19 February 2010

'Tuneful Harps of the Holy Spirit's Mysteries'—Ss Barsanuphius & John


Today, 6 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Barsanuphius the Great and John the Prophet (mid-6th c.), who were among ‘the last of the classical tradition of desert saints and elders’. [1] In a Life penned as an introduction to his edition of their letters, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain writes, ‘The writers of this God-wise and soul-profiting book were truly God-bearing, Christ-bearing and Spirit-bearing Fathers—Barsanuphius and John—examples of asceticism, practitioners of hesychasm, lamps of discernment, sleepless eyes of clairvoyance, treasuries of virtues, and embodiments of the Holy Spirit.’ [2] In the Prologue, St Nicholas (Velimirović) calls them ‘Great ascetics from Gaza, gifted with insight and wonder-working power’. [3] Here is the account of their lives in the Great Horologion:

Saint Barsanuphius the Great, who was from Egypt, and his disciple, Saint John the Prophet, struggled in very strict reclusion during the sixth century at the monastery of Abba Seridus at Gaza of Palestine, and were endowed with amazing gifts of prophecy and spiritual discernment. They are mentioned by Saint Dorotheus of Gaza, their disciple, in his writings. Many of the counsels they sent to Christians who wrote to them are preserved in the book which bears their names. Once certain of the Fathers besought Saint Barsanuphius wrote back that there were ‘three men perfect before God’, whose prayers met at the throne of God and protected the whole world; to them it had been revealed that the wrath of God would not last long. These three, he said, were ‘John of Rome, Elias of Corinth, and another in the diocese of Jerusalem’, concealing the name of the last, since it was himself. [4]


The translator of Ss Barsanuphius’s and John’s complete letters, Fr John Chryssavgis, has clarified somewhat some of the details of the relationships involved here. St Barsanuphius had retired to a cell in Thavatha, and Abba Seridus was abbot of a monastery that happened to be nearby, when he began to visit the Elder. According to Fr Chryssavgis, ‘Seridos was the only person permitted to communicate with Barsanuphius, acting as mediator for those who wished to be counseled by the elder.’ In about 525-527, St John the Prophet settled near the Elder. ‘The two shared the same way of life and supported one another’s ministry (Letters 224-225 and 571-572), with John assuming another monk, Dorotheus, as his mouthpiece. . . . John responded primarily to matters of a practical nature and Barsanuphius to questions of a more spiritual nature.’ [5]

Unfortunately, some modern scholars have begun to speculate that these great Elders of Gaza may have been ‘crypto-Monophysites’, basing themselves in part on questions that arose about the Elders in Byzantium in the 9th century. But St Theodore the Studite concluded at that time, after an investigation of the matter, ‘As for the writings of the above-mentioned Fathers, I did not find even the minutest impiety, but on the contrary much spiritual benefit’, [6] and St Nicodemus writes, ‘This divine Barsanuphius about whom we are writing was a man absolutely Orthodox in everything, and the Church of Christ venerates him as a saint.’ [7] Fr Chryssavgis characterises them as deliberately abstaining from theological disputes, and while St Barsanuphius may use some of the language of Abba Isaiah of Scetis which seems to be based on a Monophysite Christology [8], yet the great Elder of Gaza was simultaneously ‘urging his disciples to follow a Chalcedonian bishop’. [9] Even those who seem inclined to push the issue acknowledge that St Theodore’s argument that the Elders’ slanderers have confused them with other men of the same name is perfectly plausible, specific Monophysite partisans bearing their names being quite well known. [10]

In the end, all admit, ‘The positions of Barsanuphius and John were generally orthodox, although their essential attitude to theology seems to have generated a tolerant stance toward those holding non-orthodox theological views.’ [11] To waste time and ink speculating on the ‘heterodoxy’ of the Orthodox Saints constitutes yet a further example of what Fr Seraphim calls the failure of ‘patristics scholars’ ‘to trust the judgment of Orthodox tradition over his own personal opinions and whims, and to place any “new discoveries” he may make into the context of that tradition.’ [12] So much for such questions!

St Nicodemus laments that a narrative of the lives of Ss Barsanuphius and John had not come down to him, [13] but it is not unfitting that these great elders have been remembered chiefly for their vast correspondence. As Fr Chryssavgis observes, ‘Sensational miracles and exceptional charismata are neither the most striking nor the most appealing feature of these elders.’ [14] Bitton-Ashkelony & Kofsky point out that Ss Barsanuphius and John do not reflect the image of the ‘holy man as a substitute for the village patron and as a “man of power”’ [15] so much as ‘a new kind of teacher with a new kind of paideia, identifying the central expression of authority within ascetic society as the relationship between master and disciple.’ [16] This paideia is communicated entirely through their letters.

Fr Placide (Deseille) calls the letters ‘a unique document on the practice of spiritual fatherhood in this milieu’. [17] As such, Ss Barsanuphius and John were a great influence, not only on their own disciple, St Dorotheus of Gaza, but on St John Climacus, the Evergetinos, and St Gregory of Sinai, who quotes St Barsanuphius at length in his treatise ‘On Stillness’. [18] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) includes the letters among the other books that Fr Seraphim (Rose) calls the ‘ABC’s’ of patristic books, [19] and for the coenobitic monk recommends reading ‘the Directions for the Spiritual Life of St Barsanuphius and St John the Prophet, beginning with Answer 216 (the preceding answers are given primarily for hermits and so are less suitable for novices).’ [20]

But it is important to note that the letters are not addressed only to monks, for as Fr Chryssavgis writes, ‘Whereas the study, and indeed the literature, of spiritual direction has traditionally focused on monastic development, the correspondence of Barsanuphius and John redresses a balance in this regard, concentrating much of its attention on the concerns of lay persons.’ [21] Jennifer Havelone-Harper further notes, ‘The questions posed by petitioners reveal the anxieties and hopes of individuals representing a wide cross section of Byzantine society.’ [22]

For this reason, the letters of these two elders have the potential to become useful spiritual reading for laypeople. Many may already be familiar with Fr Seraphim’s translation of selections from the Russian edition published in 1855 by Optina. [23] Many selections from among those in the Russian Philokalia compiled by St Theophan the Recluse can also be found translated from the Russian in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. [24] But Fr Chryssavgis has produced the first full translation of all 848 letters, which is also the first translation from the original Greek text. [25] Although this 2-vol. set is not the most affordable of patristic translations, he has also provided a selection in one volume of the much more accessible Popular Patristics Series published by SVS. I strongly recommend that all who can acquire either Fr Seraphim’s or one of Fr Chryssavgis’s versions. As St Nicodemus writes:

For as the tree is, so is its fruit. Truly, any one can understand this from his own experience; for when he will begin reading this book, he will hear the words—uncomplicated and simple. And at the same time, secretly within his own heart, he will feelwondrous grace and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit, which like a magnet actively draws the will to oneness with God’s will, and he will feel undoubting conviction in the truth of the words he reads. He will understand how all these words were brought out of an enlightened and God-bearing mind; how they issued from one heart, in which dwelt Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit of Christ; and how they (these words) came from one soul which was all filled with peace and silence, was all Christ-like, all inspired by the fine wafting of a peace-giving and enlightening Spirit. [26]


I will offer a sample of some of the Elders’ teaching. I am told both of these can be found in Fr Chryssavgis’s Popular Patristics volume, but they certainly are not in Fr Seraphim’s translation of Ss Barsanuphius and John. First comes a question that has particular relevance in our day, when any belief that a particular thing is wrong is considered intolerant and judgemental.

Letter 453

Question: ‘If I notice someone doing something inappropriate, should I not judge this as being inappropriate? And how can I avoid the condemnation of this neighbor of mine?’ Response.

If this matter is truly inappropriate, then we cannot but condemn it as being inappropriate. Otherwise, how can we ever avoid the harm that comes from it, according to the voice of the Lord, who said: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves; you will know them by their fruits’ (Mt 7.15-16). The one, however, who is actually doing the inappropriate deed should not be condemned, according to the words: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Mt 7.1), but also because we should regard ourselves as being more sinful than all others. Furthermore, we should not ascribe the sin to our brother but to the devil, who deceived him. For in this caseit is as if someone were to push another person towards a barrier, and we were to blame the person being pushed.

It may even be that someone will do something which appears inappropriate to those watching, but which is really done with a good intention. This happened once to the holy [Great] Old Man [Barsanuphius]. For as he was walking past the hippodrome on one occasion, he entered it, fully conscious of what he was doing. And when he saw each of the competitors striving to overtake and triumph over the others, he said to his thought: ‘Do you see how the followers of the devil eagerly race against each other? How much more so should we, who are heirs of the heavenly kingdom?’ And, as a result of that sight, he left that place more eager in his spiritual journey and ascetic struggle.

Moreover, again, we do not know whether through his repentance, the sinful brother will be more pleasing to God, like the publican who in an instant was saved through humility and confession. For it was the Pharisee who left condemned by his own arrogance. Therefore, in consideration of these things, let usimitate the humility of the publican and condemn ourselves in order to be justified; and let us avoid the arrogance of the Pharisee in order not to be condemned. [27]


The second passage is particularly helpful for those of us liable to be taken advantage of by those in need.

Letter 620

A Christ-loving payperson asked the same Old Man [St John]: ‘If someone is asked to give alms but has nothing to give, is that person obliged to borrow in order to give?’ Response.

If one is asked to give something that one does not have, then there is no need to borrow in order to give. For even the Apostle Peter was asked to give alms and responded: ‘I have no silver or gold’ (Acts 3.6); and he did not borrow any money in order to give some. Indeed, even if one only has the bare necessities, then again there is no need to spend it all, so that he may not later miss it or be afflicted by its absence. Moreover, if the person from whom alms are demanded says to the person making the request: ‘Forgive me, but I have nothing to give you’, then this is not a lie. For someone who has nothing beyond what is necessary does not have anything to give to another person. He should simply say to the person who is asking: ‘Forgive me, but I only have what I need myself.’ Remember the five bridesmaids who asked the others to give them oil for their lamps; the latter replied: ‘There will not be enough for us and for you’ (cf. Mt 25.9). And the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘May your abundance be for their need’ (cf. 2 Cor 8.14), as well as: ‘I do not intend that there should be relief for others and pressure on you’ (2 Cor 8.13). [28]

As St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain says of the letters of Ss Barsanuphius of John, ‘Therefore, read this book diligently, and become vouchsafed the grace-giving gifts which are locked in it. Draw from it everflowing benefit.’ [29] In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Saints, taken from the Great Horologion:

Dismissal Hymn of Saints Barsanuphius and John
First Tone. While Gabriel was saying

Divine and tuneful harps of the Holy Spirit’s mysteries, * sounding forth sweet hymns of discernment which soothe all those in sorrows: * ye moved men to cast off passion’s yoke * and trample upon Satan’s loathsome head. * Wherefore, Godlike Barsanuphius and wise John, * deliver us who now cry out: * Glory to Him that hath given you grace. * Glory to Him that hath blessed you. * Glory to Him that hath saved many through your sacred words of counsel. [30]

Kontakion of Saints Barsanuphius and John
Third Tone. On this day the Virgin

O great Barsanuphius, * and John, thou marvellous Prophet, * all the hidden secrets of * men and of God’s dispensation * brightly shone in the clear mirrors * of your most pure hearts; * and with beams of grace divine, ye cast out sin’s shadows * from the souls of men; O Fathers, * lights of discernment, * entreat the Lord for us all. [31]

This post is dedicated to Bishop Savas of Troas, a man of questionable politics, but tremendous generosity. I hope this meets your expectations.


[1] Fr John A. McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology (London: SCM, 2005), p. 44.

[2] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ‘The Life of Our Holy Fathers Barsanuphius & John’, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life: Answers to the Questions of Disciples, by Ss Barsanuphius & John, sel. & tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), p. 21.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 144.

[4] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 410.

[5] Fr John Chryssavgis, ‘Introduction’, Letters, Vol. 1, by Ss Barsanuphius & John, tr. Fr John Chryssavgis (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 2006), p. 6.

[6] St Nicodemus, p. 36.

[7] Ibid., p. 35.

[8] Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony & Aryeh Kofsky, The Monastic School of Gaza (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 216-7.

[9] Fr Chryssavgis, p. 13, n. 15.

[10] Bitton-Ashkelony & Kofsky, pp. 219-20.

[11] Ibid., p. 217.

[12] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ‘A Note on “Pseudo-Macarius” and the “Messalian Origin” of the Spiritual Homilies’, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, by St Macarius the Great, tr. A.J. Mason (Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox, 1974), p. xxix.

[13] St Nicodemus, p. 21.

[14] Fr Chryssavgis, p. 6.

[15] An image associated with the sociological studies of Peter Brown.

[16] Bitton-Ashkelony & Kofsky, p. 83. Although I am not familiar with him, the authors ascribe this more pedagogical model to Philip Rousseau’s article ‘Ascetics as Mediators & as Teachers’, The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity & the Middle Ages, ed. J. Howard-Johnson & P.A. Hayward (Oxford: Oxford U, 1999), pp. 45-59. They also cite S. Rubenson, ‘Philosophy & Simplicity: The Problem of Classical Education in Early Christian Biography’, Greek Biography & Panegyric in Late Antiquity, ed. T. Hägg & P. Rousseau (Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2000), pp. 110-39. I do not have these articles, but I would love to read them!

[17] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 22.

[18] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1998), p. 266.

[19] Qtd. in Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), ‘Preface’, Ss Barsanuphius & John, Guidance, p. 13.

[20] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), p. 22.

[21] Fr Chryssavgis, p. 8.

[22] Jennifer L. Hevelone-Harper, Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, & Spiritual Authority in 6th-c. Gaza (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. x.

[23] See n. 2 above for the citation info. The numbering of the letters in Fr Seraphim’s translation is different from that in Fr Chryssavgis’s, and I’ve been finding it difficult to compare them. It’s too bad, because I would like to post—with references to the numbering in the complete translation by Fr Chryssavgis—Fr Damascene’s transcription of Fr Seraphim’s list of ‘subjects which he thought were especially vital for Orthodox Christians of today’ in the Elders’ correspondence (Fr Damascene, p. 17). As it is, it will be fairly time-consuming!

[24] Ss Barsanuphius & John, ‘Directions in Spiritual Work’, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, ed. E. Kadloubovsky & G.E.H. Palmer (London: Faber, 1992), pp. 346-81. The translators also present St Theophan’s ‘Short Biographical Note’ on the Saints, ‘Taken from their lives composed by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain’ (pp. 341-5).

[25] Ss Barsanuphius & John, Letters, 2 vols., tr. Fr John Chryssavgis (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 2006).

[26] St Nicodemus, p. 42.

[27] Ss Barsanuphius & John, Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 67-8.

[28] Ibid., p. 209.

[29] St Nicodemus, p. 45.

[30] Great Horologion, p. 411.

[31] Ibid., p. 412.

5 comments:

+SAVAS of Troas said...

Thank you, Aaron.

You're right: the numbering is confused and confusing. I worked out the correspondence between the various editions and translations, and will pass it on to you when I dig it up.

May God grant us both a fruitful Fast!

+S

aaronandbrighid said...

Amen, and Your Grace is most welcome.

I'm glad to hear it's not just me having trouble with the numbering. I would be very grateful for your help!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Aaron, both letters 453 and 620 are included in the Popular Patristics Series edition.

For future reference, the letters included are: 1, 6, 10, 17, 18, 23, 31, 35, 37, 39, 45, 48, 49, 72, 73, 74, 78, 79, 86, 87, 105, 109, 113, 119, 125, 129, 154, 160, 170, 187, 196, 199, 203, 205, 208, 212, 240, 241, 242, 244, 268, 277, 278, 279, 280, 281, 282, 283, 287, 290, 302, 304, 314, 315, 327, 330, 339, 369, 373, 404, 405, 406, 418, 425, 427, 428, 429, 430, 431, 432, 437, 442, 443, 444, 450, 451, 453, 463, 470, 471, 472, 475, 476, 483, 496, 504, 508, 519, 520, 529, 530, 532, 554, 561, 569, 611, 613, 614, 616, 617, 618, 619, 620, 621, 622, 623, 625, 626, 627, 628, 648, 653, 654, 655, 656, 657, 658, 664, 665, 669, 670, 671, 672, 673, 679, 680, 686, 694, 695, 696, 697, 698, 699, 700, 707, 708, 709, 710, 711, 715, 717, 718, 725, 726, 736, 737, 738, 744, 750, 751, 756, 758, 759, 760, 763, 765, 773, 789, 805, 806, 807, 828, 838, 844, 845, 848

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Kevin. Am I correct in assuming you had already transcribed all those letter numbers and did not do it just for this comment?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You are incorrect! But there is an index of those numbers included in the back of the book, so it was the effort of only a couple of minutes to type them out. It seems a handy thing to have available somewhere.