31 July 2009

‘I Have Found Nothing of Men in Him at All’—St Pambo of Nitria

Today, 18 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Abba Pambo of Nitria (c. 303-373). St Pambo was born in the third or fourth year of the fourth century, and was ‘an Egyptian and illiterate, until taught the Scriptures as a monk’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed., trans. Benedicta Ward, SLG [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 195). He went to ‘the mountain of Nitria’ at a young age—Tim Vivian says ‘not long after Amoun, who had founded monasticism there in 315’ (Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt & Macarius of Alexandria, trans. and ed. Tim Vivian [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2004], p. 53), though the Coptic Life of Pambo mentions ‘a wife and two sons’ (p. 58)—and there lived a very ascetic life. In the Gerontikon, Pambo 8, he himself is said to have testified on his deathbed:

Since I came to this place of the desert and built my cell and dwelt here, I do not remember having eaten bread which was not the fruit of my hands and I have not repented of a word I have said up to the present time; and yet I am going to God as one who has not yet begun to serve him. (Ward, p. 197)

St Pambo was ordained to the priesthood sometime before 340 (Vivian, p. 54), and according to the Gerontikon, Pambo 4, was summoned to Alexandria by St Athanasius:

Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria. He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep. Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, ‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’ (Ward, p. 196)

According to Palladius, in Lausiac History 10, St Pambo was the ‘teacher of Dioscorus the bishop and Ammonius and Eusebius and Euthymius, “the (Tall) Brethren”, also of Origen the nephew of Dracontius, a wonderful man’, the first four of whom were given shelter and defended by St John Chrysostom in Constantinople when Patriarch Theophilus began to persecute them. Interestingly, one of the sayings in the Gerontikon associated with Theophilus (almost all of which seem to portray in him a negative, or at least neutral, light) that concerns St Pambo (Theophilus 2):

The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’ (Ward, p. 81)

St Nicholas (Velimirović), in the Prologue (for St Pambo, see here), seems to have adopted the date of 386 for St Pambo’s death almost for the sole purpose (at least, I don’t know where else he would have got it) of allowing for this exchange with Theophilus, who became Patriarch in 385. Vivian, on the other hand, argues that ‘the attribution to Theophilus is probably incorrect’, since he accepts it as given that St Pambo died in 373-74 (p. 53, n. 3). According to the Coptic Life of Pambo, shortly before his death the great Abba happened to be visited by St Melania the Elder. He offered her a basket he had made, saying, ‘Take this basket, made with the labor of my hands, in order to remember me, for I have nothing else to leave you’, then we read, ‘And then he gave his spirit into the hands of the Lord (Ps 30:6; Lk 23:46). She directed his disciples to allow her to bury him, and she buried him in precious linen garments. She left the desert, keeping that basket with her to the day of her death’ (Vivian, pp. 61-2).

The Coptic Life says St Pambo ‘was second after Abba Antony’ and ‘was thus called alēthinos, “the truthful one”, concerning whose virtues the whole brotherhood testified’, noting in particular his humility, his patience in speaking, and his almsgiving (Vivian, p. 57). And later on we read, ‘This Abba Pambo was an admirable person, for his virtues and his accomplishments were great, but he was even more admirable on account of his hatred of gold and silver, as it is written with regard to this subject (Mt 6:19-21)’ (Vivian, p. 59). This latter virtue is illustrated well by two stories. First, in his 22nd Letter, ‘To Eustochium’ (see here), St Jerome tells us:

33. As I have been led to touch to the subject— it shall have a treatise to itself if Christ permit— I will relate what took place not very many years ago at Nitria. A brother, more thrifty than covetous, and ignorant that the Lord had been sold for thirty pieces of silver (Mt 26:15), left behind him at his death a hundred pieces of money which he had earned by weaving linen. As there were about five thousand monks in the neighborhood, living in as many separate cells, a council was held as to what should be done. Some said that the coins should be distributed among the poor; others that they should be given to the church, while others were for sending them back to the relatives of the deceased. However, Macarius, Pambo, Isidore and the rest of those called fathers, speaking by the Spirit, decided that they should be interred with their owner, with the words: ‘Your money perish with you’ (Acts 8:20). Nor was this too harsh a decision; for so great fear has fallen upon all throughout Egypt, that it is now a crime to leave after one a single shilling.

Second, from the Lausiac History X (for a translation from the Greek version, see here), we learn another story. St Melania the Elder travelled once to Nitria to meet St Pambo and offer him a large coffer of silver for the fathers there. The great Abba barely looked up from the rope he was weaving, gave her a quick blessing, said ‘Put it on the windowsill’ (Vivian, p. 60), and told his disciple, Origen, to distribute the money. St Melania, in her own words, ‘stood there, expecting that he would perhaps honor me or praise me, and I didn’t hear a single word from him. I said to him, “My father, I wish to inform you—so you know—that there are three hundred pounds of silver there”’ (Vivian, p. 61). The Elder replied:

He to whom you have given them knows their number; he doesn’t need anyone to weigh them for him. He who ‘weighs the mountains in a scale and the hills in a balance’ is not ignorant of the weight of this silver (Is 40:12). Indeed, if you had given the money to me, then you’d do well to inform me about it, since I am a man. But if you give the money to God, then there is no need to tell me. God, who accepted the two small coins from the widow (Mk 12:42), will accept your offering too. As for yourself, be silent; do not boast.’ (Vivian, p. 61)

St Melania concludes, ‘I found nothing of men in him at all’ (Vivian, p. 61). William Harmless comments on this story, ‘This was not the way one spoke to an aristocratic benefactor. But it was typical of one of the desert fathers’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxfor U, 2004], p. 4).

It was perhaps for virtues like this that St Pambo was said (Pambo 12) to have ‘received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone . . . like lightening . . . like a king sitting on his throne’ (Ward, p. 197). Stelios Ramfos notes that of all the Fathers of the Gerontikon, Ss Pambo, Sisoes, and Silvanus alone ‘are singled out for having the light of God shining in their faces’ (Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. and abgd. Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2000], p. 248). Ramfos comments at length:

Amongst the holy hesychasts of the Gerontikon, then, Pambo, Sisoes and Silvanus were literally light-bearing and their spiritual work (that is, their charism) was to concentrate in their persons the lightning of divinity and send it out into the world. It was not by chance that their faces shone with the light of the Spirit—it was their spiritual ‘work’. Which means that this strange and rare property had to do with their ascetic existence itself, the heart of their struggle. In order to understand what this radiant face signifies we need to look more closely at the kind of life each of them led. It was said of Abba Pambo, for example, ‘that for three years he persevered in petitioning God and saying, ‘Do not glorify me on earth.’ And so God glorified him, so that no-one could gaze into his face from the radiance that shone from it’ (Pambo 1, PG 65, 368BC [Ward, pp. 195-6]). The glory of God Himself was reflected in the face of the saint. (pp. 248-9)

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Pambo in the Prologue:

The monks asked Pambo the Blessed:
‘Is it good to praise your neighbor?’
Then Pambo was silent and to the brethren replied:
‘It is good to praise but it is better to remain silent.’
And still, they asked Pambo: ‘And who is perfect?’
‘For the sake of the will of God, one who denies his own.’
The monks remained silent while one will say:
‘Yet one more reply, do not deny us:
And what kind of garment should a monk have?’
‘The kind you throw away and no one takes.’
Thus the saint spoke and closed his mouth,
For he protected his tongue in order not to speak unnecessarily.
Pambo, all radiant at the hour of his death
Questioned about his life, he uttered:
‘Undeserving bread, I never did taste,
Neither for a word, my soul repented.’

30 July 2009

Waiting for St Benedict—MacIntyre, Monasticism, & the New Dark Ages

Judging by the fruits of a Google search, the last sentence of Alisdair MacIntyre’s already classic work on moral philosophy, After Virtue, is extremely well known and often quoted. In fact, I may be wrong about this, but I would venture to say it is the most famous part of the book. For those who don’t know, MacIntyre writes, ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’ (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984], p. 263).

Now, two thoughts frequently pop into my mind, unbidden, whenever I think about this statement, one having more to do with wording of the statement itself, and the other having more to do with its context. First of all, whenever I stop to think about this, without fail the idea occurs to me, ‘Why would our new St Benedict have to be “very different” from the first one?’ I’ve never come to a conclusion about this, but I do have a thought that first reared its head today which I will share a bit further down, after I have offered a bit more of the context of MacIntyre’s statement.

Because in order properly to convey the second thought, it strikes me as best to quote the entire final paragraph of the book. It’s a long one, but this is something that I think bears doing anyway, just because that last line, or at least the last couple of sentences, are so often quoted by themselves. So here goes:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire eclined into the Dark Ages [incidentally, I vividly recall this parallel being drawn by Jello Biafra in a bit-too-clever take on the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ during a live performance with Ministry about 20 years ago]. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict. (p. 263)

The funny thing is, whenever I read this, and especially when I read the last line or two in isolation, I have to remind myself that in context MacIntyre is speaking first and foremost of the decline of the virtues and the rôle of Benedictine monasticism precisely in preventing that decline. At some point, although I’ve long known better, I had gotten used to thinking of Benedictine monasteries as engaged primarily in the business of preserving the ancient culture of the arts and sciences, the learning and literature of the ancient world, in the face of their decline in the cities. In his fascinating published Gifford Lectures (typeset by Edward Gorey!), Christopher Dawson even quotes a passage from Newman that might give one this impression, but for a slight caveat. First, Dawson himself writes, ‘It was the disciplined and tireless labour of the monks which turned the tide of barbarism in Western Europe and brought back into cultivation the lands which had been deserted and depopulated in the age of the invasions’ (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture: Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh 1948-1949 [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], p. 53). Then the Newman quote:

St Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it [the caveat], not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city. (pp. 53-4)

I do not say that there is anything wrong with this. Indeed, in my more apocalyptic moments (to which, as a ‘Romantic Orthodox’, I am terribly prone), I am sometimes overcome by a temptation toward hubristic self-justification in which I see my own ongoing acquisition of books and the learning that goes with them, as playing a somewhat analogous rôle to that of the Benedictines, as the night of traditional Western culture falls and barbarism—in the form of fashion magazines and video games—begins to claim all.

Furthermore, while Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern) laments the stress on agriculture in the Orthodox monasteries he knew, and the apparent absence of ‘a quiet monastery environment of a Benedictine monastery, with its library, with its scholars and intelligent priors, and with its own journal, a seminary within the same monastery, visits by intelligent and scholarly prelates, abbots, and so on’ (‘On Metropolitan Anthony [Khrapovitsky]’, trans. Fr Alexander Lisenko, Divine Ascent [No. 9, 2004], p. 152), historically speaking there is actually a great analogy here between Russian monasticism and Benedictinism as described by Newman. Thus, James Billington, while acknowledging that most of the Russian monastic founders of the 15th c. ‘were strongly influenced by Hesychasm’,—Billington’s description of which I thought quite poor—adds, ‘they were also, like the Cistercians [strict Benedictines, after all] of the medieval West, hard-working pioneers opening up new and forbidding lands for cultivation and colonization’ (The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [NY: Vintage, 1970], p. 52). Of course, Billington goes on to note the stimulus provided by monasticism in the visual arts and literary culture, and in this way the picture of the monastery as a preserver of ‘culture’ in the midst of barbarism is rounded out a bit.

So what is the difference? Why did Fr Cyprian not find the sort of monastery in Orthodoxy that would appeal to him? Surely today, especially, our Orthodox monasteries are not filled exclusively with rude peasants who know more about shoeing a horse than using a lexicon? I would venture to suggest that Orthodox monasteries, more than Benedictine ones as they developed later in the West, have preserved the emphasis on hesychasm that was originally the raison d’être of both. Although the Benedictines have preserved their founder’s well-known saying in RB 43, Ergo nihil operi Dei praeponatur, ‘Let nothing, therefore, be put before the Work of God’ (The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, trans. Justin McCann, OSB [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.], pp. 102, 103), they seem largely to have forgotten that, as the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé points out, the purpose of the ‘Work of God’, i.e., the Prayer of the Hours, was to ‘encourage and entertain’ ‘the personal striving to pray without ceasing’: ‘Like the piles of a brige, the hours of common prayer punctuate the course of time. It is up to each monk to connect them by the causeway of his unceasing prayer, so as to answer the Lord’s call’ (Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander, OCSO [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], pp. 127-8).

I think all of this is to say that it seems a step in the right direction, a good thing, that MacIntyre reminds us that at their inception, it was the practice of the virtues (of which prayer without ceasing is surely one of the greatest) in community that Benedictine monasteries sought to preserve, and not the outward trappings of culture, whether ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘secular’, whether agricultural or intellectual.

But this brings me back to my first point, the question which I’ve delayed answering. If what we are really hoping to preserve in the coming of barbarism is virtues like unceasing prayer, why must our new St Benedict by ‘very different’? In fact, it seems to me that another St Benedict very much like the old one would be the perfect project coordinator for such a thing.

While I may be giving him too much credit, here I think MacIntyre is thinking primarily in terms of his own call for all of those who value the old virtue morality to turn ‘aside from the task of shoring up the [modern] imperium’ and cease ‘to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium’, whereas St Benedict, and monasticism in general, is traditionally perceived as a special calling to certain persons within the Church. One wonders if he is not looking for a non-‘monastic’ St Benedict who does not require celibacy and absolute obedience, perhaps something like the ‘new monasticism’ (on which see this great triple review by Alan Jacobs). But again, while there is certainly a delicate balance that must be maintained in the Church between the very real obligation of all Christians to carry out the Gospel, including St Paul’s command to ‘pray without ceasing’, and the special calling of traditional monasticism, a balance that Orthodoxy has never perfectly encapsulated in an institution or formula, I can’t help but think that ‘new monasticism’, and insofar as he is advocating something like it, MacIntyre, are reinventing the wheel. Even if authentic Church life might have to take on slightly new forms—as evidenced by Fr Vladimir Vorobeyov’s fascinating article, ‘Russian Orthodox Pastoral Ministry in the 20th Century’ (Divine Ascent [No. 7, Presentation of the Theotokos, November 2001], pp. 15-40)—in our ever more anti-Christian milieu, it seems to me that our Saints have remained almost exactly the same for the last two thousand years, and will likely continue to do so.

29 July 2009

'Exceedingly Great Is Your Recompense Before God!'—St Vladimir of Kiev

For reasons I explained in the preamble to this post, I am getting to this a day late, but лучше поздно чем никогда, as they say. I didn’t want to miss the chance to blog about the Baptiser of Rus’.

Yesterday, 15 June on the Church’s calendar, was the celebration of the memory of St Vladimir (958-1015), Equal to the Apostles and Great Prince of Russia. In the Prologue entry for the day, St Nicholas (Velimirović) writes, ‘Vladimir was the son of Prince Svaytoslav, and grandson of Igor and Olga, and was at first completely pagan in faith and life’ (The Prologue from Ochrid, Part Three: July, August, September, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 64). While this was partly true, we must also note the statement of the (at least) 13th-c. ‘Memorial’ by Monk Iakov: ‘Having heard all of this [i.e., her baptism and virtuous Christian life] about his grandmother Ol’ga (called Helena in holy baptism), . . . Volodimer’s heart was inflamed by the Holy Spirit with the desire for holy baptism’ (The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’, trans. Paul Hollingsworth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], p. 166). But while he adds to this the observation that St Vladimir’s mother, Malusha, as one of St Olga’s closest servants, ‘was virtually duty-bound to adopt the Christian faith either with the regent or immediately after her’, Andrzej Poppe is a bit more reserved in his estimate, speaking of an ‘emotional bond with Christianity which had been forged in his childhood’ and concluding that St Vladimir’s baptism ‘grew from well-prepared soil’ (‘St Vladimir as a Christian’, The Legacy of St Vladimir, ed. Fr John Meyendorff, et al. [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1990], p. 43).

At this point in the Prologue (p. 64), after a brief acknowledgement that the Great Prince had ‘learned of various faiths’, St Nicholas tells the famous story of the visit of St Vladimir’s emissaries to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The story itself, and the oft-quoted report of the emissaries that ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth’ (‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, trans. Samuel H. Cross, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, ed. Thomas Riha [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1966], p. 28), are perhaps most well-known to the Anglophone world through Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)’s classic, The Orthodox Church. But some time ago, Esteban Vazquez noted—here and here—that many Orthodox (and non-Orthodox students of our Church) have received a somewhat truncated understanding of St Vladimir’s conversion based on having only read Metropolitan Kallistos’s summary of the story.

The passages above from the ‘Memorial’ and from Poppe’s brief paper have already shown that St Vladimir would likely have been well disposed toward the Christian faith solely on the basis of his mother’s and grandmother’s examples, and after the report of the emissaries, St Vladimir’s boyars remind him, ‘If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga who was wiser than all other men’ (‘Primary Chronicle’, p. 28). But Esteban has done us the extraordinary favour of calling attention to (see the links above) and transcribing (here, here, here, and here) a translation of a good deal more material from the Primary Chronicle than most English readers familiar with the emissary story have ever encountered. St Vladimir’s discussions with representatives of various religions is not entirely unfamiliar, and one might be clued in by the passage—included in a couple of standard editions of translated material from the Primary Chronicle—where he tells his assembled boyars and city-elders, ‘Finally the Greeks appeared, criticizing all other faiths but commending their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them’ (‘Primary Chronicle’, p. 27). It is this ‘artful’ commendation of the Orthodox faith and narrative of world history by a Constantinopolitan ‘scholar-envoy’ that Esteban has posted. I urge everyone to read it.

Thus, Monk Iakov tells us, ‘The bishop, together with the priests of Cherson and the imperial princess’s priests [since she was to be his wife], instructed him and baptized him’ on 6 January 988, giving him the name ‘Basil’ (Hagiography, p. 178). As Monk Iakov writes, ‘O blessed the occasion and noble the day, full of every bounty, on which Prince Volodimer was baptized!’ (Hagiography, p. 167). But, while St Vladimir’s own heart was thus ‘illumined’ by ‘the grace of the Holy Spirit’, and ‘he learned to walk according to God’s commandment and to live virtuously in God and to hold to a firm, indomitable faith’ (p. 167), he is most celebrated for the introduction of Christianity to Rus’ and the subsequent baptism of his people. According to the Primary Chronicle:

Thereafter Vladimir sent heralds throughout the whole city [of Kiev] to proclaim that if any inhabitants, rich or poor, did not betake himself to the river, he would risk the Prince’s displeasure. When the people heard these words, they wept for joy, and exclaimed in their enthusiasm, ‘If this were not good, the Prince and his boyars would not have accepted it.’ On the morrow, the Prince went forth to the Dnieper with the priests of the Princess and those from Kherson, and a countless multitude assembled. They all went into the water: some stood up to their necks, others to their breasts, and the younger near the bank, some of them holding children in their arms, while the adults waded farther out. The priests stood by and offered prayers. There was joy in heaven and upon earth to behold so many souls saved. . . .

When the people were baptized, they returned each to his own abode. Vladimir, rejoicing that he and his subjects now knew God himself, looked up to heaven and said, ‘Oh God, who has created heaven and earth, look down, I beseech thee, on this thy new people, and grant them, oh Lord, to know thee as the true God, even as the other Christians nations have known thee. Confirm in them the true and inalterable faith, and aid me, oh Lord, against the hostile adversary, so that, hoping in thee and in thy might, I may overcome his malice.’ Having spoken thus, he ordained that wooden churches should be built and established where pagan idols had previous stood. He thus founded the Church of St Basil on the hill where the idol of Perun and the other images had been set, and where the Prince and the people had offered their sacrifices. He began to found churches and to assign priests throughout the cities, and to invite the people to accept baptism in all the cities and towns. (pp. 29-30)

Concerning the Baptism of Rus’, Monk Iakov writes, ‘O how great was the joy and rejoicing on earth! . . . Such a multitude of souls throughout all the land of Rus’ was led to God through holy baptism. He performed a deed worthy of every encomium and full of spiritual joy’ (Hagiography, p. 168). And further on, ‘O blessed and thrice-blessed Prince Volodimer, pious and Christ-loving and hospitable, exceedingly great is your recompense before God! . . . All the people of the land of Rus’ came to know God through you, divine Prince Volodimer’ (p. 168).

Aside from the propagation of Christianity among his subjects, St Nicholas notes that ‘Vladimir utterly changed his way of life and devoted all his labour to the perfect fulfilling of the demands of his faith’ (p. 65). I have already quoted Monk Iakov’s comments about his learning to ‘walk according to God’s commandment’ (Hagiography, p. 167), and a bit further on he mentions the Great Prince tithing ‘for the priests to take care of orphans, widows, and paupers’ (p. 167). Later in the ‘Memorial and Encomium’, we read:

The blessed prince Volodimer loved God with all his heart and soul, and he sought and preserved his commands. . . . (p. 172)

The blessed Volodimer emulated the deeds and conduct of the holy men. He loved the story of Abraham and imitated his hospitality, the trust of Jacob, the gentleness of Moses, the innocence of David, and the piety of Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. Most of all, Prince Volodimer performed almsgiving. If the infirm and the aged could not come to the prince’s court and receive their necessities, he would send the goods to them at home. . . . He would clothe the naked; feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; respect and show charity to churchmen and give them what they needed; and give alms, clothing, and drink to paupers, orphans, widows, the blind, the lame, and all the afflicted. Prince Volodimer thus abided in good works, and God’s grace illuminated his heart and the Lord’s hand abided him. (p. 173)

Poppe also tells the interesting story of St Vladimir’s dealings with Bruno of Querfurt, a missionary and disciple of St Romuald of Ravenna (pp. 44-6). It seems St Vladimir welcomed Bruno to Kiev warmly, warned him about the dangers of venturing into the territory of the Pecheneg people, and finally accompanied him to the border ‘which was both the real and the symbolic end of the Christian world’ (p. 44). There they chanted a service of ‘prayerful dedication’ sending the missionaries into danger, and Poppe writes that here—

we can distinguish a voice of irresolution and deep anxiety concerning a holy man soon to be threatened by a martyr’s death. It was also a voice of humility: the ruler in his majesty humbled himself as he faced the Christian fiat: ‘Thy will be done.’ This ceremonial and liturgical farewell to Bruno reveals a naturally human dimension of Vladimir’s faith which is hard to find in the encomiums and laudations in honor of a Christian sovereign. (p. 45)

Bruno’s return to Kiev after having performed a fair number of baptisms among the Pechenegs ‘must have impressed Vladimir. He saw that faith outweighed experience and reason, and gave his full support to the cause of the mission’ (p. 45). He even sent his son, along with a bishop, to be held by the Pechenegs as part of a treaty for their collective conversion.

According to the ‘Memorial’, ‘The pious prince Volodimer thus lived virtuously and ended his life in the orthodox faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, as had the pious Ol’ga’ (Hagiography, p. 174). It goes on to say:

As he was departing from this world, Prince Volodimer prayed, ‘Lord, my God! I did not know Thee, but Thou didst have mercy on me and enlightened me through holy baptism. I came to know Thee, O God of everything, holy Maker of all creation, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Master, God, recall not my wickedness! I did not know Thee while I was still a pagan, but now I know Thee. Lord, my God, have mercy on me! If Thou desirest to punish and torment me because of my sins, punish me Thyself, but do not hand me over to the demons!’ Saying this and praying to God, he peacefully commended his soul to the Lord’s angels and reposed. . . .

. . . The blessed prince Volodimer had his treasure in heaven, having hidden it through almsgiving and good works; there also his heart was, in the kingdom of heaven. (pp. 174-5)

The first Russian Metropolitan of Kiev, Metropolitan Hilarion (11th c.), ‘one of the most erudite and brilliant Russian preachers and writers of the Kievan age’ (Serge A. Zenkovsky, ed., Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, rev. and enlarged ed. [NY: Meridian, 1975], p. 85), wrote a lovely eulogy to St Vladimir, including these words:

Arise from your gave, venerated prince,
arise and shake off your sleep.
You are not dead,
but only sleep until the day of resurrection of all.
Arise! You are not dead,
for it is not right that you should die,
for you have believed in Christ,
the Sustainer of the whole world.
Shake off your deep sleep
and lift up your eyes
that you might see
what honor the Lord has granted you,
and you still live upon this earth,
unforgotten through your sons.
Arise! behold your son George, your
child, your beloved one!
whom God has brought forth from your loins.
Behold him embellishing the throne of your land.
Rejoice and be of good cheer!
Behold the pious wife of your son, Irina.
Behold your grandchildren
and your great-grandchildren.
Behold how they live and how
they are cared for by God.
Behold how they preserve devotion in your tradition,
how they partake of the Sacraments of the Holy Church,
how they glorify Christ,
and how they venerate his Holy Name.
Behold your city radiant with majesty.
Behold your blossoming churches,
behold Christianity flourishing.
Behold your city gleaming,
adorned with holy icons and
fragrant with thyme,
praising God and filling the air with sacred songs.
And beholding all this, rejoice and be of good cheer, and praise the Lord, the Creator of all . . . (pp. 89-90)

28 July 2009

On the Reverence We Owe the Saints

As an Orthodox Christian, I try consistently on this blog to honour and venerate the Saints of the Church, to praise their virtues and esteem their deeds and writings. On the feastdays of Saints in particular, it is my policy at Logismoi, practiced less consciously at first but more so later, to avoid those things about which the Saints might be open to some criticism or other. As St Photius the Great (in The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, trans. HTM [NY: Studion, 1983]) says of the accusations of the Latins that Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and others teach something like the filioque:

70. I do not admit that what you assert was so plainly taught by them, but if they happened to express some such thing, if they happened to fall into something unbecoming, then I would imitate the good sons of Noë [Noah] and hide my father’s shame, by using silence and gratitude as a cloak. . . . (p. 100)

Thus, like St Photius, I do not deny that it is possible that a holy Father may have misspoken in some matter, but I always give them the benefit of the doubt, I refuse to be at all cavalier about identifying or pointing out such things, and I hesitate even to mention them on the Saint’s feastday, when we should be celebrating their sacred memory. I don't wish to offend anyone, but commentors on my posts who do not observe a similar piety will face the prospect of their comments being summarily deleted, and particularly if, as recently happened, they ignore all that has already been said in praise and defense of the Saint and proceed with their rash words. Thus, I am making an exception to my policy of silence and gratitude today, first, in order to make this policy explicit, and second, because the subject has already been broached in an earlier post and the policy put into effect precisely concerning the Saint I have blogged about today—St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.

I admit, I myself raised this subject in the context of my initial post on the book Orthodoxy and the West, by Chrestos Yannaras, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas and Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006), kindly sent to me by Aimee Cox Ehrs, Managing Editor of Holy Cross Orthodox Press. As I mentioned in that post, Yannaras made some rather strong criticisms of St Nicodemus, criticisms which, I believe, go too far at best (he actually appears to be calling the Father’s sanctity into question), and are shockingly impious at worst. Thanks to God, what he has to say has already been sufficiently answered by Fr George Metallinos in the Introduction to the English translation of the special target of Yannaras’s attack, The Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, trans. Fr George Dokos (Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2006), pp. 33-60, of which an earlier version is also available here.

But I wanted to add one or two things, not addressing specific points of Yannaras’s, but providing the whole perspective from which the question should be addressed. First of all, we do well to recall what has been written by Fr Gerasimos Micragiannanitis of Mt Athos in his ‘Life of St Nicodemos’ (translated by Constantine Cavarnos in Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite, by Constantine Cavarnos [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994], pp. 64-95):

Having now been filled with grace and wisdom, and received from heaven the gift of teaching, the divine Nicodemos became a most brilliant Luminary of the Orthodox Church, a great Teacher of Christendom and the strongest adversary of every heresy and heterodox teaching. . . . His holy writings—theological, dogmatic, interpretative, and moral—constitute a whole library. And in them is manifest the sublimity and depth of every kind of human and divine knowledge, and the flood of heavenly wisdom. God-inspired Nicodemos took infinite pains in writing his sacred teachings day and night for the benefit of his neighbor and the enrichment of our holy Church, which he so illuminated and adorned in recent times. (pp. 78-9)

So this is the voice of the Holy Mountain concerning the works of its own son, St Nicodemus. If we do not heed this voice, he can we claim to have properly approached the Saint’s writings? But even more important for worldwide Orthodoxy is the testimony of Patriarch Athenagoras and the Holy Synod of the Œcumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. I am not normally in agreement with this Patriarch, but here he is not merely giving his own opinion or acting of his own will, but is truly acting as the voice of the Church of New Rome (Cavarnos notes that the recognition of his sanctity 'was requested in 1953 by the Monastery of Lavra, of which the Kelli of the Skourtaioi, where Nicodemos spent his last days, was a dependency' [p. 62]). In the 1955 ‘Synodical Act of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Concerning the Registering in the Company of the Saints of the Righteous Monk Nikodemos the Hagiorite’ (Exomologetarion, pp. 11-12), we read:

In so much therefore as Nikodemos the Hagiorite, in the beginning at the Sacred Royal Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Dionysiou, in which monastery he received the sacred monastic schema, then in the Sacred Royal Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Great Lavra and in other places, did excel in such eminent feats of virtue on the Holy Mountain, and by sanctity and holiness of life did make himself to be a pattern of the life in Christ, and a living icon of virtue, showing and poising himself to be a teacher of the Church and of the whole Christian body through his various Orthodox and edifying works, our Modesty together with the most sacred and most honorable Metropolitans with us, our beloved brethren and concelebrants in the Holy Spirit, recognizing his God-pleasing life and his works and achievements, and foreseeing the common benefit of the faithful, also taking into account all of his contributions to the Church, as Elder Ananias of the Cell of Lavriotes in Karyes personally submitted, along with all of the holy monks living in asceticism on the Holy Mountain, requesting that the anniversary of his death be established in honor of a Saint, we decree, in accord with the customary practice of the Church and our divine Fathers before us, to bestow upon him the honor due to holy men.

Wherefore we decree synodically, and do ordain, and in the Holy Spirit direct that from this day forth and unto all ages Nikodemos the Hagiorite be numbered among the holy men and Saints of the Church and that he be honored with annual sacred and holy rites, and venerated with hymns of praise on the fourteenth day of July, on which day he blessedly departed to the Lord.

George Bebis notes that in 1956, the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia decreed that the Russian Church 'would honor and celebrate the memory of St Nicodemos on July 14 each year' as well (Introduction, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas [NY: Paulist, 1989], p. 16). Can the position of the Church be any clearer? St Nicodemus is ‘a teacher of the Church and of the whole Christian body through his various Orthodox and edifying works’ (Exomologetarion, p. 12). Can an individual attack those works as ‘a spiritual failure’ (Yannaras, p. 137) and still be faithful to the Church? God forbid!

On this subject—not St Nicodemus specifically, but the whole problem I have addressed here—I hope to say more in the future in the context of a wider discussion. It seems to me that Alan Jacobs’s book, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), which I have already mentioned here, and its thesis that we must read with love, could be helpful in articulating the proper Orthodox approach to such matters. But of course, Jacobs is primarily discussing the reading of secular literature. With the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, not only must we read with love, as we should read any book, we must read with piety and reverence. As Fr Vasileios of Iveron writes (in this passage from Hymn of Entry, trans. Elizabeth Briere [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1984], p. 34):

What is required in patristic study, in order to remain faithful to the Fathers' spirit of freedom and worthy of their spiritual nobility and freshness, is to approach their holy texts with the fear in which we approach and venerate their holy relics and holy icons. This liturgical reverence will soon reveal to us that here is another inexpressible grace.

'The Mellifluent & Most Wise Tongue'—St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

Unfortunately, I was so busy yesterday that I actually got confused about the date. In this way I managed to miss a Saint I really wanted to blog about—St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Of course, today is the feastday of St Vladimir (read about two celebrations in the US here, and in Kiev here), about whom I also wanted to blog, so I considered going ahead with the St Vladimir post and just doing St Nicodemus tomorrow since I already missed his day and I didn’t see any very promising names for tomorrow. But I’ve already got some of the St Nicodemus post written and I’m afraid it would take too long to start the St Vladimir post from scratch and finish it before the end of the day.

So, yesterday, 14 July on the Church’s calendar, was the feastday of St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809), or ‘the Hagiorite’. In his Introduction to the English translation of Unseen Warfare, trans. E. Kaloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000), H.A. Hodges calls him ‘one of the most prolific and influential writers in the Greek Church of that time, and a leader in the revival of hesychasm’ (p. 43), and later he adds, ‘Nicodemus stands to-day as a pillar of Orthodoxy’ (p. 47). Fr Stanley Harakas calls him ‘a spiritual giant not only for the Orthodox people of Greece, but for all Orthodox Christians of every national tradition’ (Preface, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, by St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas [NY: Paulist, 1989], p. 1). In a more traditional encomium, Fr Gerasimos Micragiannanitis of the Holy Mountain writes (‘The Life of St Nicodemos’ trans. Constantine Cavarnos, St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, by Constantine Cavarnos, Vol. 3 of Modern Orthodox Saints [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994):

Among the genuine lovers, true workers, mystagogues and expounders of virtue in word and deed was God-inspired Nicodemos, the great and eminently wise Teacher of the Church, the wonder among the monks of Athos, the luminous morning star of heavenly wisdom and of the life in Christ; he that has shone in recent times, illuminating the remotest parts of the earth through his writings that are full of divine wisdom; the tuneful clarion of the Holy Spirit; the mellifluent and most wise tongue, which with ‘the power of speech’ has manifested and explained the words of eternal life and the concise thoughts of the Fathers; the most practical teacher of the ascetic life; the Godlike expounder of spiritual ascent and the revealer of the effulgences that occur on the way; ‘the pillar and bulwark’ of the Orthodox Church and its special boast, and the most powerful destroyer of every heretical and vain teaching; the man who in many ways has glorified God and has deservingly been honored by Him. ‘I shall glorify those who glorify me’ (I Kings 2:30 LXX), says the Lord Almighty. (pp. 65-6)

Born on the island of Naxos, St Nicodemus was first educated by his parish priest, but was later sent to the school of Naxos to study with ‘the virtuous and learned Educator of the Nation’, Archimandrite Chrysanthos Aitolos, brother of St Cosmas Aitolos (Fr Gerasimos, p. 67). Later still, at 15 years, he went to the Evangeliki School in Smyrna (p. 68). Fr Gerasimos tells us:

As a child, he was very careful and well-behaved, avoiding bad company and everything capable of bringing harm to the inner man. Care about his manners, exceptional alertness, decorum, zeal for what is good and beneficial, and love of sacred and secular learning were the distinctive characteristics of young Nicholas. But above all he was distinguished by great acuteness of mind, accurate perception, intellectual brightness, and vast memory. These qualities made him astonish not only those of the same age, but also all those who saw so many exceptional abilities and splendid talents at such a young age. (p. 67)

George Bebis quotes a remarkable letter of one of the Saint’s fellow-students calling him ‘an excellent miracle of his times’, and going on to say (Introduction, Handbook, p. 10):

He knew from memory whatever he read, not only the philosophical, economic, medical, astronomic and even military treatises which he has read, but also all the poets, and the historians ancient and new, Greek and Latin, as well as all the writings of the Fathers. It was enough for him to read a book once and remember it throughout his life.

In addition to the general course, at Smyrna the young Saint studied theology, ancient Greek language and literature, Latin, Italian, and French. Fr Gerasimos notes, ‘He composed epigrams in the Homeric dialect with the same facility with which he interpreted sacred texts in simple modern Greek in order to render the latter understandable to the common people’ (p. 70).

In 1770, St Nicodemus was forced to depart Smyrna by the anti-Christian persecutions of the Muslim Turks, and returned to Naxos. There, he spent five years with Metropolitan Anthimos, who wanted to prepare him ‘for the more perfect works of grace’ and tonsure him a priest (p. 70). But while there, he also met a number of holy Athonite monks who ‘spoke to him of the monastic and angelic way of life of the ascetics of the Holy Mountain, and initiate him into spiritual prayer, recognizing him as fit to receive the mysteries of that blessed practice’ (pp. 70-1), and it was then that St Nicodemus began to long for monasticism. He first went to Hydra to visit St Macarius of Corinth, with whom he became quite close lifelong friends, and the Elder Sylvester of Caesarea, who was living the eremitic life at Hydra (p. 71). The Elder sent him with a letter of recommendation to the Holy Monastery of Dionysiou in 1775, where, ‘full of divine zeal for this holy life according to Christ, and renouncing completely every worldly thought and sentiment’, he was tonsured into the Small Schema by the pious Elder Macarius and took the name ‘Nicodemus’ (p. 73). Fr Gerasimos notes that the Fathers of Dionysious soon came to recognise the talents and prodigious learning of the young Saint, and his faithfulness to the cœnobitic rule, and thus tonsure him a reader.

Here Nicodemos was in every way incomparable, both in the special office to which he had been appointed and in his spiritual practices, through which he advanced day by day, ‘reaching out towards those ahead’, subjugating the flesh to the spirit, rendering the mind bright through meditation on what is superior, and preparing himself for the most perfect striving of deifying stillness and of supreme philosophy according to Christ, in which he proved himself most successful and great, both in word and in deed. (pp. 73-4)

In 1777, St Macarius of Corinth came to the Holy Mountain and, settling at the Cell of St Anthony in Karyes, ‘called the blessed Nicodemos and exhorted him to edit’ the Philokalia, the Evergetinos, and Concerning Continual Communion, ‘thus giving occasion to the holy man to apply himself to lofty spiritual efforts, which rendered him an ever-shining Luminary of the Church and a universal Teacher of piety’ (p. 74). After St Macarius left, St Nicodemus moved around a bit to different cells on the Holy Mountain, especially the Cell of St George in Karyes belonging to Megisti Lavra, known as the Cell of the ‘Skourtaioi’. At one point, he even attempted a voyage to Romania, to visit the renowned St Paisius Velichkovsky, but had to turn back from a storm. Bebis points out that during all this time the holy Father was doing research in various libraries, trying to find the most hesychastic location, and searching for a spiritual father under whom he could live in strict obedience (Introduction, Handbook, p. 13). He writes that Fr Theokletos Dionysiatis calls St Nicodemus ‘an eagle flying all over the spiritual mountains in order to live the experiences of divine love and be closer to his Creator—always closer and closer’ (Fr Bebis, p. 13). But during all this time, Fr Gerasimos observes, ‘[H]e devoted himself to spiritual meditation and unceasing prayer, through which his mind became brighter and his soul gained nourishment. He seemed altogether Godlike and full of heavenly serenity and grace’ (p. 76).

At last, when one of the fathers St Nicodemus had met at Naxos, Elder Arsenius, settled at the Kapsala Skete, St Nicodemus went to him and became his disciple, thus demonstrating his great humility. Fr Gerasimos writes:

At Kapsala he devoted himself entirely to the great spiritual struggles of sacred philosophy according to Christ. And studying day and night the Law of God—the divinely inspired Holy Scriptures—and the Fathers of the Church, wise in the things of God, he was filled with divine joy and came to know the mysteries of God, living above the realm of visible things. . . . And through this blessed way of life he became full of brightness, light and sanctity. From here, like another Moses, he ascended the mountain of the virtues and entered the glorious dawn of spiritual contemplation, and saw, as far as it is possible for man to see, the invisible God, heard ineffable words, and received the real illumination of grace, immaterial effulgences and inspirations of the Paraclete. He attained to theosis and became blessed and most God-like, an angel with a body, an inspired mystic with heavenly knowledge, a most accurate revealer of the life in the Spirit, conveying and making clear to us through ‘the word of grace’ its fruits and blessings, of which he was full. (pp. 77-8)

St Nicodemus travelled with his Elder to spend a year on the barren island of Skyropoula near Euboia, where they had no books, had to scratch out a meagre living, and found for ‘their only companions . . . fish-eating birds’ (p. 79). It was a hard but holy existence. Fr Gerasimos quotes the Saint himself as saying that he preferred ‘the life of a worker and laborer: digging, sowing, harvesting, and every day doing all the other things by which the toilsome life in barren islands is characterized’ (pp. 79-80). Astonishingly, even without the rich libraries of the Holy Mountain St Nicodemus was able during this year to write his beautiful Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, filled with excerpts from the Holy Fathers, contemporary theologians, and even the ancient philosophers—an amazing demonstration of his photographic memory (though the inevitable gaps in the latter also perhaps account for the difficulty I mentioned here)!

St Nicodemus returned to the Holy Mountain in 1783, and, receiving the Great Schema from Elder Damascene Stavroudas, settled with a disciple from Naxos at the Kalyva of Theonas near a Skete of Pantocratoros (p. 81). Fr Gerasimos writes, ‘Practicing stillness here and elaborating the honey of virtue, and illumined by the light of the Holy Spirit, he wrote continuously and taught by means of wise and mellifluous words and spiritual advice the brothers that went to him’ (p. 81). At the kalyva, he edited the complete works of St Symeon the New Theologian, wrote the Exomologetarion, Unseen Warfare, New Martyrologium, and Spiritual Exercises, and put together with additions the Theotokarion. He also edited the works of St Gregory Palamas, unfortunately confiscated by the Austrians at the print shop they had been sent to (pp. 82-3), and edited with Hieromonk Agapius the Pedalion, or ‘Rudder’, which was sullied by the dishonest monk Theodoretus but later expurgated by the Patriarch (Bebis, p. 44).

St Nicodemus travelled around a bit more, living for a time at a cell with the Elder Sylvester who had first sent him to the Holy Mountain and for a time at the monastery of Pantocratoros before settling at a kalyva near Elder Sylvester’s cell (Fr Gerasimos, p. 86). Here he worked on the Euchologion and his own Exomologetarion, as well as writing interpretations of St Paul’s Epistles, the catholic Epistles, and the Nine Odes, and translating and commenting on Euthymios Zygadinos’s Interpretation of the Psalms (p. 87). Later, he wrote a Lives of the Saints, an interpretation of the canons for our Lord and the Theotokos (Eortodromion), another interpretation, of the Anabathmoi of the Octoechos (New Ladder), and finally, the Confession of My Faith (p. 91).

St Nicodemus was known for his strict asceticism. His spiritual brother Euthymius wrote:

His diet consisted sometimes of rice boiled in water, sometimes of honey diluted with water, but most of the time of olives, soaked fava beans, and bread. When occasionally he happened to get fish, he gave them to some neighbor who cooked them and shared them with him. His neighbors, knowing that he did not cook, often brought him cooked food. (p. 87)

St Nicodemus would often be so caught up in speaking to the brethren on spiritual matters that he would forget to eat food right in front of him. Fr Gerasimos writes:

He lived like an angel, and was a holy man and a Saint, a theologian wise in the thing of God, an inexhaustible treasury of the Paraclete, a God-like and luminous counselor of men, from the Patriarch to the simplest believer, radiating the grace of Christ. He was simple in his manners, forbearing, sweet and benign in character, devoid of possessions, meek and most humble. His humility was deep, both in word and in deed. . . . Instead of shoes he always wore sandals. He had but one cassock and lacked, as we have seen above, a permanent dwelling. The home of the God-inspired Teacher was the entire Holy Mountain, whence he has been named the Hagiorite, ‘of the Holy Mountain’. (pp. 92-3)

At the end of his life, St Nicodemus returned to the Cell of the Skourtaioi. He received Holy Unction and the Holy Mysteries, and after taking the latter, ‘he crossed his hands, stretched out his legs, became quiet and tranquil, and prayed continuously. When the brothers who were present asked him: “Teacher, are you resting?” he replied: “I have placed Christ within me, how is it possible for me not to be at rest?”’ (p. 94). St Nicodemus fell asleep in the Lord on 14 July 1809, at the age of sixty. His head, fragrant with sanctity, is still treasured at the Cell of the Skourtaioi.

Although many of the works of St Nicodemus have not yet been translated into English, a number of them have. I have already cited the English translations of Unseen Warfare (translated from St Theophan the Recluse’s Russian revision) and A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel. The Philokalia published by Faber & Faber is well known, but less well known is Constantine Cavarnos’s translation of selections from the Philokalia featuring St Nicodemus’s introuction and biographical notes: The Philokalia, trans. Constantine Cavarnos (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2008)—available here. I have already blogged about the Evergetinos, featuring St Nicodemus’s introduction, here. The Pedalion has been translated by D. Cummings—The Rudder (Pedalion), trans. D. Cummings (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1956)—but sadly, this edition contains the (unidentified) interpolations of the unfortunate Apostolos Makrakis, about which see the comments here, as well as Bebis's remarks on p. 44 of his Introduction to the Handbook. Finally, three of the Saint’s other works have thus far been translated by my friend, Fr George Dokos, and published by Uncut Mountain Press: Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession (Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2006), Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ (Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2006), and Confession of Faith (Thessalonica: Uncut Mountain, 2007).

As a sample of the Saint’s writings, I shall give two passages from Christian Morality (Venice, 1803), a work not yet published in English but from which Cavarnos has included a few excerpts in his book on St Nicodemus:

We must despise and have an aversion for all of man’s customs and traditions which are opposed to the holy Canons of the Holy Ecumenical and Regional Synods, and to the Canons and divine words of the God-inspired Fathers and holy Teachers of our Church. For the Holy Synods and the divine Fathers did not utter words of their own, nor did they speak with the spirit of this world, as do worldly men, but they spoke with the illumination and grace of the Holy Spirit, and their words are Divine teachings that lead men to the kingdom of God. (Cavarnos, pp. 125-6)

The grace of the Holy Spirit which is given mystically to every Christian when he is baptized acts and is manifested in proportion to our obedience to the commandments of the Lord. That is, if a Christian obeys the commandments of the Lord more, grace acts within him more, while if he obeys them less, grace acts within him less. Just as a spark, when covered in the ashes of fire becomes increasingly manifest as one removes the ashes, and the more fire wood you put the more the fire burns, so the grace that has been given to every Christian through Holy Baptism is hidden in the heart and covered up by the passions and sins, and the more a man acts in accordance with the commandments of Christ, the more he is cleansed of the passions and the more the fire of Divine grace lights in his heart, illumines and deifies him. (pp. 133-4)

27 July 2009

On Romantic Orthodoxy

I don’t usually do editorial-type pieces here on Logismoi, nor am I fond of controversy here. My positions on such issues are something I prefer simply to assume and take for granted here, rather than make them a subject for debate. But I don’t have much time for a more Logismic post today and I thought it would be interesting to offer something in a somewhat controversial vein.

A few years ago, Rod Dreher of ‘Crunchy Con’ fame blogged about a passage from one of Fr Alexander Schmemann’s journals wherein the latter criticised something he called ‘Romantic Orthodoxy’, characterised by:

+ nominalism (e.g., non-existing Patriarchates)
+ blind liturgical conservatism
+ cult of the past
+ theological preoccupation almost exclusively with the Fathers
+ ‘apocalypticism’
+ hatred for the contemporary world (not for this world in general)
+ emotionalism
+ cult of externals (beard, cassocks, prayer ropes, style)

In the comments on Dreher’s post a certain Richard Barrett wrote a great response to Fr Schmemann’s critique of ‘Romantic Orthodoxy’, one with which I completely agree. Thus, my own comments may be a bit redundant, but I wanted to add 2 cents anyway.

While, like Barrett, I agree with Fr Schmemann’s main point, that Orthodoxy is about faith and the heart and not about these ‘external’ things people get caught up in, I also think that presenting these in a neat checklist can give people the misleading idea that anyone who wears a beard or a prayer rope, or who talks about the Fathers or the apocalypse, is living in some sort of fantasy world and is not truly Orthodox (and by now of course everyone has guessed that I’m trying at least a little bit to defend myself not least of all!).

For that matter, I’m not sure how an Orthodox Christian can avoid being theologically preoccupied ‘almost exclusively with the Fathers’, unless of course, Fr Schmemann means that these people ignore Scripture. Furthermore, I also think we all must needs be ‘liturgical conservatives’, if not blind ones, and that anyone with an Orthodox worldview is of necessity going to compare the contemporary world rather unfavourably with the past (not to say that either is perfect). In a sense, I would argue that there is a healthy ‘romanticism’ that is essentially just a personal enthusiasm for Tradition, as well as a healthy appreciation of the past—particularly in its cultural and spiritual aspects—per se. Certainly, our attitude toward the Fathers or toward the traditional liturgy ought not to be a cold one, even if we don’t find ourselves overly excited by the architecture of ancient Rome or the novels of Dostoevsky (and why shouldn’t we?). It seems like we could be sober Orthodox and somewhat ‘romantic’ at the same time!

Finally, I would argue that excessive veneration for traditional liturgical forms or pre-modern culture is hardly the most pressing danger of modern American society. In fact, it seems to me that we could do with a good, hard swing of the pendulum in these directions, even if that pendulum swings a little too far. In a culture that idolises youth, novelty, entertainment, and immediate gratification to a degree unprecedented in the history of mankind, I admit I find it hard to get too exasperated with those who are a bit too starry-eyed about Holy Russia or the Middle Ages, or with those who think that we shouldn’t change a single thing about the liturgy, or with those who spend all of their time talking about the Fathers (even if they’ve scarcely read or understood a word of them!). This is an issue of which I was reminded last March by a post on the Ochlophobist called papal ochlophobisms?, wherein Och referred to (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s criticisms of a group the latter dubbed ‘pious Pelagians’ as ‘disproportionate rhetoric’ against a ‘culturally insignificant’ group (you will see that my comments there reference Fr Schmemann and ‘Romantic Orthodoxy’).

By way of contrast with Fr Schmemann, Barrett invokes the example of Fr Seraphim (Rose) of blessed memory, and of the two I for one certainly prefer the latter in many ways. But without venturing into the wilderness of northern California and growing our beards to superhuman lengths, I tend to think that on many of these issues, for all his intellect and insight, Fr Schmemann is a bit outdone even by Fr Georges Florovsky. Fr Florovsky knew how to value the past without ‘romanticising’ it in an unhealthy way and how to follow Tradition with all of his heart without shellaccing every little custom he came across. Plus, while he was no Fr Seraphim, he had a fuller beard than Fr Schmemann! ;-)

26 July 2009

St Benedict on Mt Athos

A few years ago, I came across an interesting pamphlet by a Fr Aidan Keller called Amalfion: Western Rite Monastery on Mt Athos (Austin: St Hilarion, 1994-2002—available in pdf form here), on the mediæval Athonite monastery known as Amalfion—an anomalous monastery of Italian monks on the Holy Mountain that used the Western rite and followed the Rule of St Benedict. One of the most fascinating parts to me was Fr Keller’s reference to a story in Book II, chapters 12 and 22 of the Chronica Monasterii Casinensis of Leo Marsicanus of Ostia, an 11th/12th-c. monk of Monte Cassino and later cardinal. Unfortunately, although he summarises a couple of passages from Leo’s Chronicle (whether directly or indirectly, I’m not sure), Fr Keller doesn’t provide specific citation information for a person who wants to do any further digging. Yours truly, however, had the remarkable good fortune to discover Migne’s text of the Chronicle (PL 173, 439–990B) in a pdf from Documenta Catholica Omnia here, as well as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica edition here. Although my Latin is extremely poor and I don’t think it sufficient to bother with attempting a translation, I was able to locate the passages Fr Keller has summarised in both editions of the text. So below I give the summary from the pamphlet along with the page numbers and PL column numbers of the corresponding passage in the Chronicle:

PL 173, 597B-598A (p. 53 of the DCO pdf; p. 190 of the MGH ed.)

Leo of Ostia’s Cassinese Chronicle sheds some light upon Amalfion, indirectly, in one engaging narrative. We are told that in 986 there occurred a scandal: the 28th Abbot of Monte Cassino in Italy was intruded by an act of nepotism, without the election by the monks which the Rule of St Benedict requires. His name was Manso, a kinsman to the powerful Capuan Duke Pandulf (note: Leo, the Founder of Amalfion, was Duke Pandulf’s own brother). Abbot Manso gave further scandal by his loose living, whereat a number of monks departed from Cassino—including a John of Benevento, a Theobald, a Liutius, and five other monks whose names are not recorded. The first three went to Jerusalem, the other five into ‘Lombardy’ (probably Calabria). (Fr Keller, p. 6)

PL 173, 607C-608B (starting on p. 56 of the DCO pdf; p. 206 of the MGH)

John of Benevento later made his way from Jerusalem to Sinai, dwelt there for six years, then set his face towards Greece, sojourning ‘upon the mountain which is called Agionoros’ [approx. 993], where he dwelt at Amalfion, among his countrymen. And there it was that St Benedict appeared to him in sleep, ordering him to return to Monte Cassino to be elected abbot. He did return, and—Manso having died in 997—he was chosen to be John III, 29th Abbot of Monte Cassino. (Fr Keller, pp. 6-7)

I for one thought it wonderful to discover that St Benedict had appeared on the Holy Mountain, thus establishing a link between himself, his monastic foundation at Monte Cassino, and the great bastion of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, Mount Athos (a link suggested by the Athonite fresco of St Benedict above). Furthermore, it is interesting to see how readily a ninth-c. monk of Monte Cassino sought refuge in the ‘Eastern’ monasteries of the Holy Land.

25 July 2009

St Benedict's Vision & the Dream of Scipio

Yesterday, I quoted from and commented on (here) the 35th chapter of Book II of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, where he says of St Benedict, ‘A marvelous thing followed in this contemplation for, as he himself related afterwards, the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun’ (The Life of St Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 164). I noted that the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, on pp. 168-72 of his commentary, had compared this vision of ‘the world reduced to a point’ with Cicero’s famous ‘Dream of Scipio’. Today I would like to comment on that just a bit more.

The Somnium Scipionis is the only completely intact portion of Cicero’s De Republica. Wildly popular in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it tells of how Scipio Africanus Minor had a dream wherein he was taken up into the heavens and spoke with his adoptive grandfather, Scipio Africanus Major. At one point (Somn. Scip. xvi), he writes (Cicero, On the Good Life, trans. Michael Grant [Harmondsworth, UK: 1971], p. 346):

As I gazed out from where I stood, first in one direction and then another, the whole prospect looked marvellously beautiful. There were stars we never see from the earth, and they were larger than we could possibly have imagined. The smallest was the luminary which is farthest away from heaven and nearest to the earth, and shines with reflected light [the moon, of course]. These starry spheres were much larger than the earth. Indeed the earth now seemed to me so small that I began to think less of this empire of ours, which only amounts to a pinpoint on its surface.

It seems this description of a vision of the earth from a great distance, appearing so small, made a deep impression on the ancient world, an impression from which the Western mind never really recovered. In The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), C.S. Lewis writes:

This passage [from Cicero] was constantly in the minds of succeeding writers. The insignificance (by cosmic standards) of the Earth became as much a commonplace to the medieval, as to the modern, thinker; it was part of the moralists’ stock-in-trade, used, as Cicero uses it (xix), to mortify human ambition. (p. 26)

Among other medieval writers, it is interesting to note that Dante Alighieri echoes Cicero in the Paradiso, immediately after Dante the Pilgrim has encountered St Benedict in Canto XXII.133-135 (The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine: Cantica III—Paradise (Il Paradiso), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds [London: Penguin, 1962], p. 253):

So with my vision I went traversing
The seven planets till this globe I saw,
Whereat I smiled, it seemed so poor a thing.

But while de Vogüé points out that the comparison with St Benedict’s vision ‘hardly needs to be emphasized’ (later he adds that both are nocturnal experiences [p. 171]), he also remarks that the difference is ‘considerable’ (p. 169). First of all, it is only the earth that Scipio, in the Somnium, and Dante, in the Paradiso, see, while it is made clear in St Gregory’s explanation (which I quoted in this post) to his interlocutor, Peter, that St Benedict has been vouchsafed a vision of the ‘whole of creation’ (II.xxxv.6), ‘heaven and earth’ (II.xxxv.7). So while to Scipio the earth is only small in comparison to the vast cosmos, St Benedict, like the Righteous Melchizedek, ‘had transcended time and nature’ (St Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 10.20a, Maximus the Confessor, trans. Fr Andrew Louth [London: Routledge, 1999], p. 115), and as St Gregory Palamas says, he ‘overlooks the universe’ (‘Topics of Natural and Theological Science’ 24, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 356).

Finally, commenting on St Gregory’s explanation of the 'how' of St Benedict’s vision, de Vogüé writes:

Coming from mystical theology, this explanation contrasts with the moralizing aim of Scipio’s dream. The purpose of Cicero was, by the use of a sublime myth, to lead his reader on to despising human glory and to a very pure conception of duty. Gregory’s purpose is to account for an extraordinary spiritual experience whose possibility he wishes to establish and whosse mechanism he tries to outline. As for detaching himself from earthly goods, Benedict has done that long since. The experience of the tower is not intended to cure him of the desire for human glory, like young Scipio, but to put on his long life of renunciation the seal of a dazzling revelation, a premonition of the glorious vision and heavenly condition into which, like the soul of Germanus, his own soul will soon be admitted. (p. 170)

24 July 2009

'Rejoice, Thou Who Didst Set Down Thy Rule'—St Benedict, Pt 2

In other posts I have already related and commented upon some of the events which took place after the creation of the twelve monasteries I mentioned in the last post, while St Benedict dwelt at Monte Cassino. Here I blogged about St Maurus, who figures prominently in Dialogues I.iii.14-vii.3 (see St Gregory, pp. 41-3). Here I reflected on the story of St Benedict’s raven in Dialogues II.viii.3 (St Gregory, p. 53). Finally, in this post, I gave the story of St Benedict’s sister according to the flesh, St Scholastica, from Dialogues II.xxxiii-xxxiv (St Gregory, pp. 154-5). So I will just give the brief tale of one of St Benedict’s miracles before moving onto something else. In Dialogues II.xxv, we read:

1 One of his monks was affected by restlessness of mind and would not stay in the monastery. The man of God corrected him assiduously and frequently admonished him but he would not, under any circumstances, agree to stay in the community, and with repeated requests urged that he be released. One day the venerable Father, wearied by his excess, got angry and told him to leave.

2 Soon after leaving the monastery, he found a dragon with open mouth standing on the road before him. As the dragon wanted to devour him, he began to shake and tremble and shout in a loud voice, ‘Hurry, hurry, because that dragon wants to devour me.’ The brethren came running, but they saw no dragon. They led the shaking, trembling monk back to the monastery and he immediately promised that he would never leave it again. From that moment he kept his promise, for by the prayers of the holy man he had seen standing before him the dragon which formerly he had followed, though he had not seen it. (pp. 113-4)

I excerpt this story primarily because it features a dragon, but it is also interesting to note its similarities with the superb Papadiamanis story, ‘The Monk: A Short Study’, which I mentioned yesterday.

In his comments on St Gregory’s references to St Benedict’s experiences of contemplation at Subiaco, before the foundation of the twelve monasteries, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé writes, ‘Contemplation rejoices in solitude but it does not need it absolutely. This is so true that Benedict reached the summit of contemplation at Monte Cassino, during the fullness of his abbacy, as we shall see at the end of the book’ (p. 38). In Dialogues II.xxxv, St Gregory tells of how St Benedict, praying in his tower in the middle of the night—

looked up and saw a light spreading from on high and completely repelling the darkness of the night. It shone with such splendor that it surpassed the light of day, even though it was shining in the midst of darkness.

3 A marvelous thing followed in this contemplation for, as he himself related afterwards, the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun. The venerable Father, while straining his attentive gaze on this splendor of shining light, saw the soul of Germanus, bishop of Capua, carried up to heaven by angels in a fiery sphere. (p. 164).

But as remarkable as this vision of the uncreated light is, perhaps the most interesting thing about this chapter is St Gregory’s subsequent explanation of the vision in II.xxxv.6-7. He writes:

6 . . . The whole of creation will seem small to the soul who sees the Creator. For however little she sees of the light of the Creator, everything created grows small for her, because in the very light of the internal vision the capacity of the soul is enlarged; it is so expanded in God that it is placed above the world. Indeed the soul of the seer is raised above itself. In the light of God it is carried above itself and is expanded interiorly. . . .

7 When I say that the world was gathered under his eyes, this does not mean that heaven and earth had shrunk, but that the mind of the seer was enlarged: caught up in God, it could see without difficulty all that is under God. This light which shone on his exterior eyes was also an interior light in his mind which revealed to the soul of the seer, because it was caught up to higher things, how narrow are all lower things. (p. 165)

It struck me how astonishingly consonant this is with the hesychastic tradition of the Orthodox East. We have already seen St Gregory’s hesychastic emphasis on St Benedict’s practice of watchfulness and the concentration of the nous in the heart—‘Before the eyes of the Creator he always looked at himself, always examined himself, never let the eye of his soul look outside himself’ (p. 31)—but here we have the object of St Benedict’s vision, ‘the light of the Creator’, explicitly contrasted with ‘everything created’ (p. 165). To me, it could not be more plain that this great Western Father is speaking of the uncreated light.

Incidentally, de Vogüé points out, in the absence of any identifiable scriptural parallels to this story, three interesting non-biblical ones, each corresponding to one part of this passage in the Dialogue. With the ‘noctural illumination’, he links the story of ‘the illuminated vigil of the monk Victorinus Aemilianus’ in St Gregory’s own Homily on the Gospel, 34, 18 (p. 168). He compares in depth the vision of ‘the world reduced to a point’ with Cicero’s famous ‘Dream of Scipio’ (pp. 168-72). Finally, he mentions the parallels of ‘the soul carried up to heaven’ with St Anthony’s vision of the soul of Amun (Ammon) passing up to heaven (p. 172).

The last part of St Gregory’s Life of St Benedict, Dialogues II.xxxvi-xxxvii, focuses on three things: what de Vogüé calls a ‘eulogy’ of the Rule, a brief account of St Benedict’s repose, and a story of a miracle performed at the Sacro Speco at Subiaco after the Saint’s repose. Concerning the Rule, St Gregory writes:

However I would not with it to be unknown to you that the man of God who became famous in the world by so many miracles was also very well-known for his words of doctrine. For he wrote a rule for monks, remarkable for its discretion [on p. 177, de Vogüé argues that ‘discernment’ might be a better translation of discretio here than the obvious cognate] and elegant in its language [here de Vogüé suggests ‘brilliant’ of form for sermone luculentam]. If anyone wishes to have a closer knowledge of his life and habits he will find all the points of his teaching in this rule, for the holy man could not possibly teach other than as he lived. (p. 174)

De Vogüé points out that this presentation of the Rule constitutes the requisite ‘portrait’ of the man typical of the biographical genre. For comparison he mentions the second part of Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian and also the Life of St Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, in both of which the portrait is also ‘set just before the death of the hero’ (p. 176). Though de Vogüé wishes that St Gregory had added his own ‘portrait’ rather than just referring the reader to the Rule, he notes that historically this is the only 6th-c. reference to the Rule, and that it ‘constituted a first-class advertisement for the Rule, one which assured it of an enormous circulation’ (p. 177). Von Matt and Hilpisch observe, ‘No other Pope has exercised so profound an influence in the spiritual and ascetical sphere as this pontiff. . . . St Gregory’s encomium of St Benedict and his Rule reached a wide audience and helped to decide the problem as to what Rule should be adopted by the monks of the West’ (p. 144).

St Gregory’s account of the repose of St Benedict notes, first of all, the fact that like many Saints he had foretold the day to some disciples earlier that year, swearing them to secrecy (II.xxxvii.1; p. 174). Then, in xxxvii.2 he writes:

Six days before his death, he ordered his tomb to be opened. Soon he was attached by fever and was weakened with severe suffering. As the illness grew worse every day, he asked his disciples to carry him into the oratory. There he strengthened himself for his departure by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord. While the hands of his disciples held up his weak limbs, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and breathed his last breath amidst words of prayer. (p. 174)

Concerning this blessed repose, de Vogüé is struck by the fact that it seems as if ‘it is to the saint’s own initiative—the order to carry him to the oratory—that death seems to respond by coming to the meetingplace Benedict had arranged’ (p. 178). His death becomes more heroic as he ‘strengthened himself for his departure by receiving’ the Mysteries. Then, de Vogüé writes, ‘But the most striking aspect of his agony is the heroism with which the dying man remains standing in prayer, upheld by his disciples, until the last moment’ (p. 178). He models for us ‘the struggle of a spent body to keep itself in an attitue of prayer as long as the breath of life remains in it. . . . He was a monk heading towards God, who obeyed until the last moment the evangelical command to pray without ceasing’ (p. 179). It is this moving account that has led to St Benedict’s traditional identification as an intercessor for a holy death (here I have noted that the medal of St Benedict contains the inscription, Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamus, ‘May we at our death be fortified by his presence’).

(As an aside, I will note that de Vogüé does not miss the similarity of the story of St Benedict’s arms being held up by his disciples with that of the Prophet Moses’s arms being held up by the Prophets Aaron and Hur at the battle with the Amalekites at Rephidim in Exodus 17:8-13, an episode I have blogged about here, in my post on a lecture by Fr Justin of Sinai. De Vogüé makes this comparison on p. 179 of his commentary.)

In conclusion, I offer two stanzas from the 9th Ode of the Canon for St Benedict, followed by Ikos IV of the Akathist in his honour (taken from St Benedict of Nursia, trans. Reader Isaac Lambertson [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1989]):

Thou wast shown to be like the great sun, illumining creation with awesome signs and rays of the virtues; wherefore, celebrating thy truly luminous memory, we are enlightened with heartfelt feelings, O father.

The flock of monastics assembled by thee giveth praise day and night, having in their midst thy body which poureth forth rivers of miracles abundantly an dunceasingly enlighteneth their steps, O wise father. (p. 25)

Hearing how thou wast like unto the heavenly hosts in the loftiness of thy righteousness, O father, the saved increased in number around thee; and for them didst thou flourish like a lily of the desert. With them do we also make bold to chant unto thee with compunction:

Rejoice, thou who wast arrayed in the splendid robe of dispassion;
Rejoice, thou who didst live an angelic life on earth!
Rejoice, O all-wondrous one who with faith hast taught us the ways of salvation;
Rejoice, O mighty one who trampled down the madness of idolatry!
Rejoice, thou who didst set down thy rule, which is sweeter than honey;
Rejoice, for thou didst reveal thy heart as a mirror of divine thought!
Rejoice, thou who didst make thy spirit a dwelling-place of the Trinity;
Rejoice, thou who didst found a great habitation for the praise of the Lord!
Rejoice, O prophet adorned with foreknowledge;
Rejoice, O venerable one, who through the air dost go to those who are amid tribulations!
Rejoice, O divinely wise one, for by thee are the faithful instructed;
Rejoice, O divinely blessed one, for by thee are many saved!
Rejoice, O Benedict, wonderworker of Nursia! (pp. 28-9)

'He Kept Himself Inside the Cloister of His Thought'—St Benedict of Nursia, Pt I

Today, 11 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism. As I mentioned here, the most common date for the commemoration of St Benedict in the Orthodox Church is 14 March, but I’m not sure where that date came from. The Catholics used to always commemorate him on 21 March—according to them, the day of his passing (see here). But now they primarily observe 11 July, the date of the translation of his relics. My parish, which is dedicated to St Benedict, has successfully petitioned the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad to transfer our feastday to the summer date so that it does not fall during a fast every year. Which brings us to today.

The Second Book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great (for which he is known as ‘the Dialogist’ in the Orthodox East) begins, ‘There was a man whose life was holy. His name was Benedict, and he was blessed by grace and by name’ (The Life of St Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 3). St Benedict was born in Nursia (modern Norcia, in southeastern Umbria), and sent to Rome at a young age for study. But according to St Gregory—

. . . he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had he entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life. Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.

. . .

So he gave up his studies of the classics and decided to enter the desert. (p. 3)

The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, points out the significance of the fact that this took place in two stages. First, the Saint went with his nurse to (present-day) Affile, but once there he attracted attention to himself by performing a miracle. So he fled further, leaving behind the nurse. De Vogüé writes:

It was precisely this glory from which he would now flee. It was not just a question of leaving the world, as any aspirant to the monastic life must do; in addition, he wished to extricate himself from a reputation for sanctity. To do so, a complete disappearance was demanded. Benedict wished to live from that moment on ‘unknown to men’.

. . .

This totally hidden life was Benedict’s heroic response to the temptation to vainglory. Without it, his original decision to ‘go into the desert’ might not have taken such a radical form. (p. 12)

St Benedict took up residence in a mountain cave at Subiaco, forty miles from Rome, near the site of a villa built by Nero (‘Subiaco’ derives from ‘Sublacus’, referring to the lake Nero had constructed there by damming the Anio [de Vogüé, p. 11]). Having received the habit from an older monk named Fr Romanus, St Benedict lived here in continual prayer and asceticism for three years, ‘unknown to men’ as he had wished. But according to St Gregory, he was finally discovered in his grotto at Subiaco by some local shepherds (de Vogüé notes the parallels to Christ’s birth narratives on p. 18).

Seeing him there among the wild bushes, clothed in skins, they took him for an animal. But they soon got to know the servant of God and many of them found themselves completely changed in their attitude, passing from the animal mentality to the grace of piety. And it happened that from then onwards many of them began to visit him. They brought food to sustain his body, and from what he said to them they took back in their hearts nourishment for life. (p. 11)

St Gregory notes that ‘the man of God . . . set about producing a harvest of virtues in greater abundance’, and as word of this spread ‘his name became celebrated’ (p. 22). Soon, St Benedict was asked by a nearby community of monks to become their abbot, and reluctantly agreed. However, the men rebelled against his ascetic directions and attempted to poison him. St Benedict was unharmed, because as he made the sign of the cross over the poisoned drink, the cup shattered. He returned to his cave. As St Gregory writes:

If he had wished to hold them forcefully subject to himself for a long time, he could have exceeded his strength and lost his peace. He might have turned the eye of his soul away from the light of contemplation as he neglected his own affairs in his weariness about their incorrigibility, and would perhaps have lost himself without finding them. For every time we are led outside ourselves by excessive concern, we remain ourselves but we are no longer with ourselves, because having lost sight of ourselves, we wander in alien places.

. . .

I would say then that this venerable man lived with himself because he was always preoccupied with guarding himself. Before the eyes of the Creator he always looked at himself, always examined himself, never let the eye of his soul look outside himself.

. . .

The venerable Benedict, in his solitude, dwelt with himself in the sense that he kept himself inside the cloister of his thought. But every time that the ardors of contemplation raised him towards the heights, without doubt he left himself beneath himself. (p. 31)

De Vogüé notes that the ‘episode of the interrupted abbacy’ serves to mark the dividing point between the stages of praxis and theoria in St Benedict’s life: ‘After the heroic self-denial of the three years passed fully incognito, in deprivation and hunger, Benedict should arrive at “contemplation”, at the “dwelling within himself” under the eye of God, at the very “rapture” which is the “summit of contemplation” (p. 36).

It was thus that the holy man was finally prepared for his community of true disciples, for gradually individuals began to come to live near him at Subiaco. But, as Leonard von Matt and Stephan Hilpisch point out in their beautiful book, Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf, OSB (London: Burnes & Oates, 1961), ‘St Benedict did not erect a large-scale monastery at Subiaco: his idea was to distribute his monks in small communities. In this he was only following an old tradition attested by John Cassian, whom Benedict was always glad to follow’ (p. 81). In the end St Benedict built twelve monasteries for these spiritual children, eventually repairing himself to a thirteenth—Monte Cassino. (Incidentally, after the All-Night Vigil for St Benedict last night, our beloved Bishop Peter of Cleveland suggested that our parish organise a pilgrimage to Monte Cassino!) It is there that, as de Vogüé writes, St Benedict ‘reached the summit of contemplation . . . , during the fullness of his abbacy, as we shall see at the end of the book’ (St Gregory, p. 38).

Go here for Part II of this post.