24 March 2009

'A Life in Accordance With His Name'—St Sophronius of Jerusalem

Today, 11 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father among the Saints, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (560-638), and his elder and companion, St John Moschus (c. 550-619), author of the Spiritual Meadow. St Sophronius is the author of the Life of St Mary of Egypt which is read in Orthodox churches on Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent, of a number of poems written in the classical Anacreontic metre (see these for instance), and of a number of hymns, particularly idiomela (see The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and Sinai Desert, trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997], p. 178, n. 1). One can read about St Sophronius’s life in the usual places (here, here, and here), but I wanted to focus in on one thing. It occurred to me that a good way to celebrate the memory of St Sophronius would be to look at the meaning of his name. At the beginning of the account of St Sophronius in the Synaxaristes, we read:

From his youth, the blessed Sophronius lived a life in accordance with his name, loving wisdom, both spiritual and secular, and preserving his virginal purity from the very time of his birth. Both of these virtues—spiritual wisdom and virginal purity—are known as chastity. Thus, in the words of the venerable John of the Ladder, chastity is the general term for all the virtues, and the chaste Sophronius assiduously made all of them his own. (Lives, p. 169).

This is of course a reference to that virtue that the Greeks called σωφροσύνη, and which is here translated ‘chastity’, but has also been rendered in Latin as temperantia (thus, ‘temperance’), and is sometimes called ‘moderation’. The reference to St John Climacus is from the Ladder, Step 15 (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed. trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore], rev. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991], p. 104).

The passage from St Sophronius’s Life gives us some idea of the robust nature of the term in Greek, encompassing both ‘spiritual wisdom and virginal purity’, despite the English ‘chastity’ being generally understood in narrowly sexual terms today (thanks to such things as the perhaps mythical ‘chastity belt’). Josef Pieper, in The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1966), pp. 145-6, has discussed the similar loss of connotation in translating the Latin temperantia, concluding (on p. 146):

A study of the linguistic meaning of the Greek term, sophrosyne, and of the Latin temperantia reveals a much wider range of significance. The original meaning of the Greek word embraces ‘directing reason’ in the widest sense. And the Latin stays close to this far-ranging significance. In St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (12:24-5) we read: Deus temperavit corpus. ‘Thus God has established a harmony in the body, giving special honor to that which needed it most. There was to be no want of unity in the body; all the different parts of it were to make each other’s welfare their common care.’ The primary and essential meaning of temperare, therefore, is this: to dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole.

St John Chrysostom, in his Homily 27:7 on I Cor. 11, uses the term σωφροσύνη in this way, to refer to the preservation of grace after receiving the Mysteries (from the NPNF series):

But thou before thou hast partaken fastest, that in a certain way thou mayest appear worthy of the Communion: but when thou hast partaken, and thou oughtest to increase thy temperance, thou undoest all. And yet surely it is not the same to fast before this and after it. Since although it is our duty to be temperate at both times, yet most particularly after we have received the Bridegroom.

But, keeping this in mind as well as the passage from St Sophronius’s Life, it seems nevertheless to be the case that the Fathers often use the term σωφροσύνη primarily to mean the control of sexual lust, i.e., ‘chastity’ as we understand it. Despite the obviously broad significance that he gives it in the statement referred to above, in context St John Climacus is certainly talking about chastity (it is connected in Step 15 with ‘purity’).

Furthermore, it is precisely in this sense that St John Cassian makes a strong statement indeed about σωφροσύνη (or so we find his term rendered in the Philokalia), in Institutes VI.vi (The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 2000], p. 155):

For by no virtue do fleshly human beings so nearly approximate and imitate the way of life of the angelic spirits as by the deserts and grace of chastity, whereby those who are still living on earth have, according to the Apostle, ‘their citizenship in the heavens’ (Phil. 3:20) and possess here in their frail flesh what it is promised that the holy ones will have in the world to come once they have laid aside their fleshly corruption.

Finally, the Fathers’ eloquent praise of chastity reminds me, first of all, of C.S. Lewis’s dedication of his Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Oxford U, 1965), to Charles Williams. On p. v, we read:

There [at Williams’s lectures on Milton’s Comus] we elders heard (among other things) what he had long despaired of hearing—a lecture on Comus which placed its importance where the poet placed it—and watched ‘the yonge fresshe folkes, he or she’, who filled the benches listening first with incredulity, then with toleration, and finally with delight, to something so strange and new in their experience as the praise of chastity. Reviewers, who have not had time to re-read Milton, have failed for the most part to digest your criticism of him; but it is a reasonable hope that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand henceforward that when the old poets made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for the didactic is often the enchanted.

Thus guided to Milton, I conclude this discussion of the good name of St Sophronius with a passage from A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634 (from John D. Jump, ed., The Complete English Poems of John Milton (NY: Washington Square, 1964), p. 52:

Eld. Bro. . . .
So dear to Heav’n is Saintly chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried Angles lacky her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
And in cleer dream, and solemn visison
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
Till oft convers with heav’nly habitants
Begin to cast a beam on th’ outward shape,
The unpolluted temple of the mind,
And in turns degrees to the souls essence,
Till all be made immortal: but when lust
By unchaste looks, loose gestures, and foul talk,
But most by leud and lavish act of sin,
Lets in defilement to the inward parts,
The soul grows clotted by contagion,
Imbodies, and imbrutes, till she quite loose
The divine property of her first being.
Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp
Oft seen in Charnel vaults, and Sepulchers
Lingering, and sitting by a new made grave,
As loath to leave the Body that it lov’d,
And link’t it self by carnal sensuality
To a degenerate and degraded state.

2. Bro. How charming is divine Philosophy!
Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo’s lute,
And a perpetual feast of nectar’d sweets,
Where no crude surfet raigns.

For an exciting description of Chastity’s heroic defeat of Lust, see Prudentius’s Psychomachia, in Latin here, where he calls her virgo Pudicitia, and in English here. In her study of the notion of σωφροσύνη, Helen North has identified the Psychomachia as one of the landmarks in the Western understanding of virtues and vices (From Myth to Icon: Reflections of Greek Ethical Doctrine in Literature and Art [Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1979], p. 263).


Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

And thank you for the information on our Holy Father among the Saints, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. I only knew he was St John Moschus' companion [I am reading his "Spiritual Meadow" at the moment] and was not aware that he had written the Life of St Mary nor other poems. Thank you for correcting my ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Keep of the consuming, Irish Beer!
Ye shall then be more enlightened!

Aaron Taylor said...

Anonymous> Huh? That's not from 'Comus', is it?