27 February 2010

'Rooted in the Tradition'—St Gregory Palamas & Modern Theologians


Last year, on the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas, I did one of my usual hagiographic posts (here), and followed that up with a brief reflection St Philotheos Kokkinos’s account of the family of St Gregory Palamas (here), and finally, a passage from my own advisor’s book on St Gregory’s teaching on the passions and virtues (here). This year, I’d like to do something much simpler, but very important.

Some of the contemporary theologians in the Orthodox world, although they may be talented scholars and thinkers, and although they may have the best of intentions, have not only departed from the ethos of St Gregory Palamas, they have begun directly and willfully to contradict him. Let us recall Fr Georges Florovsky’s faithful summary of the place of St Gregory in the Orthodox Tradition:

St Gregory begins with the distinction between ‘grace’ and ‘essence’: e theia kai theopoios ellampsis kai charis ouk ousia, all’ energeia esti Theou [the Divine and Divinizing illumination and grace is not the essence, but the energy of God; Capita Phys., Theol., etc., 68-9]. This basic distinction was formally accepted and elaborated at the Great Councils of Constantinople, 1341 and 1351. Those who would deny this distinction were anathematized and excommunicated. The anathematisms of the council of 1351 were included in the rite for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in the Triodion. Orthodox theologians are bound by this decision. [1]


Now let’s consider the following from Norman Russell’s recent popular-level study on theosis in the Orthodox Tradition:

Turning now to [Metropolitan] John Zizioulas [of Pergamon], we find that he does not define theosis in terms of participating in the divine energies. . . . Unlike Lossky, Yannaras and most other Orthodox theologians, he has serious reservations about the whole concept of the energies. Palamas’ teaching seems to him to make the energies ‘an ontological notion’—to give them a reality apart from the divine being. . . . His idea of theosis is therefore centered on the concept of personhood, not on participation in the energies. [2]


But it wasn’t enough for Russell simply to state Met. John’s highly dubious position of claiming to ‘know better’ than the ‘light of Orthodoxy, support and teacher of the Church’, [3] as we chant in the Troparion of St Gregory. Russell had to try to defend Met. John by making St Gregory’s teaching into a theologoumenon:

Those who found it helpful to use his thinking were free to do so, and the mid-fourteenth century synods of Constantinople pronounced it Orthodox. Other approaches, however, could coexist with it provided they did not attack it. [4]


Now, in light of Fr Florovsky’s observations, it’s wrong enough to say that the Hesychast Synods simply gave those who ‘liked’ St Gregory ‘permission’ to use his theology, but even were we to allow this licentious interpretation, this is no defense of Met. John. For to say that St Gregory’s teaching has some kind of negative theological consequence is to attack it. If Russell has accurately represented him, Met. John and St Gregory cannot simply ‘coexist’. In vindicating the latter it seems to me that the Hesychast Synods actually place the former under anathema, and those anathemas are pronounced by the entire Church every Sunday of Orthodoxy. It is a dangerous business to second guess such a teacher. The very first sticheron about him at Vespers for this Sunday says of St Gregory Palamas:

He is the trumpet of theology, the herald of the fire of grace, the honoured vessel of the Spirit, the unshaken pillar of the Church, the great joy of the inhabited earth, the river of wisdom, the candlestick of the light, the shining star that makes glorious the whole creation. [5]


The next two stichera call him ‘the fervant protector of the Faith, the great guide and teacher, the well-tuned harp of the Spirit’, and ‘the teacher of the Church, the herald of the light of God, the initiate of the heavenly mysteries of the Trinity’. [6] In the doxasticon from the Aposticha at Vespers, we chant, ‘Thy words, inspired by God, are a ladder leading us from earth to heaven.’ [7] Finally, consider these troparia from the Fifth Ode of the canon of the Saint at Matins:

Gregory most wise, thy words and sacred writings are dew from heaven, honey from the rock, the bread of angels unto those that hear or read, sweet nectar and ambrosia, and a fount of living water.

Earth and sea acknowledge thee as their common teacher, as the holy pillar of Orthodoxy and the sacred armoury of divine dogmas, as a wise and saintly theologian, as the comrade and companion of the apostles. [8]


Is this how one treats ‘dew from heaven’—parsing and questioning it on the basis of some philosophical technicality? If earth and sea acknowledge St Gregory Palamas ‘as their common teacher’, is it appropriate for us mere academic, intellectual ‘theologians’ to presume to correct such a teacher, an ‘initiate of the heavenly mysteries of the Trinity’? Can we improve upon words ‘inspired by God’?

Let us rather strive to follow earth and sea in acknowledging him. Fr Florovsky emphasises that St Gregory Palamas ‘was rooted in the tradition’, [9] and as he asks of those who would practise theology, ‘Should we not stand, conscientiously and avowedly, in the same tradition also as “theologians”, as witnesses and teachers of Orthodoxy? Can we retain our integrity in any other way?’ [10]


[1] Fr Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. 1 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), p. 117.

[2] Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2009), p. 139

[3] The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Met.] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1994), p. 316.

[4] Russell, p. 173.

[5] Triodion, p. 314.

[6] Ibid., p. 314.

[7] Ibid., p. 315

[8] Ibid., p. 322.

[9] Fr Florovsky, p. 114.

[10] Ibid., p. 113.

26 February 2010

The Study of Death


Among the instrumenta bonorum operum, or ‘tools of good works’, listed in Chapter 4 of St Benedict’s Rule, we read, Mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere. [1] The RB 1980 renders this as ‘Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die’, [2] while Justin McCann, OSB, is a bit more literal: ‘To keep death daily before one’s eyes.’ [3]

It is of course a common theme in ascetic literature. Today, I read in St Ephraim the Syrian, ‘Blessed is he who ceaselessly remembers the day of his departure and strives to be ready and fearless in that hour.’ [4] Just yesterday, in the Ladder, I reread Step 6, the chapter on ‘remembrance of death’. [5] There, St John Climacus writes:

4. As of all foods, bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works. The remembrance of death amongst those in the midst of society gives birth to distress and meditation, and even more, to despondency. But amongst those who are free from noise, it produces the putting aside of cares and constant prayer and guarding of the mind. But these same virtues both produce the remembrance of death, and are also produced by it. [6]

Although St John uses the phrase μνήμη θανάτου, ‘remembrance of death’, throughout this chapter, when he is alluding to the teachings of Plato at the end, he uses the philosopher’s phrase, μελέτη θανάτου, ‘study of’ or ‘meditation on death’:

It is impossible, someone says, impossible to spend the present day devoutly unless we regard it as the last of our whole life. And it is truly astonishing how even the Greeks [that is, the pagans] have said something of the sort, since they define philosophy as meditation on death [μελέτη θανάτου]. [7]

St John Damascene too uses the latter phrase in the third definition of philosophy in the ‘Philosophical Chapters’ of his Treasury of Knowledge:

Philosophy, again, is a study of death [μελέτη θανάτου], whether this be voluntary or natural. For life is of two kinds, there being the natural life by which we live and the voluntary one by which we cling lovingly to this present life. Death, also, is of two kinds: the one being natural, which is the separation of soul from body, whereas the other is the voluntary one by which we disdain this present life and aspire to that which is to come. [8]

Several years ago I chose the second of these phrases as the more poetic, when I wrote some lines in the midst of intense grief for the sudden death of good friend whom I was to have sponsored in Baptism:

The study of death has become a cool garden.
I visit it in the shade of dusk,
I sit there under the stars before sleep,
I rise before dawn and am drawn to that still place,
And in the repose of late morning and afternoon
I watch the sunlight on the flowers and pray.

I’m not at all sure that I was speaking then of the conscience of one’s own mortality that the Fathers teach, but certainly, the prolonged experience of grief afforded me a kind of objectivity. After a week or so, it was as though I was able cooly to reflect on what I was going through, and I found a peace there for which a garden seemed the fittest metaphor.

For more on the memento mori theme, including a translation of the inscription on the fresco above, see this very early post (originally written for the presumably less educated audience of my old MySpace blog), as well as this one on a poem by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), from Helen Gardner’s charming anthology of The Metaphysical Poets for the Penguins Classics. John Sanidopoulos has also blogged on the subject (here), including a lengthy passage or two from the Phaedo.

I close with the opening lines of the famous sequence formerly attributed to Notker of St Gall, with Cranmer’s translation from the Book of Common Prayer:

Media vita in morte sumus
Quem quærimus adjutorem nisi te, Domine?
Qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris.

In the midst of life we are in death;
of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?


[1] St Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict in Latin & English, tr. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.), p. 28.

[2] St Benedict, RB 1980: The Rule of St Benedict in English, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB, et al. (Collegeville, MN: 1982), p. 28.

[3] St Benedict, McCann, p. 29.

[4] St Ephraim the Syrian, A Spiritual Psalter, or Reflections on God, ed. St Theophan the Recluse, tr. Antonina Janda (Libertyville, TN: SJOKP, 1997), p. 164.

[5] I have been rereading the Ladder for Lent in accordance with this useful schedule, posted here by Esteban Vázquez (who is apparently too attractive for his own good).

[6] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 66.

[7] St John, p. 69; cf. the Greek in Κλῖμαξ, 9th ed., ed. & tr. Archim. Ignatios (Oropos, Greece: Holy Monastery of the Paraclete, 2002), p. 139.

[8] St John Damascene, Writings, tr. Frederick H. Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999), p. 11; cf. the Greek in Άπαντα τα Έργα, ed. Ignatios Sakales, Vol. 109 in Greek Fathers of the Church (Thessaloniki: ‘Gregory Palamas’ Patristic Publications, 1991), p. 32.

25 February 2010

'The Banquets of the Holy Word'—Early Mediæval Poetry on St Scholastica


Thanks to Brigit of Under the Oak fame, I have been made aware of some wonderful old sources on St Scholastica, woefully overlooked in my post for her feast Tuesday. Here, at the Monastic Matrix site—edited by Lisa Bitel, author of the article on St Brighid I linked to here—there are Latin texts and translations of three poems about St Scholastica, one by St Aldhelm of Sherborne (c. 639-709), whom the Venerable Bede calls ‘a man of wide learning . . . remarkable for his erudition in both ecclesiastical and in general studies’, [1] and two by Paul the Deacon of Monte Cassino (c. 720-799), famed for his history of the Lombards. They were translated by Mary Forman, OSB, and originally published in Vox Benedictiana in 1990. [2]

I had planned simply to post St Aldhelm’s poem here, and direct readers to the Monastic Matrix page to read the others, but when I tried to read them myself I found them badly jumbled. Fearing that other readers may have a difficult time reading the poems too, I copied and pasted them into a Word document, arranged them correctly, and decided to post all three of them here. I have no idea if the breaks here represent original ones, or if they are page breaks reproduced from the journal, but not knowing what else to do I left them in. I have left out the Latin texts in the interest of reducing the size of the post. Consequently, I decided also to leave out Forman’s notes documenting the texts she used, but I kept three explanatory notes on the last poem.

Incidentally, the image above is a 12th-c. fresco of St Scholastica from Monte Cassino.



A Song about St Scholastica
by St Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne

Scholastica took her very name from schola,
God enriches her abundantly with heavenly favour,
She who gained golden rewards by her virginal vow.
Concerning whom a little twig of nourishing life
is wont to scatter excellence
as widely as the world extends.
Because the virgin impatiently urges her brother
who is joined to her by a covenant of kinship,
and supports her pleas with reasoned argument
So that, at night, they might partake
of the sweet courses of the holy books
and the banquets of the holy word.
From which the breasts of many
are sufficiently filled,
And the hearts of holy people nourished.
But the faithful brother is not moved by any pleas,
Nay rather he disdains his holy sister in his words.
Then the virgin urged the good Christ in her heart
to deign to heal the wound of sorrow for her.
Thus soon the whole sky grows dark
with a stormy whirlwind
and the vault of the heaven with gloomy air.
Huge rumbling thunder,
mingled with flashing lightning bolts,
And the Earth quaked,
trembling from the great noise.
Wet fleecy clouds moisten it with dewy drops,
And the air bedews the land with gloomy showers.
The valleys are filled
and abundant streams overflow,
Then unwillingly he remained
who before had deliberately refused
what his distressed and weeping sister had sought.
So God heeds those who ask with burning heart,
Even when they pay attention to words
which do not console.


A Metrical Life of St Scholastica
by Paul the Deacon

The beautiful spouse of God, Scholastica, seeks
the heights of heaven
The beautiful spouse of God enters
the bridal chamber.
Today she is raised above the stars
with angelic hands,
Today she consorts with the angelic hosts.
Thus the company of saints in the stars
shout with joy to the Lord,
Thus our people on earth
shout with joy to the Lord.
Hence the evil band of demons grieves and groans,
Hence the ancient serpent groans and grieves.
This life tolerates his snares in everything,
But dying she vanquishes his snares.
Dedicated from her earliest years to God,
She remained a virgin.
From her infancy, the virgin was dedicated to God.

Desiring the kingdom of heaven,
she left her country with her brother,
Desiring the kingdom of heaven, she sought Cassino.
Benedict established for himself a dwelling
in a sanctuary on the peak,
But the sister established for herself
a dwelling on the plains.
The brother was wont to descend each year,
The brother was wont to visit his sister.
It was the next day that the virgin left her body,
She sought heaven; it was the next day.
As was his custom,
the brother descended from the sanctuary,
He visited his sister,
as was his custom.
When the dawn arises, their meeting takes place
And with the rising dawn, a conversation arises.
They exchange words about the kingdom
and everlasting life,
They exchange words about the combats of Satan.
The sun sinking to the ocean now buries the light,
Phœbus bears shadows, sinking to the ocean.
As was their custom,
they had given foods which their souls loved,
And they give foods to their bodies
as is their custom.
Eating, the virgin sighs;
indeed, she brings forth gasps from her heart,
The brother fashions words;
eating, the virgin sighs.
Her loving mind burns,
her ear earnestly seeks discourses,
Her mouth tastes foods, her loving mind burns.

Becoming more hungry
as she is accepting different foods,
Becoming more hungry not for banquets
but for conversation.
Now as both prepare to clear the table
and the foods,
Now as both prepare to give thanks to God.
Grieving in mind, she hesitates and fears to speak.
Finally, grieving in mind, she speaks these things.
‘O venerable Father,
you have no mercy on me, who grieves,
You forsake your sister; O venerable Father.
I beseech you to remain here;
Behold the light of day is receding,
Now darkness approaches,
I beseech you to remain here.’
‘So as to prevent you from asking
for these things which you demand, sister,’
the most holy father says,
‘I will grant them not at all
So as to prevent you from asking.’
Grieving, she immediately moistens her face
with profuse tears,
Grieving, she immediately lowers her head to the table.
For her the Lord was hope,
thus does the sorrowful one entreat the Lord,
What he wishes may be done,
since for her the Lord was hope.
All the surface of heaven is covered
with dark clouds,
All the surface of heaven grows dark with clouds
Frequent lightning bolts flash,
blasts of wind beat down,
As the heaven falls, frequent lightning bolts flash.

Seeing it, her brother
asks why he should rebuke her,
Seeing it, her brother stays the night in the house.
When the next day comes,
the turbulence and darkness flee,
the path lies open to the just man.
When the next day comes.
Three days after his departure from there,
she passed on,
Three days after this sign, she passed on.
Benedict looks up at the heights
and prays to heaven,
Thus does he look up at the soul of his sister
in the heights.
In the form of a bird,
she flew to the heights like a dove,
What she was, was revealed
through the form of a bird.
He gives thanks to the Almighty One
that his sister seeks the heavens:
He explains to the brothers
that his sister seeks the heavens.
He puts the body of his sister
in the tomb prepared for himself
And afterwards he puts his own body
in that very tomb.
One sepulchre holds them whom one will held:
One sepulchre holds them whom one womb begets.
Exceedingly wondrous signs
make people rejoice in life
The dead ones effect exceedingly wonderful signs.
Here we saw many men snatched away
from the devil,
Here we saw mad men made healthy.

Here was given to many
a voice for the mouth, a light for the eyes
Well-earned strength of feet
was here given to many.
Here almighty God is placated by their merits;
Whatever is sought, here almighty God provides.
May God here and everywhere
protect us with their prayers,
May God rule us and cherish us
here and everywhere.


A Song about St Scholastica
by the Same Author

O blessed sister of Benedict, by the will of Christ
And of the majestic Father, O blessed sister.
Ready to attend to God
You are rightly called Scholastica,
You are seen from your cradle
ready to attend to God.
A vessel for counsel, although then still a young girl,
A treader of the cosmos, a vessel for counsel.
Noble spouse of God, you are adorned with pearls,
you will bear holy lilies, noble spouse of God,
You desire the heights of heaven,
you despised the sweet things of the world,
You desire the lofty mountains
of the everlasting heaven.
All things hateful to you were placed
under the light of Phœbus,
And the seductive things of the earth
were all hateful to you.

You went before the Castalian leaders [3]
as their inspired guide,
Exulting, you illuminated the Castalian leaders.
Behold you joined your own virginal [4]
to the abode of your brother,
Behold your own virginal abides as unplucked.
You are grasped by fragile finger tips,
when exchanging the things of heaven,
And grasping victory
you are grasped by finger tips,
You bring back magnificent trophies, [5]
virtue, zeal, and discipline,
Virgin Daughter of Sion,
you bring back magnificent trophies.
Most chaste one,
we have written other praises in heroic verses,
behold we have written to you in heroic verses:
From which it was clearly shown
by the whole summit of merits
That she is perfect in all things,
from which it was clearly shown.
Let the sisterly vow suffice to excel in prayers
Unconquered by all, let it suffice in prayers.
It remains now to describe her feast day
with swift pen
to render into verse
the place where you were ordered,
it remains now to describe.
Blessed virgin, on the day
you approached the thresholds of the kingdom
on the tenth day in the month of Numa,
blessed virgin.

The sun in Aquarius already snatching away
the twenty-four parts,
the sun in Aquarius.
Nursed by the spiritual unction in wondrous flowers,
Whose odour was evident
from the spiritual unction.
Conveyed by arms of sentinels
to the bosom of Abraham
She will remain in the holy bosom of Abraham:
With virgin choirs
she was laid in a lasting abode
With harmonious praises and virgin choirs.
Organs which resound the odes of the celestial name
Angelic leaders, organs which resound.
You return now to feed on lilies
each with a thousand-fold blossom,
You return now to feed on paradisial lilies.
Here may you thrive, may you be strong,
may you worship, may you love,
Now and forever.
here may you thrive, may you be strong.


[1] Venerable Bede, EH 5:18; The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tr. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure & Roger Collins (Oxford: Oxford U, 1994), p. 267.

[2] Mary Forman, OSB, tr., ‘Poems on St Scholastica’, Vox Benedictina: A Journal of Translations from Monastic Sources (Saskatoon: Peregrina Publishers, 1984-), 7/3 (1990): pp. 229-251.

[3] Tr. note: ‘Castalian leaders’: Castalia was the proper name of a spring on Mount Parnassus which was sacred to the Muses; hence ‘castalian’, pertaining to the Muses.

[4] Tr. note: Virginal: ‘the book containing the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary’: Albert Blaise, Lexicon latinitatis medii aevi, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaeualis (Turnout: Brepols, 1986) in reference to Th. Rymer, Foedera, conventiones, litterae inter reges anglia et alios quosvis imperatores, reges … IX (Hagae Comities, 1739-1745): p. 276. See also Oratio 14 aug., Sacramentarium Gregorianum 147, 1, quoted by Albert Blaise, Le vocabulaire latin des principaux thèmes liturgiques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1966): p. 347.

[5] Tr. note: These trophies refer to the fruits of monastic asceticism; see, for example, RB, Chapters 4, 72, 19 et passim.

24 February 2010

More on St Benedict & Lent


In yesterday’s post on St Scholastica (here), I linked to a letter (here) that I had reposted from the blog of the RC priest, Mark Kirby, supposedly written by the Saint herself to another nun. The bulk of that letter’s content is taken up with an exposition of the teaching on the observance of Lent in the famous Rule of her brother, St Benedict of Nursia.

It is a helpful reminder to those of us with a particular devotion to St Benedict that his Rule does indeed contain such teaching, and we can profit immensely from paying close attention to it. Quoting RB 49:1—Licet omni tempore vita monachi Quadragesimae debet observationem habere, ‘The life of a monk ought at all times to be lenten in its character’ [1]—Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, notes how seriously ‘St Benedict takes the Lenten observance . . . that he bids his monks to see it as a program and model for all of their monastic life.’ [2] I have commented on this before (here), pointing out that according to St John Cassian, Lent was originally instituted for Christians in the world and only became necessary for monks when their primitive strictness began to wane. I have also commented on St Benedict’s apparent ‘negligence’ of almsgiving in the Lenten regime when compared with St Leo the Great’s homilies on Lent (here), and, here, on the strict reading schedule prescribed during Lent in RB 48. In this post I would like to delve a bit more into RB 49.

D’Avila-Latourrette refers to five ‘principles’ that St Benedict emphasises as part of Lenten observance in RB 49:4:

2 . . . [I]n these days of Lent the brethren should lead lives of great purity, 3 and should also in this sacred season expiate the negligences of other times. 4 This will be worthily done if we refrain from all sin and apply ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to abstinence. [3]


D’Avila-Latourrette notes that the first principle, ‘refrain from all sin’, ‘should be an obvious one’, [4] but points out that the increased interiority of the Lenten journey can allow us to pay special attention to the seemingly ‘smaller’ sins that we rarely think of in confession.

The second principle, applying ourselves ‘to prayer with tears’, is obviously a major component of patristic spiritual teaching. St John Climacus goes so far as to say, in Ladder 7:6, ‘Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.’ [5] D’Avila-Latourrette mentions the prayer of the Publican as exemplifying what St Benedict means here. [6] The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, calls such prayer a ‘concomitant’ of the fourth principle—‘compunction of heart’, which d’Avila-Latourrette equates with ‘repentance’. De Vogüé writes:

Tears are not an unimportant accessory of prayer, but rather a substantial enrichment, which endow it with an incomparable quality. Anyone who has experienced this transformation wonders whether they are not the normal sign of all true prayer: can a heart which speaks to God do so without the deep stirring that leads to tears? Thus it is hardly surprising that Benedict prescirbes or suggests praying with tears, as though this was something to which every worshipper can and should aspire. Tears are no doubt a gift and a grace, but asking for them and working towards them is also a signal way of beginning to pray. [7]


I shall skip the third principle, holy reading, since I have written about it at length here. But, as d’Avila-Latourrette notes, ‘The last principle mentioned by St Benedict, abstinence from food, [is] long associated with Lent . . . .’ [8] He reminds us that fasting is primarily a spiritual activity, and not merely a physical one, and that it is ‘never disconnected from prayer and concentration on God’. [9] While not neglecting this ‘vertical’ dimension to Lenten fasting, however, de Vogüé also broadens the horizontal dimension:

As for abstinence, it does not consist merely in cutting down on food and drink . . . . It also has to do with sleep, talkativeness, and joking. . . . There is something all-embracing about the benedictine notion of abstinence, as there is to continence in the writings of Basil (Reg. 9): all disorderly behavior is subject to cutbacks. [10]


But there is another item which should be included under this rubric for those of us who are not celibate monastics: fasting ‘from the flesh’, that is, abstaining from marital relations. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain writes, ‘We must also note the following, that just as there must be a fast from food on Wednesday, Friday, and Great Lent, there must also be a fast from pleasures of the flesh.’ [11] Passing on to us a common tradition of the Church, St Nicodemus and—in a similar passage—Elder Cleopa of Sihâstria [12]—quote the opinion of Patriarch Theodore Balsamon of Antioch (12th c.):

If we are taught not to eat fish, nor to relax the fast during all of holy Lent, how much more are spouses obliged to abstain from carnal affection. Therefore, spouses who transgress in this regard, turning to satanic incontinence from fasting and deliverance from fleshly desires through saving repentance (as if the course of the whole year was enough to satisfy their carnal desires), are to be found unworthy of the divine and holy communion during the feast of the holy and great Pascha, but also let them be corrected through penances. [13]


In this way during Lent the Church exhorts us to follow St Paul’s advice in giving ourselves more fully to fasting and prayer (I Cor. 7:5).

But in St Benedict’s view, the result of all this is joy. In RB 49:7, we are to ‘look forward with the joy of spiritual longing to the holy feast of Easter.’ [14] De Vogüé writes:

This spiritual longing which brings overwhelming joy has already been mentioned by Benedict among the tools for good works (4:46). There the focus was on its ultimate object, everlasting life. Now it is the Easter resurrection, which heralds and inaugurates an eternity of bliss. The chief fruits of the Spirit, who is the source of that longing, are love and joy (Gal. 5:17-22).

Joy of the Holy Spirit, joy of spiritual longing: whatever it is called, in Benedict’s Rule joy penetrates to the very heart of Lent. It is like the ‘unspeakable delight’ he promised the postulant at the end of the Prologue (Prol 49). In both cases, spiritual exultation bursts into a period dedicated to painful effort. [15]


Of course, d’Avila-Latourrette comments sadly on the state of Lent among heterodox Christians in the West in modern times, where it can scarcely be called ‘a period dedicated to painful effort’:

St Benedict would not understand what Lent has become for many Christians today, trivialized to a time when we give up candy, cut down on television, or make a yearly confession. I find it sad to see that Lent has become reduced to such a poor shadow of the great significance it had during the first Christian centuries. [16]



[1] St Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict in Latin & English, tr. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.), pp.114, 115.

[2] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 70.

[3] St Benedict, p. 115.

[4] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 70.

[5] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 71.

[6] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 71.

[7] Adalbert de Vogüé, Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, tr. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 244.

[8] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 72.

[9] Ibid., p. 73.

[10] De Vogüé, pp. 244-5.

[11] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, tr. Fr George Dokos (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2006), p. 272.

[12] Elder Cleopa of Sihâstria, The Truth of Our Faith, Vol. 2: On the Christian Mysteries, tr. Fr Peter Alban Heers & Francie Wilson (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2006), p. 118.

[13] My translation from PG 138:997B-997C.

[14] St Benedict, p. 115.

[15] De Vogüé, p. 245.

[16] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 70.

23 February 2010

'Let the Choir of Virgins & Nuns Be Glad'—St Scholastica


Today, 10 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Scholastica of Italy (6th c.), Abbess and Sister of St Benedict of Nursia. As Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, writes, ‘Just as St Benedict is acknowledged to be the Father of Monks in the West, so we can also rightly call St Scholastica the beloved Mother of Nuns.’ [1] For those who are unfamiliar with her, here is a brief summary from the Oxford Dictionary of Saints:

Scholastica (d. c.543), sister of Benedict and first Benedictine nun. All that is known of her comes from the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. Her nunnery was Plombariola, about five miles from Monte Cassino; Benedict and Scholastica used to meet once a year in a house at a distance from his monastery; on his last visit to her, she asked him in vain to stay longer to discuss ‘the joys of heaven’. When he refused, she prayed for rain to such effect that a violent thunderstorm prevented him leaving and they spent the night as she had wished. She died three days later and was buried in the tomb Benedict had prepared for himself. Her relics were alleged to have been translated to Le Mans when Benedict’s went to Fleury. Feast: 10 February, in the Roman calendar with a high rank in Benedictine nunneries, of which she is the patron. [2]

Unfortunately, last year I essentially exhausted my treasury of material on St Scholastica. In a post on her life (here), I excerpted the entire account of all that is known of her life and death from the sole primary source—St Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. I also included some of the most profound reflections on that account possible, from the pen of the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, a Western hymn for St Scholastica taken from the hard-to-find Liturgical Year of Dom Prosper Gueranger, and some lovely reflections by the RC blogger, Fr Mark Kirby in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In subsequent posts, I offered a possibly apocryphal story about St Scholastica told by Kathleen Norris along with my reflections on the importance of saintly titles (here), and finally (here), a probably apocryphal letter on Lent attributed to St Scholastica which I found on Fr Mark’s blog (here). Also courtesy of Fr Mark (here) is the ‘Preface [from the Mass] for the Feast of St Scholastica, Virgin’, which I have altered slightly to clarify the divine pronouns:

Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give You thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

Saint Scholastica, obedient to the teaching of Saint Benedict, her brother,
inclined the ear of her heart to the voice of Christ
Who led her into the wilderness
and there espoused her in mercy and faithfulness.

This holy virgin chose the best part,
and in preferring nothing to the love of Christ,
reached that love of Yours which,
being perfect, drove out all fear.

When in earnest prayer she sought your help,
You answered her outpouring of tears
with a sudden downpour of rain amidst lightning and thunder,
and in this You revealed the surpassing power of love.

In the form of a dove,
her pure soul entered the glory of heaven;
seeing this, her brother was filled with joy
and raised his voice in glad thanksgiving.

Now Saint Scholastica rejoices in You who called her,
and praises You forever with the powers of heaven,
with whom we also raise our voices
in this, their endless hymn of praise:


Here is the ‘Collect’ for St Scholastica, taken from the Ohio Anglican blog (here) and similarly altered:

O God, who didst reveal in a vision the soul of blessed Scholastica Thy Virgin entering heaven in the likeness of a dove, that Thou mightest show the way of the undefiled: grant us by the aid of her merits and prayers so innocently to live, that we may worthily attain unto joys eternal. Through Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord, Who livest and reignest with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

In conclusion, here is the Magnificat antiphon for St Scholastica:

Let the Christian people rejoice
in the glory of the gracious virgin, Scholastica;
But most of all, let the choir of virgins and nuns
be glad celebrating the feast of her who,
Pouring forth her tears, entreated the Lord;
And because she loved so much,
she obtained greater power from him. [3]


[1] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 45.

[2] Hugh David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 470.

[3] d’Avila-Latourrette, p. 43. Sorry to be so 'Western Ritey' in this post, but unfortunately I don't know of any 'Byzantine Rite' hymnography for St Scholastica at all.

22 February 2010

'To the Knowledge of God He Reached'—St Peter Damascene


Today, 9 February, we celebrate the memory of St Peter Damascene (12th c.). Although St Peter tells us that he wrote primarily for his own benefit, [1] his writings were incorporated by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and St Macarius of Corinth into the Philokalia, and, as the editors of the Faber edition of that work write, they ‘occupy more space in the Philokalia than those of any other author, with the one exception of St Maximos the Confessor.’ [2] St Nicodemus describes St Peter’s writings as ‘a treasury of divine knowledge and wisdom, . . . the recapitulation of sacred Watchfulness’, and ‘a circle within a circle, a concentrated philokalia within the greater philokalia’. [3] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

This saint is considered by some to have lived in the eighth century, and by others in the twelfth. This difference of opinion arises from there having been two Peters Damascene. The one about whom we are speaking was a great ascetic. Utterly selfless, he had not one single book of his own, but borrowed them to read. And he read untiringly, gathering wisdom as a bee does honey. He was at some time bishop in Damascus, but spoke out so strongly against Islam and the Manichean heresy that the Arabs cut out his tongue and sent him into exile deep in Arabia. But God gave him the power of speech, so that there in exile he preached the Gospel and brought many to the Christian faith. He wrote, and left to his descendants, a precious book on the spiritual life. He died a confessor and martyr and entered into the Kingdom of Christ. [4]

One of those who entirely conflate the two St Peters is St Nicodemus, in the introduction to St Peter’s writings in the Philokalia. [5] But Fr Placide (Deseille) notes, contra St Nicholas, that the bishop of Damascus who was exiled by the Muslims was also the eighth-century St Peter, [6] meaning of course that of the twelfth-century St Peter essentially almost nothing is known. This St Peter, sometimes called St Peter Damascene the Hesychast, is later than the late tenth century because he mentions by name St Symeon Metaphrastes (died c. 982), [7] and he is earlier than the thirteenth century because the earliest manuscript of his works dates to 1096-7. [8] Palmer et al. suggest that St Peter lived a semi-eremitic life in a kellion or skete, since he refers to this way of life as ‘the royal way’, [9] lacks books [10] and ‘says little about the social or communal aspects of the monastic vocation’ [11] but also refers to ‘the brethren’. Fr Demetrios Koutsouris gives a helpful summary of his life and work:

He was a monk, he lived in poverty, and he studied the divine and patristic texts, which were lent to him by other monks. He wrote two works . . . . His work covers all of the subjects of ascetic and neptic literature and were characterised as ‘a concentrated philokalia’ in the greater Philokalia. His teaching moves within the framework of Orthodox spirituality, which he himself practised in the state of hesychia in the desert. [12]

As all of the commentators on St Peter Damascene note, he himself points out that he did not own any books, but that he ‘borrowed them from devout friends, . . . ; and going through these books with great care out of love for God, I have then given them back to their owners.’ [13] He mentions having borrowed various books of the Bible, as well as many of the holy Fathers, and adds, ‘I went through all these slowly and diligently, trying to discover the root of man’s destruction and salvation, and which of his actions or practices does or does not bring him to salvation.’ [14] Indeed, St Peter is a very conscientious reader, and has many enlightening things to say about the practice of reading itself. He notes, ‘The sixth form of discipline consists in reading the writings and lives of the fathers, paying no attention to strange doctrines, or to other people, especially heretics.’ [15] But, having discoursed on the virtue of spiritual reading, St Peter cautions us:

It is true, however, that we cannot properly understand the full significance of what we read because of the darkness induced by the passions; our presumption often leads us astray, especially when we rely on the wisdom of this world which we think we possess, and do not realize that we need knowledge based on experience to understand these things, and that if we wish to attain knowledge of God mere reading or listening is not enough. [16]

Later on, too, St Peter writes:

The fathers, says the Gerontikon, kept the commandments; their successors wrote them down; but we have placed their books on the shelves. And even if we want to read them, we do not have the application to understand what is said and to put it into practice; we read them either as something incidental, or because we think that by reading them we are doing something great, thus growing full of pride. We do not realize that we incur greater condemnation if we do not put into practice what we read, as St John Chrysostom says. [17]

But St Peter is certainly not an obscurantist or anti-intellectual. In another passage he observes:

For through God’s providence our hands and fingers are apt for every skill and activity, whether writing or anything else. From Good, too, comes the knowledge of numberless arts and scripts, of healing and medicine, of languages and the various other branches of learning. In short, all things, whether past, present or future, have been and are always being given to us by God in His great goodness, so that our bodies may live and our souls may be saved, provided we use all these things according to His purpose, glorifying Him through them with all thankfulness. [18]

As evidence of his openness to learning, Constantine Cavarnos points out [19] the confirmation of Plato’s doctrine of the unity of the virtues in the ‘Introduction’ to St Peter’s first work: ‘From knowledge, or understanding, is born self-control and patient endurance. . . . Thus through self-control he practises the other virtues as well.’ [20] He also notes the agreement with Aristotle’s teaching ‘that moral virtue observes the mean between two extremes’: [21] ‘There is no shorter way to Christ—that is to say, to dispassion and the wisdom of the Spirit—than the royal way that avoids both excess and deficiency in all things . . .’ [22] Finally, St Peter himself acknowledges the insight of the philosophers:

And if someone were to become dispassionate without the Holy Spirit, he would really be, not dispassionate, but in a state of insensitivity. For this reason even the pagan Greeks, who do not understand these things fully, counsel us not to become dispassionate as though without soul, or impassioned as though without mind. When they say ‘dispassionate as though without soul’, they are speaking terms of their own knowledge, for they lack the knowledge bestowed by the Holy Spirit. But when they call the impassioned man mindless, we agree with them. [23]

As a final example of the teaching of St Peter Damascene, I bypass the deep and mystical passages on contemplation and prayer, and offer these encouraging words for us weak sinners struggling through Lent:

Even if you are not what you should be, you should not despair. It is bad enough that you have sinned; why in addition do you wrong God by regarding Him in your ignorance as powerless? Is He, who for your sake created the great univers that you behold, incapable of saving your soul? And if you say that this fact, as well as His incarnation, only makes your condemnation worse, then repent; and He will receive your repentance, as He accepted that of the prodigal son (cf. Luke 15:20) and the prostitute (cf. Luke 7:37-50). But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican (cf. Luke 18:13): this is enough to ensure your salvation. For he who sins without repenting, yet does not despair, must of necessity regard himself as the lowest of creatures, and willnot dare to judge or censure anyone. Rather, he will marvel at God’s compassion, and will be full of gratitude towards his Benefacotr, and so may receive many other blessings as well. Even if he is subject to the devil in that he sins, yet from fear of God he disobeys the enemy when the latter tries to make him despair. Because of this he has his portion with God; for he is grateful, gives thanks, is patient, fears God, does not judge so that he may not be judged. . . .

If those attacked by many passions of soul and body endure patiently, do not out of negligence surrender their free will, and do not despair, they are saved. [24]

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Peter Damascene from the Prologue, by St Nicholas (Velimirović):

Damascene numbers eight types of knowledge
for men of spiritual and divine background:

FIRST
The knowledge of sorrow and all temptations,

SECOND
The knowledge of the sum of one’s transgressions;
one’s transgressions and God’s forgiveness.

THIRD
The knowledge of horror, pain and fear,
Before death, in death and after separation,
when before the righteous judgement, the soul stands.

FOURTH
The knowledge of Christ, the Savior,
His life and all the saints;
Of the saints, their deeds, patience and words,
Which, like a silver bell resounds throughout the ages.

FIFTH
The knowledge of natural attributes;
Of physical phenomenon, variation and change.

SIXTH
The knowledge of forms and things,
Natural phantoms and all sensory beings.

SEVENTH
The knowledge of the world, rational and spiritual;
The angelic world and the world of Hades, both good and evil.

EIGHTH
The knowledge of God,
The One, Holy, Mighty and Immortal.
This knowledge is called Theology
To it, few are rarely elevated;
The greatest purity, a theologian needs
For the impure heart, to heaven does not reach,
Damascene, the seven elementary knowledges appropriates,
And to the eighth, to the knowledge of God he reached.
And the eighth is given by God and by God bestowed,
This is neither learned nor deserved.


[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 3, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1995), p. 74.

[2] Ibid., p. 70.

[3] Φιλοκαλία, Τόμος Γ΄ (Athens: Astir, 1961), p. 4.

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 153-4.

[5] Φιλοκαλία Γ΄, p. 3.

[6] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 34.

[7] Philokalia 1, p. 103.

[8] Ibid., p. 70.

[9] Ibid., p. 87.

[10] Ibid., p. 74.

[11] Ibid., p. 71.

[12] Biographical note from the print of St Peter Damascene (reproduced above) in Giorgos Kordes, Πρόσωπα Ολόφωτα Εικονογραφική αναφορά στους πατέρες της Φιλοκαλίας (Athens: Armos, n.d.).

[13] Philokalia 1, p. 74.

[14] Ibid., p. 74.

[15] Ibid., p. 91.

[16] Ibid., pp. 91-2.

[17] Ibid., p. 169

[18] Ibid., p. 158.

[19] Constantine Cavarnos, The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1989), pp. 31-2.

[20] Philokalia 1, p. 85.

[21] Cavarnos, pp. 53; the reference to St Peter is on p. 55.

[22] Philokalia 1, p. 162.

[23] Ibid., p. 252.

[24] Ibid., p. 160.

21 February 2010

'Hold Fast to the Ikon of the Saviour'—The Sunday of Orthodoxy


Although I said I intended to focus largely on the Feasts of the Menology here on Logismoi, I could not resist the urge today to post a little something on the commemoration prescribed for us by the Church in the Triodion: the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when ‘we celebrate the restoration [in 843] of the holy and venerable icons by the ever-memorable rulers of Constantinople, the Emperor Michael and his mother, the Empress Theodora, during the patriarchate of St Methodius the Confessor.’ [1] Charles Williams calls the resistance to iconoclasm the ‘common sense of Christendom’ [2] and refers to the restoration by the Augusta, St Theodora:

A great procession through Byzantium, in which the Empress walked, re-established them on a Festival still kept by the Greek Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy. It was for centuries accepted in Christendom . . . that the Affirmation of those actual images was good and just. Men must use their piety and intelligence to avoid idolatry; they could not and must not be saved by the Rejection of Images . . . ; images—one may add, living images also—were to receive ‘proskunesis’, particular honor. [3]

But while it is easy for Orthodox—and apparently some Anglicans!—to call the veneration of icons ‘common sense’ now, the onslaught of iconoclasm in the 8th century was no less for that. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes, the iconoclast controversy produced ‘the most vigorous polemics in the doctrinal history of Eastern Christendom’, [4] and the man who emerged as the ‘most distinguished’ defender of icons and their veneration was a former servant of the Caliph at Damascus and monk of St Savas’s Monastery in the Holy Land, St John of Damascus. [5] As an Orthodox Christian, I have read many summaries and explanations of St John’s defense of icons—contained in three treatises recently translated by Fr Andrew Louth—but while I accepted these explanations and the practices they protect, I have found that nothing can substitute for reading St John’s words for oneself. Grounded in Holy Scripture, they are brilliant, obviously inspired, and, I believe, utterly convincing. In a key passage in the first treatise, St John writes:

16. Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. I do not reverence it as God—far from it; how can that which has come to be from nothing be God? . . . Therefore I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came, because it is filled with divine energy and grace. [6]

Indeed, the acknowledgement of the uncircumscribability of God’s incorporeal and formless divinity, the negation of idolatry, can be seen to be contained within the icon itself. As the renowned Scottish Reformed theologian, T.F. Torrance, writes:

This means that the concept of space which we use in the Nicene Creed is one that is relatively closed, so to speak, on our side where it has to do with physical existence, but is one which is infinitely open on God’s side. This is why frequently when Byzantine art sought to express this ikonically it deliberately reversed the natural perspective of the dais upon which Christ was represented. The Son of God become man could not be presented as one who had become so confined in the limits of the body that the universe was left empty of His government. He could not be represented, therefore, as captured by lines which when produced upwards met at some point in finite space, but only between lines which even when produced to infinity could never meet, for they reached out on either side into the absolute openness and eternity of the transcendent God. [7]

But of course it is not simply that the Orthodox say it is ‘permitted’ to paint and venerate icons. The Fathers of the Eighth Œcumenical Council proclaimed the veneration of icons to be an integral part of the faith—indeed, they maintained that it is ‘the faith of the Apostles’, ‘the faith which has established the universe’. The former Dean of the Anglican Cathedral of St George in Jerusalem and Vicar of St Mary Magdelen’s Church at Oxford, Hugh Wybrew, explains the significance of the observance of the Sunday of Orthodoxy thusly:

The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance which icons possess for the Orthodox Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of Orthodox faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. [8]

Thus, as we sing in the doxasticon of ‘Lord, I have cried’ at Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy:

The grace of truth has shone forth upon us; the mysteries darkly prefigured in the times of old have now been openly fulfilled. For behold, the Church is clothed in a beauty that surpasses all things earthly, through the ikon of the incarnate Christ that was foreshadowed by the ark of testimony. This is the safeguard of the Orthodox faith; for if we hold fast to the ikon of the Saviour whom we worship, we shall not go astray. Let all who do not share this faith be covered with shame; but we shall glory in the ikon of the Word made flesh, which we venerate but worship not as an idol. So let us kiss it, and with all the faithful cry aloud: O God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. [9]

In conclusion, I shall once again quote Pelikan, already a friend of Orthodoxy, but still at the time writing as a Lutheran:

Not the will of the majority, nor the ukase of the emperor, nor the subtlety of the learned could determine what was orthodox. The church was orthodox when it prayed and taught aright, in accordance with apostolic Scripture and apostolic tradition. It prayed aright when it asked God ‘to remember the entire episcopacy of those who are orthodox, those who rightly handle the word of truth.’ The icons were ‘symbols of orthodoxy’, for in them correct teaching and correct worship were united. It was a recognition of this role of the icons when the anniversary of the restoration of the icons, on the first Sunday in Lent, 11 March 843, came to be designated as the Feast of Orthodoxy. On this occasion, a document entitle Synodicon was promulgated; with various editorial additions, it has been read as part of the liturgy for the feast ever since. In it the orthodox church celebrated its restoration to ‘the reaffirmation of true devotion, the security of the worship of icons, and the festival which brings us everything that saves.’ Summing up the victory of the icons, the Synodicon declared: ‘As the prophets have seen, as the apostles have taught, as the church has received, as the theologians have taught, as the ecumene has agreed with one mind . . . so we believe, so we say, so we proclaim, honoring Christ, our true God, and his saints, in our words, writings, ideas, sacrifices, temples, and images.’ ‘This,’ it concluded, ‘is the faith of the apostles, this is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith that has sustained the ecumene.’ [10]


[1] Fr David (Kidd) and Mother Gabriella (Ursache), eds., Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, tr. Fr Seraphim (Dedes), et al. (Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999), p. 60.

[2] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 94.

[3] Ibid., p. 95.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), Vol. 2 in The Christian Tradition—A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1974), p. 91.

[5] Fr Andrew Louth, ‘Introduction’, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, by St John of Damascus, tr. Fr Andrew Louth (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2003), p. 9.

[6] St John, p. 29.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time & Incarnation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), p. 18.

[8] Hugh Wybrew, Orthodox Lent, Holy Week & Easter: Liturgical Texts with Commentary (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1997), p. 51.

[9] The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1994), p. 300.

[10] Pelikan, pp. 144-5.

20 February 2010

Cain & Abel in St Macarius & R.S. Thomas


Last night I read the story of Cain and Abel to my children from a Bible reader (a sort of simplified paraphrase of the text). I think the first murder is a fitting thing to recall as we move more deeply into our Lenten struggle. We are weeping for our sins, for our exile from Paradise. But unlike our First Parents, we were born into exile, and the already fallen world is the theatre in which our own sin takes place. As St Macarius the Great writes in his Fifth Homily, ‘The word spoken to Cain by the Creator, that sentence pronounced upon him with an outward meaning, Groaning and trembling and tossed shalt thou be upon the earth (Gen. iv. 12), is a type and likeness of what all sinners undergo in secret.’ [1]

Patristic interpretations of God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice focus on the wickedness of Cain’s heart or his carelessness in choosing his sacrifices. In the ‘Great Letter’, St Macarius writes:

I always remember that it was Abel who offered a sacrifice to God of the fat and firstlings of his flock, while Cain offered gifts of the fruits of the earth, but not of the firstfruits. It is said: ‘And God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifices, but did not regard the gifts of Cain’ (Gn 4:4). This teaches us that everything that is done in fear and in faith is pleasing to God, not that which is done for display and without love. [2]

But there is another perspective we might take. The Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, has a second interpretation of Cain’s sacrifices, one which I also think strikes a rather Orthodox—and Lenten—note. Here is the text of his poem, ‘Cain’:

Abel looked at the wound
His brother had dealt him, and love him
For it. Cain saw that look
And struck him again. The blood cried
On the ground; God listened to it.
He questioned Cain. But Cain answered:
Who made the blood? I offered you
Clean things: the blond hair
Of the corn; the knuckled vegetables; the
Flowers; things that did not publish
Their hurst, that bled
Silently. You would not accept them.

And God said: It was part of myself
He gave me. The lamb was torn
From my own side. The limp head,
The slow fall of red tears—they
Were like a mirror to me in which I beheld
My reflection. I anointed myself
In readiness for the journey
To the doomed tree you were at work upon. [3]

In the words of St Andrew of Crete, ‘By my own free choice have I incurred the guilt of Cain’s murder.’ [4] We too have been at work upon this ‘doomed tree’, and God has anointed Himself in the blood of those whom we have wronged. And this brings us back to St Macarius’s reference to Cain’s torment in Gen. 4:12—‘ Groaning and trembling and tossed shalt thou be upon the earth’. As St Maximus of Turin writes, in Sermons 88.1:

The divine Scripture always cries out and speaks; hence God also says to Cain, ‘The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me.’ Blood, to be sure, has no voice, but innocent blood that has been spilled is said to cry out not by words but by its very existence. [It makes] demands of the Lord not with eloquent discourse but with anger over the crime committed. It does not accuse the wrongdoer with words so much as bind him by the accusation of his own conscience. The evil deed may seem to be excused when it is explained away with words. But it cannot be excused if it is made present to the conscience. For in silence and without contradiction the wrongdoer’s conscience always convicts and judges him. [5]


[1] St Macarius the Great, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, tr. A.J. Mason (Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox, 1974), p. 39.

[2] St Macarius the Great, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies & the Great Letter, tr. & ed. Fr George A. Maloney (NY: Paulist, 1992), p. 265.

[3] R.S. Thomas, Poems of R.S. Thomas (Fayetteville, AR: U of Arkansas, 1984), pp. 74-5.

[4] The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1994), p. 218.

[5] Fr Andrew Louth, ed., with Marco Conti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I, Genesis 1-11 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), p. 107. I was pleased to see that there is a footnote at the end of Fr Louth’s introduction to this volume which reads:

General editor’s note: This volume of the ACCS was prepared and edited—almost completely—before the appearance of Genesis, Creation and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision by the late Fr Seraphim Rose, with an introduction by Phillip E. Johnson (Plantina [sic], Calif.: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000), to which the reader is referred for additional patristic selections and interpretations of Genesis. We are grateful for the massive labors of Fr Rose, from which our efforts have belatedly benefited. While his work has directed us to selections we otherwise would have bypassed, all our translations have been checked against their original texts, since Fr Rose worked principally from Russian translations. (p. lii, n. 11)

The general editor is Thomas C. Oden (whose niece, incidentally, was my Church history professor as an undergraduate!). It’s nice to see Fr Seraphim’s work on Genesis—by which even many Orthodox theologians are no doubt somewhat embarrassed—honoured in this way. Now if people would just stop calling him ‘Father Rose’, improperly using his family name instead of his monastic one!

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.

18 February 2010

Some Lenten Encouragement from the Ancients


A quick glance at this blog should be enough to demonstrate that I’m not big on the modern age. I certainly try not to idealise the past, but it can be awfully hard. When C.S. Lewis remarked in his introduction to St Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, ‘People were no cleverer then they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes’, [1] I would strongly like to add that their mistakes were less radical than ours. Certainly, they did not make the mistake that Lewis is addressing in that very piece—that of supposing that they didn’t need the wisdom of the past. Unlike most of us moderns, they kept ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing’ through their minds. [2]

It is particularly difficult within the Orthodox Church. I for one almost find it discouraging to contemplate what separates us from the Fathers. I can scarcely imagine the possibility of someone in our day attaining to their lofty heights. But over the years, I’ve occasionally stumbled across some encouraging comments on this problem in the Fathers themselves. You see, even in the later part of the fourth century, the wise were already lamenting how far they had fallen from their predecessors, and fortunately for us, they commented on this phenomenon. Here are three perhaps somewhat encouraging passages that address this issue.

The first, and briefest, is from the sayings of St Anthony the Great found in the Gerontikon, also known as the Apophthegmata Patrum: ‘23. He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”’ [3]

The second is from the Paralipomena of St Pachomius the Great, that is, the series of anecdotes ‘leftover’ or omitted from the various Lives of the Saint. In one of these anecdotes, St Pachomius is in despair because of a vision he has of the future of his monasteries:

But he saw also a numberless multitude of brothers journeying along a deep, parched valley. Many of them wanted to come up out of the valley, but were unable. Many came face to face with each other because of the great darkness that shrouded them, but did not recognize each other. Many fell down through exhaustion, and others cried out with a pitiful voice. A few of them were able with much labor to force their way out of that valley; as soon as they came up they gave thanks to God heartily. Then did the Blessed Man know what was going to happen to the brothers in the end, what negligence there would be in those times, the great hardening and error, and the failing of the shepherds which was going to affect them. [4]

In the midst of his despair, St Pachomius cries out to God, and is granted a vision of Christ Himself, as ‘a young man whose face was ineffable and whose aspect was inexpressible’. [5] Our Lord says to him:

Take courage, for the root of your seed shall not fail for ever, and your seed shall be preserved upon the earth until the end of time. [6] And the few who are going to be saved from the abundant darkness in these times shall be found above those who practise a very great ascesis now. For they have you as a lamp before their eyes and they practice ascesis, counting on your light; but if those who shall come after them and shall dwell in a parched place run out of the darkness and pursue righteousness in good mind and on their own accord, with no one to guide them to the truth, verily I say to you that they shall be found with those who now practice ascesis greatly and blamelessly, enjoying the same salvation. [7]

Finally, the last passage is also from Gerontikon, from the single apophthegm attributed to the otherwise unknown (to me) Abba Ischyrion:

The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said, ‘What have we ourselves done?’ One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, ‘We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.’ The others replied, ‘And those who come after us, what will they do?’ He said, ‘They will struggle to achieve half our works.’ They said, ‘And to those who come after them, what will happen?’ He said, ‘The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.’ [8]


[1] C.S. Lewis, ‘Introduction’, On the Incarnation, by St Athanasius the Great, new rev. ed., tr. & ed. A Religious of CSMV (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1996), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 6.

[4] Armand Veilleux, OCSO, tr., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. 2: Pachomian Chronicles & Rules (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), p. 39.

[5] Ibid., p. 40.

[6] One might well wonder at how to interpret our Lord’s words here, since as William Harmless notes, the only significant survival of the Pachomian Koinonia, apart from the few documents extant, is the columns of the ruined 5th-c. basilica at Pbow (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 141). Fortunately, in his ‘Foreword’ to Veilleux’s translation of Pachomiana (‘Foreword’, Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. 1: The Life of St Pachomius, tr. Armand Veilleux [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1980], pp. vii-xxiii), the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has already wondered at this and offered the best answer I can imagine:

Were these first cenobites of Upper Egypt deceiving themselves as to the Koinonia’s chances of survival and of death? Along with his distressing forebodings, we are told that their Father Pachomius had received promises of perpetuity for his work. These divine promises, like so many others, were realized in a mysterious and unexpected manner. The rules and traditions, organization and hierarchy, monasteries and congregation all disappeared, and the faith literary or institutional traces of Pachomianism left to the monastic world—particularly in the latin West—would of themselves constitute only a pitiable survival. But in truth, the Koinonia of the sons of Pachomius has not ceased to exist. It is found wherever brothers gather together in the love of Christ to live in total sharing, perfect charity, and the renunciation of self-will ‘under a rule and a father’. (p. xxiii)

[7] Veilleux, Koinonia Vol. 2, p. 41.

[8] Ward, p. 111.

17 February 2010

St John Climacus, Anne Brontë, & Plato


Monday I read in the Ladder 3:9, ‘Run from places of sin as from the plague. For when fruit is not present, we have no frequent desire to eat it.’ [1] Although I feel sure I’ve heard or read various would-be moral philosophers in our day argue that we are not virtuous if we merely avoid temptation (it strikes me as a classic Protestant argument against monasticism), the only place I can recall this argument off the top of my head is in the mouth of one of the charactres in Anne Brontë’s tragically underappreciated novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

In Vol. 1, Chapt. 3, when Helen Graham reveals that she has been innoculating her son against the temptations of alcohol by giving it to him as medicine, the narrator, Gilbert Markham, states, ‘What is it that constitutes virtue, Mrs Graham? Is it the circumstance of being able and willing to resist temptation; or that of having no temptations to resist?’ [2]

Helen of course unwittingly comes close to the view of the famous Sinai Abbot in the course of her eloquent reply, when she says concerning her son, ‘God knows he will have temptations enough to assail him, both from within and without, when I have done all I can to render vice as uninviting to him, as it is abominable in its own nature . . .’ [3]

Stevie Davies, in her note on Markham’s question, observes:

Markham recites the essence of the doctrine of experience and choice famously expounded in Milton’s Areopagitica (1644): ‘If every action which is good, or evill in man at ripe years, were to be under pittance, and prescription, and compulsion, what were vertue but a name . . . when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing’ (Complete Prose Works, Vol. 2, ed. Ernest Sirluck (Yale 1959), p. 527). Anne Bronte’s position was a modified version of this; but her experience of the corruption latent in human nature taught her caution, and Wildfell Hall multiplies instances of men incapable of resisting temptation, however privileged their position. This is why Helen attempts behavioural immunization of her son. [4]


Unfortunately, Plato, whose ethics overlap with Christianity in some important ways, clearly goes on this issue in the opposite direction to St John Climacus and Helen Graham. Indeed, in Laws 647d, the great philosopher recommends indulgence specifically in alcohol as a means to fortify oneself in the virtue, arguing:

A man has to fight and conquer his feelings of cowardice before he can achieve perfect courage; if he has no experience and training in that kind of struggle, he will never more than half realizehis potentialities for virtue. Isn’t the same true of self-control? Will he ever achieve a perfect mastery here without having fought and conquered, with all the skills of speech and action both in work and play, the crowd of pleasures and desires that stimulate him to act shamelessly and unjustly? Can he afford not to have the experience of all these struggles? [5]


But of course no one ever accused Plato of being too pessimistic about human nature. Perhaps he might have thought differently had he too had been married to Arthur Huntingdon! At any rate, I intend to give my daughter, Elisabeth, and any others I may have, Wildfell Hall to read before they even think of looking for a spouse. I think Anne will be much more useful in this regard than Plato.


[1] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 15.

[2] Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, ed. Stevie Davies (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 31.

[3] Ibid., p. 32.

[4] Ibid., pp. 496-7, n. 4.

[5] Plato, ‘Laws’, tr. Trevor J. Saunders, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, assoc. ed. D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), p. 1341.