31 March 2010

'The Better Swordsman'—Andrew Marvell, Part 1


Today is the birthday of the English poet, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678). In his study of Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, Douglas Bush of Harvard called Marvell ‘by far the best of the mainly secular line’ of English poets, who ‘combines metaphysical range and subtlety of thought and feeling with classical economy, ease, grace, clarity, and precision of style’. [1] But as E.M.W. Tillyard has pointed out, Marvell ‘was known but fitfully till the twentieth century’. [2] In fact, as far as I can tell it was largely T.S. Eliot who rescued him from almost total obscurity (who, it is interesting to note, engaged in a comparison of one of Marvell’s pieces with one of William Morris’s in his famous tercentenary essay on the former [3]). But even with the assistance of Eliot, Marvell is not so well known to the general reader as such poets as the Johns Donne and Milton, despite being quite deserving of our full attention. Here is the account of his life from the anthology, Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Vol. 1: 1600-1660, by Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, and Ricardo Quintana:

Andrew Marvell was born in 1621, the son of an Anglican clergyman of Puritan cast, who in 1624 became preacher and master of the alms house at Hull. The poet entered Cambridge in 1633, withdrew to London for a short time, supposedly under Jesuit influence, took his BA in 1639 and remained as a scholar until 1641. By the time we have record of his views, he was a Church of England man of the type who placed strong emphasis on reason rectified by grace and on individual conscience and consequently on toleration, for which he fought in his prose pamphlets after the Restoration. From 1642 to 1646 he travelled in Holland, France, Italy and Spain, probably as a tutor. His poems show that on his first return his connections were with the King’s party, which he regarded as the support of civilization. Presently he was drawn to an admiration fror Cromwell which deepend during the fifties. During 1651-2 he was tutor to Mary, daughter of the great Parliamentary general, Fairfax, then retired and living in Yorkshire. He was recommended by Milton as his assistant in 1653; but he was not appointed to the post until 1657. In 1653 he was at Eton as tutor to a ward of Cromwell’s. From 1659 to his death in 1678 he was a member of Parliament for Hull. During that period, he was famous as a political satirist, though it is now very difficult to be sure which of the Poems of State are his . . . , and he wrote a number of controversial pamphlets in prose. In their irony, their concentrated simplicity, their supple and sophisticated colloquialism, and their trust in the common sense of the educated man illuminated by moral vision, the pamphlets anticipate Swift. [4]

Eliot emphasises Marvell as a ‘product of European, that is to say Latin, culture’; in other words, he stresses Marvell’s place in the poetic tradition rather than trying to discern some merely individual genius. He argues that Marvell’s ‘wit’ is a successor to ‘that high style developed [in the 17th c.] from Marlowe through Jonson (for Shakespeare does not lend himself to these genealogies) . . . . It is more than a technical accomplishment, or the vocabulary and syntax of an epoch; it is . . . a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.’ [5]

According to Frank Kermode’s compelling introduction to his selection of Marvell’s poetry, the likes of White et al. (whose biographical account is quoted above) go somewhat astray in trying to interpret the poet’s work. Early in their critical comments, they observe, ‘Marvell’s poems vary widely in point of view, from that of the Coy Mistress, say, to that of The Garden or The Drop of Dew. But underlying this diversity is a fundamental unity.’ [6] Kermode complains that this sort of approach misses the ‘longer historical perspective’ of Eliot’s essay, asserting:

Obviously we must understand that the presiding personality of the poet—of which we certainly have a strong sense—is not to be thus d etermined, and allow for the fact that the vitality of the poems derives in part from the traditions to which they indirectly assert their relation, traditions which, on a myopic view, may seem mutually contradictory. They belong to the history of poetry, considered a s an aspect of the history of civility, rather than to a temporary arrangement of ideas; and to read them one needs to give some weight to what is specific in them, to the poetic attitudes which they allude to and transform. Though they share the qualities of ‘wit and learning, with a singular penetration and strength of judgment’, they ask of the critic a respect for their relationship to traditions not invented by the poet, and not to be resolved in some generalization about his thought; his peentration and judgment must respect, in this sense, their singularity. [7]

Thus, while in an agenda like that of White et al., a poem such as ‘To his Coy Mistress’, ‘which ostensibly violates that unity [they seek for] becomes the occasion for some vain exegetical epicycle’, [8] Eliot is able to say of the same poem, ‘The theme is one of the great traditional commonplaces of European literature. It is the theme of O mistress mine, of Gather ye rosebuds, of Go, lovely rose; it is in the savage austerity of Lucretius and the intense levity of Catullus.’ [9]

But Eliot is also responsible for what many would call an exagerrated interest in Donne in the twentieth century, to whom C.S. Lewis compares Marvell favourably in a poem of four stanzas:

To Andrew Marvell

Marvell, they say your verse is faint
Beside the range of Donne’s;
Too clear for them, too free of taint
Of noise, your music runs.

Their sultry minds can ill conceive
How godlike power should dwell
Except where lungs with torment heave
And giant muscles swell.

The better swordsman with a smile
His cool passado gives;
Smooth is the flooding of the Nile
By which all Egypt lives.

Sweetness and strength from regions far
Withdrawn and strange you bring,
And look no stronger than a star,
No graver than the spring. [10]

Donne was of course the earlier poet, and was thus an influence on Marvell, but Lewis considers much of his tone and influence a bit pernicious. He argues that Marvell put that influence to use making verse that was better, or at least more desireable, than the earlier poet’s. Michael Ward points out that Lewis regarded Donne as too ‘Saturnine’:

And in his essay on Donne he concludes by observing that Donne’s influence on the poets of the seventeenth century is seen to best advantage when his successors (Carew, Lovelace, Marvell) take a Donne-like conceit and translate it into “ordinary poetry” where beauty and cheefulness, “the great regal name of Jove” and an “Olympian” mastery of Saturnine sensations, can break in. [11]

In the essay Ward references, Lewis concentrates on Marvell’s transformation of Donne’s influence in love poetry, citing Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, where more Jovial and (positive) Venereal influences can be seen. [12] But while Lewis may rightly lament the influence of Infortuna Major in Donne, it might be argued that the Jovial presence in Marvell enables him to make use of a more positive Saturnine influence in treating themes of asceticism and contemplative withdrawal. Indeed, it is this poetry that I find—and that I think my readers will find—the most interesting part of Marvell’s oeuvre. I shall cite two examples: one today, and one in a continuation of this post which I hope to put up tomorrow.

The first is a pastoral dialogue called ‘Clorinda & Damon’. The names of the alternating speakers are indicated by initials marking their lines:

C. Damon, come drive thy flocks this way.

D. No, ’tis too late; they went astray.

C. I have a grassy scutcheon spied,
Where Flora blazons all her pride.
The grass I aim to feast thy sheep;
The flowers I for thy temples keep.

D. Grass withers; and the flowers too fade.

C. Seize the short joys then, ere they vade.
Seest thou that unfrequented cave?

D. That den?

C. Love’s shrine.

D. But virtue’s grave.

C. In whose cool bosom we may lie
Safe from the sun.

D. Not Heaven’s eye.

C. Near this, a fountain’s liquid bell
Tinkles within the concave shell.

D. Might a soul bathe there and be clean,
Or slake its drought?

C. What is’t you mean?

D. These once had been enticing things,
Clorinda, pastures, caves, and springs.

C. And what late change?

D. The other day
Pan met me.

C. What did great Pan say?

D. Words that transcend poor shepherds’ skill,
But he e’er since my songs does fill;
And his name swells my slender oat [flute].

C. Sweet must Pan sound in Damon’s note.

D. Clorinda’s voice might make it sweet.

C. Who would not in Pan’s praises meet?

Chorus
Of Pan the flowery pastures sing,
Caves echo, and the fountains ring.
Sing then while he doth us inspire;
For all the world is our Pan’s choir. [13]

I observed in a paper several years ago that the poem was an example of ascetic ‘single-mindedness’, in St John Climacus’s sense of leaving behind ‘everything...that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety’. [14] Similarly, Eliot observes that in this poem, ‘which, because of its formal pastoral machinery, may appear a trifling object’, ‘a metaphor has suddenly rapt us to the image of spiritual purgation’. [15] For the ‘pastoral machinery’ is a very thinly worn allegory or conceit. Kermode’s note on line 19—‘Pan met me’—reads simply, ‘20 Pan Christ, as often in pastoral poetry.’ [16] Bush, noting that this is ‘not merely Spenserian’, cites it nevertheless as an ‘echo of Spenser’, [17] who, using the same device in the fifth eclogue of his Shepheardes Calender, ‘Maye’, notes:

Great pan) is Christ, the very God of all shepheardes, which calleth himselfe the greate and good shepherd. The name is most rightly (me thinkes) applied to him, for Pan signifieth all or omnipotent, which is onely the Lord Iesus. And by that name (as I remember) he is called of Eusebius in his fifte booke de Preparat. Euang. . . . . [18]

In the light of Christ, Damon finds he has no desire for lesser, natural beauties taken as ends in themselves. Damon, having met Pan (Christ), is so possessed by his devotion that he tersely parries the thrusts of Clorinda’s enticements. Her amorous ‘shrine’ is to him but ‘virtue’s grave’. Her mention of a fountain merely serves to remind him of the need for spiritual cleansing and the thirst of the soul. ‘Clorinda, pastures, caves, and springs’ are but distractions to Damon’s single-minded ascetic devotion to Christ as represented by Pan. But they acquire their true value when they become ‘Pan’s choir’, that is, leading the soul into praise of God. ‘But,’ Ward notes, ‘asceticism—that sanctity which rebukes the world from above—must have a positive purpose behind its negations or else it makes common cause with the barbarism which hates the world from below. . . . [Lewis] thought that asceticism needed to have an account of the light by which it sees the darkness under reproach.’ [19] Marvell’s poem is perhaps a perfect example of the presence of such a light, embodied in Pan/Christ Himself.

Continued in this post.


[1] Douglas Bush, Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, New rev. ed. (NY: Norton, 1963), p. 235.

[2] E.M.W. Tillyard, Myth & the English Mind: From Piers Plowman to Edward Gibbon (Being the Clark Lectures 1959-60) (NY: Collier, 1962), p. 75.

[3] T.S. Eliot, ‘Andrew Marvell’, Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1949), pp. 299-300.

[4] Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, & Ricardo Quintana, Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Vol. 1: 1600-1660 (NY: Macmillan, 1965), p. 453.

[5] Eliot, p. 293.

[6]. White, et al., p. 453.

[7] Frank Kermode, ed., The Selected Poetry of Marvell (NY: New American Library, 1967), pp. x-xi.

[8] Ibid., p. x.

[9] Eliot, p. 295.

[10] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1992), p. 82.

[11] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford U, 2008), pp. 46-7.

[12] I have only part of this essay, ‘Donne & Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century’, in Helen Gardner, ed., John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), where the passage referenced is on pp. 98-9.

[13] Kermode, pp. 62-3.

[14] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore), rev. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 14. The line is from chapter 1 of Step 3, ‘On exile or pilgrimage’.

[15] Eliot, p. 300.

[16] Kermode, p. 62.

[17] Bush, p. 235.

[18] Edmund Spenser, Poetical Works, ed. J.C. Smith & E. De Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford U, 1991), p. 439.

[19] Ward, p. 210. In my paper, I used Charles Williams’s notion of the ‘Rejection of images’ as a hermeneutic device to analyse several English poems, including Marvell’s, and Ward cites the same idea in explaining Lewis’s allowance for the importance of a proper asceticism. For my views on Williams’s ideas about this, see this post.

30 March 2010

C.H. Dodd, 'One of the Best Protestant Theologians Today'


I was recently reading my friend James L. Kelley’s book, A Realism of Glory: Lectures on Christology in the Works of Protopresbyter John Romanides, and came across the following interesting passage:

It may surprise some that Fr John [Romanides]’s Protestant friend, the great biblical scholar C.H. Dodd, evinced a deep understanding of St Paul’s Orthodox interpretation of Christ’s justice. In fact, Dodd’s insights are extensively drawn upon by Fr John to sum up Ancestral Sin’s central thesis about salvation in Christ as theosis-justification. Fr John’s willingness to hinge his most important chapter in Ancestral Sin on Dodd’s writings shows his unhesitating acceptance of Orthodoxy (right opinion) wherever it is found. Dodd’s knowledge of and fidelity to the spiritual background of St Paul’s writings led him to

commen[t] that, for Paul, the word justice has the same meaning that it has in the Old Testament. Dodd says that, unlike the Greek philosophers and Western theologians, the Jews did not understand divine justice in any way to be some divine or cosmological attribute. Rather, it is an energy of God which presupposes the prevalence of injustice and evil in the world. Consequently, when Paul writes, ‘The justice of God hath appeared’, he means that God appears in Christ and destroys evil, dissolves injustice, and restores the righteous who were unjustly held captive by what is evil. [1]

Here Dodd has preserved the biblical/patristic truth, denied by [Saint] Augustine and his followers, that righteous men lived before Christ’s Incarnation. Fr John goes much farther than Dodd, however, holding that St Paul’s references to the Law—‘the letter kills’, etc.—do not allow for any opposition of the Torah to the justifying grace of Christ, but rather indicate the real meaning of the Old Testament as the Way (Torah) of vivification completed by Christ’s Incarnation and its Christological extension: the harrowing of hell (sheol). [2]

It so happened that I was already somewhat familiar with Dodd (a Welsh New Testament scholar—1884-1973), though not with his study of Romans. Years ago, in college I believe, I had somehow acquired a copy of Dodd’s fascinating The Bible & the Greeks—a study, first, of ‘The Religious Vocabulary of Hellenistic Judaism’, and second, of ‘Hellenistic Judaism & the Hermetica’. As just a taste of the sort of thing Dodd has to offer here, I shall excerpt the opening paragraph of the first chapter (please excuse me that I am not equipped to type Hebrew, and will therefore transliterate the Hebrew words):

The personal name of the God of Israel, YHWH, does not appear in any form in the LXX. The translators were here following the oral tradition (Q’re) represented in the Massoretic text, where YHWH is always givent he vowels either of Elohim or Adonai. The consonants of the name, however, remained for the reader of the Hebrew Bible. The namelessness of God is more striking in the Greek version. That the God of the Jews was nameless (as He was formless) was known to the outside world, and the fact chimed in with certain speculative tendencies of Hellenistic thought, which may have originated in Egypt. See the Pseudo-Apuleian Asclepius, §20: Non enim spero totius maiestatis effectorem omniumque rerum patrem vel dominum uno posse quamvis e multis composito nuncupari nomine, hunc vero innominem vel potius omninominem esse, siquidem is sit unus omnia, ut sit necesse aut omnia eius nomine aut ipsum omnium nominibus nuncupari [3]; cf. Corp. Herm. V. 10, dia touto onomata echei panta, oti eis esti pater: kai dia touto autos onoma ouch echei, oti panton esti pater [4]. Whether or not Egyptian ideas about the namelessness of God influenced Judaism in concealing the name YHWH, it is highly probable that the known absence of any personal name for God in the Greek version of the Scriptures strengthened the growing conviction in Hellenism that the supreme God should have no name. Christian apologists laid much stress on the point. By merely eliminating the name of God the LXX contributed to the definition of monotheism. [5]

So then, as I mentioned here, when I was cleaning out and organising my files a week ago or so I chanced across some old articles by Fr Georges Florovsky from some obscure books and journals. One of the articles, ‘The New Vision of the Church’s Reality’, includes on the final page the following comments:

C.H. Dodd, one of the best Protestant theologians today, uses the term realized eschatology. He derives his vision of realized eschatology, which is given us in the Eucharist, from the liturgical tradition of the Catholic Church. As a Congregationalist, Dr Dodd has a very high Catholic conception of the Eucharist as a real continuation or projection of the Last Supper. It is the life of the age to come. [6]

To come across two such interesting references to Dodd by esteemed twentieth-century Orthodox theologians in the same week or so seemed worth posting about. But they also resulted in a little online reading about Dodd’s work, and now I’m very intrigued by this whole ‘New Perspective on Paul’ thing, which seems to be connected with his legacy. I’ve been looking again at a copy of N.T. Wright’s What St Paul Really Said that I’ve had sitting around on the shelf for years, [7] and I’m trying to get ahold of Dodd’s book on Romans. Any comments or reading suggestions, Bible scholars?


[1] From Fr John Romanides, Ancestral Sin (Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr, 2002), pp. 93-4. Kelley adds in a note: ‘“The justice of God hath appeared” is Romans 3:12. Fr John is summarizing Dodd’s The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London, 1932), 9-10, 51’ (p. 47, n. 3).

[2] James L. Kelley, A Realism of Glory: Lectures on Christology in the Works of Protopresbyter John Romanides (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2009), pp. 47-8. Keep in mind, I quote this passage because I find it highly interesting. I am not entirely certain I understand it.

[3] Here is the translation of Brian P. Copenhaver in Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum & the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation, with notes & introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1997), p. 78:

. . . [N]o, I cannot hope to name the maker of all majesty, the father and master of everything, with a single name, even a name composed of many names; he is nameless or rather he is all-named since he is one and all, so that one must call all things by his name or call him by the names of everything.

[4] ‘. . . [T]his is why he has all names, because they are of one father, and this is why he has no name, because he is father of them all’ (Copenhaver, p. 20).

[5] C.H. Dodd, The Bible & the Greeks (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964), pp. 3-4.

[6] Fr Georges Florovsky, ‘The New Vision of the Church’s Reality’, John XXIII Lectures, Vol. 2: 1966 Byzantine Christian Heritage, John XXIII Center for Eastern Christian Studies (NY: Fordham U, 1969), p. 110

[7] Wright has a nice little annotated bibliography. See N.T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 185-92.

29 March 2010

Elder Porphyrios on the Nightingale's Song


In his book on Orthodox theology and aesthetics, Chrysostomos Stamoulis, one of my professors at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, has called my attention to a lovely passage in the Life & Discourses of Elder Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite, [1] and this evening it set me to looking through the English edition of this work and just enjoying the Elder’s reflections a bit. I will first quote the passage Stamoulis refers to:

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes—the same tears of grace that flowed so effortlessly and that I had acquired from Old Dimas [an old Russian Athonite hermit]. It was the second time I had experienced them.

. . .

. . . ‘Why did they [nightingales] puff out their throats to bursting?’ The purpose was worship, to sing to their Creator, to worship God. That’s how I explained it.[2]

Later in the book, Elder Porphyrios refers again to this experience in a chapter called, ‘On Creation’. [3] At the end of the chapter, he writes:

All these things connected with nature help us greatly in our spiritual life when they are conjoined with the grace of God. When I sense the harmony of nature, I am brought to tears. Why should we be bored with life? Let us live life with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth. The person who has the Spirit of God, who has Divine Wisdom, sees all things with love of God and notices all things. The wisdom of God makes him grasp all things and delight in all things.

Listen and I’ll recite my poem to you. It’s by Lambros Porphyras. [4] This captures my present state; I’ve got it constantly before me. It fits with my life.

If only the pine trees that cover the hillside would give
me a pileof their numberless branches,
then finding a spot in a hollow beside them,
I’d build there my dwelling, a hut low and lonely.

If only’t were summer-time, then they could give me
a couch of their dry leaves, pine needles, to lie on,
and then I would join in the song of the pine trees,
their chorus at dawn-break of whispers and rustlings.

And nothing beyond this would I wish thereafter.
And when full of joy from this life I’d be parted,
again they would lend me a few of their brances
and make me a bower, a bed everlasting. [5]

These passages in Elder Porphyrios remind me [6] of an article (here) that I had the misfortune of reading earlier today about three female ‘ministers’ who have written a book about ‘taking spirituality outdoors’. At one point, one of them (a female rabbi) is paraphrased as saying, ‘Think how many millennia it has taken, Korngold adds, for believers to return outside and remember that long before God was caged in a synagogue, church, mosque or book, God spoke to humankind from mountains, sands, seas and forests.’ To note first this woman’s apparently abysmal ignorance of the history of spirituality, I would point out that the passages from Elder Porphyrios are, in Stamoulis’s words, ‘reminiscent of similar attitudes, manifestations of a way of being, of ascetics of the ancient Church, and which reveal him as a genuine successor and follower of such a tradition.’ [7] Second, there is the powerful depth of the Elder’s experience and expression of this truth, as compared with the glib superficiality of the women in the article.

But finally, the article reminds me that the Elder sees no contradiction between this experience in nature and similar, if not more powerful encounters with God in context of the temple. In a touching passage about his first days on the Holy Mountain, Elder Porphyrios writes:

One night there was a vigil service at the Kyriakon, the church of the Holy Trinity. This was very shortly after I had arrived, during the first few days. Our skete was celebrating its feast day. My elders left in the early evening for the church and left me in the hermitage to sleep. I was young and they thought I might not be able to stay awake until the morning when the vigil would end.

After midnight Father Ioannikios came and woke me up. ‘Wake up and get dressed,’ he said, ‘and we’ll go to the church.’

I jumped up at once and in three minutes we had arrived at the Holy Trinity church. He ushered me into the church first. It was the first time I had been inside. I was overwhelmed! The church was filled with monks standing upright in an attitude of reverence and attentiveness. The chandeliers shed their light everywhere, lighting up the icons on the walls and on the icon stands. Everything was bright and shining. The little oil lamps were lit, the incense exuded fragrance and the singing resonated devoutly in the otherworldly beauty of the night. I was overcome with awe, but also with fear. I felt that I was no longer on earth, but that I had been transported to heaven. Father Ioannikios nodded to me to go forward and kiss the icons. I remained motionless. ‘Take my hand, take my hand!’ I started to shout. ‘I’m scared!’ He took me by the hand and, gripping him tightly, I went up to venerate the icons. It was my first experience. It was engraved on my innermost soul. I will never forget it. [8]

There is no contradiction of course, because what the monks were doing in and through the physical structure of the temple was the human equivalent of the nightingale’s song. As the Elder notes in the chapter ‘On Creation’, while the nightingales are indeed praising their Creator and expressing their purpose by displaying ‘the greatness of God and His providence’, ‘God’s purposefulness is expressed differently in us, in mankind. We have freedom and reason.’ [9] It is with the aid of these gifts that we produce art—our nightingale song. Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron has written:

Here [on the Holy Mountain] we find ourselves on another plane of education, culturally and spiritually. We find ourselves in a realm of high art (in architecture, iconography, music, poetry, prose) which is a fruit of spiritual maturity and a starting point for spiritual maturity.

There is a reverence for man, a deep knowledge and development of the capacities concealed within him. And the grace with which matter is filled is revealed.

The same spirit prevails and is manifested everywhere. In the whole architecture of the Mountain (in the way Monasteries, Sketes, Cells and Huts have been formed and established in different places). In the way the programme [the daily schedule] is organised. In the expression of the icons. In poetry. In the music of the chant. In the architecture of words and life. [10]

Thus, the temple, in the Orthodox view, is hardly a cage to imprison God, but rather ‘a house for the name of the Lord God of Israel’ (II Chron. 6:7), an expression of praise and beauty through human art.


[1] Chrysostomos Stamoulis, Κάλλος το Άγιον: Προλεγόμενα στη φιλόκαλη αισθητική της Ορθοδοξίας [The Holy is Beautiful: Prolegomena to the Philokalic Aesthetic of Orthodoxy], (Athens: Akritas, 2004), pp. 294-5.

[2] Elder Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite, Wounded by Love: The Life & the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, ed. Sisters of the Holy Convent of Chrysopigi, tr. John Raffan (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2005), pp. 31, 32. Stamoulis stops at the end of the second paragraph, but I thought I should add that last bit to clarify my further observations.

[3] Ibid., pp. 218-9.

[4] From this site:

Lambros Porphyras, 1879-1932, was born in Chios but spent most of his life in the port of Piraeus. A recluse, he mixed only with a few men of letters and with humble fishermen and workmen, his favoured drinking companions. His poetry, refined and musical, is pervaded by a sincere sadness. His soft, perhaps sentimental symbolism shows the influence of Verlaine and Moreas. [This note is based on ‘Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis’ by Prof.C.Trypanis.]

[5] Elder Porphyrios, pp. 222-3.

[6] Of course, although the two differ notably, the nightingale story also reminds me of the incredible vision Elder Joseph the Hesychast experienced upon hearing what sounded like a bird-song on the mountain one time—‘That mysterious voice sang again, and at that point my senses stopped and my mind was “caught up”, going outside myself, in an infinite expanse of light without bounds or measure’ (Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi, Elder Joseph the Hesychast: Struggles, Experiences, Teachings (1898-1959), tr. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Mt Athos, Greece: Great & Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, 1999), p. 76).

[7] Stamoulis, p. 295.

[8] Elder Porphyrios, pp. 10-1.

[9] Ibid., p. 219.

[10] Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron, What is Unique about Orthodox Culture, tr. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Montréal: Alexander, 2001), p. 20.

28 March 2010

Greek Wandering


Many English-speaking Orthodox are familiar with the Russian term prelest, commonly used to mean ‘spiritual delusion’. Not as many are familiar with the corresponding Greek term πλάνη, which can be transliterated plani, or plane. In Modern Greek, besides the spiritual connotation, it can also mean simply ‘error’ or ‘fallacy’. [1] But all of these meanings are somewhat metaphorical accretions to the original one. Liddell and Scott define πλάνη as ‘a wandering or roaming about, straying’. [2] It is interesting to note that this is the root of the word ‘planet’, derived from planetes asteres, or ‘wandering stars’. [3]

In a chapter on the monastic ‘cell’ in his fascinating study of the Desert Fathers, Stelios Ramfos asks ‘a naïve question’: ‘Why is the cell, the desert, described as a place and not the city? Is the city not a place? Do not people inhabit it? And if it is not a place, then what is it?’ [4] I found that his answer aided my understanding of the word ‘plani’, but it also inadvertantly led me slightly ‘astray’, if you’ll pardon the pun. He writes:

The cell, the desert, are topoi, ‘fixed positions’ or ‘places’, because the city constitutes plane, a ‘wandering away’ or ‘deceit’. Plane in monastic usage indicates worldly distraction, constant exposure to temptation. How can the city be a place, when instead of living face to face with God there I find myself bound to changing circumstances and things? The anchorite seeks a stable spot in the desert in order to put down roots in an environment without deceit, without distractions, and alone with himself to find God. Monks and lay people move about constantly because they donot fit into the place, and they do not fit into the place because their Ego is unruly. All these things sound strangein our restless times. People today regard purposeless wandering as plane because they do not think of calling topos a type of relationship with a particular space. By contrast, the desert fathers call topos and plane types of the external world’s impassioned relationship with the soul. Delusion is plane, perception of the real is topos.

It is at this point that I became confused, though not through any fault of Ramfos’s:

The meaning of these words is very different from that which they have today. Our reference to place has a Cartesian background: the body is seen as an extended object and the soul as its independent thought. Our conception of place as an abstract field extended in various directions, being of Cartesian provenance, is inevitably mechanical or psychological. The desert fathers, on the other hand, conceive of place as a kind of relationship. In the perspective of body and soul viewed as a psychosomatic unity, the state of the body reflects above all the condition of the soul, highlighting the yawning gap between our modern plane and the plane of the fathers. [5]

Now, although I knew that the Greek word plane meant ‘delusion’ or ‘error’, what confused me here was the introduction of the Cartesian ‘abstract field’, which reminded me of the English word ‘plane’, i.e., ‘the simplest kind of geometric surface’. [6] Thus, when Ramfos wrote of ‘the yawning gap in meaning between our modern plane and the plane of the fathers’ (in Russell’s translation), I imagined the gap between a geometrical ‘plane’ and spiritual plane. This connection lodged in my mind for some time, until I finally decided to look up the etymology of the geometrical term specifically for this post. [7] It turns out, of course, that it derives from the Latin word planus, meaning ‘level ground’. [8]

But I still like the plane/planet connection, as well as Ramfos’s contrast between plane and topos in desert spirituality.


[1] See Niki Watts, The Oxford Greek Dictionary, American ed. (NY: Berkley, 2000), p. 154.

[2] ‘πλάνη’—Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. Henry Drisler (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1875).

[3] ‘πλάνης’—Liddel & Scott.

[4] Stelios Ramfos, Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. & abgd. Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2000), p. 32.

[5] Ramfos, pp. 32-3.

[6] William Little, H.W. Fowler, & J. Coulson, The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles [hereafter OUD], 3rd ed., rev. with add., rev. & ed. C.T. Onions (NY: Oxford U, 1955), p. 1515.

[7] Ibid., p. 1515.

[8] Harper Collins Latin Concise Dictionary (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 163.

27 March 2010

'La Regola Mia Rimasa'—St Benedict of Nursia


Today, 14 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Benedict of Nursia (480-547), Abbot of Monte Cassino and Father of Western Monasticism. I will not, however, be doing one of my usual hagiographical posts today for two reasons. First, my parish—St Benedict (ROCOR)—celebrates its feastday on the feast of the translation of St Benedict’s relics rather than today, so that is the day I prefer to do my St Benedict post. Second, it’s a Saturday, and people don’t seem to pay as much attention to my blog on Saturdays. For these reasons, I’m just going to post an interesting note. This is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s note to line 74 of Canto XXII of Dante’s Paradiso, where St Benedict says—

. . . e la regola mia
rimasa è per danno de le carte. [1]

. . . now my Rule
Below remaineth for mere waste of paper. [2]

I have blogged before on the appearance of St Benedict in this Canto, but acquired Longfellow’s translation only since that time. I will post more of Longfellow’s notes on St Benedict this summer for the parish feastday, but for now, this will have to suffice.

74. So neglected, that is is mere waste of paper to transcribe it. In commenting upon this line, Benvenuto [Rambaldi da Imola] gives an interesting description of Boccaccio’s visit to the library of Monte Cassino, which he had from his own lips. ‘To the clearer understanding of this passage,’ he says, ‘I will repeat what my venerable preceptor, Boccaccio of Certaldo, pleasantly narrated to me. He said, that when he was in Apulia, being attracted by the fame of the place, he went to the noble monastery of Monte Cassino, of which we are speaking. And being eager to see the library, which he had heard was very noble, he humbly—gentle creature that he was!—besought a monk to do him the favour to open it. Pointing to a lofty staircase, he answered stiffly, ‘Go up; it is open.’ Joyfully ascending, he found the place of so great a treasure without door or fastening; and having entered, he saw the grass growing upon the windows, and all the books and shelves covered with dust. And, wondering, he began to open and turn over, now this book and now that, and found there many and various volumes of ancient and rare works. From some of them whole sheets had been torn out, in others the margins of the leaves were clipped, and thus they were greatly defaced. At length, full of pity that the labours and studies of so many illustrious minds should have fallen into the hands of such profligate men, grieving and weeping he withdrew. And coming into the cloister, he asked a monk whom he met, why those most precious books were so vilely mutilated. He replied, that some of the monks, wishing to gain a few ducats, cut out a handful of leaves, and made psalters which they sold to boys; and likewise of the margins they made breviaries which they sold to women. Now, therefore, O scholar, rack thy brains in the making of books!’ [3]

If you must have more on St Benedict, see this post and this one.


[1] The Italian text is taken from the Modern Library edition—Dante Alighieri, Paradise, tr. & ed. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Doré (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 238.

[2] Longfellow’s translation—The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso, tr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, n.d.), p. 95.

[3] Ibid., p. 305-6, n. 74.

26 March 2010

Fr Florovsky on Chalcedon & the 'Modern Mind'


Last week I started making a real effort to go through a lot of my papers and try to organise them. I’m pleased to say that I have made enormous progress, and best of all, I have found a few things that I had not seen in quite some time. Among others, there were some photocopies of some obscure articles by Fr Georges Florovsky. One, ‘Eschatology in the Patristic Age: An Introduction’, from a 1956 issue of Greek Orthodox Theological Review, [1] was reprinted in vol. 4 of Fr Florovsky’s Collected Works—Aspects of Church History—under the title, ‘The Patristic Age & Eschatology: An Introduction’. [2] But the other three, all photocopied from obscure sources in the theology library of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki by my friend Mark Montague, do not seem to have been included in the Collected Works.

One is called ‘The Doctrine of the Church & the Ecumenical Problem’, and was published in 1950 in The Ecumenical Review. [3] Another, taken from a 1969 volume of John XXIII Lectures at Fordham University, is actually a two-fer: the first piece is entitled ‘The Image of the Church’, and the second ‘The New Vision of the Church’s Reality’. [4] But the last has no citation information on it. It is a very brief piece (four pages), evidently from some sort of ecumenical meeting, entitled ‘The Message of Chalcedon’, and is followed by other treatments of Chalcedon by W. Norman Pittenger, Wm. R. O’Connor, Fr Alexander Schmemann, and John Dillenberger.

I thought I’d post about this for two reasons. First, I wonder if anyone can tell me the source that these papers must have come from (Mark, did you perhaps write the source on your own copy?). Second, there were a couple of observations from Fr Florovsky’s paper that I really liked and wanted to quote. So without further ado, here is a longish passage from this piece:

. . . Modern man, it is so often suggested, cannot take any interest in Chalcedon. its archaic formula is utterly irrelevant to the modern quest for living truth.

It may be true, that ancient formulas fail to impress the modern mind. I venture to submit, however, that the fault is not with the old formulas, but rather with the ‘modern mind’. The formula of Chalcedon is very often mistaken for what it was never meant to be. The Chalcedonian definition was not a self-explanatory metaphysical statement. It was a dogmatic statement, a confession, a statement of faith. It must not be isolated from the total vision of that ‘great mystery of godliness’which was to be apprehended by faith. . . . It was, in a sense, a theological fence around the Mystery. ‘Modern man’ is prone to revolt against what he believes to be ‘Greek intellectualism’, with its sophisticated, scholastic and sterile ‘definitions’. Now, I believe Karl Barth is perfectly right when he reminds the modern man that all this alleged ‘Greek intellectualism’ was in fact but an aspect of that sincere seriousness with which the Early Church used to approach and to contemplate the Mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Holy Night. . . . The mystery is so great and ineffable. No wonder that its theological description is ‘subtle’ and ‘intricate’. One cannot avoid some dialectical tension in the credal witness to mystery. ‘Simplicity’ in this case would mean inevitably rather ‘simplification’, and miss the point. On the other hand, again, it may be true that human passion and blindness did play some role in the old theological disputes, as they obviously do in our own contemporary conflicts. But it is bad historical taste to overpress the ‘non-theological’ factors of religious and theological conflicts. Heresy is often, in the witty phrase of Chesterton, ‘but truth gone mad’. . . .

The mystery of the Incarnation can never be fully comprehended by a finite mind. Still, credo, ut intelligo. Faith brings illumination to human intellect too. And this fides quaerens intellectum is the driving power of all theological inquiry and research. It has been wittly suggested that Orthodoxy consists in the right language—‘l’Orthodoxie est faite d’un bon lexique’. A vague language and an unsuitable vocabulary may obscure and betray the truth. The early Church was in need of an adequate vocabulary. It had to coin new terms—‘to kainotomein ta onomata’, in the phrase of St Gregory of Nazianzus. [5]


[1] Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, ‘Eschatology in the Patristic Age: An Introduction’, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 2:1 (Easter 1956), pp. 27-40.

[2] Fr Florovsky, ‘The Patristic Age & Eschatology: An Introduction’, Aspects of Church History, Vol. 4 in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1975), pp. 63-87.

[3] Fr Florovsky, ‘The Doctrine of the Church & the Ecumenical Problem’, The Ecumenical Review, 2:2 (Winter 1950), pp. 152-61.

[4] Fr Florovsky, ‘The Image of the Church’, John XXIII Lectures, Vol. 2: 1966 Byzantine Christian Heritage, John XXIII Center for Eastern Christian Studies (NY: Fordham U, 1969), pp. 96-104; ‘The New Vision of the Church’s Reality’, pp. 105-10. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the left side of the text has been truncated in my photocopy of the last page of the second article. It’s a shame, because Fr Florovsky has some comments there that I’d very much like to use in a future post.

[5] Though I can’t give the title or publishing information, this excerpt came from pp. 395-6.

25 March 2010

'Thou Wast a True Theologian of the Holy Trinity'—St Symeon the New Theologian


Today, 12 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022).* Along with St John (the Evangelist) and St Gregory, inaccurately called ‘Nazianzen’, St Symeon is one of only three Fathers that the Church has ever named ‘Theologian’. In his case, Archbishop Basil (Krivocheine) observes:

The term ‘theologian’ is to be understood here, as with most of the Greek Fathers, not in the sense of a theologian working out new dogmas, but as one who has reached the heights of contemplation. The adjective ‘New’ would mean a renewer of the apostolic life which had been in large part forgotten, as Symeon himself states. [1]

St Gregory Palamas writes concerning him, ‘You know the life of Symeon the New Theologian, and how it was all virtually a miracle, glorified by God through supranatural miracles. You know also his writings, which without exaggeration one can call writings of life.’ [2] Archbishop Basil calls him ‘the greatest of the Byzantine mystical writers’, [3] and Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) says that he ‘became the greatest mystic of the Byzantine Church’. [4] In the opinion of Fr Seraphim (Rose), St Symeon is one of ‘the most beloved Holy Fathers today among Orthodox Christians’. [5] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

This great and godly Father of the Church was born in Galatai in Paphlagonia and educated in Constantinople, where he entered the imperial service. He left all for Christ and took himself off to a monastery, living in asceticism under the guidance of an elder, Simeon, then becoming abbot of the monastery of St Mamas and finally a hermit. He was the greatest theologian since St Gregory the Theologian. His writings, illumined with the grace he carried in his heart, are a true theological revelation. He entered into rest in 1022, leaving wonder-working relics. [6]

In the interests of supplementing the Prologue a bit on the details of St Symeon’s politeia, or way of life, here is an account of his early struggles by his great disciple, St Nicetas Stethatos, from the condensed Life by St Theophan the Recluse:

He gave himself entirely over to solitude, to reading, to prayer and thoughts of God. The whole week he would eat only vegetables and grains, and only on Sundays would he go to the table of the brethren. He slept little, and that on the floor, only laying a sheepskin over the rug. On Sundays and feast days he performed all-night vigils, standing at prayer from evening until morning, and for the whole day thereafter he would give himself no rest. Never did he utter an idle word, but he preserved always an extreme heedfulness and a sober self-concentration. He sat all close up in his cell, and if he would got out to sit on a bench, it seemed as if he were drenched with tears and bore on his face the reflection of the flame of prayer. He read most of all the lives of saints, and after reading would sit down at his handicraft, which was calligraphy; he would copy something for the monastery and the elders or for himself. From the first sound of the semantron (announcing the morning service), he would stand up and hasten to church, where, with all prayerful heedfulness, he would listen to the order of Divine services. Whenever there was Liturgy, he would each time receive communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, and all that day he would remain in prayer and thoughts of God. He would usually keep vigil until midnight, and then, after sleeping a little, would go to church to pray together with the brethren. During Great Lent he spent the five week days without food; on Saturday and Sunday he would go to the table of the brethren and eat whatever was given to everyone. He did not lie down to sleep, but merely leaned with his head on his arms and thus dozed off for an hour or so. [7]

St Symeon’s authority as a ‘theologian’, of course, derives from his own direct experience of God. As Fr Seraphim writes: ‘St Symeon speaks from divine revelation. First, his basis is always scriptural—but we are astonished to see a depth of meaning in his use of scriptural quotations which we would never have seen by ourselves. And this is because, second, he speaks from personal experience.’ The Holy Fathers ‘can speak at first hand of the mysteries of our Faith which they have beheld in divine vision’. [8] Fr Alexander (Golitzin) notes the same thing but puts it another way:

Symeon, in short, is laying claim to nothing less than the authority of a biblical prophet. . . . Such a claim is not new in the history of Eastern monastic literature, but Symeon . . . emphasizes it, [he] is . . . stark in his insistence on the necessity of first experiencing God in order to talk about Him—‘Why do I trouble to explain and interpret?’ he cries at one point, ‘when you will not be able to understand these things unless you have comprehended them by experience’ . . . .’ [9]

Unfortunately, many modern readers have misunderstood St Symeon’s writings, reading into them their own idiosyncratic ideas and preoccupations. Thus, Fr John Meyendorff claims that it is ‘easy to find him at variance with any established tradition’, and that St Symeon is ‘an important witness of the inevitable tension in Christianity between all forms of “establishment” and the freedom of the Spirit.’ [10] One unfortunate priest of the Greek Archdiocese in America even went so far as to use St Symeon as justification for his enthusiasm for the ‘charismatic movement’. But as Archbishop Basil has observed, ‘Symeon does not easily fit into this or that category: he was not a religious extremist, nor some type of proto-Reformer rebelling against the Church hierarchy, nor a forerunner of the Pentecostal movement. He was certainly not an “unconscious Messalian”.’ [11] Fr Alexander wryly observes, even throwing the accusation some have made of ‘Donatism’ into the mix, ‘He may appear occasionally to be “almost” anyone of these . . . , but, to recall Mark Twain’s distinction between the lightning and the lightning bug, there is a very great difference between “almost” and “actual”.’ [12] St Symeon ‘never doubts that the hierarchical and sacramental structures of the Church are true and established by God.’ [13]

In fact, St Symeon is fully in line with the stream of Holy Tradition before him, and has been recognised to have been so in line by the entire stream after him—in the words of my own dear professor, Anestis Keselopoulos, ‘[I]n St Symeon the Orthodox Tradition has always seen a great teacher and theologian of Christian faith and life.’ [14] As Fr Alexander notes, ‘The main themes of Symeon’s thought may be summed up under two headings: deification (theosis) as “tears and light”, and the spiritual father. In neither case is he anything other than a uniquely personal witness to long-established elements in the Greek patristic tradition.’ [15] Concerning St Symeon’s writings, Fr Alexander writes:

His writing is powerful, the prose of a man fully at home in written speech, indeed, of a master writer. He is thoroughly capable of expressing himself clearly and convincingly, and often with great beauty and originality. If he was not well read in the philosophers, nor interested in doing so, he was on the other hand steeped in the culture of the Church: the scriptures, the liturgy, the lives of the saints, and the works of the Church fathers. . . . Moreover, the tradition of the Greek Church is so much St Symeon’s bone and fiber, so at home is he within it, that in him it takes on a very special freshness and immediacy. . . . He speaks to us directly, confidently, and unspoiled by any of the longing to reproduce ancient literary models which so afflicted the prose of his learned contemporaries. [16]

While Archbishop Basil laments that St Theophan the Recluse, when he translated St Symeon into Russian, omitted the Hymns, ‘finding them too daring for the simple reader, and therefore dangerous’, [17] Fr Seraphim for one has respected this decision, noting that the Hymns, ‘as recent Fathers have warned us, are better left untouched by us Christians of the latter times who are too immersed in our own passions and filth of this most debased and evil of epochs.’ [18] Furthermore, Archbishop Philaret of Chernigov reminds us that ‘the states of which St Symeon speaks are ones for which great preparatory struggles are required.’ [19] But fortunately, St Symeon himself is not silent about such struggles. As Prof. Keselopoulos notes, although St Symeon ‘is often presented as a mystic who spoke exclusively about exalted spiritual states’, the ‘ascetic struggle [too] holds a significant and fundamental place in his works . . . . The particular hallmark of his teaching is his insistent effort not to separate the ascetic struggle from the mystical life.’ [20]

I shall present a few passages from St Symeon’s writings, letting the Holy Father speak for himself. But first, I would like to quote a confession from Prof. Keselopoulos’s introduction to his book on St Symeon, a confession that I second: ‘Having read the works of St Symeon, one feels embarrassed and inadequate trying to speak or write about matters which require a knowledge and perception of the divine, when one has not experienced divine illumination. . . .’ [21] If I have finally overcome my own hesitation, it is merely out of a desire to honour the Saint on his Feast. Nevertheless, I begin with a passage from St Symeon’s ‘One Hundred & Fifty-Three Practical & Theological Texts’ which condemns me first of all:

104. Anyone who thinks himself intelligent because of his scholarly or scientific learning will never be granted insight into divine mysteries unless he first humbles himself and becomes a fool (cf. I Cor. 3:18), discarding both his presumption and the knowledge that he has acquired. But if he does this and with unhesitating faith allows himself to be led by those wise in divine matters, he will enter with them into the city of the living God. Guided and illumined by the divine Spirit, he will see and learn what others cannot ever see or learn. He will then be taught by God (cf. John 6:45). [22]

. . .

106. Even now, living in our midst, there are people who are dispassionate and saintly, filled with divine light, who have so mortified whatever in them pertains to the earth (cf. Col. 3:5), freeing it from all impurity and impassioned desire, that not only do they themselves not think or act maliciously, but even when drawn in this direction by another they are unwavering in their dispassion. Those who accuse these saints of folly, and who do not believe them when in the wisdom of the Spirit they teach about divine matters, would have recognized them had they understood the sacred writings of that are read and sung daily. For if they possessed a mature knowledge of the Holy Scriptures they would have believed in the blessings spoken of and bestowed on us by God. But because out of self-conceit and negligence they do not share in these blessings, in their unbelief they slander those who do share in them and who teach others about them. [23]

Here is St Symeon’s (and Orthodoxy’s) answer to a problem which has long vexed the Christians of the West, taken from his ‘Second Ethical Discourse’:

I have heard many people people say: ‘Because the Apostle says; “Those whom God foreknew, the same He also predestined; and those whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called, the same also glorified” [Rom 8:29-30] what good is it to me if I throw myself into many labors, if I give proof of repentance and conversion, when I am neither foreknown nor predestined by God to be saved and conformed to the glory of God His Son?’ We are naturally obliged to state our opinion clearly to such people, and to reply: O, you! Why do you reason to your own perdition rather than your salvation? And why do you pick out for yourselves the obscure passages of inspired Scripture and then tear them out of context and twist them in order to accomplish your own destruction? Do you not hear the Savior crying out every day: ‘As I live . . . I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live’ [Ezek 33:11]? Do you not hear Him Who says: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ [Mt 3:2]; and again: ‘Just so, I tell you, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’ [Lk 15:7, adapted]? Did He ever say to some: ‘Do not repent for I will not accept you,’ while to others who were predestined: ‘But you, repent! because I knew you beforehand’? Of course not! Instead, throughout the world and in every church He shouts: ‘Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ [Mt 11:28]. Come, He says, all you who are burdened with many sins, to the One Who takes away the sin of the world; come, all who thirst, to the fountain which flows forever and never dies.

. . .

For God knows all things beforehand, both past and present at once, and everything which is going to happen in the future up to the end of the world. He sees them as already present, because in and through Him all things hold together. . . . When He endowed us with free will, giving commandments to teach us instead how we must oppose our adversaries, He left it to the free choice of each either to oppose and vanquish the enemy, or to relax and be miserably defeated by Him. Nor does He leave us entirely to ourselves—for He knows the weakness of human nature—but rather is present Himself with us and, indeed, allies Himself with those who choose to struggle, and mysteriously imbues us with strength, and Himself, not we accomplishes the victory over the adversary. . . .

God, . . . Who is mighty and invincible, becomes, as we just said, an ally of those who willingly choose to do battle with the enemy, and He establishes them as victors over the cunning of the devil. He does not, however, compel any who do not so choose to this war, in order that He not destroy the power of choice which is proper to our reasoning nature, made according to His own image, and bring us down to the level of unreasoning brutes. . . . [He] knows from before the ages exactly who the victors and vanquished are going to be. . . .

This is therefore what Paul himself also knew [in Rom 8:29-30] . . . . It is not God’s foreknowledge of those who, by their free choice and zeal, will prevail which is the cause of their victory, just as, again, it is not His knowing beforehand who will fall and be vanquished which is responsible for their defeat. Instead, it is the zeal, deliberate choice, and courage of each of us which effects the victory. Our faithlessness and sloth, our irresolution and indolence, on the other hand, comprise our defeat and perdition. So, while reclining on our bed of worldly affection and love of pleasure, let us not say: ‘Those whom God fore-knew, them also He predestined’, without perceiving just what it is we are saying. Yes, indeed, He truly knew you beforehand as inattentive and disobedient and lazy, but this is certainly not because He ordered or foreordained it that you should have no power to repent yourself nor, if you will it, to get up and obey. [24]

Finally, here is an illuminating passage from St Symeon’s ‘Fourth Ethical Discourse’, which Fr Alexander has used to illustrate the theme of macrocosm and microcosm that St Symeon has in common with St Dionysius the Areopagite, and which his disciple St Nicetas received from both of them: [25]

Come, though, all of you who want to be instructed about the glory of those men who are truly holy and dispassionate. Come, that is, you who desire it, who ardently long to possess it, and I will draw you a picture which shows the extent of their weaponry, and you will know their brilliance. Each of you, comparing himself with these saints, will know where he stands, and how far away all of us are from their courage, their worthiness and their power.

So then, picture with me the sky as it is on a clear and cloudless night. See, there is the moon’s disk, full of limpid and purest light, and around it the halo which often appears. Now, with this in mind, turn your thought to what I am about to say. Each one of the saints, while yet in the body, is like that evening sky, and the heart of each like the moon’s disk. Holy love is the all-efficacious and all-powerful light, far and incomparably greater than the light of our sun, which touches their hearts and, waxing in accordance with the capacity of each, fills them perfectly. Neither does it ever wane, like the light of the moon, but is always kept all light through the zeal and good works of the saints. And holy dispassion, like an aureole and a tabernacle, surrounds and cares for them, covers them wholly, and preserves them unwounded by any evil thought, let alone by sins, and sets them up as unhurt and free from all their foes. And, not only this, but it even renders them unapproachable for their enemies.

Do you see the glory which you truly desire? Do you understand the grandeur of this image and how much each of us lacks the glory and brilliance of the saints? For this image is a type of what is actually being perfected in us—let it not be thought by our own efforts, God forbid!—but God established it beforehand and now brings it into being. In creating, the divine artisan and Word of God drew beforehand as on a tablet what would happen in the future for our salvation in order that, on seeing the type appear in perceptible things, we should not doubt that the real truth would be completed and perfected spiritually in our own inward being. Rather, knowing that each one of us is created by God as a second world, a great world in this small and visible one—as one of the theologians bears me witness—we ought to want to appear in no wise worse than the unreasoning or soulless animals which the God Who loves mankind has created for our instruction, but instead be zealous for everything which is good in them while fleeing as much as we can the imitation of their defects. [26]

Today is the nameday of my koumbaros, and I wish him many years. I hope he is persevering manfully, though I know how powerful the city is, and I pray it does not get the better of both of us. In conclusion, here are the troparion and kontakion of the Saint, taken from the Great Horologion:

Dismissal Hymn of St Symeon the New Theologian
Third Tone. Thy confession

Since thou hadst received within thy pure soul * God’s enlightenment, O righteous Father, * thou wast shown to the world as a blazing light * which drave away its thick darkness and moved all men * to seek the grace of the Spirit which they had lost. * O all-holy Father Symeon, intercede with Him * to grant great mercy unto us who honour thee.

Kontakion of St Symeon the New Theologian
Third Tone. On this day the Virgin

Shining with the Three-Sun Light, * thou wast a true theologian * of the Holy Trinity, * the Lord divinely-transcendent; * from on high, thou wast made rich with * wisdom of discourse * and didst pour forth the divine streams of godly wisdom; * whereof having drunk, we cry out: * Rejoice, thrice-blessed * Symeon, taught from above. [27]


[1] Archbishop Basil (Krivocheine), In the Light of Christ: St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)—Life, Spirituality, Doctrine, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1986), pp. 62-3. I noted with interest that the translator of this book is the same man who more recently translated Fr Placide’s Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia.

I was pleased to see as well that while Archbishop Basil refers to our Saint merely as ‘Symeon’ throughout his study, His Eminence at least notes that he is doing it only ‘For the sake of brevity, . . . without in any way questioning either his theology or his saintliness’ (p. 9, n. 1). Of course, I think that in our day and age maintaining the custom of using such titles is worth the extra ink or memory it requires.

[2] St Gregory Palamas, ‘In Defence of Those who Devoutly Practise a Life of Stillness’, The Philokalia, Vol. 4, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1998), p. 341.

[3] Archbishop Basil, p. 9.

[4] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 29. Having quoted these comments, however, I should point out that I am aware of the problems with and history of the term ‘mysticism’ and its derivatives, and I share Fr Andrew Louth’s concerns about them as expressed in the Afterward to the 2007 edition of Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford U, 2007), pp. 200-14. But I think the views of Archbishop Basil and Fr Placide on St Symeon’s unique quality and importance are still worthwhile. That said, it will be noticed that I myself entirely avoid the use of such terminology throughout this post.

[5] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ‘Introduction: The Teaching of St Symeon the New Theologian’, The First-Created Man, rev. ed., by St Symeon the New Theologian, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), p. 11.

[6] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 276-7.

[7] St Nicetas Stethatos, ‘The Life of St Symeon the New Theologian’, First-Created Man, pp. 27-8.

[8] Fr Seraphim, p. 13.

[9] Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), ‘Introduction’, On the Mystical Life—The Ethical Discourses, Vol. 3: Life, Times, & Theology, by St Symeon the New Theologian, tr. & ed. Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1997), p. 9.

[10] Fr John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes, 2nd ed. (NY: Fordham U, 1979), p. 74.

[11] Archbishop Basil, p. 10.

[12] Fr Alexander, p. 49.

[13] Ibid., p. 40.

[14] Anestis G. Keselopoulos, Man & the Environment: A Study of St Symeon the New Theologian, tr. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 6.

[15] Fr Alexander, p. 11.

[16] Fr Alexander, ‘The Ethical Discourses: Date, Type, & Content’, On the Mystical Life—The Ethical Discourses, Vol. 1: The Church & the Last Things, by St Symeon the New Theologian, tr. Fr Alexander (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995), pp. 10-1.

[17] Archbishop Basil, p. 9.

[18] Fr Seraphim, p. 12.

[19] St Nicetas, p. 40.

[20] Keselopoulos, pp. 7-8.

[21] Ibid., p. 11. Prof. Keselopoulos goes on to say:

This was the greatest impediment for the author before writing this study, since he and his generation live in the consumerist, affluent society brought to us by the kingdom of money, which brings with it an immense social ferment and has many negative ramifications. For when we speak of a kingdom of money, we mean first and foremost the lack of purpose in money, the wealth which is made into an absolute, a god which incites unbridled production. This applies to the production even of religious articles, which end up becoming consumer goods, products manufactured for a certain kind of beauty. ‘The kingdom of money’ also refers to the attitude which stems from human voracity and greed, and to the tragic way in which man is trapped by his limitless material ‘needs’. (p. 11)

[22] St Symeon, ‘One Hundred & Fifty-Three Practical & Theological Texts’, Philokalia, Vol. 4, pp. 46-7.

[23] Ibid., p. 47.

[24] St Symeon, On the Mystical Life, Vol. 1, pp. 83-4, 86-8.

[25] See the brilliant article, Fr Alexander (Golitzin), ‘Hierarchy vs. Anarchy? Dionysius Areopagita, Symeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, & Their Common Roots in Ascetical Tradition’, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38,2 (1994), pp. 143, 146. Available here at the Marquette University site.

[26] St Symeon, On the Mystical Life—The Ethical Discourses, Vol. 2: On Virtue & Christian Life, tr. Fr Alexander (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1996), pp. 36-7.

[27] The Great Horologion, tr. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 276-7.

* As always, there is more than one Saint celebrated today, and on this day last year I chose one of the others—St Gregory the Dialogist (or ‘the Great’). On some calendars, one can also find the Prophet Aaron the High Priest listed for today. But as I celebrate my nameday on the same day as the Feast of the Prophet Moses, I will plan to post on St Aaron in September (for some reason I was hindered in this last year). I have, however, posted a bit about St Aaron previously here, here, and here.

24 March 2010

'Remember Me a Little Then I Pray'—William Morris


Now that I’ve used up much of my best hagiographical material, I’ve been trying to think of another regular ‘feature’ I could introduce so I’m not just posting on willy-nilly topics all of the time. I believe I’ve found one. A couple of times now when I’ve checked out with my purchases at Half Price Books, they’ve given me a wall calendar. Based on a polar bear theme, the aesthetics of the thing have not appealed to me much, but upon closer examination I’ve noticed two things of interest: a number of 15%-off coupons, and the names of a writer or two listed for every day—the days of their birth. Many of these are the sort that appeal to the lit majors at the typical American university these days, but others are writers of real merit.

I have decided to try posting on these whenever they interest me. I do hope that the more regular posts on literary figures won’t chase off too many Orthodox readers who are primarily interested in Orthodox matters. I hope to continue to post occasionally on Saints, and more frequently on patristic writings and moral and theological issues. I also have no intention of abandoning my occasional attempts to relate Orthodoxy and literature, whether on a superficial or a deeper level. The only question is what to do with the calendar so I can check it regularly without actually hanging it!

So the first to catch my attention after I noticed this intriguing little feature was William Morris (1834-1896), who, of all of those associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, displays to the greatest degree the sixth characteristic with which James Merritt has identified their work: ‘Deliberate “medievalism”, such as the use of vaguely medieval-sounding words, or the use of settings that, though unidentified, seem pre-Renaissance.’ [1] Peter Ackroyd notes that Morris ‘was described as possessing a “medievalised mind and turn of thought”’. [2]

In their anthology of Victorian prose and poetry, Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom observe, ‘Morris is remembered today more for his personality, energies, Socialist politics, and vision of the arts (in which he followed Ruskin) than for either his verse or prose romances, which is a pity.’ [3] Remembered, that is, among academics and intellectuals. Among most people, if Morris is known at all, I’d say he’s known almost solely for his wallpaper, which is a great pity. This is not to say that he didn’t design great wallpaper, just that he did so many other things. Here is the brief sketch of Morris’s life—by George R. Creeger—in W.H. Auden’s anthology, 19th-Century British Minor Poets:

An enormously talented individual, Morris was competent at nearly everything that excited his interest, from architecture and domestic furnishings to poetry. Born into comfortable circumstances, he was educated at Marlborough College (a relatively new public school that permitted greater intellectual freedom and experimentation than the older ones) and at Oxford, where he came into association with [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti and [Edward] Burne-Jones, and where he showed great skill in writing poetry. No sketch can do justice to the incredible diversity of his career. Even in concentrating upon its poetic aspects, one can do little more than mention the publication, in 1858, of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems; in 1868-70, The Earthly Paradise; in 1870, his translation of the Völsunga Saga; and in 1876, Sigurd the Volsung. [4]


Morris wrote, did, and said so many things, that I am only able to mention a few of them. As his physician said after his death in 1896, the cause of death was ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.’ [5] So I shall confine myself to the poetry, and the ‘vision of the arts’. Concerning the first, Trilling and Bloom write:

Morris derives from a whole series of major 19th-c. poets—Keats, Tennyson, Browning, and Rossetti—but his directness, detachment in depicting savagery, and ability to convey swiftly the effect of violent action are entirely his own, and still unique in the language . . . . Medieval poems by Morris are utterly unlike Tennyson’s; the blood shed in them is not word painting, and the freedom from intrusive moral judgments is absolute. Morris is one of the very few poets ever who can be criticized for not being ambitious enough. His poems demonstrate more genius than he was willing to concentrate. If his interests had been fewer, his poetry would have sprawled less, and meant more, but he valued his other enterprises at least as much as he cared for his poetry. [6]

Here are three examples of Morris’s verse, from shortest to longest. The first is taken from his romance, The Hollow Land, and the last from the collection, The Earthly Paradise. [7]

Song

Christ keep the Hollow Land
Through the sweet springtide,
When the apple-blossoms bless
The lowly bent hill side.

Christ keep the Hollow Land
All the summer-tide;
Still we cannot understand
Where the waters glide:

Only dimly seeing them
Coldly slipping through
Many green-lipped cavern mouths
Where the hills are blue. [8]


Summer Dawn

Pray but one prayer for me ’twixt thy closed lips,
Think but one thought of me up in the stars.
The summer night waneth, the morning light slips,
Faint and grey ’twixt the leaves of the aspen, betwixt the cloud-bars,
That are patiently waiting there for the dawn:
Patient and colourless, though Heaven’s gold
Waits to float through them along with the sun.
Far out in the meadows, above the young corn,
The heavy elms wait, and restless and cold
The uneasy wind rises; the roses are dun;
Through the long twilight they pray for the dawn.
Round the lone house in the midst of the corn.
Speak but one word to me over the corn,
Over the tender, bowed locks of the corn. [9]


From The Earthly Paradise

Apology
Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.

But rather, when aweary of your mirth,
From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh,
And, feeling kindly unto all the earth,
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die—
Remember me a little then I pray,
The idle singer of an empty day.

The heavy trouble, the bewildering care
That weighs us down who live and earn our bread,
These idle verses have no power to bear;
So let me sing of names rememberèd,
Because they, living not, can ne’er be dead,
Or long time take their memory quite away
From us poor singers of an empty day.

Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.

Folk say, a wizard to a northern king
At Christmas-tide such wondrous things did show,
That through one window men beheld the spring,
And through another saw the summer glow,
And through a third the fruited vines a-row,
While still, unheard, but in its wonted way,
Piped the drear wind of that December day.

So with this Earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea,
Where tossed about all hearts of men must be;
Whose ravening monsters mighty men shall slay,
Not the poor singer of an empty day. [10]

Of course, I should hasten to admit that, while I am certainly a fan of Morris’s lyrics, I have not read any of his longer pieces (though at a shop near the British Museum I bought a wonderful Dover facsimile of Morris’s own Kelmscott Press edition—pictured above—of his Wood Beyond the World), and it is at least as much his ‘vision of the arts’ that interests me in him as his poetry. My introduction to this vision came primarily through a book on interior decoration—The Beautiful Necessity: Decorating with Arts & Crafts, by Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto. In the introduction, the authors write:

Still, the true genesis of the Arts and Crafts movement was in England, not America, and primarily in the work of William Morris, the English poet, designer, and social reformer. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Morris had read and was inspired by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin, especially his influential chapter ‘The Nature of Gothic’, in The Stones of Venice, which was published during Morris’s time at Oxford. Ruskin, with his criticism of industrialization, his total rejection of the machine, and especially his belief that society could be saved only if one could change the nature of work, lit a fire in Morris that set the direction of his life’s work. Morris not only became adept at crafts, from designing wallpaper to the dyeing of cloth and the weaving of tapestries, but he preached his ideals, providing inspiration in turn for others around him and for those who followed. [11]

But there is more to Morris’s ‘vision of the arts’ than criticising the industrial revolution and learning of crafts. It is important to understand why Morris values crafts. Unlike that high ‘art’ which is largely considered the domain of snobs and geniuses in our day, Morris believed that crafts are the art that innocuously enriches—or at least should enrich—the life of ordinary people. In an 1880 lecture entitled ‘The Beauty of Life’, he writes:

So much is now known of the periods of art that have left abundant examples of their work behind them, that we can judge of the art of all periods by comparing these with the remains of times of which less has been left us; and we cannot fail to come to the conclusion that down to very recent days everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful: so that in those days all people who made anything shared in art, as well as all people who used the things so made: that is, all people shared in art. [12]

To the objection that making art the business of all men was to make it too ‘intrusive’, Morris responds:

But indeed there seems no chance of art becoming universal, unless on the terms that it shall have little self-consciousness, and for the most part be done with little effort; so that the rough work of the world would be as little hindered by it, as the work of external nature is by the beauty of all her forms and moods: this was the case in the times that I have been speaking of: . . . . [13]

What Morris is talking about here, when he speaks of art having ‘little self-consciousness’, is what he calls the ‘lesser arts’—the craft of making furnishings and decorations, ‘those arts with whose products men are in touch every moment of their daily lives’, in Trilling’s and Bloom’s words. [14] Later in the same lecture I have been quoting, Morris writes:

I have spoken of the popular arts, but they might all be summed up in that one word Architecture; they are all parts of that great whole, and the art of house-building begins it all [see Morris’s ‘Red House’ to the left]: if we did not know how to dye or to weave; if we had neither gold, nor silver, nor silk; and no pigments to paint with, but half-a-dozen ochres and umbers, we might yet frame a worthy art that would lead to everything, if we had but timber, stone, and life, and a few cutting tools to make these common things not only shelter us from wind and weather, but also express the thoughts and aspirations that stir in us. [15]

It is interesting to note that in another lecture, ‘Art & the Beauty of the Earth’ (1881), Morris emphasises that when practicing such crafts, one must ‘try to get the most out of your material, but always in such a way as honours it most. Not only should it be obvious what your material is, but something should be done with it which is specially natural to it, something that could not be done with any other.’ He adds, ‘This is the very raison d’être of decorative art . . . .’ [16]


Although I’m afraid a detailed discussion and comparison might make this post a bit long, I think there is much here for Orthodox to consider. In my opinion, Morris’s ‘vision of art’ overlaps a good deal with that of the Orthodox Church, and some of these ideas remind me of specific passages in modern theologians I’ve read (I’m thinking primarily of Chrestos Yannaras and Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron).

But these last observations naturally raise the question of Morris’s religious convictions. According to Trilling and Bloom, while he had entered Exeter influenced by ‘a devout sister’ with the aim of proceeding to holy orders, ‘So far as can be discerned, once Morris had made his decision [to dedicate himself to art], religion was for him a dead issue, and the influence of its idiom is not to be traced in his prose, as it so readily is in the prose, as it so readily is in the prose of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold.’ [17] I have not read it through, but a bit of browsing through the study of William Morris by the famous Communist historian, E.P. Thompson, [18] suggests that he makes little mention of religion, as one might expect. For Thompson, it seems to have been a temptation of Morris’s youth, for, ‘Religion of all varieties was deeply compromised by the same evils’, and its ‘lure . . . began to fade’. He quotes an 1855 comment from Cormell Price that ‘Morris has become questionable in doctrinal points’, and then tells of Morris’s decision to turn to art. [19]

But I shall allow a more optimistic, if naïve, New York Times piece of 1900 (here) to have the last word. Responding to a letter from a reader asking precisely this question, and mentioning certain ‘sentences and paragraphs’ in Mackall’s 2-vol. biography, the author speaks of feeling ‘certain of the deep religious feeling underlying Morris’s nature—perhaps not the conventional ideas of an orthodox Christian, for the reason that his religious principles seem to have been so entirely expressed in deeds, not words’. The author remarks upon the great ‘influence’ of the Anglo-Catholic movement on Morris. But he tells us, unfortunately, that ‘art and literature, from being considered merely the handmaids of religion, came to be considered as worth pursuing for their own sake’, and that the young Morris had originally hoped to found a monastery and even to devote himself to a semi-monastic existence in some kind of ‘order’, but which ‘gradually broadened into . . . a social brotherhood.’ While the utopian, even chiliastic element of socialism cannot be denied, the author discerns ‘strong ethical Christianity’ in the political activity of Morris’s later years. Finally, the author concludes that ‘Morris’s desire on one occasion to be kept from the narrowing influence of the world, so that he might look at things “bigly and kindly”, was so well borne out that his whole life would seem but another and tacitly expressed proof of William Morris’s essential faith in religion.’

I for one have my doubts, but I certainly hope that it is so.

Addendum: It occurred to me that the uninitiated, reading this post, might come away not realising that all of the images here are of things that Morris himself designed or created directly. Even the book is not merely the edition of some clever publisher, but of Morris himself, who designed, illustrated, typeset, and even bound it. This is followed by a Morris tapestry, a house designed by Morris, the William Morris workshop, and a stained-glass window designed by Morris.


[1] James D. Merritt, ed., The Pre-Raphaelite Poem (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1966), p. 12.

[2] Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (NY: Doubleday, 2003), p. 185.

[3] Lionel Trilling & Harold Bloom, eds., The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose & Poetry (NY: Oxford U, 1974), p. 617.

[4] W.H. Auden, ed., 19th-Century British Minor Poets, notes by George R. Creeger (NY: Delacorte, 1966), pp. 373-4. The publications mentioned were early inspirations for C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The latter attended Morris’s college at Oxford—Exeter—and bought Morris’s The Life & Death of Jason, his translation of the Volsungasaga, and his prose-and-verse romance The House of the Wolfings, with prize money from an award for undergraduates (Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography [London: HarperCollins, 1995], p. 77). W.B. Yeats said of the prose romances that they were ‘so great a joy that they were the only books I was ever to read slowly that I might not come quickly to the end’ (Trilling & Bloom, p. 290).

[5] Ibid., p. 290.

[6] Ibid., p. 618.

[7] E.P. Thompson’s description of the last is intriguing. In William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (NY: Monthly Review, 1961), he writes:

The Earthly Paradise is a collection of twenty-four poetic narratives, of greatly varying lengths, and from many sources, classical, Eastern, medieval, and Norse. They are grouped in pairs for each month of the year, prefaced by verses for the month. As in The Canterbury Tales, the poems are bound together by a slender narrative. (p. 144)

[8] Auden, p. 273.

[9] Trilling & Bloom, p. 648.

[10] Ibid., pp. 651-2.

[11] Bruce Smith & Yoshiko Yamamoto, The Beautiful Necessity: Decorating with Arts & Crafts (Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith, 1996), pp. 22-3.

[12] Trilling & Bloom, p. 293.

[13] Ibid., p. 293.

[14] Ibid., p. 289.

[15] Ibid., p. 306.

[16] Gillian Naylor, ed., William Morris by himself: Designs & writings (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 153.

[17] Trilling & Bloom, p. 288.

[18] On Thompson, I really appreciated the opening paragraph of a piece by Michael Weiss at The New Criterion (here):

The late E.P. Thompson is not a man I would imagine finds much favor in these pages. The reformist Communist who needed the Soviet invasion of Hungary to give up the Party; the founding editor New Left Review, who fell out with that sodality after an arcane spat with its younger generation; the loser in a major intellectual debate with the great Polish anatomist of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski. Yet Thompson is also remembered for a phrase which conservatives might consider stealing: ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. . . .

Every historian should have as his guiding principle so generous an estimation of his subject [as Thompson’s].

[19] Thompson, p. 56.

23 March 2010

On Social Justice by St Basil the Great, Reviewed


Although I can’t remember for sure, when Bishop Savas offered to send out a number of free copies of Fr Paul Schroeder’s translation of St Basil’s homilies on wealth and poverty—On Social Justice—I believe His Grace made it a stipulation that one must agree to read the book. [1] Well, despite it being a slim volume (the Popular Patristics Series volumes are typically quite digestible) it’s taken me some four months now to finish it. But finish it I did. In the meantime, I know my good friend, the Orthodox blogger at The Ebb & Flow of Consciousness, had a couple of very insightful posts on the book (here and here).

There are four authentic homilies, and one believed to be ‘Pseudo-Basilian’. The first, entitled ‘To the Rich’ [2], is on Christ’s words to the rich young man in Matthew 19.16-22. It sets the tone for the book very nicely. St Basil teaches that if one cannot divest oneself of wealth, one has not fulfilled the law of love for one’s neighbour. He writes:

Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbour; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love. [3]

St Basil responds to those who ask how they will live and how it could be possible for everyone to sell all, ‘Do not ask me the rationale behind our Lord’s commands. The Lawgiver knows well how to bring what is possible into agreement with the Law.’ [4] To those who say they cannot give, St Basil says: ‘How many could you have delivered from want with but a single ring from your finger? How many households fallen into destitution might you have raised? In just one of your closets there are enough clothes to cover an entire town shivering with cold.’ [5] He concludes, ‘You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.’ [6]

The second homily is on the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12.16-21, and is entitled ‘I Will Tear down My Barns’ [7]. St Basil addresses such people: ‘You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.’ [8] To the notion of storing and guarding one’s wealth so that one might take one’s ease, he says, ‘Therefore, let the end of your harvesting be the beginning of a heavenly sowing.’ [9] St Basil elabourates:

[If you scatter your wealth,] God will receive you, angels extol you, all people from the creation of the world will bless you. Your glory will be eternal; you will inherit the crown of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven. All these things will be your reward for your stewardship of perishable things. [10]

This homily contains one of St Basil’s most moving attempts ‘to humanize and personalize the plight of the poor’, in Fr Schroeder’s words. [11] The great Hierarch paints a picture for his wealthy audience, to bring the suffering of poverty vividly into their imaginations:

How can I bring the sufferings of the poverty-stricken to your attention? When they look around inside their hovels, . . . [and] find only clothes and furnishings so miserable that, if all their belongings were reckoned together, they would be worth only a few cents. What then? They turn their gaze to their own children, thinking that perhaps by bringing them to the slave-market they might find some respite from death. Consider now the violent struggle that takes place between the desperation a rising from famine and a parent’s fundamental instincts. Starvation on the one side threatens a horrible death, while nature resists, convincing the parents rather to die with their children. Time and again they vacillate, but in the end they succumb, driven by want and cruel necessity. [12]

The third homily, ‘In Time of Famine & Drought’ [13], beginning with Amos 3.8, deals with exactly the situation it names. St Basil explains frankly the reason that God has allowed famine: ‘See, now, how the multitude of your sins has altered the course of the year and changed the character of the seasons, producing these unusual temperature.’ [14] He continues:

. . . [T]he reason why our needs are not provided for as usual is plain and obvious: we do not share what we receive with others. We praise beneficence, while we deprive the needy of it. . . . For this reason we are threatened with righteous judgment. This is why God does not open his hand: because we have closed up our hearts towards our brothers and sisters. This is why the fields are arid: because love has dried up. [15]

St Basil actually tells us that just business will cause our prayers to be heard: ‘Tear up the unjust contract, so that sin might also be loosed. Wipe away the debt that bears high rates of interest, so that the earth may bear its usual fruits.’ [16] He responds to the Ayn Rands of the world, ‘who account greed a virtue’, by demanding that they demonstrate what good their money and possessions are in the face of natural disaster. ‘Will your purse not be buried together with you? Is not gold earth? Will it not be interred like worthless clay together with the clay of the body?’ [17]

Interestingly, however, in this homily St Basil actually addresses the poor as well. He says: ‘Are you poor? Do not be discouraged. . . . Place your hope in God. Can it be that He does not understand your difficult position?’ [18] He also encourages the poor to give to those who are poorer: ‘Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer. . . . Do not shrink from giving the little that you have; do not prefer your own benefit to remedying the common distress.’ [19]

But for the rich, St Basil again humanises the plight of the poor by describing the effects of starvation in vivid terms. It is interesting to note that he considers aiding such people a natural duty, and by no means a case of supernatural Christian love, for he writes: ‘Let not we who are reasonable show ourselves to be more savage than the unreasoning animals. For even the animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth.’ And then, ‘We should be put to shame by what has been recorded concerning the pagan Greeks. For some of them, a law of philanthropy dictated a single table and common meals, so that many different people might almost be regarded as one household.’ [20] St Basil ends with a reminder of the threat of hell and the Judgement, which is ‘not myth, but reality foretold by the voice of truth’. [21]

The fourth homily is taken from St Basil’s homilies on the Psalms, and taking Ps 14.5 LXX as its text, is entitled, ‘Against Those Who Lend at Interest’ [22] St Basil begins by recounting a few other places in Scripture where the sin of usury is denounced, telling us, for example, that Ezekiel ‘accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest of evils’. [23] Then St Basil explains:

For in truth it is the height of inhumanity that those who do not have enough even for basic necessities should be compelled to seek a loan in order to survive, while others, not being satisfied with the return of the principal, should turn the misfortune of the poor to their own advantage and reap a bountiful harvest. [24]

Of usurers, St Basil asks, ‘Do you not know that you are taking in an even greater yield of sins than the increase of wealth you hope to receive through interest?’ [25]

Again, there is the humanising of the poor in vivid descriptions of the wretchedness and anxiety of the debtor—

If he lies down, in his sleep he sees the lender as a nightmare floating over his head. If he wakes up, the interest consumes his thoughts and is a constant source of worry. [26]

If you knock at his door, the debtor is underneath the bed in a flash. His heart pounds if someone enters the room suddenly. If a dog barks, he breaks out in a sweat, seized with terror, and looks for someplace to hide. [27]

No boxer avoids the blows of an opponent as a borrower avoids chance encounters with the creditor, hiding his face among the shadows of buildings and alleyways. [28]

But in this case, St Basil means to warn the would-be debtor nearly as much as the would-be usurer. He quotes Prov 5.15, ‘Drink water at your own cistern.’ In other words, ‘It is better to take care of your needs little by little with your own devices, than to be raised up all at once by outside means, only to be completely stripped of everything you have.’ [29]

But St Basil does not suppose that all borrowers are truly desperate. He observes that usually, ‘it is not those who are truly deprived who come to procure a loan’, but ‘rather people who devote themselves to unconstrained expenditures and useless luxuries’. [30] Nevertheless, he still reminds the rich to listen ‘to the kind of counsel I am giving to the poor on account of your inhumanity: to remain in dreadful circumstances’. [31] For, St Basil says, ‘The one who weeps in despair at the rate of interest is plainly before us, but the future of the one who is about to enjoy the wealth received from them is uncertain. It is unclear whether you will not rather leave this joy behind for others, while storing up an evil treasure of injustice for yourself.’ [32]

Finally, the ‘Pseudo-Basilian’ homily, ‘On Mercy & Justice’, is placed in an appendix. Here, the emphasis is on the necessary connection of these two virtues, for, ‘Acts of charity made from unjust gains are not acceptable to God, nor are those who refrain from injustice praiseworthy if they do not share what they have.’ [33] The author introduces the teaching that while some are called to sell all of their property to follow Christ, to others He ‘ordained allotment and sharing of what they have, so that in this way they might be seen as imitators of the kindness of God, showing mercy and giving and sharing.’ [34]

Great things are promised from these homilies. In his ‘Foreword’, Gregory Yova tells us that for him personally, ‘reading the writings of St Basil the Great in the following chapters was one of those experiences: life-changing and indescribable.’ [35] Yova elabourates a bit:

There is no way to describe the power, simplicity, wisdom, and freedom of his words; . . . I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you.

When you read Basil’s words, you will think they were written yesterday—not 1,600 years ago! It’s unbelievable how precisely he describes our modern struggle with material wealth, our responsibility to our fellow man, and how to live life in balance. [36]

While I wouldn’t have described the experience for me personally as ‘life-changing’, I certainly believe the homilies live up to the promise. St Basil’s teachings on these matters will no doubt stay with me, providing guidance throughout my life. Fr Schroeder’s translation is quite readable, as well, and the Popular Patristics Series format is ideal for this little collection. Translator and publisher are to be applauded for making this teaching more accessible to the general reader.

I do find the title Fr Schroeder has given to the homilies somewhat questionable. While St Basil certainly deals with issues that are typically referred to nowadays as ‘social justice’, I believe such a title can create the misconception that St Basil is advocating some kind of social activism—marches, legislation, etc. I do not read him as telling Christians to go out expressly to ‘change the world’, but rather to treat others justly and help those in need. If we all did this, I’ve no doubt the world would be changed.

I would also like to have had a Scriptural index. There are footnotes with the citations of Scripture, which is good, but it is nice to be able to see all such citations laid out and to be able to track them down quickly.

But my main criticism is directed at Fr Schroeder’s introduction. While he is understandably enthusiastic about St Basil’s teaching on these matters, Fr Schroeder feels inexplicably that he must compare the teachings of other Fathers in other contexts with those of St Basil—castigating the former for ‘addressing the spiritual condition of the [rich] young man [of Matthew] in almost exclusively individual terms.’ [37]

Thus, Clement of Alexandria emphasises that the most important lesson of the parable is that one not be attached to one’s wealth, and that our Lord is prescribing ‘the stripping off of the passions from the soul itself and from the disposition, and the cutting up by the roots and casting out of what is alien to the mind.’ [38] Similarly, the early monastic approach of concentrating on the ridding of ‘oneself of the burden of worldly possessions’ rather than on ‘the aid that is rendered to the poor by giving one’s property to them’. Thus, St Anthony and the Desert Fathers are criticised for treating the poor as ‘nameless and faceless, little more than a cipher, a receptacle for discarded possessions.’ [39]

Furthermore, Fr Schroeder is not happy with the conclusion—anticipated by Clement and St Anthony and found explicitly in the Pseudo-Basilian homily—that those in the world ‘are enjoined not to become overly attached to their material possessions’, while it is the monks who ‘fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, which is regarded as the way to true perfection.’ [40] He calls this the ‘two-tiered approach’, and suggests that it somehow makes the commandment to the rich young man inapplicable to non-monastics. [41]

By contrast, Fr Schroeder claims that St Basil interprets the parable ‘in primarily social rather than individual terms’, [42] that he ‘explicitly rejects any attempt to formulate a two-tiered approach to the commandment’, [43] and that St Basil’s humanising descriptions of poverty are superior to the treatment of the poor ‘found throughout much of the monastic literature’. [44]

It is just this readiness to criticise the Fathers that troubles me so much in so many St Vladimir’s publications. It is not enough for Fr Schroeder to appreciate the particular emphases of St Basil’s homilies, apparently he must also proffer some impious argument that those writings which do not appeal to him to the same degree are somehow inferior or deficient. Never mind that St Basil is addressing a very different audience in a very different context to the other writings mentioned. Is it necessary that a poor monk, who is most likely well acquainted at first hand with poverty, be given a detailed description of it in a saying or homily addressed just to him? Can we not recognise social and individual dimensions in Christian ethics, and allow each their proper place? Is it not obvious that the monastic divesting of the ‘burden of worldly possessions’ is but a prerequisite for attaining a deeper, truer love for all? Is it not, furthermore, an imitation of the Apostles’ forsaking all to follow Christ—precisely what He was commanding the rich young man to do?

But Fr Schroeder also seems to miss those areas of convergence that appear in St Basil’s writings themselves. Thus, it is clear in the very first homily that St Basil too sees the inner passions as the fundamental problem. He describes the young man as ‘darkened by the passion of avarice’, [45] and addresses such people, ‘But now your possessions are more a part of you than the members of your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation. of one of your limbs. . . . Had you determined long ago to give to those in need, how would it be unbearable now to distribute whatever was left?’ [46] So it seems that St Basil does not ignore, but rather presupposes the detachment and ‘stripping off of the passions’ that Clement and the Desert Fathers emphasise. Furthermore, when in the homily on famine, he addresses the wealthy audience, ‘If you do not want to give everything to the better cause, at least divide your possessions equally between [the poor and yourself]’, [47] then it seems to me that St Basil is coming very close to the so-called ‘two-tiered approach’. And what else are his threats of damnation and promises of heavenly reward but appeals to an individual ethics?

Fr Schroeder’s treatment of ‘Pseudo-Basil’ is even worse. He actually suggests that this author teaches that the ‘commandment to aid the involuntary poor is . . . superseded by the requirement to render assistance to the voluntary poor’, [48] which the author never actually says! The closest statement is, ‘Eagerness to serve holy people is accounted as reverence for Christ, and the one who eagerly ministers to the poor is shown to be a companion of Christ.’ [49] Although I think in context it is clear that he is encouraging people to give to poor monks, I see no claim whatsoever that this ‘supersedes’ the commandment to help the ‘involuntary poor’.

I complained in a previous post (here) about the obsession among so many ‘scholarly’ writers, even Orthodox ones, with looking, first, for ‘handy but oversimplified classification schemas that cater to modern intellectual fashions, and second, [for] the “originality” and “uniqueness” of the various patristic authors’, to the point that the consensus Patrum gets neglected or even denied altogether. The Church has passed down the Lives and writings of all of the Saints for our instruction. Rather than picking the ones that we like and criticising the others, why don’t we find a way to learn even—or perhaps especially—from those that seem odd or uncomfortable to us. As C.S. Lewis has said, in his incredible 1941 sermon at the 12th-c. Oxford University Church of St Mary the Virgin, ‘The Weight of Glory’, ‘If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which coneals what we do not yet know and need to know.’ [50]


[1] St Basil the Great, On Social Justice, tr. Fr C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2009).

[2] The standard designation is Homily 7.

[3] St Basil, p. 43.

[4] Ibid., p. 46.

[5] Ibid., p. 49. I was actually reminded here of the ending of Schindler’s List, when Schindler realises:

I could have got more out. I could have got more. . . . I threw away so much money. You have no idea! This car! O God, what about the car? Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. . . . This pen—two more people. This is gold—two more people. . . . I could have got one more person, and I didn’t. I didn’t!

[6] St Basil, p. 49.

[7] Homily 6.

[8] St Basil, p. 61.

[9] Ibid., pp. 62-3.

[10] Ibid., p. 63.

[11] Ibid., p. 25.

[12] Ibid., p. 64.

[13] Homily 8.

[14] St Basil, p. 75.

[15] Ibid., p. 76.

[16] Ibid., p. 78.

[17] Ibid., p. 79.

[18] Ibid., p. 81.

[19] Ibid., p. 83.

[20] Ibid., p. 86.

[21] Ibid., p. 88.

[22] Homily 2 on Ps 14.

[23] St Basil, p. 89.

[24] Ibid., p. 90.

[25] Ibid., p. 91.

[26] Ibid., p. 91.

[27] Ibid., p. 94.

[28] Ibid., pp. 95-6. These observations remind me of the figure of Raskolnikov, who, when he is introduced, ‘was over his head in debt to the landlady and was afraid of meeting her’ (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Knopf, 1993], p. 3).

[29] St Basil, p. 92.

[30] Ibid., 96.

[31] Ibid., 97.

[32] Ibid., 99.

[33] Ibid., p. 103.

[34] Ibid., p. 107.

[35] Ibid., p. 9.

[36] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[37] Ibid., p. 23.

[38] Ibid., p. 22.

[39] Ibid., p. 23.

[40] Ibid., p. 23.

[41] Ibid., p. 25.

[42] Ibid., p. 24.

[43] Ibid., p. 25.

[44] Ibid., p. 25.

[45] Ibid., p. 42.

[46] Ibid., p. 43.

[47] Ibid., p. 87.

[48] Ibid., p. 102.

[49] Ibid., p. 107.

[50] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory & Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (NY: Touchstone, 1996), p. 31.