31 January 2009

'Night' by Alcman of Sparta


I thought it was time for a little archaic poetry. This is from Alcman, the 7th-century Spartan poet, and one of the nine lyric poets canonised in Hellenistic times. The translation is that of Lionel Casson, the NYU classicist (Lionel Casson, ed., Classical Age, The Laurel Masterpieces of World Literature [NY: Dell, 1965], p. 69).

Night

The mountains sleep, the valleys and peaks,
The jutting headlands, the tumbling creeks,
The black earth's teeming creatures that crawl,
The beasts of the forests, the swarms of bees,
The monsters deep in the purple seas,
The wide-winged birds, asleep, one and all.

The invocative catalogue of nature recalls to me some of the Psalms, while the theme of the teeming world asleep harkens forward—to my mind—to Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge'. This poem makes me want to join the earth in its slumber!

(The image above is an 1879 etching by Samuel Palmer—about whom I've posted before—called 'The Lonely Tower'.)

'Vain is this world'—St Leobardus the Recluse of Marmoutier


Today we commemorate St Leobardus the Recluse of Marmoutier, who struggled in Gaul in the 6th century. Born in Auvergne, the parents of the venerable one sent him to school and, against his wishes, forced him to become betrothed. They soon passed away, however, and St Leobardus said to himself, ‘Vain is this world, vain are its lusts, vain is the glory of the earth, and all that is in it is only vanity. It would be better to abandon it and follow the Lord than to give any approval to worldly deeds’ (St Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 288). After a pilgrimage to the Basilica of St Martin, he withdrew to a cell near Marmoutier. There, he started making and preparing parchment and digging stone to enlarge the hermitage. According to St Gregory, ‘In all this he gave himself over with delight to fasting, prayer, psalmody, and reading, and never ceased to celebrate the Divine worship and prayer; from time to time he would write in order to divert himself from bad thoughts’ (p. 289). Chief among the latter, it seems, was a temptation to leave his cell and find another one, but it was important that he conquer this. As we have seen:

Christianity in practice, and monasticism above all, is a matter of staying in one place and struggling with all one’s heart for the Kingdom of Heaven. One may be called to do the work of God elsewhere, or may be moved about by unavoidable circumstances; but without the basic and profound desire to endure everything for God in one place without running away, one will scarcely be able to put down the roots required to bring forth spiritual fruits. (Fr Seraphim, ‘Introduction to Orthodox Gaul’, St Gregory, p. 123-4)

Thanks be to God, however, St Gregory himself was able through his exhortations to help St Leobardus conquer this temptation. After leaving him again, St Gregory writes that he sent books—a tremendous morale booster!—to the hermit ‘in order that he learn what recluses ought to be and with what prudence monks ought to behave’ (p. 289). These were the ‘Life of the Fathers’ by Rufinus (translated as The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, trans. Norman Russell [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981]) and the ‘Institutions of the Monks’ by St Cassian (translated as John Cassian, The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 2000]). According to St Gregory:

When he had re-read them, not only did he drive out of his mind the bad thought which he had had, but even more it so developed his knowledge that he astonished us with his facility in speaking of these matters. He expressed himself in a very gentle manner, his exhortations were full of charm, he was full of love for people, he had his eyes open for kings, and he prayed continually for all ecclesiastics who feared God. (p. 289)

Thus, thanks to the Saint’s help and the reading of a couple of really good books, St Leobardus endured in that cell for twenty years and was granted the grace of working sundry miracles. At last, worn out by his ascetic struggles, he called St Gregory to give him the Holy Mysteries, and then he told him that he would soon repose. Two months later, the venerable one fell asleep in the Lord, and was buried in a tomb that he ‘cut out himself in his cell.’ St Gregory concludes, ‘That he had been admitted into the company of the righteous is something not to be doubted, I think, by any of the faithful’ (p. 290).

(The illustration above shows the ruins of St Martin's monastery at Marmoutier, a casualty of the madness of the French Revolution. St Leobardus was one of many anchorites who laboured near there in imitation of the great Father of Gaul.)

30 January 2009

Stuff About Words & Things


Christopher Orr’s post and comments on the subject of name forms and derivations reminded me of something I’ve often thought about before. What is obvious or well-known to one person, even a very little thing, may be totally new to someone else (Umberto Eco says something similar in ‘How to Justify a Private Library’, How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, trans. William Weaver [San Diego: Harvest, 1995], pp. 115-6—an essay I’ve mentioned before). I for one was tempted to be embarrassed when I first learned that, for instance, ‘Madeleine’ is a Gallicised form of ‘Magdalene’, as in ‘St Mary Magdalene’, and the word ‘maudlin’ comes from the same source, but I don’t really think there’s any reason to feel that way. We all have to learn something for the first time at some point.

So, while many of my readers may be so familiar with the history of words and names and such that they can no longer be surprised, here are two interesting things that I learned just within the last six years or so:

First, the well-known symbol ‘&’, the ‘ampersand’, is a ligature of the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’—that is, of the Latin word ‘et’, meaning ‘and’. While one is hard-pressed to see this in many versions of the ampersand due to the stylisation of the charactre, I think it was more apparent in 18th-c. typefaces. The word ‘ampersand’ comes from the expression ‘and per se and’ (don’t get me started on the rampant misuse of the phrase ‘per se’ in our time!), in other words, ‘and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and’. In Scotland the same symbol is called ‘epershand’, from ‘et per se and’. I first discovered this about the ampersand when I was reading an 18th-c. text and saw the following—‘&c.’—used for the phrase ‘et cetera’. One can read an article about the ampersand from a Russian perspective here (which concludes, predictably, that Russians don’t need the ampersand), and there is a blog of various ampersands here.

Second, the words ‘Welsh’ and ‘Vlach’ (as in the Romanian provice of ‘Wallachia’, or the Greek surname ‘Vlachos’) are derived from the same source. I learned this from Tolkien’s lecture ‘English and Welsh’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monster & the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien [London: HarperCollins, 1997], pp. 162-97). Tolkien believes that to the ancient Germanic peoples the Celtic and Latin languages were phonetically similar. He explains that the word ‘wealh’ (whence ‘Welsh’) was used by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons to refer to the speakers of what we would call a Celtic language, but that forms of it were also used in other Germanic languages to refer to speakers of Latin. It was thus that it came to be ‘borrowed in Old Slavonic in the form vlachŭ’ and ‘applied to the Roumanians’ (Tolkien, p. 183). (‘Vlach’, for those who don’t know, is commonly used for peoples speaking a Romanian dialect who are found throughout the Balkans.) So my junior-high friend Mike Walsh and the well-known ecclesiastical writer Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos have surnames that both pour out of what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the cleft rock of some pre-political, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain’ (Introduction, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000], p. xxv). This came to me as something of a divine revelation.

So, to all of those who knew this stuff already, I apologise for sounding as though I’ve just invented the wheel or discovered that war is hell. But there may well be others who didn’t know it yet.

'I Saw the Snares of the Devil Spread in the Earth'—St Anthony the Great


There is a lot that I would like to say about St Anthony the Great, whom we commemorate on this day, 17 January on the Orthodox calendar. Unfortunately, my own lack of time and my consideration for the attention spans of my readers hinder me. But I will do what I can for this most venerable of monks, the patron Saint of my spiritual father (to whom I wish many years!).

Although I knew nothing of his life, I vividly recall pouring over the paintings of St Anthony’s temptations by Schöngauer, Bosch, and Grünewald as a teenager. Interestingly, my first acquaintance with the Orthodox veneration of St Anthony was through an icon in the chapel at the Greek parish here in town, a chapel dedicated to the Saint. A full-figure icon in an excellent Byzantine style, it depicted St Anthony holding a scroll which read: ‘EΙΔΟΝ ΕΓΩ ΤΑΣ ΠΑΓΙΔΑΣ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΥ ΥΠΛΩΜΕΝΑΣ ΕΝ ΤΗ ΓΗ’ (‘I saw the snares of the devil spread in the earth’). When I asked what it meant, for I had had no Greek at the time, the rector of the parish had a bit of trouble with the words ‘παγίδας’ and ‘ἡπλωμένας’, but it was enough for me that St Anthony was testifying to having witnessed intense demonic activity with his own eyes. Of course, later I discovered the context of this statement—in the Gerontikon, it is Anthony 6, but while I thought there was a fuller version in the Life, I can’t find it—wherein St Anthony ‘said groaning, “What can get through such snares?”’, and was answered, ‘Humility’ (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 2).

Of course, I also discovered the Vita S. Antonii of St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, which I first read in Carolinne White’s translation from the Latin version of Evagrius of Antioch (not Evagrius Ponticus), published in Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), pp. 7-70. In his introduction to the Desert Fathers, William Harmless has, typically, overplayed the differences between the Gerontikon and the Vita, sounding a good deal like the common attempts to drive a wedge between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of St Paul (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], pp. 167-9). But I believe Stelios Ramfos is more sensible when he says, ‘All that we learn in the Life about the teaching of Antony the Great is confirmed by the sayings in the Gerontikon which contemporary desert pilgrims conserved and transmitted as his own’ (Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. and abgd. by Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2000], p. 55).

Again, it was the demonic warfare that stuck out so vividly in my mind. Speaking to some of the other monks about the deceits of the demons, St Anthony begins to address Satan directly, saying:

(VA 28) . . . But now when you attempt to deceive, using changes of shape as in a theatre (as if you were trying to deceive naïve children by means of illusions on the stage), you prove more clearly that your strength is exhausted. Surely that true angel, sent by the Lord against the Assyrians, did not need the alliance of the peoples (IV Kings 19:35, LXX)? Surely he did not require noises or applause? Did he not rather wield his power in silence when he laid low one hundred and eighty five thousand of the enemy, more swiftly than can be related, at the Lord’s command? But as for you, because your strength is weak, everlasting destruction attends you. (White, pp. 27-8)

It is a statement quite typical of the Vita, which Harmless—despite his apparent preference for the Gerontikon—has captured quite well when he writes, ‘The Life of Antony seems, at first sight, obsessed with demons and demonology. But a closer look shows that the focus is not on demons, but on Christ’s victory over them’ (p. 85). Indeed, with this realisation, the true significance of the temptations and the warfare against the ‘spirits of wickedness’ becomes apparent for the first time. St Anthony is not a raving madman, crazed by hallucinations, for St Athanasius writes, ‘His mind was calm and he maintained a well-balanced attitude in all situations’ (VA 14; White, p. 19). But this is only because ‘the Lord was helping his servant, the Lord who took on flesh for our sake and granted the body victory over the devil so that any individual who became involved in this struggle could cite the words of the Apostle, Not I, but the grace of Christ which is with me (I Cor 15:10)’ (VA 5; White, p. 12). It was through the crucible of this struggle that St Anthony ‘persuaded everyone that nothing should be valued higher than the love of Christ’ (VA 14; White, p. 19). No wonder the Vita transformed so many lives! In the brilliant introduction to her translation of Desert Fathers material, Helen Waddell tells us that the Vita S. Antonii left young men in Late Antiquity ‘shaken’, and that the soul of St Augustine, unconverted as yet to the devout life, ‘quailed away from it as from death’ (Introduction, The Desert Fathers, ed. and trans. Helen Waddell [Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1957], p. 3).

Other aspects of St Anthony interested me still later. For instance, to my mind his simplicity seemed to be connected with his readiness to act upon the commandment of the Gospel εὐθὺς, ‘immediately’ (VA 9; White, p. 9). In his undivided will he knew exactly what to do, for according to the text attributed to St Anthony himself in the Philokalia, ‘The truly intelligent soul, which enjoys the love of God [ἡ δὲ κατὰ ἀλήθειαν λογικὴ καὶ θεοφιλὴς ψυχή], knows everything in life in a direct, immediate way’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1979], p. 331).

Of course, we can now quibble about just how ‘simple’ he was. In Robert C. Gregg’s translation from the Greek Vita, St Athanasius says that St Anthony ‘could not bear to learn letters’ (The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, by St Athanasius [NY: Paulist, 1980], p. 30). On the basis of St Anthony’s letters, however, Samuel Rubenson has made a strong case that he was at the very least literate in Coptic, that he ‘knew some Greek’, and that he had some ‘acquaintance with Greek philosophy and Origenist theology’ (The Letter of St Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995], pp. 185, 186). But it remains the case that St Anthony the Great was no St Arsenius the Great, and the learning that Rubenson has attributed to him is largely that of the Alexandrian biblical tradition. As Rubenson himself points out, ‘he was no philosopher’, (p. 185), and in Douglas Burton-Christie’s words, he was, ‘if not illiterate, at least…of very limited education’ (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993], p. 64, n. 20).

This brings me to the last stop on my Antonine trail. It was St Anthony’s letters that convinced Rubenson, and I did not discover them until quite late. Interestingly though, when I did begin to read them, I found that the very first letter opened with a paragraph that immediately reminded me of the opening of the Vita and the immediacy of response to God’s call that so impressed me about that:

There are those who are called by the law of love which is in their nature, and which original good implanted in them at their first creation. The word of God came to them, and they doubted not at all but followed it readily, like Abraham the Patriarch: for when God saw that it was not form the teaching of men that he had learnt to love God, but from the law implanted in the nature of his first compacting, God appeared to him and said, ‘Get thee out from thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee’ (Gen 12:1). And he went nothing doubting, but was ready for his calling. He is the pattern of this approach, which still persists in those who follow in his footsteps. Toiling and seeking the fear of God in patience and quiet, they achieve the true manner of life, because their souls are ready to follow the love of God. (Derwas J. Chitty, trans., The Letters of St Antony the Great [Fairacres, UK: SLG, 1995], p. 1)

Apparently, however, I was not the first to notice that St Anthony almost seemed to be describing himself here. St John Cassian, in his own description in Conferences III.iv.1-2 of this kind of direct divine calling, borrows St Anthony’s example of the Patriarch Abraham, but he also mentions St Anthony himself—‘Swayed neither by human exhortation nor by human teaching, he received this commandment of the Lord [Lk 14:26 & Mt 19:21] with the greatest compunction of heart, as if it were directed right to him, and at once he renounced everything and followed Christ’ (The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 121). May his example, in turn, inspire us!

Let me just say that I would really like to hear from anyone—and particularly Orthodox or else Roman Catholics on the lines of Sr Macrina—who has read Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine and can tell me about it. Also, does anyone know what Waddell is referring to when she calls Anatole France one of St Anthony’s ‘disciples’ (p. 2)? Finally, I was very disappointed to learn here that St Anthony’s relics are now to be found in darkest France, and in the hands—to boot—of an order so unlike the Antonine ideal as to be called ‘Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception’! The bearer of bad news, Fr Mark, however, has also done a very nice post on the Vita thirteen days early, where he very sensibly passes on the recommendation that one read it through once a year. He also observes, ‘The feast of Saint Antony, falling between the Christmas festivities and the beginning of Lent, is an invitation to shake off the sluggishness that comes with winter . . . .’ So I’d better get started!

29 January 2009

Plato, St Benedict, & Student 'Protest'


In Book I.634 of Plato’s Laws, the Athenian at one point says to Cleinias and Megillus (I quote the Penguin Classics translation by Trevor J. Saunders [1975], p. 59:

However, granted that your codes of law have been composed with reasonable success, as indeed they have been, one of the best regulations you have is the one which forbids any young man to inquire into the relative merits of the laws; everyone has to agree, with one heart and voice, that they are all excellent and exist by divine fiat; if anyone says differently, the citizens must absolutely refuse to listen to him. If an old man has some point to make about your institutions, he must make such remarks to an official, or someone of his own age when no young man is present.

Taking the comment in the context of such a long discourse about the State, my own, enthusiastic marginal note here reads, ‘No student activism, eh?’ I could not help but think that the whole brouhaha of the ‘Sixties’, about which American baby-boomers often wax so nostalgic, would have been totally anathema in the ancients’ ideal society. Fine by me, said I. I would have been one of those people who just wanted to go to class (most of the time), and who saw no point in ‘occupying’ university buildings. I found myself exceedingly frustrated by Wayne Booth’s account in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1974), pp. 7-11, of a 1969 sit-in at the University of Chicago—in the aftermath of which, among other absurdities, one graffito read ‘F*** the life of the mind’. I felt like the words of Ignatius Reilly applied: ‘The children on that program should all be gassed’ (John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces [NY: Grove, 1980], p. 41)! I was further supported, too, by another wonderful pronouncement of Plato’s Athenian, this one in Laws III.701, ‘You see, reckless lack of respect for one’s betters is effrontery of peculiar viciousness, which springs from a freedom from inhibitions that has gone much too far’ (Plato, p. 154).

Now, much of St Benedict’s Rule seems to support Plato in this respect, and my zealous reading of him (though without, perhaps, the gassing). In RB 6:6 (I quote from St Benedict, The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English, trans. Justin McCann, OSB [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholics, n.d.], p. 37), the Father of Western monasticism writes: ‘For it becometh the master to speak and to teach; but it befits the disciple to be silent and to listen.’ Further on, in RB 63:10-17, St Benedict tells us:

Wherever the brethren meet one another, let the junior ask the senior for his blessing. When a senior passes by, let a junior rise and make room for him to seat himself; nor let the junior presume to sit down, unless his senior bid him, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled: Be eager to give one another precedence. (St Benedict, p. 145)

The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé points out here that although this chapter also has certain reciprocal prescriptions for the seniors, ‘In spite of these elements of reciprocity, which to some extent justify the expression “honor one another”, the Rule lays the emphasis on the respect which subordinates owe their superiors’ (Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], p. 297-8).

Thus, the University of Chicago’s class of ’69 would have been just as out of place, if not more so, in a Benedictine cœnobium as in the ideal society of the Laws, one feels. Furthermore, while Plato, in the Laws I.634 passage (as well as one or two others, if memory serves me), almost seems to be suggesting that the human lawmakers simply use the idea of the divine origin of the laws as a tool of control, if one accepts the sanctity of St Benedict, one is bound to confess that his Rule really does ‘exist by divine fiat’. He himself refers to it as ‘the holy Rule’, and if any monk be found guilty of ‘despising and contravening’ it, after two rebukes he is subject to the excommunication prescribed by the Gospel (Mat. 18:15-7) for unrepented sin (RB 23:1-4; St Benedict, p. 73)

But I was somewhat surprised when the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé called to my attention RB 3, a chapter wherein St Benedict tells the abbot to convene a council of the whole brotherhood in order to make important decisions. This, in and of itself, did not seem like such a big deal, but RB 3:3 in particular seemed somewhat striking: ‘Now the reason why we have said that all should be called to council, is that God often reveals what is better to the younger’ (St Benedict, p. 25). ‘God often reveals what is better to the younger’? Such a thing had never occurred to me! Although not quite as shocking, St Benedict says a similar thing about visiting monks in RB 61:4—‘Should he [the pilgrim monk] reasonably, modestly, and charitably censure or remark upon any defect, let the abbot consider the matter prudently, lest perchance the Lord have sent him for this very end’ (St Benedict, p. 139).

De Vogüé connects these two passages (RB 3:3 and 61:4), and points out that they reveal ‘[the] spirit of a faith which is able to recognize in every human being, whatever his status, a potential messenger from God’ (p. 289). But the Class of ’69 ought not to get too excited about this, for, in his infallibility, de Vogüé also reminds us of the other side of the coin. In RB 61:4:

[St] Benedict notes the sign which indicates the possibility of divine intervention: the reasonable, humble, and charitable way in which the guest offers his suggestions. We are again reminded of the chapter on counsel, where the brothers were asked to give their opinion humbly. Humility is the mark of God. (p. 289)

Yes indeed. We have neglected to mention the sentence that immediately follows the line about God revealing ‘what is better to the younger’ (RB 3:3; St Benedict, p. 25): ‘Let the brethren give their advice with all deference and humility, nor venture to defend their opinions obstinately; but let the decision depend rather on the abbot’s judgement, so that when he has decided what is the better course, all may obey.’

If we want to know what humility entails, we can find this in the Rule as well. There is a long chapter, Chapter 7, ‘Of Humility’, ‘longer and more important than any other’, as de Vogüé tells us (p. 75), which is drawn largely from and expands upon St Cassian’s Institutes 4.39 (St John Cassian, The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 2000], p. 99-100). In the latter, we find that ‘Humility, in turn, is verified by the following indications: . . . ninth, if he [a person] holds his tongue and is not loudmouthed . . .’ (p. 100)—admittedly, a bit harsh. But St Benedict turns this into—‘The ninth degree of humility is that a monk restrain his tongue and keep silence, not speaking until he is questioned’ (RB 7:56; St Benedict, p. 47).

So, it’s difficult for me to draw a conclusion here. Granted, perhaps the Class of ’69 should not be gassed. Granted, on the other hand, they went too far. But there is an imperfect analogy here between American society, or even the political unit Plato is trying to design on the one hand, and an Orthodox cœnobium on the other. It seems to me that our country is sort of built on the concept that it is the folks in charge who are supposed to be humble, though they never are and we don't really expect them to be, while the governed, the voters, are supposed to believe that they are capable of making all of the decisions themselves and only need to find the candidates that have the same answers to the questions that we do. But far be it from me to get political. I’ll leave it to the reader to work out what is to be done.

28 January 2009

Melencolia I


I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, readers. It’s likely I won’t have time to do a post on any of the wonderful Saints we’ll be remembering tomorrow. If you’re interested, had I the time I would likely have posted on one or more of the following: Venerable Romilos, monk of Mt Athos and Ravanica (Serbia) (1375), disciple of St Gregory of Sinai; St Honoratus, archbishop of Arles and founder of Lérins Monastery (429); St Sigebert, king of the East Angles, martyr (635); and St Fursey of Burgh Castle, enlightener of East Anglia and Langy (650). I will try to make it up with a lengthy and (hopefully) diverting post which I’ve already written on a non-menological topic. I will also, God willing, devote extra attention tomorrow night to St Anthony the Great, about whom I hope to point out one or two interesting things. Finally, and I don’t want to make too many promises here, I would like still to track down a thing or two about one or the other of the above Saints and cook up something this weekend (admittedly, after the fact). But we’ll see whether there will be time for that or not. In the meantime, look for a post on something a bit less hagiographical.

By the way, for the unenlightened, the engraving above is Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Melencolia I’ (1514). Here is what Dame Frances Yates has to say about it in her riveting book, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 63:

It must be one of a series, the first of the series described by Agrippa [who refers to three kinds of ‘melancholy’], concerned with imagination, and the inspiration of painters, architects, and masters in other arts. In fact we see in the engraving the tools, the geometric figures, alluding to the traditional ‘occupations of Saturn’, his skills in number and measurement, but transmuted in the atmosphere of inspired melancholy to becoming the instruments of inspired artistic genius. The only actual figure in the engraving is the putto, and he appears to hold an engraver’s tool.

I've been fascinated with Dürer's art since I was a wee lad. Anyway, somehow it seemed appropriate for this post.

'St Maurus, illustrious for obedience, pray for us!'


Today, 15 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Maurus (c. 510-584), disciple of St Benedict of Nursia. St Maurus was offered as an oblate by his aristocratic Roman parents to the venerable Father’s monastery at Subiaco while still quite young. The CE refers to him as St Benedict’s ‘chief support at Subiaco’. He is prominently mentioned in several episodes of the ‘Second Dialogue’ of St Gregory the Great—his Life of St Benedict, III.14-VII.3 (see St Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], pp. 41-3). At one point, St Placidus, who was still a young boy, fell into the lake and was swept far from the shore. St Benedict perceived what had happened clairvoyantly, and told St Maurus, ‘Brother Maurus, run, for that lad who went to fetch water has fallen into the lake and the current is already carrying him out far.’ Then, St Gregory relates:

VII.2 ‘An amazing thing occurred, which has not happened since the time of the Apostle Peter: Maurus asked and received a blessing, and at the behest of his father ran swiftly and reached the place where the current was carrying the boy. He ran over the water but thought he was on land, took the boy by the hair and came back, still running fast. As soon as he reached land, he came back to himself and looked behind him. He realized that he had been running on the water, and was now amazed and shaken that he had done this which he would never have presumed he could do.

3 ‘When he came back to the Father, he related what had happened. The venerable man Benedict began to attribute this to the obedience of the monk rather than to his own merits. On the other hand, Maurus said that it happened simply because of Benedict’s command and that he had no share in the miracle himself which he unknowningly performed. But in this friendly competition of mutual humility, the boy who was pulled out came in as a referee. For he said, “While I was being pulled out of the water, I saw the abbot’s goatskin over my head, and I realized that it was he who was taking me out of the water.”’ (p. 43)

In his commentary on this story, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé compares it to the accounts of martyrdom, quoting from the Passion of St Felicity, ‘Another will suffer in my place.’ He observes, ‘Here, likewise, another acts in the place of Maurus. Obedience, like martyrdom, dispossesses and immunizes the one who surrenders to it’ (p. 50).

Very little else is said about St Maurus in St Gregory’s Life. I will point out, however, that according to this beautiful litany, about which I unfortunately know nothing more than what is on the page it’s posted on, St Maurus was one of the ‘brothers’ who in XXXVII.3 saw a vision of St Benedict’s ‘road to heaven’ (p. 174).

There is another source for St Maurus’s life, however, purportedly by the pen of a St Faustus of Monte Cassino, who was a companion of St Maurus (see here and here). According to this St Faustus:

St Maurus was sent to France [i.e., Gaul] in 543 to propagate the order of St Benedict [sorry for the slight anachronism!] in that country. He founded the famous abbey of Glanfeuil, over which he ruled as abbot for thirty-eight years. In 581 he resigned the abbacy, built for himself a small cell near the church of St Martin, so that in solitude and prayer he might prepare himself for his passage into eternity. After two years he fell sick of a fever: he received the sacraments of the Church, lying on sackcloth before the altar of St Martin, and in that posture expired on January 15, 584.

Apparently based on some of the miracles related by St Faustus, St Maurus is often invoked as an intercessor for the sick.

'The First Monks Had Seen the Endurance of the Martyrs'—St Paul of Thebes


Today, 15 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Paul of Thebes, ‘traditionally the first Christian hermit’ (David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 416). St Paul of Thebes was, according to St Jerome, a wealthy and highly educated young man and a Christian (St Jerome, ‘Life of Paul of Thebes’, Early Christian Lives, trans. and ed. Carolinne White [London: Penguin, 1998], pp. 76-7; another translation is available here on the CCEL site). He withdrew into the desert during the Decian persecution in the middle of the 3rd century as a result, first, of his brother-in-law’s determination to disinherit him, and second, of his desire to imitate the heroism of the early martyrs (see the Prologue). In this way, St Paul provides a clear illustration of the recognised impetal forces behind early monasticism in Egypt (see Douglas Burton-Christie’s discussion of these forces in The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism [NY: Oxford U, 1997], pp. 41-3), and St Jerome’s account of St Paul’s exposure to the persecutions (pp. 76-7) is reminiscent of a line Burton-Christie quotes from the 'Bohairic Life' of St Pachomius: ‘. . . [F]or those who were the first monks had seen the endurance of the martyrs’(Armand Veilleux, trans. and ed., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. I [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1980], p. 24).

Thus motivated, St Paul then spent ninety years living in a cave with an opening at the top covered by the branches of a palm tree. According to St Jerome, ‘Paul fell in love with this dwelling as if it had been offered to him by God, and spent the rest of his life there in prayer and solitude’ (p. 77). The palm tree supplied all his wants, and St Jerome can tell us nothing else of St Paul’s life for all of those ninety years. For Dr White, this is one point in favour of the historicity of the Life (p. 24), which the Jesuit scholar, William Harmless, following Owen Chadwick, has suggested is a mere ‘fabrication’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], pp. 98, 105).

It is at this point that the man responsible for making St Paul known to the Church, St Anthony the Great, enters the picture. In the middle of the night, it was revealed to him that there was a monk who was more perfect than he, and that he must go and find him. At dawn he set out, he knew not where, and was eventually given directions by a centaur (he subsequently met a satyr as well—this part of the story may require its own post someday, but suffice to say here that I take these strange creatures as another indicator that St Jerome has not merely ‘fabricated’ the story). Finally, St Anthony followed a wolf into the cave where the venerable anchorite lived, and as White puts it, ‘The meeting between the two hermits is both touching and gently amusing’ (p. 73). According to St Jerome:

At last, through the terrifying darkness of the night which made it impossible to see anything he discerned a light in the distance. As he quickened his pace in his eagerness, he bumped his foot against a stone, making a noise. When the blessed Paul heard this noise he closed and bolted a door that had been open. Then Antony fell down in front of this door and continued to beg to be allowed in until it was the sixth hour of the day or even later, saying, ‘You know who I am, where I come from and why I have come. I know that I do not deserve to see you but I will not go away unless I do. Why do you, who welcome animals, drive a person away? I have sought you and I have found you: I knock that it may be opened to me. If I do not get what I want, I shall die here in front of your door—and I trust you will bury my body when I am dead.’ . . . Then Paul smiled and unbolted the door. When it was open, they embraced each other, and greeting each other by name, they joined in giving thanks to the Lord. (pp. 79-80)

Having been so long in solitude, St Paul asks, ‘. . . [T]ell me, I beg you, how the human race is getting on. Are new buildings rising up in the old cities? What government rules the world? Are there still some people alive who are in the grip of the demons’ error?’ (St Jerome, p. 80). The two monks were brought some bread by a raven, and St Paul announced that he was not long for this world (being aged 113 years). He asked St Anthony to go and get the cloak he had received from St Athanasius to wrap his body in. On his way back to the cave, St Anthony ‘saw Paul among the hosts of angels, among the choirs of prophets and apostles, shining with a dazzling whiteness and ascending on high’ (St Jerome, p. 82). He was assisted by two lions in burying the remains of the holy man, and taking the tunic that St Paul ‘had woven for himself out of palm leaves like a wicker basket’, returned to the monastery and told the tale (St Jerome, p. 83).

White points out that the Life of Paul of Thebes is yet another illustration of St Jerome’s ‘inability to write without literary allusions even when he is aiming for a simple style’ (p. 74), and I count three quotations from Virgil in her notes. Included among these is one that stuck out in my mind the very first time I read the Aeneid (Aeneid III.57; Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald [NY: Random House, 1983], p. 67; qtd. in St Jerome, p. 77):

. . . To what extremes
Will you not drive the hearts of men, accurst
Hunger for gold!

27 January 2009

R.I.P. John Updike



I just learned of John Updike's passing from Justin Martyr. I always feel we fail to take sufficient notice in this country when we lose our great writers. Here is a blog featuring his justly famous 'Seven Stanzas for Easter', which I read every Pascha (but which some faithless persons, evidently, can't comprehend). The photo is by Michael Mundy.

On Stat Counter & a Fellow Vogüé Appreciator


I was exploring Stat Counter a bit the other day, and was fascinated and a little creeped out to see that I can reproduce searches that have led readers to my blog. One reader, whose location and ISP I know but who remains nameless, googled (should that be capitalised?) the words ‘Adalbert de Vogüé OSB’, and surprisingly my post where I first made known his infallibility to the world was the first result!

But I was equally pleased, if not more so, to see that the third result was a wonderful editorial from The American Benedictine Review (Volume 52:1 [March 2001]) by, I believe, Terrence Kardong, which further elucidates the amazing infallible abilities of Adalbert de Vogüé. Kardong points out that the issue of ABR in question contains an article by de Vogüé called ‘A Contemporary Looks at Monks: The Witness of Procopius’, wherein the author exhaustively combs Procopius for references to monasticism. Procopius, a pagan Byzantine courtier, is most famous as the author of the Secret History, a terrible attack on St Justinian and the Empress Theodora available in a cheap Penguin edition (not to be confused with the spellbinding novel of the same name about a group of Classics students who commit murder). Most importantly, while he produced quite a corpus of work, none of it is directly concerned with monasticism, nor are there many or extensive references to it in any of his books. Nevertheless, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, in his endless quest for knowledge, poured over Procopius just to bring us a few scraps of information about 6th-c. Italian monasticism. Apparently sharing my own fascination with him, Kardong writes:

The casual reader may not understand what it took to produce this article: it appears that the great French scholar read the entire corpus of Procopius to find every reference to monks. What is more, he read it in the original Greek! Although Procopius has been translated into the main European languages, there is no sign that Vogüé used any of these versions. And there are multiple indications that he is following the original.

To a monolingual American, even one like myself who reads a few other languages, there is something stunning about this kind of competence.

This leads Kardong to a melancholy reflection on the declining future of such scholarship. While earlier generations, like de Vogüé’s, were taught Greek and Latin as a matter of course in their teens, today such languages are typically not studied until college or graduate school, if at all. One has to take time and money in one’s twenties to learn things that should be part of all real liberal arts education. Even then, we are left simply standing in awe of such scholars as de Vogüé, or before him, Lewis, Tolkien, Fr Florovsky, or Pelikan (to name a few that I am familiar with). Fortunately, though, Kardong concludes:

One must not, however, end on a pessimistic note. We should give thanks that such competence still exists in our world. We should also be grateful that this monk of the Abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire in (Burgundy, France) was allowed enough time at monastic studies to produce an article like this. Ultimately, one must thank Fr Adalbert himself for spending his life in such hidden, but prodigious labor that benefits the whole monastic world.

'A Goodness Which Surpasses Understanding'—St Sava of Serbia


Today the Serbian Church commemorates St Sava, Archbishop of the Serbs (1169-1236). Although I’ve yet to to see Serbia, I’ve been blessed to make a pilgrimage to the monastery he founded on the Holy Mountain of Athos, Hilandar, as well as to the ‘House of Silence’ in Karyes, which is attached to the monastery, and was able to venerate the two icons that St Sava brought back from the Mar Sabas monastery in the Holy Land. I also had the great blessing to be at Hilandar for the feastday of St Sava’s father, St Symeon (Nemanja).

One of the more interesting pieces of literature connected with St Sava is a ‘brief but intricate poem’ by an otherwise anonymous monk of Hilandar named ‘Silouan’, which Thomas Butler has called ‘a rare jewel in medieval Serbian literature’ (Thomas Butler, ed. and trans., Monumenta Serbo-Croatica: A Bilingual Anthology of Serbian and Croatian Texts from the 12th to the 19th Century [Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic, 1980], p. 67). The poem first appears in a 15th-c. manuscript from Holy Trinity Monastery in Plevlja, and was printed in 1536-38 in a praznični minej, or ‘festal menaion’. It was based on the Byzantine twelve-syllable, with a caesura after the first seven syllables (Butler, p. 67). Actually, if one pays attention to the caesuras, it occasionally seems to have an alliteration between the hemistichs reminiscent of Old English poetry. Here is the text, as given by Butler (p. 69):

Слави отбегнув, славу обрете, Саво,
Тамо отјуду слава јави се роду.
Рода светлост вери светлост презре,
Тем же роду светило јави се всему.
Ума висота сана висоту сврже,
Тем убо ума више доброту стиже.
Слова слави Саве сплете Силуан.

Fleeing glory, you found glory, Sava,
There whence glory appeared to your people.
The light of faith for your people, you scorned the light,
And thereby you appeared as a beacon to all your people.
Loftiness of intelligence superseded loftiness of position,
Thereby achieving a virtue beyond intelligence.
Siluan composed these words of praise to Sava.

And here is the translation published by Fr Mateja Matejić and Dragan Milivojević in An Anthology of Medieval Serbian Literature in English (Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1978), p. 70:

By escaping from glory
you have found glory, O Sava,
there, whence came glory to the nation.
You have preferred the light of faith
to the light of the [mundane] kingdom,
and thereby illumination came to the whole nation.
Superiority of mind overshadowed supremacy of rank,
thereby you achieved in actuality a goodness
which surpasses understanding.

These words of praise to Sava
were put together by Siluan.

Fr Matejić and Milivojević give the textual sources as follows:

Church Slavonic text (manuscript): Microfilms of Hilandar Manuscripts at the Main Library of Ohio State University, Columbus, OH: #249; #250; #427.

Church Slavonic text published in: Ćorivić, Vladimir, ‘Siloan i Danilo II’, Glas Srpske kraljevske akademije, cxxxvi, drugi razred, 72, (Sremski Karlovci, 1928). (Fr Matejić & Milivojevic, p. 70)

One can read about St Sava in the Prologue for today and in Bulgakov’s Handbook for Sunday, 12 January, his feastday in the Russian Church, and his writings are available in Serbian here. There is a wonderful biography of St Sava written by a 20th-c. Serbian Saint—The Life of St Sava, by St Nicholas (Velimirović) (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1989). One can purchase it here, among other places. I no longer have a copy, as I gave mine to Max Cavalera to read on tour. Finally, Fr Milovan has, naturally, been posting about St Sava lately.

As a final aside, I once had the pleasure of corresponding with Thomas Butler, who, when I contacted him with a question or two, got more excited about my project than even I was. Unfortunately, I don't think he's working in old Slavic literature anymore, but I do hope he's well this St Sava's day.

[Update: I tried to view this post on St Sava's day and was already thinking of linking to it here, but for some reason it wouldn't load. Anyway, here is an interesting St Sava's day post from my friend, Fr Deacon Gregory Edwards—who currently lives with his wife in my former apartment in Thessaloniki.]

26 January 2009

The Precious Pearl


Some time ago, on the Feast of St John of Damascus, I called attention to an English edition of his Lives of Ss Barlaam and Ioasaph called, The Precious Pearl: The Lives of Ss Barlaam and Ioasaph, trans. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al., notes and comments by Bishop Augoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1997)—which can be ordered here. I mentioned that I thought I remember Fr Gerostergios writing in the ‘Preface’ that he would use the book for catechesis at his parish, but not having my copy handy, I was unable to relate it with precision. Well, thanks be to God, my copy of the book has only just today come back to me, and I am happy to report that I can quote Fr Gerostergios’s own words. He writes:

Working as a pastor at Ss Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I wished to offer spiritual nourishment to certain members of my community, other communities, and students of the neighboring universities. These individuals desired to know more about the Orthodox faith and I therefore decided to use 'The Precious Pearl' as the standard text in our weekly Bible classes and discussions. I thought to myself that in previous years we had spoken about the Gospel and Apostolic Sunday readings and about each book of the Holy Bible, the Old and New Testaments. Now was the opportunity to offer a summary of the teaching of our Church in a very special and pleasant way. This would be accomplished with the study of this book becausse it provides a popularized and accurate instruction of Christian doctrine. (pp. v-vi)

Although it is not entirely clear to me, Fr Gerostergios’s comments, together with the credits on the title page and the wording of the copyright, suggest that this edition represents a revision of the Loeb Classical Library translation by G.R. Woodward and H. Mattingly, a revision based on the LCL edition of the Greek text as well as the Modern Greek translation by Bishop Augoustinos. Fr Gerostergios also uses Bishop Augoustinos’s textual divisions and his title, The Precious Pearl. Once again, if you have not read the original post, I highly recommend this book.

'A Searcher after God'—St Hilary of Poitiers


Well, I’m a little uncertain about the commemoration of St Hilary of Poitiers just now. At least one Russian calendar lists him for today, 13 January, but the Prologue has him down for tomorrow, 14 January, where he scarcely warrants four sentences in the hefty shadow of St Sava, not to mention St Nina of Georgia, who gets the ‘Hymn of Praise’ all to herself. But as I plan to post on St Sava tomorrow, I’d better get this out of the way.

Born at the beginning of the 4th c. in Poitiers, Gaul, on the Clain River in what is now west central France, St Hilary belonged to a pagan family and was well-educated. In the words of Olivier Clément, ‘For a long time he was a searcher after God. He moved from hedonism, to stoicism, he tried out sects and esoteric cults, he discovered Judaism, and in the end was converted to Christ by the reading of St John’s Gospel’ (The Roots of Chrisitan Mysticism: Texts and Commentary, 3rd ed., trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone [London: New City, 1995], p. 340). Not long after St Hilary was baptised, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘his wide learning and his zeal for the Faith attracted such attention’ that he was made bishop of Poitiers in about 350. For a time, he was a spiritual father to the great St Martin of Tours, and Sulpicius Severus, in his Life of the latter, describes the bishop of Poitiers as ‘saintly’, and ‘a man of penetrating intellect’, meaning in context ‘spiritual discernment’ (Early Christian Lives, trans. and ed. Carolinne White [London: Penguin, 1998], p. 139).

After the Arian ‘Synod of Beziers’ in 356, St Hilary was exiled to Phrygia in Asia Minor for his opposition to Arianism (he was the ‘Athanasius of the West’), and there he ‘deepened his knowledge of the Greek language and Greek theology’, becoming a ‘connecting link between Greek and Latin theology’ (Clément, p. 340). He was vindicated at the Synod of Paris in 360, and returned to his see in 361. St Hilary continued to play a rôle in the Arian controversies, but eventually retired to his hometown, and fell asleep in the Lord there in 368, with a great reputation ‘for learning and virtue’ (CE).

Before his exile, St Hilary wrote a commentary on St Matthew ‘in the tradition of Tertullian’ (Clément, p. 340), and with little reference to Arian issues. It was while he was in Phrygia that he wrote ‘his great doctrinal work, inaccurately called On the Trinity' (Clément, p. 340). The Treatise on the Mysteries, commentary on the Psalms, and commentary on Job, ‘all in the spirit of Origen, whose symbolism and typology he spread in the Latin world’ (Clément, p. 341), date to his final retirement in Poitiers. According to Clément:

At the heart of Hilary’s thought is the mystery of the Word made flesh, of the form of the slave become that of Beauty. He emphasizes the glory of the transfigured Christ, but maintains, against Origen, the solid reality of created being. The eschatological fullness that we attain to in Christ transforms matter itself, and through the ‘eye of the heart’ the ‘eternal light’ reaches the body also. In this way the principal themes of Eastern spirituality came over by way of Hilary into a West more accustomed to a moral approach to Christianity. (p. 341)

Clément has given a moving description of St Hilary’s conversion to the Christian faith, followed by a lengthy excerpt from his On the Trinity (pp. 17-21). I shall quote a brief portion of this excerpt from the NPNF translation of the Saint’s works by E.W. Watson, L. Pullan, et al. (available here), according to whom, ‘St Hilary of Poitiers is one of the greatest, yet least studied, of the Fathers of the Western Church’, who ‘learnt his theology . . . from Eastern authorities, and was not content to carry on and develop the traditional teaching of the West’, but was a ‘disciple of Origen, who found his natural allies in the Cappadocian school of Basil and the Gregories’ (Introduction). Here, then, is the passage (De Trinitate I.7):

Therefore, although my soul drew joy from the apprehension of this august and unfathomable Mind, because it could worship as its own Father and Creator so limitless an Infinity, yet with a still more eager desire it sought to know the true aspect of its infinite and eternal Lord, that it might be able to believe that that immeasurable Deity was apparelled in splendour befitting the beauty of His wisdom. Then, while the devout soul was baffled and astray through its own feebleness, it caught from the prophet’s voice this scale of comparison for God, admirably expressed, By the greatness of His works and the beauty of the things that He hath made the Creator of worlds is rightly discerned (Wisd. 13:5). The Creator of great things is supreme in greatness, of beautiful things in beauty. Since the work transcends our thoughts, all thought must be transcended by the Maker. Thus heaven and air and earth and seas are fair: fair also the whole universe, as the Greeks agree, who from its beautiful ordering call it κόσμος, that is, order. But if our thought can estimate this beauty of the universe by a natural instinct—an instinct such as we see in certain birds and beasts whose voice, though it fall below the level of our understanding, yet has a sense clear to them though they cannot utter it, and in which, since all speech is the expression of some thought, there lies a meaning patent to themselves—must not the Lord of this universal beauty be recognised as Himself most beautiful amid all the beauty that surrounds Him? For though the splendour of His eternal glory overtax our mind’s best powers, it cannot fail to see that He is beautiful. We must in truth confess that God is most beautiful, and that with a beauty which, though it transcend our comprehension, forces itself upon our perception.

Old Books Reading Society Podcast


I still need to deliver the promised St Hilary of Poitiers post, but I thought I’d go ahead and mention another thing briefly. For those of you who have been dying to hear my voice waxing philosophic about modern culture and reading old books, Justin Martyr (not the original one, but a contemporary of mine) has posted a podcast of an interview he did with yours truly about the book club my wife and I started—a subject I’ve meant to post about since I started this blog. The post will have to wait, but in the meantime, feel free to listen to the podcast here. I’ve already listened to it once myself to make sure I didn’t say anything exceptionally ridiculous or embarrassing, so I believe it’s now ready for public consumption. Anyway, I'm now halfway toward realising my goal of becoming a public intellectual, not to mention socialite and bon vivant.

Oh, I should add, by the way, that the interview's a bit old now. We are currently reading Don Quixote, not Plato's Laws. Everything else I said still applies, however!

25 January 2009

'The Athonite Ascetic Life In Its Most Uncompromising Form'—St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia


Two Saints rather leapt out at me today (liturgically speaking, it's already Monday): St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia and St Hilary of Poitiers. The first was a famous Athonite of the 14th century, and according to Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in an authoritative article on the Saint, ‘Maximos represents the Athonite ascetic life in its most uncompromising form.’ Here is St Nicholas’s account in the Prologue:

In the fourteenth century, Maximus led an ascetical life as a monk on Mt Athos in his own unique way. That is to say, he pretended to be a little crazy and constantly changed his dwelling place. His place of abode consisted of a hut made from branches. He built these huts one after the other and then burned them, for this he was called Kapsokalivitos, i.e., ‘hut-burner’. He was considered insane until the arrival of St Gregory Sinaites to Mt Athos, who discovered in Maximus a unique ascetic, a wonder-working intercessor and ‘an angel in the flesh’. He died in the Lord in the year 1320 A.D.

Such a barebones outline of St Maximus’s ascetic exploits may well strike us as rather severe. Fortunately, the picture is filled out by some of the material from his Life (that is, the Life by Hegoumen Theophanes of Vatopaidi), which Bishop Kallistos relates in his article. Most interesting of all however, to me at any rate, is some of the dialogue between St Maximus and St Gregory of Sinai. It is excerpted in the Philokalia (Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Ε’ [Athens: Astir, 1982], p. 104), but unfortunately is not among those texts which have thus far been translated into English. Bishop Kallistos provides a couple of key quotes, but mostly retells it, and I can’t tell from his renderings if the source text is different from what the Philokalia has or if he is simply making some changes for readability or something. Anyway, in the end, I made my own little translation of the very beginning of the dialogue, which may well be faulty (at least once I had to guess at a word from context), and is certainly literal to a fault, but it’s mine!

The divine Gregory of Sinai, visiting St Maximus and speaking with him, among other things also said this: ‘I beg you, O most reverend Father, to tell me: do you maintain noetic prayer?’

And he smiled a little and said, ‘I do not want to hide from you, reverend Father, the miracle of the Theotokos that happened to me. From my youth I had a great faith in my lady Theotokos and besought her with tears to grant me the grace of noetic prayer, and one day I was going to her temple, as was my custom, and again entreated her with immeasurable warmth of heart. And when with longing I kissed her holy icon, immediately I felt in my chest and in my heart a warmth and a flame, which came from the holy icon, that did not burn me, but refreshed and sweetened me and brought into my soul a great compunction. From then on, Father, my heart started to say the prayer from within and my nous to be sweetened in the remembrance of my Jesus and of my Theotokos, and to be always together with their remembrance. And from that time on the prayer hasn’t left my heart. Forgive me.’

Well, that’s taken a lot out of me! I was going to do an analysis talking about the apparent discrepancy between the 'tough-guy' exterior of the ascetic and the sweet tenderness of his devotion to our Lord and the Theotokos, but I'll leave it alone. Also, I am still intending to talk about St Hilary, but briefly, and in another post. In the meantime, be sure to check out the very interesting ‘Hymn of Praise’ to St Maximus in the Prologue.

(The icon can be acquired here.)

Apropos of F.E. Brightman


I opened up Paul Meyendorff's translation of the 'Eccesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation' of St Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary, 1999), and lo and behold, on the first page of the introduction, Meyendorff cites Brightman. He is discussing the influence of St Germanus in Russia and the inclusion of the commentary in various liturgical texts there, and then observes in a footnote, 'These are catalogued in F.E. Brightman, "The Historia Mystagogica and Other Greek Commentaries on the Byzantine Liturgy", Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1908) 248-257;...' (Meyendorff, p. 9).

Meyendorff refers to Brightman again on page 19. Having quoted the Introit Prayer read by the bishop during the third antiphon in the Liturgy of the Catechumens, Meyendorff notes, 'The original Greek text, which appears in the earliest extant euchology, Barberini 336 (ca. 795), can be found in F.E. Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896) 312.'

(The illustration is a drawing of the exterior of Magdalen College, Oxford, where the anecdote I related about Brightman took place. I still have not found an image of the painting in the C.S. Lewis book I have mentioned, the interior of the Common Room, or of Brightman himself.)

'Our First English Book-Collector'--St Benedict Biscop


Although it seems that today, 12 January on the Orthodox calendar, we in the Russian Church commemorate St Sava, Archbishop of the Serbs, I will put off posting about him until Tuesday, when the Serbs themselves commemorate their patron. It will be a brief post anyway, as I doubt I will be able to come up with anything very new or more interesting than what’s already out there.

Instead, I’d like to focus on an English Saint, our Venerable Father Benedict Biscop (c. 628-690), Abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow. I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of his life, most of which can be found in St Bede’s Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, as well as a few details in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford: Oxford U, 1994) (interestingly, St Bede’s first reference to the Saint in the latter volume contains a puzzling error: he claims that St Benedict ‘has already been mentioned’ [p. 200], and yet, a footnote reads, ‘he has not, and no satisfactory explanation exists for Bede’s error here’ [p. 406]). St Benedict Biscop was an Englishman, for whom St Bede in the opening of the Lives borrowed the words of St Gregory the Great about St Benedict of Nursia (The Life of St Benedict, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 3): ‘There was a man whose life was holy. His name was Benedict, and he was blessed both by grace and by name. From his earliest years he had the heart of an old man. Precocious in his way of life beyond his age, he did not give himself up to sensual pleasure.’

St Benedict was for some time a thegn of King Oswy of Northumbria, until he made the first of five pilgrimages to Rome. With each pilgrimage, he would introduce Roman liturgical customs, as well as relics, manuscripts, icons, and church furnishings into England. St Benedict was tonsured at the legendary Monastery of Lérins in 666, and having accompanied St Theodore of Tarsus to his see at Canterbury, served as the abbot of the St Peter Monastery there until the arrival of St Hadrian. St Benedict soon founded another Monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth, in Northumbria, and a sister monastery of St Paul across the river Wear at Jarrow.

I have mentioned his habit of bringing ecclesiastical goods from Rome, and preeminent among these goods were books. Charles and Mary Elton call him ‘our first English book-collector’ (The Great Book-Collectors [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1893], p. 20), while L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson quote the Latin of St Bede’s Lives: ‘innumerabilem librorum . . . copiam adportavit’ (Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 1974], p. 78). J.A. Giles renders this, ‘he brought back a large quantity of books’ (here), but the Eltons give us, I believe more felicitously, ‘[he brought back] a multitude of books’ (p. 21).

At any rate, on his deathbed, St Benedict exhorted the monks ‘to observe the rule which he had given them’, but furthermore: ‘The large and noble library, which he had brought from Rome, and which was necessary for the edification of his church, he commanded to be kept entire, and neither by neglect to be injured or dispersed’ (St Bede, Lives). Indeed, the monk whom St Benedict had appointed abbot of St Paul at Jarrow, St Ceolfrið, had actually enlarged the libraries of Northumbria. According to Reynolds and Wilson:

A distinguished place in English history is owed to Benedict Biscop and his protégé abbot Ceolfrid, who made it possible for a local boy who had apparently never set foot outside Northumbria, Bede, to acquire a breadth of scholarship unrivalled in the Europe of his day and to leap the seemingly unbridgeable gulf which spearated his world from that of the later Roman empire. (pp. 78-9)

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica concludes its entry—‘He died on the 12th of January 690, leaving a high reputation for piety and culture. Saxon architecture [including stone construction, Romanesque design, stained glass] owes nearly everything to his initiative, and Bede was one of his pupils.’ Percy Dearmer, in his The Little Lives of Saints, concludes his account of St Benedict Biscop:

All that simple wholesome life of the early Saxon monks has long passed away, and black collieries now cover the ground where the monks of Wearmouth once laboured. It has not been all progress since then. Sixteen hundred feet below the surface, in the dark tunnels of the mines, poor little children were toiling for fourteen hours every day when Queen Victoria came to the throne; were wearing their little lives out in misery under the very spot where Benedict Biscop and his brethren had once gathered the children together so kindly, and taught them with so much care. It has not been all progress, but those horrible things came to an end fifty years ago, and now, let us hope, the gentle spirit of St. Benedict can look down kindly upon the spot where once he laboured so well.

It is a sentiment echoed somewhat too by the Kontakion for the Saint from Reader Isaac Lambertson’s Akolouthia:

Though thy monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow were long ago destroyed by the ungodly, the churches which stand there are yet receptacles of grace, O blessed Benedict; and repairing to them with hope, we beg the healing of our infirmities and forgiveness of the transgressions we have committed in our lives.

24 January 2009

Apropos of Dragons


For the Feast of the Holy Theophany, I wrote a post concentrating on the references to ‘crushing the heads of dragons’, and the connection between such language and Beowulf. Well, I was unable to post anything else that day, due to non-blogging-oriented obligations, and the next day I was simply forced to post in Dr Johnson. Anyway, I’ve finally gotten around to a post I’ve been planning for some time: ‘Apropos of Dragons’.

It’s simple, really. I mean to relate one of my favourite anecdotes of all time. The speaker is J.R.R. Tolkien, telling a story he heard from C.S. Lewis. The source I first read it in was Humphrey Carpenter's wonderful The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 58, although it can also be found in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 389.

I remember him [Lewis] telling me a story of Brightman, the distinguished ecclesiastical scholar, who used to sit quietly in Common Room (in Magdalen) saying nothing except on rare occasions. Jack [i.e., Lewis] said that there was a discussion on dragons one night and at the end Brightman's voice was heard to say, ‘I have seen a dragon.’ Silence. ‘Where was that?’ he was asked. ‘On the Mount of Olives,’ he said. He relapsed into silence and never before his death explained what he meant.
I for one can picture the entire scene in my mind—thanks in large part to the painting reproduced on p. 36 of C.S. Lewis: Images of His World, by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977)—, and I'll never stop wishing I had been born 60 or 70 years earlier than I was just so I could have been there. The ‘Brightman’ mentioned was Frank Edward Brightman (1856-1932), a C of E liturgist who had gotten a First in Mathematical Moderations, Literae Humaniores, and Theology. He was an ordained Anglican cleric and librarian of Pusey House prior to his Magdalen fellowship. I found all of this here. Here’s one of Brightman’s books.

'Great Glory of Palestine & Patron of the Cœnobitic Rule'—St Theodosius the Cœnobiarch


On this day, 11 January on the old Orthodox calendar, we commemorate St Theodosius the Cœnobiarch (†529), also called ‘the Great’. Cyril of Scythopolis says he is ‘worthily called blessed and citizen of heaven, the great glory of Palestine and boast of the desert, the stay of the monastic order, the general and champion of the correct doctrines, the leader and patron of the cenobitic rule’ (The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 262). He was from Cappadocia, and as a boy served as a chanter, ‘deeply versed in Scripture and in the liturgical order of the Church’, as Derwas Chitty puts it (The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995], p. 93). He went to Jerusalem—visiting St Symeon the Stylite on his way—in order to become a monk in the Judaean desert. After some time spent as a chanter in a church on the road to Bethlehem, St Theodosius went to the desert and learned the eremitic life from a couple of disciples of St Euthymius the Great. He then passed thirty years in a cave, living on uncooked wild herbs. Eventually, he was beset with would-be disciples and visitors. According to Chitty:


By gradual growth there arose the largest and most highly organized of Judaean cœnobia, with over four hundred brethren at the time fo the founder’s death in A.D. 529, and so hospitable that legend began to place there the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Here were hostels and hospitals for monks, for worldly visitors, and for the poor; a home for the aged; and a ‘monastery within a monastery’ for monks mentally afflicted after excessive or ill-judged asceticism. Apart from a special church for these last, there were three churches in the ordinary monastery, where Greeks, Armenians, and Bessi respectively would perform the office and the Liturgy of the Catechumens in their own language, coming together in the main church of the Greeks for the Liturgy of the Faithful. (Chitty, p. 109)


Thus, St Theodosius was a loving spiritual father and a shining example of Christian virtue and ascesis for countless monks. Cyril tells us that he was said to possess three virtues in particular: ‘strict asceticism, linked to true and orthodox faith, that lasted from youth till old age, lavish charity, without respect of persons, towards strangers and the poor, and, as the third, zeal at performing the divine liturgy, virtually without interruption’ (Cyril, p. 265). Chitty describes St Theodosius as a unique adherent of 'the Basilian ideal' among the Palestinian monks, adding that he was observed to have quoted to his monks from St Basil's Regulae Fusius Tractatae (Chitty, p. 109). Unanimously elected archimandrite of the cœnobia of Judaea, St Theodosius fell asleep in the Lord on the eleventh of January in 529. The Prologue and Bulgakov’s Handbook say that he reposed at the age of 105, but according to Cyril, he was just shy of ‘the hundredth year of his life’ (Cyril, p. 266).

Here is the Hymn of Praise for St Theodosius by St Nicholas (Velimirović) in the Prologue:

Those who with fear stand before God,
Those who fear the Living God only,
Only they can witness
That the righteous one receives that for which he prays to God.
By true prayer, God does for people -
The dawn glows to the one who turns to the dawn.
Saint Theodosius, by his prayers
Helped many and also helped us.
For he lives even now as he once did
And works miracles, as he once did and does now -
The Lord bestowed upon him power, because of his faith,
And love for God; love immeasurable.
Wonderful Theodosius, zealot of truth,
Wondrous organizer of the monastic life,
Let him be praised by us, who is glorified by God,
Now a glorious citizen of the Kingdom of Christ.

From the Akolouthia in his honour, here is a touching sticheron by ‘the Studite’ (St Theodore, I suppose?), translated by the eminent Archimandrite of the Œcumenical Throne, Father Ephrem (Lash) of Manchester:


We, the multitudes of monastics, honour you, our Father Theodosios, for through you we have learnt to walk the truly straight path. Blessed are you, for you became Christ’s slave and triumphed over the power of the foe, companion of Angels, colleague of the Venerable and the Righteous. With them intercede with the Lord to have mercy on our souls.

A final aside about St Theodosius: it is interesting to note that he was deemed to warrant a mention in the curious book, The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, by Montague Summers (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1928), p. 54. Summers, an English Edwardian cleric who apparently believed in the real existence of literal vampires (he deserves his own post here someday), cites a story from Theodore of Petra’s Vita Theodosii Cœnobiarchæ (Cyril calls it a work of ‘clarity and accuracy’ [p. 266]; Price calls it ‘lengthy, diffuse, and rhetorical’ [Cyril, p. 268, n. 9]). The story concerns a Hieromonk Basil who voluntarily gave up the ghost in response to a jest from his elder, St Theodosius, who was teasing the monks to ‘ease their distress’ about death. For some time thereafter, St Theodosius continued to see Fr Basil chanting in the church, until at last he disappeared, saying, ‘Ye are being saved, O fathers and brethren; ye shall see me no longer!’ The story is recounted in The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and the Sinai Desert [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997], pp. 14-5, and presumably based on Theodore’s acount (it is not found in Cyril), but there it is an illustration of St Theodosius’s contact with the other world, and the obedience and simplicity of his disciple, Fr Basil. There is no suggestion that the latter has anything of the ‘nosferatu’ about him!

23 January 2009

Books in the Mail!


There was a pleasant surprise in the Taylor household yesterday when I unexpectedly received two books in the mail—a gift from my friend, Fr Luke Hartung! The books were, to my knowledge, the two most recent books from Uncut Mountain Press, whose publications I have been pleased to follow ever since Fr Heers handed me a free copy of Truth of Our Faith from the unsellable reject stack in Thessaloniki back in 2001.

The first is the latest in UMP’s ongoing project of publishing the works of St Nicodemus the Hagiorite in English—Confession of Faith, trans. Fr George Dokos (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2008). It is a translation of a book that was originally published in Venice in 1819, subtitled ‘That Is, a Most Just Apologia’. The translation begins with a ‘Preface’ by Fr George Bebis, Professor Emeritus of Patristics and currently Adjunct Professor, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, which is primarily devoted to summarising the contents. It ends with the following recommendation of the Saint’s work:

Every time I read the books of St Nikodemos I am inspired by his humility, his love, his steadfastness in the faith, his faithfulness to the Canons of the Church, and his unlimited love for Christ, for His Mother the holy Virgin Mary, and for the Mother Church of Christ. St Nikodemos, although he lived in the eighteenth century, still is contemporary, and I say this because even today there are people who do not like him and accuse him of being a westernizer and unbending. But we know that St Nikodemos can speak to our hearts today and give us direction for a truly Christian life. Amen. (p. 19)

The ‘confession’ proper appears in the Saint’s ‘Introduction’, followed by three chapters concerning the Kollyvades controversy, two defending claims or stories told about the Gospels in his Spiritual Exercises (not yet available in English), and finally, there is a defense of his beliefs concerning the Eucharist, and a brief Conclusion. It is clearly a polemical book—St Nicodemus writes:

We were motivated to write these things, not in order to cause a scandal in the Church of Christ—God forbid!—but chiefly and first of all to show that we are not guilty of any of the defamations and accusations which the good brethren allege against us, and especially because they called us heretics and unorthodox, and masons. (p. 110)

I am glad to see that UMP is continuing to publish these translations. The translator, Fr Dokos (Fr Bebis calls him ‘my beloved student’, p. 11), did his Ph.D. on St Nicodemus at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he and his family took over the apartment my wife and I had occupied for about a year and a half. I had the good fortune to meet him there in 2005, and he graciously provided some assistance to me on St Nicodemus issues just several months ago. I look forward to reading this volume, and to seeing the next one!

The other volume was the recent translation, Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr John Romanides, ed. Monk Damaskinos Agioreitis, trans. Hieromonk Alexios (Trader) (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2008). It consists of 67 brief pieces on various and sundry theological and spiritual topics, taken from Fr Romanides’s lecture at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in 1983. Fr Damaskinos has provided extraordinarily helpful chapter titles for these, as well as a Table of Contents that makes it quite simple to simply look up what Fr Romanides has to say about, for instance, ‘The Social Aims of Orthodoxy’, ‘Ecclesiastical Music’, or ‘The Distinction Between Essence and Energy’.

The tone and approach is very conversational and informal, which is nice, but it is also sometimes ‘caustic’ (as Fr Damaskinos notes, p. 15), and there is not much occasion for patristic quotes or discussion of specific Fathers. Thus, the title may be a little misleading to some, for while Fr Romanides’s theology may or may not be ‘patristic’ in content and spirit (and I think it largely is), it is certainly not ‘patristic’ in the sense of simply expounding the writings of the Holy Fathers. Fr George Metallinos, in his ‘Preface to the Greek Edition’, seems to acknowledge this when he says: ‘His lectures were not mere citations from Patristic texts, but an entrance into the Patristic spirit and experience through the Fathers’ relationship with our Triune God in their hearts. On this basis, he reformulated the Patristic teaching’ (p. 11).

One cannot deny, however, that Fr Romanides is controversial, both in the content per se of his writings, where he very much emphasises the differences between traditional Orthodox teaching and everything else, as well as in the way that his writings have been, and will continue to be, received. I myself am not, however, a sufficiently qualified dogmatic or historical theologian to be able to comment on these controversies, and they are not the sort of thing I wish to engage in on this blog. But I will second the judgement of Fr Heers that Fr Romanides ‘was a path-finder who opened the road for academic theology to return to Patristic theology and for pietism to be replaced with hesychasm’ (Preface to the English Edition, p. 9). Indeed, this is very close to the opinion of Fr Nicholas Loudovikos, a student of Fr Romanides and a notable critic of some of the latter’s teaching (for the relevant comments on Fr Romanides’s significance, see his brilliant Η Αποφατική Εκκλησιολογία του Ομοουσίου—Η αρχέγονη Εκκλησία σύμερα [Athens: Armos, 2002], p. 132).

This book was not new to me. In fact, I had purchased and read quite a bit of the Greek edition—Πατερική Θεολογία, ed. Monk Damaskinos Agioreitis (Thessaloniki: Parakatathiki, 2004)—back in 2005, and I actually prefer the design of the Greek edition, which was likely done on a greater budget than Uncut Mountain Press can manage! Interestingly, the two editions were prepared together in a very coordinated way if I remember correctly, with Fr Alexios making his translation even as Fr Damaskinos transcribed the recording of the lectures in Greek. Both, however, have exactly the same chapter titles, divisions, and order, and can be easily compared with one another. I thought I recalled there being a note about this cooperation between editor and translator (both Athonite monks), but I’m not finding it at the moment.

Anyway, I was also given a copy of the English translation back in September, by Fr Dositheos of Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas, so I intend to find a good home for the new one from Fr Hartung. One can read chapters 1 (‘What is the Human Nous?’—where Fr Romanides states in the opening sentence his governing thesis, ‘The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul’ [p. 19]), 24 (‘What is the Core of Orthodox Tradition’), and 29 (‘On Conservatives and Liberals’), at the Orthodox Information Center.

(Addendum: Here one can read another helpful, and shorter, discussion of the Kollyvades movement. HT to Fr Dcn Gregory Edwards.)

'The "Age of the Fathers" still continues'--10 January Menology


Today, 10 January according to the old Orthodox calendar, we commemorate St Gregory of Nyssa (†395), St Theophan the Recluse (†1894), and St Paul of Obnora (†1429), among others. I believe the first two of these are well enough known that there is no need to spend time on the details of their lives. For them, I shall confine myself to a comment or two and a quote. St Paul of Obnora, one of the many disciples of the great Russian Saint, Sergius of Radonezh, is a bit more obscure. A brief overview of his life will be in order.

In the words of Fr Georges Florovsky, St Gregory ‘grew up in an atmosphere of culture and asceticism’ (The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Catherine Edmunds, Vol. 7 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 146), and this atmosphere permeates all of his work. Although he has often been called a brilliant ‘speculative theologian’ (e.g., by Johannes Quasten, qtd. in Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism [New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1993], p. 8; Fr John Meyendorff, Preface, The Life of Moses, by St Gregory of Nyssa, trans. Everett Ferguson and Abraham J. Malherbe [NY: Paulist, 1978], p. xii; Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys [Oxford: Oxford U, 1981], p. 80), St Gregory’s work is clearly grounded in prayerful communion with God, indeed, of ‘immediacy with God Himself in love’ (Fr Louth, p. 81). In the words of St Gregory Palamas, he is one of those people ‘who have been taught by experience and grace’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 342).

I believe the very first words I ever read from the pen of St Gregory of Nyssa (whose Life of Moses is today one of my absolute favourite books), were one of the many Patristic texts excerpted in Bishop Kallistos’s The Orthodox Way, rev. ed. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 1995), which Hieromonk Patapios, in his important review, has called one of its ‘attractive features’. Of course, at the time I read this I was a college freshman attending a GOA parish, and knew nothing of Hieromonk Patapios and his pesky reviews. But this passage—from the Homilies on Ecclesiastes (and which Bishop Kallistos takes from Jean Daniélou and Herbert Musurillo, trans., From Glory to Glory [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1989], pp. 127-8)—made a profound impression on me. I recall using it once or twice in papers, including one on the language of ‘mysticism’ (yes, I know, a bit presumptuous for a new convert and undergraduate!).

Imagine a sheer, steep crag, with a projecting edge at the top. Now imagine what a person would probably feel if he put his foot on the edge of this precipice and, looking down into the chasm below, saw no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. For here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; our minds cannot approach it. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows. (qtd. in Bishop Kallistos, pp. 23-4)

We can see clearly here that, in the words of St Nicholas (Velimirović) in his hymn in the Prologue for today:

St Gregory of Nyssa, because of his great faith,
To spiritual heights, like an eagle soared.

One can read the Life of St Theophan here. He is one of the great Holy Fathers of the last two hundred years—for, as Fr Florovsky has put it, ‘we are bound to say, “the Age of the Fathers” still continues’ (Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. I in the Collected Works of George Florovsky [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 113). Here is one of St Theophan’s most important pieces of advice for people like me:

Books are only for guidance in the spiritual life. Knowledge itself is acquired through deeds. Even that which is known from reading, clear and detailed though it be, presents itself in an entirely different light when experienced through deeds. The spiritual life is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world cannot penetrate. You yourself will experience this or are already doing so. (The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, trans. Alexandra Dockham [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000], p. 284)

There is a brief account of the life of St Paul of Obnora here. Born in 1317, he was from a noble family of devout Muscovite Christians. Having already demonstrated in his childhood an inclination to piety and ascesis, at the age of 22 he fled in secret from an impending marriage and was tonsured at a monastery on the Volga. ‘When the good news of the great St Sergius of Radonezh reached the shores of the Volga, St Paul felt that his prayer had been answered in obtaining an experienced instructor; and he left his monastery for the Lavra of the Holy Trinity’ (The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North, comp. and trans. Hieromonks Seraphim [Rose] and Herman [Podmoshensky] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995], p. 40).

St Paul became a close disciple of St Sergius, and, trained in obedience, eventually received the gift of tears. When a number of years had passed, he received a blessing to live as a recluse in the monastery, and passed fifteen years in hesychia and study of the Scriptures. Soon, however, the other brothers began to come to him for guidance, and St Paul asked for a blessing to go live in the wilderness. He visited some monasteries—

But the heart of the lover of desert-dwelling still thirsted for absolute silence, until finally he settled in a spot in the Komel forests overlooking the little river Grizovitsa, and chose for his abode the hollow of an old linden tree. Here the wondrous Paul spent three years, glorifying God together with the birds, for they alone seconded the hermit’s singing in the desolate wilds where no man had yet penetrated. Here he could pray ceaselessly to God. Who can tell of the hardships he endured? Living on grass and roots and enduring all changes of weather, in silence [hesychia] he purified his mind [nous] by meanss of spiritual combat and divine vision [theoria]. (Thebaid, p. 43)

After three years, however, the Lord guided him to another spot, where he built a small hut. Soon, another nearby anchorite, St Sergius of Nurma, who had been tonsured on the Holy Mountain, heard about St Paul. St Sergius sought him out, ‘and saw in the forest a wondrous sight:’

A flock of birds surrounded the marvellous anchorite; little birds perched on the Elder’s head and shoulders, and he fed them by hand. Nearby stood a bear, awaiting his food from the desert-dweller; foxes, rabbits and other beasts ran about, without any enmity among themselves and not fearing the bear. Behold the life of innocent Adam in Eden, the lordship of man over creation, which together with us groans because of our fall and thirsts to be delivered into the liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:22). (Thebaid, p. 43)

Although already an old man, for a while St Paul became a spiritual child of the more experienced ascetic. Soon however, people began to seek him out, and he saw a vision of an unearthly light shining in a spot in the forest on the other side of the river Nurma. St Sergius prophesied that here St Paul would build an monastery dedicated to the Holy Trinity (like that of St Sergius of Radonezh). Soon afterward, St Sergius fell asleep in the Lord, and St Paul got a blessing to found the monastery from Metropolitan Photius—‘a man of strong moral fibre and great determination’, according to John Fennell (A History of the Russian Church to 1448 [London: Longman, 1995], p. 162), who nevertheless needed prompting from a terrifying dream to grant the request!

St Paul established the monastery according to the typica of Ss Pachomius the Great and Theodosius the Cœnobiarch. The monks lived in strict cœnobitism and ‘complete silence’. St Paul appointed his disciple, Alexis, as abbot, and retired to his old hermitage. ‘In silence his mind was constantly in prayer and heefulness toward God; gathering the light of Divine understanding in his heart, he beheld in purity the glory of the Lord, thereby becoming a chosen vessel of the Holy Spirit’ (Thebaid, p. 47). He learned clairvoyantly of the sack of Kostroma by the Tatars, and several days later summoned the monks in expectation of his passing. ‘With prayer he gave them as his testament to keep the tradition of the Fathers and the cœnobitic rule.’ His parting words to the brotherhood were, ‘Have unfeigned love among yourselves, keep the tradition, and may the God of peace be with you and confirm you in love’ (Thebaid, p. 48). Then, he received the Mysteries, blessed his monks, made the sign of the Cross—

and in quite prayer gave up his holy soul to God. His face was bright, for God glorified his Saint. (Thebaid, p. 48)

St Paul reposed on 10 January 1429. He was 112.