15 December 2008

Reading the Fathers: A Downward Spiral of Confusion


I don’t know about anyone else, but I often become quite confused when reading the Fathers. This is not a big problem per se, but it is sometimes compounded by two other problems: 1) on certain rather ‘esoteric’ questions, I don’t have many sources to turn to for clarification when a particular passage is confusing, and 2) while my reading of the Fathers is never a purely academic exercise, sometimes I would even go so far as to say that the meaning of particular passages carries great existential significance for me, or at the very least, it concerns something I am more than idly curious about.

This post is about an interesting example of the phenomenon of which I speak. In Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (the first, I believe, of the three sources in which I read the sentence I am about to quote), under chap. 5—'How to psalmodise'—in St Gregory Sinaites's 'Instructions to Hesychasts', we read: 'To psalmodise much is good for those who follow active life, since they are ignorant of mental occupations and lead a life of labour' (E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart [London: Faber, 1992], p. 76). In the complete English Philokalia, the same treatise is called 'On Prayer: Seven Texts', and once again, chap. 5 is called 'How to Psalmodize'. The corresponding sentence reads: 'To psalmodize often is appropriate for novices in the ascetic life, because of the toil it involves and the spiritual knowledge it confers' (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 278). The Greek Φιλοκαλία, enigmatically, says: 'Τὸ γὰρ πολλὰ ψάλλειν, τῶν πρακτικῶν ἐστι, διὰ τὴν ἀγνωσίαν καὶ τὸν κόπον·' (Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Δ´ [Athens: Astir, 1982], p. 82).

In its context, this is a passing statement, almost like a note St Gregory has made to himself, one which certainly embodies the very soul of wit much better than poor Polonius could manage. Kadloubovsky and Palmer are translating from the Russian Добротолюбіе of St Theophan the Recluse (as opposed to Palmer, et al., of course), so one is tempted to conclude that the amplification in Writings is taken from St Theophan, though lacking the Russian edition I cannot verify this. But the point is that different translators, whoever they are, have taken the same terse statement and amplified it in ways that almost seem diametrically opposed to one another. In Writings, the statement seems to suggest that psalmodising (not to mention ‘labour’) and ‘mental occupations’ can never coincide, while in the complete Philokalia, the same passage suggests that psalmodising leads to ‘mental occupations’ (or ‘spiritual knowledge’, as the translators have it). Furthermore, the ‘labour’ (‘toil’) is apparently identified with the psalmodising itself in the later text, rather than being one of the qualifications for psalmodising much.

The most frustrating part was turning to the Greek (my ancient Greek is not good enough to just sit and read through the Fathers), and finding the question as it were simply handed back to me. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like it would have been nice if there were at least some possessive pronouns to accompany those words, διὰ τὴν ἀγνωσίαν καὶ τὸν κόπον. I mean, I'm not going to shoot myself, apostatise, or go mad if I can't figure this out. I'm not losing sleep. I trust that if I really need to know, God will enlighten me somehow. The fact that I'm reading a text that the Добротолюбіе has accurately characterised as 'Instructions to Hesychasts' should probably be a sign that it's all my own fault for not following the standard patristic advice to read according to my own spiritual station. But any suggestions are, of course, most welcome.

By the way, I couldn't help but notice that today was the feast of St Ioannikios of Devich, whose monastery was recently destroyed by Muslim Albanians in their continuing quest to eradicate the Orthodox heritage of Kosovo. Let's all say a prayer for the Orthodox Christians of that troubled Serbian land.

13 comments:

Trevor said...

In the interest of pooling ignorance, I'll offer a couple of thoughts. First, you probably already know this, but in case it confuses anyone else, I think τῶν πρακτικῶν refers to the distinction between the "physical" ascetic labors of fasting and vigils and such, and the "mental" discipline of prayer of the heart. (Lest anyone think that "active life" and "life of labour" suggest a peasant or steel mill worker-type laborer. The point of "ignorant of mental occupations" is not that someone lacks a high school diploma, but that they haven't been trained in hesychasm.

That may or may not be significant for your issue, but I think, looking at the Greek and its translation in the complete Philokalia, that they're trying to be more interpretive in clarifying this matter. It seems consistent to me that they are also a bit more interpretive with the dependent clause. "Because of . . . the spiritual knowledge it confers" is hardly a literal translation of διὰ τὴν ἀγνωσίαν, which simply means "because of the ignorance." The article may point to a possessive sense--which ignorance? In context, their ignorance. Well, what does that mean, "because of their ignorance?" The Russian (or the English from the Russian) simply expands the thought--"since they are ignorant of mental occupations."

The translation from Greek goes one step further--why is it for them because of their ignorance? Because it's all they can ever expect to do, or because it will help move them out of their ignorance, toward "mental occupations?" If the context doesn't provide any clues, I guess you'd have to go with other statements about the same idea from the Fathers or their general sense of what ought to be done with those who focus strictly on ascetic labor. In my limited reading, it seems that it is best for such persons to progress into "mental occupations," so I guess it seems reasonable to translate with the idea here that psalmody is meant as a remedy.

At the same time, however, it is particularly appropriate for them because it is a means of progress that itself involves a great deal of toil, and that's what they're best suited for right now. I think both translations agree on this point--the Russian (or the English from the Russian) is simply more cautious about the precise intent. It stays a bit more literal and thereby preserves the linguistic ambiguity of the Greek.

aaronandbrighid said...

Wow! I never expected such a serious, detailed response! Thank you very much, Trevor.

I guess for me the main issue really was whether St Gregory was saying that psalmody would help to lead those in the active stage toward 'mental occupations' (this expression was pretty clear to me from reading St Theophan). Part of the problem for me in interpreting this was that I hadn't found much detailed discussion of psalmody, particularly from an explicitly 'hesychast' perspective. If it seems clearer to you that he's treating psalmody as a remedy, then that's definitely helpful, not to mention encouraging!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I concur with Trevor. It's common in Patristic Greek to omit the pronouns; the referent can be determined by simply the most recent preceding object, in this case, the "practitioners." So it is "their ignorance and their difficulty" which is under view. That is, their ignorance of theological instruction proper and their difficulty in immediately comprehending such, it would seem. The psalms are mentioned often in the Apophthegmata Patrum as the (completely memorized!) Bible of the poor, illiterate monks, and this is very likely the referent St Gregory has in mind. It is all they needed, in the end....

aaronandbrighid said...

I thank you, as well, Mr Edgecomb! Are YOU, by any chance, familiar with Douglas Burton-Christie's 'Word in the Desert'? It's a great book, and our mutual friend, Esteban, was entirely unacquainted with it!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Please, I'm just Kevin.

I hadn't even heard of that one! I just ordered a copy. You must have a secret stash of good books in the Upper Coldlands! I wonder why it isn't better known. It certainly looks like an excellent study, and I should have run across it looking precisely for patristic interpretation resources several years back. Luck of the draw, I guess! Thanks very much for the tip.

Basil the Black said...

I think that the agnosian and kopon of 'active' people (non-hesychasts or even clergy and laymen in the world) means that they have little time to dedicate to undistracted prayer because they are too busy working, or to spiritual learning because they lack the ability or the luxury to read. Psalmody, therefore, is a way of answering the lack of both, for psalmody is prayer which is expressed above all in church but is also something which can easily be done either in the mind or with the tongue in many situations without the need for much concentration, and also because psalmody expresses theology, and much spiritual learning and meditation is to be found therein.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, Kevin, I enjoy the (now, admittedly, playful and slightly ironic) sense of formality in calling other fellows 'Mr __'. I may have to post something soon that touches on this!

You're quite welcome for the tip on Burton-Christie. If I accomplish nothing else, spreading his good name until it is a household one (okay, maybe a little ambitious) would be a fitting legacy.

As for the secret stash, it does indeed exist, and I'll have to continue to give the impression that it does so in the future.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh my, while I was composing my own comment, I received a delightful new one from my friend, Basil the Black. Thank you very much for your insight, sir. Comments like these are what I've been hoping for all along!

Basil the Black said...

I thought you might be interested in this extract on psalmody by St Ephrem the Syrian:

Psalmody is calm of soul, author of peace. Psalmody is convenor of friendship, union of the separated, reconciliation of enemies. Psalmody attracts the help of the Angels, is a weapon in night-time fears, repose of the day’s toils, safety for infants, adornment for the old, consolation for the elderly, most fitting embellishment for women. It make deserts into homes, market places sober. It is the ABC for beginners, progress for the more advanced, confirmation for the perfect, the voice of the Church. It makes festivals radiant; it creates mourning that is in accordance with God, for psalmody draws tears even from a heart of stone. Psalmody is the work of the Angels, the commonwealth of heaven, spiritual incense. Psalmody is enlightenment of souls, sanctification of bodies.

Let us, brethren, never stop making psalmody our meditation, both at home and on the road, both sleeping and waking, speaking to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Psalmody is the joy of those who love God. It banishes idle chatter, brings laughter to an end, reminds us of the judgement, rouses the soul towards God, joins the choir of the Angels. Where there is psalmody with compunction, there God is, with the Angels. Where the songs of the opponent are, there is God’s wrath, and ‘woe!’ is the reward of laughter. Where sacred books and readings are, there are the joy of the just and the salvation of the listeners. Where there are harps and dances, there is the darkening of men and women, and a festival of the Devil.

aaronandbrighid said...

Wonderful, my dear Basil! Is this from Fr Ephrem's page, or some other source?

Basil the Black said...

It is indeed from Fr Ephrem's website. Your instincts serve you well. Keep your feelings buried deep inside you, Aaron. They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Patriarch.

aaronandbrighid said...

Ah, my dear Basil, ever a 'Star Wars' reference at the ready!

Ben Marston said...

I am very busy. I work a 12 hour shift. I have memorized the prayers of the Hours, so I can fit them into my breaks. I do Matins at home before work. Commuting to work First Hour. First Break Third Hour. Second Break Sixth Hour. third break. Ninth Hour. A Reader's Service. On the way home. Vespers.
Very, Very helpful.
And when I was in prison, the last 33 days, I managed to pray the Jesus Prayer about 7000 times a day. A transforming experience way beyond all my expectations. Made the whole tribulation more than worth it.