therefore, it is necessary that whoever wishes truly to please God and receive from him the heavenly grace of the Spirit and to grow and be perfected in the Holy Spirit should force himself to observe the commandments of God and to make his heart submissive, even if he is unwilling according to the saying, ‘Therefore, I observe all thy commandments and every false way I abhor’ (Ps 119:128). As one pushes and compels himself to persevere in prayer until he succeeds, similarly, if he wishes and forces and compels himself to practice all the virtues and develops a good habit, he thus asks and begs of the Lord always. And obtaining his request and receiving a taste for God and becoming a participator of the Holy Spirit, he makes the gift given to him to increase and to thrive as he rests in humility, in charity, and in meekness. (Maloney, p. 149)


Justin said...

I remember reading where even the Nestorians of Syria opposed the Messalians.

These are great quotes. In the part of town we live in, one comes in contact with a variety of people, some living what would describe as hedonistic or broken lifestyles. Yet I've often been humbled by some of these folks.

Sometimes it is a bit of wisdom that I should have learned, but have not (more so when it comes from someone younger) and other times it can be watching someone exhibit a Christ like attitude. Somewhere in their suffering they've learned a spiritual lesson. And I think, 'what have I learned'?

Anonymous said...

Concerning Fr. George Maloney (memory eternal!):
I was curious about his ecclesiastical status myself lately, and ran a google search which yielded the result linked below:
Apparently this is not 'public knowledge' and the notice gives no idea of when he was received into the Church. But I take this all as authentic, and was quite delighted to hear of his 'coming home' before his repose in the Lord. In XC, Symeon.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for finding that link, Symeon! I had no idea Fr Maloney had passed away, and only had anecdotal evidence of his conversion. I didn't even know he was so old. Very interesting!