23 January 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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