30 April 2009

St Maximus on the 'Theology of Play'

In a brief moment of idleness, I was just browsing Fr Andrew Louth’s book of translations of select pieces from St Maximus the Confessor (Maximus the Confessor [London: Routledge, 1999]), and I unexpectedly found some poetry. It seems Ambigua 71 is St Maximus’s commentary on some lines of a poem of St Gregory the Theologian:

The high Word plays in every kind of form, mixing, as he wills, with his world here and there. (p. 164)

Here is part of what St Maximus has to say about this:

The divine Paul, the great Apostle, who is both an initiate himself and initiates others in the divine and secretly-known wisdom, calls [this mystery] the foolishness of God and his weakness, because, I think, of its transcendent wisdom and power; the great and divinely-minded Gregory calls it play, because of its transcendent prudence. For Paul says, ‘The foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (I Cor. 1:25); while Gregory says, The high Word plays in every kind of form, mixing, as he wills, with his world here and there.’ Each, by privation of what with us are most powerful attributes, points to what the divine possesses, and by negations of what is ours makes affirmation of the divine. For with us foolishness, weakness and play are privations, of wisdom, power and prudence, respectively, but when they are attributed to God they clearly mean excess of wisdom, power and prudence. (pp. 164-5)

Fr Louth introduces the Ambigua by pointing out that St Gregory’s reference to the ‘high Word’ playing ‘in every kind of form’—

recalls the similar imagery, used to rather different purpose, by Gerard Manley Hopkins [in his sonnet, ‘As kingfishers catch fire’, here]:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

While I can’t comment on Hopkins’s intentions in using this imagery of ‘play’, St Maximus’s comments on St Gregory’s use of the same imagery make it clear that as Orthodox we do not understand such things in the way that many Protestants may who are under the influence of what is called a ‘theology of play’. One blogger, for instance, has asked how play cannot be part of what our Lord intends when he says we should be like children (Mark 10:15). As Orthodox, however, we have the examples of the Saints to show that this is so. Concerning, e.g., St Theodosius of the Kiev Caves, it is written (The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’, trans. Paul Hollingsworth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], p. 37):

Moreover, he would not approach the children at play, as is the custom of youths, but abhorred their games. His clothing was poor and patched. For this reason his parents compelled him to dress in fresh clothes and go out and play with children. But he would not heed them and wished instead to be as one of the poor and, moreover, to be entrusted to a teacher to study Scripture.

Similarly, the Venerable Bede tells us, in his Life of St Cuthbert, that when another child prophesied the future career of the Saint, upbraiding him, ‘It does not become you to be playing among children’, he ‘immediately abandoned his vain sports, and returning home, began from that moment to exhibit an unusual decision both of mind and character’. In this way, St Bede writes earlier, the future bishop ‘most abundantly laid aside all those childish things’.

It would seem that these Saints recognised the truth that St Maximus expressed, that ‘play’ involves a deficiency in ‘prudence’. Of course, there is also a certain saying about St Anthony the Great that we should take into account (from Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], pp. 3-4):

13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

So it would seem that in particular cases, some sort of recreation may be necessary for those of us who are less advanced on the path to salvation (and after all, the story about St Anthony concerns monks—how much easier might it be to ‘stretch’ laymen ‘beyond measure’?). But at the very least we would do well to recognise that ‘play’ is not, according to the Patristic tradition, something we can find in God, at least not in a way likely to appeal to modern Americans accustomed to amusing ourselves to death and then looking for a moral justification for it. Incredibly, as they grow closer to Him, it is not entirely uncommon to find even wise and holy children themselves leaving play behind and moving on to something higher.

29 April 2009

'The Infinite & Eternal of the Christian Soul', Almost

When I wrote the post on Romanticism the other day (here), I did a little search for Berlin’s quotation—‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul’. One site I found that had citations for several of his allusions in the long catalogue of Romantic qualities seemed to have concluded that it couldn’t be traced. But a search for a few key words rather than the exact quote yielded the following: John Lancaster Spalding, Religion and Art and Other Essays (Manchester, NH: Ayer, 1969), p. 32.

What depth and spiritual force has not the Christian religion given to poetry! Groves, flowers, and running waters satisfied the poets of paganism; but not the boundless ocean, nor the starry heavens, nor aught else can express the infinite thoughts and emotions which fill the soul of a Christian.

Apparently, Spalding was the RC bishop of Peoria from 1877-1908 and a co-founder of the Catholic University of America. Not the sort of person I’d associate with Romantic sentiments (and get a load of the photo!), but clearly Sir Isaiah Berlin knew many things that I don’t know. It's a thought worthy of Chesterton!

Addendum: The site that I linked to above which provides citations for the various quotes and allusions in Berlin's lecture has since discovered this post and added the reference, thanking me by name for tracking it down.

28 April 2009

'His Humility & Love Have Covered Him With Glory'—St Basil of Poiana Mărului

Today, 15 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Basil (1692-1767),
Abbot of Poiana Mărului Skete and elder of St Paisius Velichkovsky. I apologise that it's so late that many of my readers will likely be reading this the next day, by the clock as well as the liturgical calendar. I'm afraid my time is fairly occupied this week by a project with a deadline. Forgive me.

In his autobiography, St Paisius Velichkovsky calls St Basil ‘our common teacher and instructor, the most pious and holy elder and schemamonk Vasylij’ (J.M.E. Featherstone, trans., The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1989], p. 75). According to St Paisius (pp. 75-6):

This pious servant of God far surpassed everyone in his understanding of divine Scripture and the teaching of the holy fathers, in spiritual discernment, and in his thorough knowledge of the sacred canons of the holy Church and interpretation of them in accordance with the commentaries of Zonaras, Theodore Balsamon, and others. The fame of his teaching and pious direction toward the path of salvation went out everywhere. When I saw him, I glorified God because He had deemed me worthy to see such a holy man.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid the elder is not nearly so well known as his spiritual son (who warranted an immortalising nod from Dostoevsky, no less), so I shall post the brief Life by Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan) in full, as well as an excerpt from this great elder’s writings. Here is Fr Ioanichie’s account (Romanian Patericon, Vol. I [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], pp. 422, 424-5):

The holy Hieroschemamonk Basil was the spiritual father of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, and one of the most renowned teachers and workers of the Jesus Prayer in the eighteenth century.

Taking up the cross of Christ from his youth, in 1705 or 1706 he became a schemamonk at Dălhăuţi-Focşani Skete, where he labored in asceticism as a hesychast with great zeal and fear of God. There he studied the depths of the Holy Scriptures and read many writings of the Holy Fathers. By the grace of Christ he became a great worker of divine prayer and a spiritual counselor of the fathers in the community.

Being ordained to the priesthood, in 1715 he became abbot of Dălhăuţi Monastery and a famous guide of souls, so that his name became known everywhere, even to the Prince of the Romanian Land, Constantine Mavrocordat. In the period of twenty years that he was abbot of Dălhăuţi, St Basil gathered around him a community of over forty monk-hesychasts, whom he taught obedience, humility, silence, and the secret work of the Jesus Prayer. Thus Abbot Basil made his community a true spiritual school of hesychastic life according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers that was renowned in the Romanian Land. His disciples—Muntenians, Moldavians, Ardeleans, and Russians—lived in perfect love and good order. When there was no longer room for them at Dălhăuţi, some of them settled in nearby sketes: Trestieni, Ciolanu, Cîrnu, Răteşti, Rogoz, Bontăşti, Valea Neagra in Vrancea, and others.

About the years 1730-1733, Abbot Basil renovated Poiana Mărului Skete and moved there with twelve disciples. As Abbot at Poiana Mărului, St Basil spiritually directed all the sketes in the Buzău Mountains, regularly visiting them either personally or through letters. One of his disciples was St Paisius Velichkovsky, whom he received in Trestieni Skete for some years, and whom he tonsured on Mt Athos in 1750.

The rule of Abbot Basil called for a harmonious coenobitic life, daily reading of the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, pure guarding of the mind, one meal a day, and weekly Communion.

As a teacher of prayer, the great abbot also wrote some Homilies about the guarding of the mind, prayer, and spiritual training, which are short introductions to the philokalic writings of St Nilus of Sora, Philotheus, Hesychius, and Gregory the Sinaite. His introductory Homilies are true philokalic texts, and a guide on how to approach Christ through divine prayer.

Attaining the measure of the great hesychasts, St Basil gave his soul into the hands of the Lord in 1767, leaving behind many disciples.

Many more details have been furnished in the Life of St Basil published as part of a translation of his works by one of the monks of the former ROCOR brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete on Mt Athos (a kind schemamonk whom I had the great honour to meet). See Elder Basil of Poiana Mărului (1692-1767), His Life and Writings, trans. A Monk of the Brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete, Mt Athos (Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1996), pp. 9-29. Despite, however, a rather thorough fleshing out of the elder’s biography in comparison with the Patericon account, the author concludes:

In this account of the known witnesses concerning the life of the Elder Basil, we find him overshadowed by his great disciple St Paisy Velichkovsky and only elusively present in the accounts by his other disciples. This is somehow appropriate. Elder Basil’s genuinely monastic humility and love for his children in Christ has covered him with their glory. This must be one of the finest tributes for anyone who follows the Divine Teacher Who said to His disciples, ‘Amen, Amen, I say unto you. He that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto My Father’ (John 14:12). (p. 29)

But while the biography is great, the translation of St Basil’s writings is the more important contribution. Our author and translator is typically self-deprecating when he writes:

Having not known any better than to be born in America, I am deprived of a native command of any language, beginning with English and certainly including Russo-Slavonic and Romanian. I can therefore only beg the reader’s forbearance for all the many ways in which my efforts here have fallen short, in particular wherever the English is unnecessarily rough or obscure or wherever the meaning of the original text is not faithfully rendered. (p. 39)

Here, though, is a passage of this translation, taken from St Basil’s ‘Letter to the Most Reverend Priest-Monk Alexy, My Spiritual Son in Christ’ (Elder Basil, p. 129):

I am sending you a covenant and a pact for peace in the Lord, established between us, of whom the Lord said, ‘If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive you your transgressions.’ (Matthew 6:14-15) And ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ (Luke 6:31). So my friend, being a weak person, I also desire that anyone I sin against forgive me. And so I am forcing myself, even though my heart is unwilling, to forgive my brother’s sins against me and to what extent? The Lord did not say seventy times, but seventy times seven, if he sins and repents, to forgive him (Matt. 18:22; Luke 17:4).

This, then, is our criterion and our rule. Were we to observe it, no one could separate us from dwelling together with one another in love. But our self-justification, which someone called the devil’s throat, does not permit us to put the blame on ourselves in keeping with the commandment. Instead we blame our brother and think that we are innocent, which is an obvious lie. My brother may be guilty of offending me, but I am also guilty of sin, because I did not endure it patiently. So both of us violate the commandments of Christ when we blame each other, as Adam did to Eve and Eve to the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13).

We also perish or fall under condemnation in the same way as they did because of self-justification alone, and not because of sin, for there is no man without sin (Job 14:4-5), even if he be a saint, if he has lived a single day in this world.

This is a wonderful book, though I’m afraid I have little right to own it. As the now-Metropolitan Jonah wrote in his review in Divine Ascent, ‘This is not a book for the casual student of spirituality, but for the serious practitioner of the tradition of the Fathers’ (Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, The Entry into Jerusalem 1999, Vol. 1, Nos. 3/4, p. 152).

27 April 2009

More on Ancient Virtue Ethics

I’ve had quite a few visitors to my Josef Pieper post, owing, it seems, to this little nod from the Ochlophobist. As I’ve already mentioned in a response to the first and so far the only comment, I actually feel rather badly now for not providing more commentary or referring to other authors (apart from the brief name-dropping) on the subject of the doctrine of virtue. As much as I’d like to do a follow-up today covering some of the points I want to touch on regarding the doctrine of virtue and virtue ethics in general, I’m afraid that shall have to wait a bit longer yet. But those who are interested in a little more of Pieper himself can find a small passage from him here, in my post on the meaning of St Sophronius’s name. Furthermore, it is this post that I’d like to add to today.

Julia Annas is a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy, specialising in Platonic ethics. I first became acquainted with her through her published Townsend Lectures (1997) at Cornell University, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1999), a brilliant and fascinating analysis of Plato’s ethics through the interpretive lens of the Middle Platonists (looking thus to the Hellenistic period, she brushes aside Benjamin Jowett’s approach to the Republic and points out that the ‘crude reaction’ of such as Karl Popper ‘accepts Jowett’s picture and simplistically reverses the value given to it’ [p. 95]). But although her work seems to be primarily historical, she has also contributed to contemporary philosophy as a proponent of what is often called ‘virtue ethics’ (I mentioned this in the Pieper post), in many respects a revival of the Greeks’ approach to morality. In this regard, I encourage everyone to read Annas's forthcoming article, ‘Virtue Ethics’, from The Oxford Companion to Ethical Theory, here at her U of Arizona homepage.

But the work I’d like to quote today is Annas's earlier An Introduction to Plato’s Republic (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), p. 115. There, by way of discussing Republic 430d-432b, she gives an overview of the virtue of σωφροσύνη that I wish I’d remembered to quote in the post on St Sophronius.

‘Moderation’ translates sōphrosunē [that is, in G.M.A. Grube’s translation, rev. C.D.C. Reeve, which Annas uses for the most part—Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), pp. 971-1223; the section on moderation is on pp. 1062-64], often translated ‘temperance’. Neither English word is satisfactory, since sōphrosunē does not answer well to any one virtue that we recognize. It is discussed in the earlier dialogue Charmides [see the translation by Rosamond Kent Sprague in Plato, pp. 640-663], where the variety of characterizations offered (none of them satisfactory) show how hard it was even for the Greeks to pin down this virtue adequately. Suggestions offered there are that moderation is doing things in a slow and orderly way, or having a sense of shame, or minding your own business, or having self-knowledge, or ‘doing one’s own’ (the definition of justice offered in the Republic). On the one hand moderation is connected with the avoidance of excess and vulgarity, and with polite and deferential behaviour. (It is sometimes thought of as the characteristic women’s virtue, Greek women having to be deferential whereas men were brought up to be self-assertive). On the other hand, moderation is also connected to the more intellectual idea of self-knowledge; it is thought of as knowing one’s place, having a correct idea of who you are and what is due to and appropriate for your position. In earlier dialogues Plato stresses this element so much that moderation looks like the intellectual basis of all the virtues (Charmides 164d ff., First Alcibiades 131b, 133c ff., Lovers 138a ff.). But in the Republic he tries to deal with both these elements, that of deferential and self-controlled behaviour and that of self-knowledge.

26 April 2009

'Unbelief Has Engendered Firm Faith'—Thomas Sunday

Christ is risen! According to the Synaxarion, ‘On this Sunday, the second Sunday of Pascha, we celebrate the Antipascha, that is to say the rededication of the Resurrection of Christ, and also commemorate the event of the Holy Apostle Thomas’s touching the wounds of Christ’ (The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, trans. Fr David [Kidd] and Mother Gabriella [Ursache] [Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999], p. 175). As we sing in the Aposticha at Vespers for Thomas Sunday, Idiomel Stichera, Tone 4 (taken from the translation by Fr Ephrem [Lash] here):

O amazing wonder! Unbelief has engendered firm faith for Thomas, who said ‘Unless I see, I will not believe’, having handled the side, acknowledged as God incarnate the same Son of God: he recognised that he had suffered in the flesh; he proclaimed the risen God and he cried in shining tones ‘My Lord and my God, glory to you’.

Felix Culpa, as is his wont, has assembled a great collection of resources on Thomas Sunday here. He has also given us three further texts for this commemoration: his own translation of a brief homily by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia, the founding primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, here, his translation of a homily by Bishop Mefody of Campanie (Russian Exarchate of the EP) here, and a thorough revision of a portion of the commentary on today’s Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy (John 20:19-31) by Archbishop Averky of Jordanville, another illustrious ROCOR bishop of blessed memory, here. He also gives us (in this post) the following interesting passage from St Gregory the Dialogist:

When the doubting disciple touched the wounds in his Master's body, He cured the wounds of our unbelief. Thomas' unbelief was of more advantage to our faith than the faith of the believing disciples, because when he was led back to faith by touching Jesus, our minds were relieved of all doubt and made firm in faith.

I hope no one takes this as some kind of boast (particularly in light of St Gregory's words above), but I’ve never been much inclined toward doubt, whatever other spiritual struggles I’ve gone through. My feeling of personal connection with Thomas Sunday was changed a few years ago, however, through an experience with a friend of mine. When I worked at Barnes & Noble back in my college days, a young man who went to elementary school with my wife was one of my first friends there. Although I learned that he was the son of a Protestant minister, when the subject of faith came up at some point in our friendship, I surmised that my friend was more or less what one might call an agnostic, though he asked sincere questions and didn’t try to argue with people.

When my wife and I left for Greece the first time (for a stay of a few months), our friend asked us if we would find an icon of St Thomas touching Christ’s wounds and send it back to the States for him. This request we duly carried out, but after we returned to the States for a year, and then moved back to Greece for nearly two more years, we lost touch with our friend. My parents told me that he’d picked the icon up from their house (this would be in February or March of 2001) and of course we continued to keep him in our prayers, but that was the last we heard of him for quite some time.

Well then in, I believe, December of 2005, over a year after we finally returned to the States, he called us. He said he had gone to the local Antiochian parish, thinking that was where we attended church (for the record, we’ve never been members there!), and though he didn’t find us he did meet someone who knew us and was able to give him our phone number. It turned out that our friend, who was a brilliant musician and had an exhaustive knowledge of Classical music, who had long been a fan of Russian liturgical settings by Rakhmaninov and others, had become a devotee of the Estonian Orthodox composer, Arvo Pärt. At some point, while listening to Arvo Pärt (I’m not sure that he ever told me which piece), he had an overwhelming sense of the reality and presence of God, and he knew that he had to become Orthodox.

Needless to say, we rekindled our friendship amid much joy. He started attending our parish with us, and we had him over to our house frequently for drinks and conversation. I helped him move into a rental house that his parents owned, and had the chance to meet his mom, brother, and sister-in-law. He spoke with our parish priest and scheduled a date to be made a catechumen, and even before that service he already asked me if I would be his sponsor in baptism.

The last time I saw him was at a hierarchical liturgy a week before the Making of a Catechumen. He had to be at work quite early that Sunday, and so was supposed to leave before the end of the lengthy service. But although I thought the time he needed to be on his way had come and gone, he just stood there, watching the proceedings and not even checking his watch. Finally, I tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, ‘What time are you supposed to be at work?’ He then saw that he was due to be there in five minutes or so and thanked me for the reminder, apologising that he had simply lost track of the time. I stepped outside with him to say goodbye and watched him pull out of the parking lot.

Friday morning of that week, my wife called me at work to say that our friend’s sister had just told her he was killed in a car accident. To make a long story short, his family, whom we didn’t know very well, was very kind to us, and grateful for the rôle our friend had told them we played in his life. Among other kindnesses, they invited us to come over to his house and see if there was anything we’d like to take. We chose a small table, a few books and cd’s, and a knick-knack. And we saw the icon of St Thomas touching the wounds of Christ hanging on his wall. After we told them the story of that icon, which they had never heard before, they allowed us to take it, and it now hangs in a proud place in our icon corner. I always think that St Thomas must have done some heavy interceding for our friend during those years of silence.

25 April 2009

'Love of Life & Love of Death'

As far back as I can remember, I have found myself profoundly moved by the various expressions of the Romantic movement in art—long before I knew that term—to the point that my interest in and fascination with the subjects of that art early on became inextricably bound up with my perception of them through a Romantic lens. What I mean to say is that when in life I see a wild landscape and or a mediæval ruin, I immediately perceive it as a Romantic, or at least a ‘post-Romantic’, and certainly not as anyone of an earlier epoch would have done. Similarly, when I came across various Romantic artworks, such as Friedrich’s ‘Couple Gazing at the Moon’ (1807) above, or Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F# minor (watch a quartet play it here), or Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge (here), I felt these things resonate inside me like a familiar voice. So it’s long been interesting to me to read descriptions of or theoretical and critical references to the Romantic movement, because I feel someone is putting into words something about myself that I always found rather ineffable. Here is a wonderful such passage from Sir Isaiah Berlin’s Mellon Lectures of 1965, published as The Roots of Romanticism, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U, 2001), pp. 16-8:

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence, the maladie du siècle, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Dance of Death, indeed Death itself. It is Shelley’s dome of many-coloured glass, and it is also his white radiance of eternity. It is the confused teeming fullness and richness of life, Fülle des Lebens, inexhaustible multiplicity, turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos, but also it is peace, oneness with the great ‘I Am’, harmony with the natural order, the music of the spheres, dissolution in the eternal all-containing spirit. It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, the mysterious, the supernatural, ruins, moonlight, enchanted castles, hunting horns, elves, giants, griffins, falling water, the old mill on the Floss, darkness and the powers of darkness, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. Also it is the familiar, the sense of one’s unique tradition, joy in the smiling aspect of everyday nature, and the accustomed sights and sounds of contented, simple, rural folk—the sane and happy wisdom of rosy-cheeked sons of the soil. It is the ancient, the historic, it is Gothic cathedrals, mists of antiquity, ancient roots and the old order with its unanalysable qualities, its profound but inexpressible loyalties, the impalpable, the imponderable. Also it is the pursuit of novelty, revolutionary change, concern with the fleeting present, desire to live in the moment, rejection of knowledge, past and future, the pastoral idyll of happy innocence, joy in the passing instant, a sense of timelessness. It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially the East, and in remote times, especially the Middle Ages. But also it is happy co-operation in a common creative effort, the sense of forming part of a Church, a class, a party, a tradition, a great and all-containing symmetrical hierarchy, knights and retainers, the ranks of the Church, organic social ties, mystic unity, one faith, one land, one blood, ‘la terre et les morts’, as Barrès said, the great society of the dead and the living and the yet unborn. It is the the Toryism of Scott and Southey and Wordsworth, and it is the radicalism of Shelley, Büchner and Stendhal. It is Chateaubriand’s aesthetic medievalism, and it is Michelet’s loathing of the Middle Ages. It is Carlyle’s worship of authority, and Hugo’s hatred of authority. It is extreme nature mysticism, and extreme anti-naturalist aestheticism. It is energy, force, will, life étalage du moi; it is also self-torture, self-annihilation, suicide. It is the primitive, the unsophisticated, the bosom of nature, green fields, cow-bells, murmuring brooks, the infinite blue sky. No less, however, it is also dandyism, the desire to dress up, red waistcoats, green wigs, blue hair which the followers of people like Gérard de Nerval wore in Paris at a certain period. It is the lobster which Nerval led about on a string in the streets of Paris. It is wild exhibitionism, eccentricity, it is the battle of Ernani, it is ennui, it is taedium vitae, it is the death of Sardanopolis, whether painted by Delacroix, or written about by Berlioz or Byron. It is the convulsion of great empires, wars, slaughter and the crashing of worlds. It is the romantic hero—the rebel, l’homme fatal, the damned soul, the Corsairs, Manfreds, Giaours, Laras, Cains, all the population of Byron’s heroic poems. It is Melmoth, it is Jean Sbogar, all the outcasts and Ishmaels as well as the golden-hearted courtesans and the noble-hearted convicts of nineteenth-century fiction. It is drinking out of the human skull, it is Berlioz who said he wanted to climb Vesuvius in order to commune with a kindred soul. It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul’. It is, in short, unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular, in the paintings of nature for example, and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as an instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.

Obviously, there is much here that does not appeal to me, whether æsthetically, intellectually, or, certainly, morally. But there is also much that does appeal to me, but which I cannot reconcile with what I either know or believe after careful reflection to be true or good. For instance, the æsthetic ideas of Fr Pavel Florensky—with which I am primarily acquainted through Victor Bychkov’s The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1993)—and Photios Kontoglou—in Meetings With Kontoglou and Byzantine Sacred Art (both available here, from the Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies)—have convinced me to regard Romantic landscape painting as suboptimal art, and yet I still admire it! So anyway, consider this paragraph as an invitation to explain to me what is wrong with Romanticism, either in general or in its various expressions. You will find me an attentive and sympathetic audience!

I’ll conclude by sharing an interesting experience I had. I have known Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Mists’ (view it here, if you don’t know what I’m talking about) since I was perhaps 10 or 11 from a Bantam edition of Frankenstein (‘Couple Gazing’, above, was the cover art of the Bantam Dracula). Years later, in 2003 to be exact, I saw a scene wonderfully similar to it in the mountains of Epirus, on the road to Metsovo, when the car we were in emerged from a thick fog just before sunset. It was of course, impossible for me to view the scene except as an approximation of Friedrich’s painting.

24 April 2009

Pieper On the Doctrine of Virtue

I have a mind to simply post the entire 'Preface' to Josef Pieper's book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, but I suppose I'll have to try to make some cuttings. While the last twenty or thirty years have seen a revival in virtue ethics among professional moral philosophers (Alisdair MacIntyre, Julia Annas [see my excerpt from her here], and Rosalind Hursthouse are a few of the names with which I am acquainted), the layman, even the thoughtful and/or religious layman, often tends to find the concept rather foreign. Pieper provides a good introduction to it from a decidedly religious perspective, a path which not all of the current philosophers follow. Here are his own words (Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, et al. [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1966], pp. xi-xiii):

When Agathon in Plato's Symposium takes his turn at making a speech in praise of Love, he organizes his ideas around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. An avant-garde intellectual who, incidentally, is the host at that famous banquet, Agathon offers no special reasons for this approach. That is, the contemporaries of Socrates already took for granted these traditional categories sprung from the earliest speculative thinking. They took for granted not only the idea of virtue, which signifies human rightness, but also the attempt to define it in that fourfold spectrum. This particular intellectual framework, the formula which is called 'the doctrine of virtue', was one of the great discoveries in the history of man's self-understanding, and it has continued to be part and parcel of the European mind. It has become a basic component of the European consciousness, as the result of centuries of persistent intellectual endeavor by all the creative elements of the emerging West, both the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) and the Romans (Cicero, Seneca), both Judaism (Philo) and Christianity (Clement of Alexandria, St Augustine).

It is true that the classic origins of the doctrine of virtue later made Christian critics suspicious of it. They warily regarded it as too philosophical and not Scriptural enough. Thus, they preferred to talk about commandments and duties rather than about virtues. To define the obligations of man is certainly a legitimate, even estimable, and no doubt necessary undertaking. With a doctrine of commandments or duties, however, there is always the danger of arbitrarily drawing up a list of requirements and losing sight of the human person who 'ought' to do this or that. The doctrine of virtue, on the other hand, has things to say about this human person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to—by being prudent, just, brave, and temperate. The doctrine of virtue, that is, is one form of the doctrine of obligation; but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction. On the contrary, its aim is to clear a trail, to open a way.

But this is not the place to launch a disputation on the various possible modes of ethical statement. Rather, what I wish to do is to describe just one of those modes, and to reveal, as far as possible, its full reach: that team of four, the basic virtues, which, as a fine classical phrase put it, can enable man to attain the furthest potentialities of his nature.

In this realm, originality of thought and diction is of small importance—should, in fact, be distrusted. It can hardly be expected that there will be entirely new insights on such a subject. We may well turn to the 'wisdom of the ancients' in our human quest to understand reality, for that wisdom contains a truly inexhaustible contemporaneity. The intention of this book is to reveal some of that contemporaneity.


The interpreter, in these latter days, invokes this tradition [the great tradition of human wisdom itself] in the hope of seeming less ridiculous as he boldly drafts a moral standard for humanity which he, in his own daily life, is utterly unable to meet.

22 April 2009

An Orthodox Response to 'Earth Day'

Felix Culpa has posted a great piece on Earth Day over at Ora et Labora, one that I highly recommend other Orthodox read (I've stolen this icon from him!). It summarises well some of my own misgivings about the environmental movement and actually enlightened me about such things as 'Earth Day' in particular, but, on the other hand, it also takes the opportunity to affirm the proper Orthodox sense of respect for creation and to point to some sources on this issue. Christopher Orr as well has quoted from and linked to a few such sources in his own affirmation of the Orthodox support for environmental concern per se.

I would like to add three things to what they have already cited in pointing out the genuine Orthodox concern for creation. The first is a brief, but quite appealing statement of Elder Amphilochios of Patmos (one which I believe Met. Kallistos has quoted in one of his pieces on the environment): 'Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love and has the blesssings of God' (Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, Herman Middleton [Thessaloniki: Protecting Veil, 2003], p. 51). Although I, like Felix Culpa, feel that the 'reactionary stance' of many conservatives to 'environmental issues' is 'quite understandable', we Orthodox who identify with aspects of conservatism must recall that the above statement was made, not under the influence of fashionable post-1960's environmentalism, but as an expression of the genuine Orthodox veneration of God's earth.

Second, I would like to excerpt a couple of representative paragraphs from a book by my own professor, Anestis Kesselopoulos, Man and the Environment: A Study of St Symeon the New Theologian, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary, 2001), pp. 181-2:

In order to approach the inner principles [logoi] of things, it is necessary first to be using the world in accordance with nature; whereas any discord in man's relations with his natural surroundings indicates that something of the unnatural and irrational has infiltrated these relations. But if irrationality and an unnatural state are manifested in misuse of the world, then respect for the inner principles ('rationales') of things and a natural state is expressed in the ascetic, non-consumerist, and eucharistic use of the world. Dominant in the first instance are the hedonistic demands of the senses, which inform man about creation in a manner which doess not correspond to the truth of things. In this way they change the beauty of creation and oblige it to submit to the service of human individuality and autonomy. In the second instance, we ahve a renunciation on man's part of the demands of the senses, which constitutes the ascetic-eucharistic use of the world, the sole way of true life and knowledge. In St Symeon's writings, especial stress is laid on the ascetic use of the world which, in contrast to the consumerist use, saves not only the world but man too. For this reason, 'absolute necessity for the body' is held up as the measure and 'better way' in use of the world, a way which also works toward social justice.

Especially for the present age of incalculable exploitation and violation of the environment, the ascetic and non-consumerist ethos promoted by the Fathers is particularly salutary, since it shows man the way to restrict his greedy appetites towards creation in order to be connected with it in a more real and harmonious way, as God created him to be. This is the ethos embodied by the charismatic monks (not that they are the only expression of it) who by their life preserve truth, authenticity, and respect in their relations with the nature that surrounds them. Their asceticism is not to be interpreted as abhorrence of matter and the natural environment, but as the transcendence of human individualism. The true monk does not maltreat material things or the environment, but takes care of them and respects them. Thus in the life of the monk and the way he uses things, matter and the environment are elevated to their original beauty.

Finally, in my own master's thesis (a work 'in progress'!), I have drawn on Keselopoulos's book in one paragraph in particular in expressing some thoughts relevant to today's focus:

In his study of the theology of St Symeon the New Theologian, Keselopoulos notes that St Symeon, referring to the Lord’s parable about making good use of our ‘talents’,[1] holds it to be necessary to our salvation to engage in the right use of the material world.[2] This obviously precludes the sort of exploitation that in the West is often blamed today on a vague ‘Judeo-Christian [strand of] earth dominance beliefs’.[3] But on the positive side, it calls for an understanding, indeed, ultimately, a literal ‘vision’, of what are known to the Fathers as the logoi spermatikoi[4] of created things themselves, their inner principles or essences which are imparted to them by the creative activity and indwelling in creation of Christ the Logos. In the words of St Maximus the Confessor, ‘For all the works God has made, when contemplated by us wisely, in accordance with nature and with the proper science, mysteriously proclaim to us the principles according to which they were made.’[5] By using the material world in accordance with these logoi, by fashioning in such a way that they are preserved and even realised, created things cease to be understood as ‘impersonal objects of use, but [rather as] works and creations, the results of action and creation by a personal God.’[6] For man in a state kata physin, creation itself is stamped with the personal imprint of the Creator.


[1] Cf. Matthew 25:14-30.

[2] Anestis Keselopoulos, Man and the Environment: A Study of St Symeon the New Theologian, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2001), pp. 113-4.

[3] Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Indianapolis: U of Indiana, 1990), p. 198.

[4] According to Frederick Copleston’s magisterial philosophical history, for the Stoic originators of the term, ‘the logoi spermatikoi seem to be a transposition on to the material plane of the ideal theory [of Plato]’, and Copleston describes them thusly: ‘These active forms—but material—are as it were “seeds,” through the activity of which individual things come into being as the world develops; or rather they are seeds which unfold themselves in the forms of individual things’ (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome from the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus [NY: Doubleday, 1993], pp. 388, 389).

[5] St Maximos the Confessor, ‘To Thalassius’, PG 90, 296A. I am indebted to Keselopoulos, Man, p. 110, for this reference.

[6] Keselopoulos, Man, p. 107. See also, Chrestos Yannaras, Person and Eros, trans. Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2007), pp. 96-7.

St Herodion & His Literary Namesake

I was saddened this morning to realise that I forgot about a post I’d planned to do yesterday. Monday evening I saw that Tuesday, 8 April on the Church’s calendar, was the feast of the Holy Apostle Herodion, among others, of the Seventy. Here is the account of him in the Prologue for the day:

Herodian was a kinsman of Paul. ‘Greet,’ writes St Paul to the Romans, ‘my relative Herodian’ (Romans 16:11). As the Bishop of Neo-Parthia, Herodian suffered much at the hands of the Jews. They beat him over the head with rods, they struck him on the mouth with stones and stabbed him with knives. After they left him for dead, St Herodian arose and continued to serve the apostles. He assisted the Apostle Peter in Rome and was beheaded along with many other Christians the same day that St Peter was crucified.

St Herodion receives a brief mention in the Life of St Peter from Holy Apostles Convent (mostly taken from St Demetrius of Rostov’s Menology). There we read, ‘Clement, as a kinsman of the Emperor, they took pity on and set free; but Herodion and Olympus, who had come to Rome with the Apostle Peter, they beheaded, together with a multitude of the faithful’ (The Lives of the Holy Apostles, trans. Reader Isaac E. Lambertsen and Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 2001], pp. 22-3).

So it wasn’t that I had a lot to write about the Holy Apostle himself, but that while I don’t recall any references to it in the book either way, it occurred to me that 8 April was likely the nameday of one of my favourite literary charactres, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (‘Rodion’ being the Russian form of ‘Herodion’). So I thought this would be a good opportunity to post what to me was one of the most insightful passages of the book. In Part 3, Chapt. 3 (I shall quote the Everyman’s Library edition: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Knopf, 1993]), when Raskonikov is talking to his mother and sister (sometime after having committed the murder that precipitates all the action of the book), we read:

‘Enough, mama,’ he muttered in confusion, pressing her hand without looking at her. ‘We’ll have time to talk all we want!’

Having said this, he suddenly became confused and turned pale: again that terrible, recent feeling passed like a deathly chill over his soul; again it suddenly became perfectly plain and clear to him that he had just uttered a terrible lie, that not only would he never have the chance to talk all he wanted, but that it was no longer possible for him to talk at all, with anyone, about anything, ever. The impression of this tormenting thought was so strong that for a moment he almost forgot himself entirely; he rose from his place and, without looking at anyone, started out the door. (p. 229)

For me this was one of the most explicit illustrations of Raskolnikov’s ‘schismatic’ status (as is well known, his surname is from расколник, meaning ‘schismatic’). His crime, both because he must try so hard to conceal it as well as because of the inhuman quality of the act itself, has cut him off from his fellow man, and this becomes particularly painful to him in the case of his mother and sister.

But it resonated with me in large part because this passage described very well a psychological, and of course, spiritual state that I too had experienced to a lesser, but similarly intense degree. Many people it seems believe that they are capable of concealing some large portion of themselves or their lives from those around them, but I think they are very few who really are so capable. I lived a few years of my young life in the habit of constantly deceiving my family, lying about where I was going and what I was doing, consumed with my various clandestine activities but trying hard to appear to be perfectly normal, as though I was hiding nothing. I recognised in Raskolnikov what a tremendous toll this takes on the individual. I loved my family, and when I too had that moment when I realised that it was no longer possible to talk at all with them, ‘about anything, ever’, I knew I had better repent. The time had come to bow to the earth, kiss it in compunction, and confess all. The time had come to be reborn.

21 April 2009

Dracula on Constantinople

In Elizabeth Kostova's fascinating Dracula novel, The Historian (NY: Back Bay, 2006), there is the following exchange between the undead Prince Vlad and one of the mortal charactres:

. . .‘I have nearly fulfilled my ambition of printing fourteen hundred and fifty three of them, but slowly, so that I have time to distribute them as I work. Does that number mean anything to you?’

‘Yes,’ I said after a moment. ‘It is the year of the fall of Constantinople.’

‘I thought you would see it,’ he said with his bitter smile. ‘It is the worst date in history.’ (pp. 605-6)

I thought this sentiment a highly plausible one for him to express on two counts. First, Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu describe Dracula's father's visit to Constantinople, saying, 'Vlad's first glimpse of the glamour and glitter of the dying thousand-year-old civilization of Byzantium made an indelible impression' (Dracula, Prince of Many Faces [Boston: Back Bay, 1989], p. 38). It's hard to imagine the son did not share his father's feelings.

Second, Dracula spent his entire life in a vain effort to stem the flood of Muslim Turks into the Orthodox lands of the Balkans. Had Constantinople held, his kingdom too might have stood strong and independent, and he himself might have lived into old age.

The illustration above is by Benjamin Constant, 'The Entry of Mahomet II into Constantinople' (1876).

20 April 2009

'With Joyful Soul Thou Didst Settle in the Wilderness'—St Nilus of Sora

Today, 7 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Nilus (Nil Sorsky), Wonderworker of Sora (1433-1508). I’m afraid, dear readers, that I’ve not fully recovered from the weekend’s various activities (hence the late hour) and thus am not able to do a proper post for St Nilus. I will limit myself to a couple of statements about him from other writers, plus a small excerpt from the Saint’s own writings.

The Life of St Nilus in the Patericon of the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra (1896), which was translated into English in The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) and Herman (Podmoshensky) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), tell us, ‘St Nilus was for Russian monasticism an instructor and writer such as Ss Isaac the Syrian, Abba Dorotheus, Barsanuphius the Great, John of the Ladder, Nilus of Sinai, and other Holy Fathers were for Orthodox monasticism in general’ (p. 89). Fr Georges Florovsky (in Ways of Russian Theology, Part I, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979], p. 23) has written of him:

St Nil of the Sora was a ‘silent one’ [bezmolvnik]. He had no need to speak or teach. Although not a thinker, writer, or theologian, Nil appears in history precisely as an ‘elder’ [starets] or teacher. He was a teacher of silence, an instructor and guide for ‘mental construction’ in the spiritual life.

Upon comparison with the wider contemplative tradition of Greece and Byzantium or after comparison with the Philokalia [Dobrotoliubie], one discovers nothing new in St Nil. Usually one cannot easily distinguish or separate his personal views and thoughts from the uninterrupted stream of excerpts and citations in his writing. Perhaps St Nil’s moral themes and, to a lesser extent, his definitely formed outlook provide his most distinguishing traits. However, if Nil expresses little that is his ‘own’ which is distinguishable from generally accepted spiritual tradition, then at least he expresses it independently. He lives in the patristic tradition. That tradition lives and is alive in him.

In his commentary on the writings of St Nilus, Elder Basil of Poiana-Marului writes (Elder Basil of Poiana Marului [1692-1767], His Life and Writings, trans. A Monk o the Brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete, Mt Athos [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1996], p. 88):

Concerning the order and artful learning of this mystery [the Jesus Prayer] the great elder, our holy Father Nil the desert-dweller of Sora, composed this little book in which he explains the beginning of noetic work, the victory and our conquest of invisible assailants.

Here is an excerpt from ‘this little book’, translated by Helen Iswolsky in A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, ed. George P. Fedotov, Vol. 2 in The Collected Works of George P. Fedotov (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1988), p. 66 (a good collection of primary sources in English, but with ridiculously misguided introductions by Fedotov—see Fr Seraphim’s comments here):

When we rise from sleep, we must first of all glorify God and make our confession to Him, and then we must turn to prayer, chanting, reading, manual labor, and various minor occupations. We must continually keep our mind in a disposition of great reverence, piety and trust in God, and do all we can to please Him, and not for the sake of vainglory or to please other men; for we know for certain that God is with us, since He is everywhere and fills everything. He Who has created the ear, hears all, and He Who has created the eye, sees all. If you enter into conversation, let it be one that will please God; refrain from murmuring, from judging others, from idle words and quarrels. Also, take food and drink with the fear of God. Most of all during sleep, be piously recollected, and let your body recline in decency. For our sleep is the fleeting image of the eternal sleep—that is, of death—and resting on your couch prefigures lying in your coffin.

There is an enormous collection of resources related to St Nilus here, but unfortunately it appears that all of it is in Russian only. For English readers, here is a long Life of the Saint, here is a short one, here is an Akathist, and here is another excerpt from his writings. Also, there are extensive excerpts from the account of St Nilus in The Northern Thebaid (from which I’ve quoted above) here. I shall conclude with the Kontakion of the Saint (Tone 8) as given in this book (p. 109):

Having gone far away from worldly tumult for the love of Christ, with joyful soul thou didst settle in the wilderness, and there thou didst labor well like an Angel on earth, O Father Nilus, wearing out thy body by vigil and fasting for the sake of eternal life. And now, having been vouchsafed this life, thou standest in the light of the unutterable joy of the Most Holy Trinity together with the Saints. Pray, we thy children beseech thee, that we thy flock may be preserved from every snare and evil condition brought about by enemies visible and invisible.

19 April 2009

'There Are No Dead in the Grave'

Christ is risen!
The following is an excerpt from Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006). The event he discusses took place when he was an art student in Paris.

And lo, on Easter Saturday, in 1924 perhaps, the Light visited me after I had taken communion, and I felt it like the touch of Divine Eternity on my spirit. Gentle, full of peace and love, the Light remained with me for three days. It drove away the darkness of non-existence that had engulfed me. I was resurrected, and in me and with me the whole world was resurrected. The words of St John Chrysostom at the end of the Easter Liturgy struck me with overwhelming force: 'Christ is risen and there are no dead in the grave'. Tormented hitherto by the spectre of universal death, I now felt that my soul, too, was resurrected and there were no more dead . . . If this is God, then quickly let me abandon everything and seek only union with Him. (p. 178, ellipsis in the original)

After this experience, Elder Sophrony tried out the Orthodox theological school in Paris. But deciding that even this was not enough, he left to become a monk on the Holy Mountain, where he lived for about twenty years.

18 April 2009

Holy Saturday—Christ's Descent Into Hades, Part 2

Continued from here.

Obviously, St Epiphanius is giving us a rather poetic version of the traditional teaching of the Fathers, drawn from Holy Scripture, of Christ’s decent into Hades. As Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) has pointed out in his wonderfully enlightening article on this theme, St John of Damascus summarises this teaching quite well in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 3:29 (St John of Damascus, Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation [Washington, DC: Catholic U of America, 1999], p. 334):

The deified soul went down into hell so that, just as the Sun of Justice rose upon those on earth, so also might the light shine upon them under the earth who were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death; so that, just as He had brought the good news of peace to those on earth, so also might He bring that of deliverance to captives and that of sight to the blind. And to them that believed He became a cause of eternal salvation, while to them that had not He became a refutation of unbelief, and so also to them in hell (cf. I Peter 3:19), ‘That to him every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth’ (Phil. 2:10). And thus, having loosed them that had been bound for ages, He came back again from the dead and made the resurrection possible for us.

Bishop Hilarion tells us that patristic references to the descent into Hades based on I Peter 3:18-21 begin already in the Apostolic Fathers (he mentions St Polycarp, St Ignatius, and Hermas), and beginning with Clement of Alexandria, he cites a series of patristic writings on the topic that lead to his conclusion that ‘the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable’. (By the way, I also wanted to mention that Ручьёв at Incendiarious has posted his translation of a great homily on the descent into Hades by St Innocent [Borisov], Archbishop of Kherson.)

But the English literary scholar, E.M.W. Tillyard (in Myth and the English Mind: From Piers Plowman to Edward Gibbon, Being the Clark Lectures, 1959-60 [NY: Collier, 1962]), looking at the same theme as it appears in English mediæval art and literature, traces most of the particulars of the various depictions of this event to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, where two resurrected persons—the sons of St Symeon the God-Receiver—provide eyewitness testimony of the events that took place in Hades (for two versions of ‘Christ’s Descent Into Hell’, see J.K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M.R. James [Oxford: Oxford U, 2005], pp. 185-204). Although it seems to me that depictions such as that of St Epiphanius and various references in the hymnography of the divine services (e.g., the Resurrectional Apolytikion in Tone 2, or the Eirmos of Ode 6 in the Paschal Canon) suggest some familiarity with the account in Nicodemus, far be it from me to comment on what authority, if any, the Fathers gave to that document (I would love to hear from anyone who knows more than I do about this issue!).

But it is certain that Nicodemus has been the primary source for some interesting accounts of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ in English literature. I shall quote from two that Tillyard mentions, noting in each a passage that has a parallel in the other (as well as in Nicodemus) and another passage that seems more unique. I say nothing of their consonance with Orthodox teaching, though, taking account of the divergences between East and West on this topic that Bishop Hilarion has noted, it seems to me that these particular passages present nothing that necessarily follows the Augustinian and Scholastic tradition in their departure from the Orthodox East.

Firstly, in the Chester play-cycle there is a whole play devoted to the theme of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, the author of which, Tillyard says, ‘clearly knew the Gospel of Nicodemus at first hand’ (p. 34). This seems evident in an echo of ‘Christ’s Descent Into Hell, Latin A’ (Elliott, p. 193), where there is a quotation of Ps. 23:7 LXX:

5(21). I. And while prince Satan and Hades said these things, one to another, there came suddenly a voice as of thunder, and a cry of spirits, ‘Lift up your gates, princes, and be lifted up you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.’

While the words in Nicodemus seem to be attributed to ‘spirits’, in the Chester play—ll. 177-80—they are placed in the mouth of our Lord Himself. Here is the corresponding passage (Adams, p. 189):

Ihesus. Open vp Hell gates, yet I say,
You princes of pine that be present,
And lett the Kinge of Bliss this way,
That he may fulfill his intent!

On p. 35 Tillyard cites a speech in ll. 189-96 of our Lord to the Forefather Adam that, while the corresponding passage in Nicodemus is addressed to all of the souls in Hades, in the Chester play echoes somewhat the moment of direct speech to Adam captured in St Epiphanius’s homily. I shall cite Joseph Quincy Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama from Its Origin Down to Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 189:

Then Jesus shall take Adam by the hand [Tunc Iesus accipiet Adam per manum.]

Ihesus. Peace to the, Adam, my darlinge,
And eke to all thy ofspringe,
That righteous were in airth lyvinge;
From me you shall not sever.
To blis[se] now I will you bringe;
Ther you shall be without endinge.
Michael, lead these men singinge
To ioy that lasteth ever.

The other work to which Tillyard refers is William Langland’s The Vision of Piers the Plowman (I refer to A.V.C. Schmidt’s edition of the B-Text in the Everyman’s Library—William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A.V.C. Schmidt [London: J.M. Dent, 1989]). Again, there is the passage corresponding to Nicodemus’s quotation of Ps. 23 (LXX), and as it is the light that speaks in Langland, it would seem that as in Nicodemus the voice is that of our Lord. The passage is in ll. 315-21 (Schmidt, p. 230):

Eft the light bad unlouke, and Lucifer answerde,
‘Quis est iste?
What lord artow?’ quod Lucifer. The light soone seide,
‘Rex glorie,
The lord of myght and of mayn and alle manere vertues—
Dominus virtutum.
Dukes of this dymme place, anoon undo thise yates,
That Crist may come in, the Kynges sone of Hevene!’

The other passage is more unique to Langland, such that for Tillyard, ‘it reinforces my plea that Langland’s treatment of our myth [the ‘Harrowing of Hell’] is uniquely individual and comprehensive’ (p. 41). In ll. 62-7, one of the dead that arise after the death of our Lord (the sons of St Symeon in Nicodemus arise after our Lord’s resurrection, see Elliott, p. 190) speaks of the events taking place in Hades, though here they are much less detailed and more cosmic and even mythic (Schmidt, p. 221):

Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so longe tyme durede.
‘For a bitter bataille,’ the dede body seide;
‘Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir oother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shall have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng’—and sank with that til erthe.

In conclusion, just two comments. First, with this speech of the dead body, we seem to be on the mythical level where, for instance, the battles of Beowulf are often interpreted (while I unfortunately don’t have time to develop this in this post, I have already considered the connection of Beowulf with the Theophany here). Or at least that is how Tillyard reads it. One might just as well say that we are back to the ‘universal significance’ that Bishop Hilarion tells us is given to the descent into Hades in Orthodox Tradition (in his second point summarising the Eastern Fathers).

Second, I am also specifically interested in how the passage in Nicodemus where Ps. 23 (LXX) is quoted may be reflected in an interesting Paschal custom. I recall reading somewhere (but not where) of this tradition, and I have also seen it done at least once, and possibly twice or more in Greek churches (my memory is quite faulty here). At some point during the Paschal vigil (I think between the Midnight Service and the Paschal Matins, after the procession), the doors to the Temple are closed and the priest knocks and repeats the very words from this Psalm quoted in Nicodemus (the OrthodoxWiki article on 'Pascha' mentions it as a 'Syrian' tradition). Someone who has remained within answers with the question, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ In short, a dialogue very reminiscent of that in Nicodemus takes place. If any readers can help me out on this custom and/or its possible connection to the Gospel of Nicodemus, I would be much obliged!

(The image is from the Barberini Exultet Roll, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican City), Cod. Barb. Lat. 592, created in St Benedict's monastery of Monte Cassino c. 1087.)

Holy Saturday—Christ's Descent into Hades, Part 1

According to the Synaxarion reading for today, ‘On this day, Holy and Great Saturday, we celebrate the burial of the divine Body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and His descent into Hades, through which mankind was recalled from corruption to be lifted up again to life eternal’ (Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, ed. Fr David [Kidd] and Mother Gabriella [Ursache] [Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999], p. 157). For some years now, this has always called to mind one thing above all, a homily attributed to St Epiphanius of Cyprus and reprinted in the same edition of the Synaxarion I have quoted. It is probably my second favourite patristic homily, second only perhaps to St Chrysostom’s Paschal homily. So my post for today shall include this homily in full (Synaxarion, pp. 160-1):

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

‘For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

‘See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

‘I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in Paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The Bridal Chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.’

For now, I shall conclude here. I don’t want immediately to inhibit possible reflection on St Epiphanius’s homily by adding to it at length! (The fresco above is from the Protaton Church, Mt Athos, and is by Manuel Panselinos, c. 1300.)

Continued here.

17 April 2009

From Masefield's 'Good Friday'

I have read and collected various works by the English poet, John Masefield, ever since I first learned of him from Fr Andrew Phillips (here, to be precise). Sometime I shall have to do a post on the several works of the poet I’ve acquired so far. But for now, this will serve as a brief introduction. This is a speech by the ‘Madman’ in Masefield’s ‘Good Friday, A Dramatic Poem’, from Good Friday and Other Poems (NY: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 38-41:

Madman. The wild-duck, stringing through the sky,
Are south away.
Their green necks glitter as they fly,
The lake is gray,
So still, so lone, the fowler never heeds.
The wind goes rustle, rustle, through the reeds.
* * * * * * * * *
There they find peace to have their own wild souls.
In that still lake,
Only the moonrise or the wind controls
The way they take,
Through the gray reeds, the cocking moorhen’s lair,
Rippling the pool, or over leagues of air.
* * * * * * * * *
Not thus, not thus are the wild souls of men.
No peace for those
Who step beyond the blindness of the pen
To where the skies unclose.
For them the spitting mob, the cross, the crown of thorns,
The bull gone mad, the saviour on his horns.
* * * * * * * * *
Beauty and Peace have made
No peace, no still retreat,
No solace, none.
Only the unafraid
Before life’s roaring street
Touch Beauty’s feet,
Know Truth, do as God bade,
Become God’s son. [Pause.]

Darkness come down, cover a brave man’s pain.
Let the bright soul go back to God again.
Cover that tortured flesh, it only serves
To hold that thing which other power nerves.
Darkness, come down, let it be midnight here,
In the dark night the untroubled soul sings clear. [It darkens.]

I have been scourged, blinded and crucified,
My blood burns on the stones of every street
In every town; wherever people meet
I have been hounded down, in anguish died. [It darkens.]

The creaking door of flesh rolls slowly back.
Nerve by red nerve the links of living crack,
Loosing the soul to tread another track.

Beyond the pain, beyond the broken clay,
A glimmering country lies
Where life is being wise,
All of the beauty seen by truthful eyes
Are lilies there, growing beside the way.
Those golden ones will loose the torted hands,
Smooth the scarred brow, gather the breaking soul,
Whose earthly moments drop like falling sands
To leave the spirit whole.
Now darkness is upon the face of the earth. [He goes.

We Venerate Thy Passion, O Christ

This is my favourite hymn for Holy Friday. I’ve heard it done in Byzantine chant and in a Russian choral setting that was nearly as moving. From the stichera for the Ninth Hour (The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1994], p. 609):

Tone Six

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.

And for further reflection, here is a poem by John Donne for the day (The Poems of John Donne, Vol. I: The Text of the Poems With Appendixes, ed. Herbert J.C. Grierson [London: Oxford U, 1966], pp. 336-7):

Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motions, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is self life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And turne all spheares at once, peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

The Prophet Moses & the Precious Cross'—The 2nd Lecture of Fr Justin Sinaites

In the Irmos of Ode 1 of the Canon from Matins for the 1st Sunday of Lent, we sang, ‘In ancient times Israel walked dry-shod across the Red Sea, and Moses, lifting his hands in the form of the Cross, put the power of Amalek to flight in the desert.’ We sang it again last night as the first Irmos for the Canon of the Service of Holy Unction, and when I saw those words on the page, I thought, ‘At last!’ The time has come for the long-awaited post on the second lecture I was able to attend by Fr Justin of Sinai, the librarian of St Catherine’s Monastery (see the post on the first lecture here, and my original announcement of the forthcoming second post here). I’m afraid this post won’t be as glorious as I had hoped, as I don’t have all of the materials I was hoping to have to work from, but hey, it is what it is.

The title of the lecture was ‘The Hermit City of Pharan: The Biblical Rephidim’, a title which naturally suggested to me a lecture on biblical archæology. Well, my friends, there was indeed a bit of that, but there was much, much more as well. Fr Justin began by identifying the site of ‘Rephidim’, where the Israelites fought the Amalekites during their march from Egypt to Sinai (Ex. 17:1, 8), with an oasis called Wadi Feiran, a ‘broad valley’ some 25 miles from Mt Sinai. It seems that at some point during the Christian era, anchorites began to settle there, and by the end of the fourth century it had become a veritable city of monks (thus ‘Hermit City of Pharan’). Fr Justin spent no little time showing slides of various ruined cells and especially the churches there, complete with floorplans and even pieces of an altar.

But then he pointed out that rather than having to rely on ruins to get an idea of where these monks were worshipping, we could look at St Catherine’s itself, which has been well preserved. Fr Justin indicated a number of similarities in layout and design between the ruins and the surviving katholikon at Sinai, right down to the altar fragment, which was very nearly identical to the holy table at St Catherine’s. Fr Justin further added that by exploring St Catherine’s we could learn more than just the sort of settings in which the monks at Pharan were worshipping, we could learn more about the meaning of their life there itself.

It was at this point that Fr Justin introduced one of his specialties—manuscripts. In this case it was something called the ‘Sinai Greek 2’. This MS is a partial Pentateuch (covering Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus) once dated to the 11th or 12th centuries, but recently suggested as belonging to the 10th. The striking thing about it (for it is nowhere near as beautiful or lavish as the Sinai Codex Theodosianus), is the patristic commentary surrounding the main body of text. The comments are taken from a wide range of authors, with Eusebius of Emesa, St Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus predominating (I noted that it was interesting that the last author actually wrote against St Cyril at one point!). When one reaches the final portions of each book, however, they begin to be reduced to Theodoret only, leading Fr Justin to mention that this gradual diminution of scope is quite common and to suggest that the copyist of the commentary simply ran out of steam.

From there, Fr Justin got more to the point, and began to refer to various specific comments from patristic authors, first on the Prophet Moses himself (e.g., his preservation in the ark and his flight to Midian, both seen as types of Christ), and then on the account in Exodus directly relevant to the events at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-13). Of course, I would love to be able to cite all of the particular passages from the Fathers that Fr Justin used, but it seems to me that one rather representative commentary will do just as nicely. I shall quote St John Chrysostom’s comments—apparently among those given in the MS—concerning this passage in his Homily 14 on the Gospel of St John (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament III: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001], p. 92; also available online here):

See how the type was given through Moses but the truth came through Jesus Christ. And again, on Mt Sinai, when the Amalekites were waging war on the Hebrews, the hands of Moses were propped up, held by Aaron and Hur standing on either side. But Christ, when he came, himself held his hands extended on the cross by his own power. Do you see how the type ‘was given’ and ‘the truth came’?

Although I do not recall whether Fr Justin mentioned them, other very similar interpretations are given of this passage by various Fathers in the ACCS, OT III (pp. 91-3), and indeed, when he was still with ROCOR, Fr Michael Azkoul wrote, ‘Moses on the hillside with his hands outstretched is everywhere taught by the Fathers to be a type of the Cross’ (The Teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church, Vol. I: God, Creation, Old Israel, Christ [Buena Vista, CO: Dormition Skete, 1986], p. 133). He points out that such an interpretation goes back at least as far as St Barnabas, the companion of St Paul (Epistle of Barnabas 12:2; The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. Michael W. Holmes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], p. 178), and cites similar passages from St Justin Martyr and St Cyprian of Carthage (pp. 133-4).

Having thus directed our attention from the Prophet Moses to the Precious Cross, Fr Justin showed a slide of a cross decorating the capitals of some of the columns in the katholikon at Sinai. Below each arm of the cross were the Greek letters Α and Ω (alpha and omega), which of course is how Christ refers to Himself in Revelation 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13 (I don’t have an image of the capital at Sinai, but it is a device that has been used elsewhere as well; see for example the coat of arms of the Principality of Asturias, Spain, here).

But, said Fr Justin as he went to his next slide, Α and Ω are also the first letters of the names of the Prophets Aaron (Ἀαρὼν) and Hur (Ὢρ) in Greek, and he then showed a slide of a beautiful icon kept in a chapel near Pharan showing the Prophets Aaron and Hur supporting the Prophet Moses’s arms like the Α and Ω under the arms of the Cross. (At this point the audience at Dallas Theological Seminary gasped in surprise and started looking around at each other!) Fr Justin then referred to the hymnography for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross. Consider, for example, the first stanza of Ode I of the Canon in Tone 8 for the Feast (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1998], p. 144):

In times past Moses, standing between the two men of God, prefigured in his person the undefiled Passion. Forming a cross with his outstretched hands, he raised a standard of victory and overthrew the power of all-destroying Amalek. Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, for He has been glorified.

If we then consider the words of a 6th-c. abbot of Sinai, St John Climacus, we shall better understand the full significance of the establishment of monastic life in the valley of Pharan (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed. trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore] [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991], p. 5 [Ladder 1:7 in the HTM ed.; 1:14 in the Greek]):

Those of us who wish to go out of Egypt, and to fly from Pharaoh, certainly need some Moses as a mediator with God and from God, who, standing between action and divine vision, will raise hands of prayer for us to God, so that guided by him we may cross the sea of sin and rout the Amalek of the passions.

Thus, Fr Justin concluded, for the monks of Pharan, the Prophet Moses had a special significance, tied not only with the nearby Mt Sinai, but with Pharan itself. The God-seer was a type of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also of the spiritual life of the individual Christian. For what else are the fundamentals of the Christian life but the taking up of the Cross and the routing of the passions? For this struggle, proximity to the scene of the historical events that prefigured our salvation would have been a powerful aid to the monks of Pharan.

Well there you have it. But I ask that if Fr Justin or anyone else who was present at the lecture and recalls the details better than I have reads this post, by all means supplement or correct me! Unfortunately, this is the best I can do from my scanty notes, and I know I have not done it justice. Thank you to Fr Justin for the image of the icon!

Addendum: I just found the following lines in Fr Ephrem's translation of Matins for the Sunday before Nativity (here):

Aaron with Hor depicts Christ’s suffering,
Both raising Moses arms up like a Cross.