18 February 2010

Some Lenten Encouragement from the Ancients

A quick glance at this blog should be enough to demonstrate that I’m not big on the modern age. I certainly try not to idealise the past, but it can be awfully hard. When C.S. Lewis remarked in his introduction to St Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, ‘People were no cleverer then they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes’, [1] I would strongly like to add that their mistakes were less radical than ours. Certainly, they did not make the mistake that Lewis is addressing in that very piece—that of supposing that they didn’t need the wisdom of the past. Unlike most of us moderns, they kept ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing’ through their minds. [2]

It is particularly difficult within the Orthodox Church. I for one almost find it discouraging to contemplate what separates us from the Fathers. I can scarcely imagine the possibility of someone in our day attaining to their lofty heights. But over the years, I’ve occasionally stumbled across some encouraging comments on this problem in the Fathers themselves. You see, even in the later part of the fourth century, the wise were already lamenting how far they had fallen from their predecessors, and fortunately for us, they commented on this phenomenon. Here are three perhaps somewhat encouraging passages that address this issue.

The first, and briefest, is from the sayings of St Anthony the Great found in the Gerontikon, also known as the Apophthegmata Patrum: ‘23. He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”’ [3]

The second is from the Paralipomena of St Pachomius the Great, that is, the series of anecdotes ‘leftover’ or omitted from the various Lives of the Saint. In one of these anecdotes, St Pachomius is in despair because of a vision he has of the future of his monasteries:

But he saw also a numberless multitude of brothers journeying along a deep, parched valley. Many of them wanted to come up out of the valley, but were unable. Many came face to face with each other because of the great darkness that shrouded them, but did not recognize each other. Many fell down through exhaustion, and others cried out with a pitiful voice. A few of them were able with much labor to force their way out of that valley; as soon as they came up they gave thanks to God heartily. Then did the Blessed Man know what was going to happen to the brothers in the end, what negligence there would be in those times, the great hardening and error, and the failing of the shepherds which was going to affect them. [4]

In the midst of his despair, St Pachomius cries out to God, and is granted a vision of Christ Himself, as ‘a young man whose face was ineffable and whose aspect was inexpressible’. [5] Our Lord says to him:

Take courage, for the root of your seed shall not fail for ever, and your seed shall be preserved upon the earth until the end of time. [6] And the few who are going to be saved from the abundant darkness in these times shall be found above those who practise a very great ascesis now. For they have you as a lamp before their eyes and they practice ascesis, counting on your light; but if those who shall come after them and shall dwell in a parched place run out of the darkness and pursue righteousness in good mind and on their own accord, with no one to guide them to the truth, verily I say to you that they shall be found with those who now practice ascesis greatly and blamelessly, enjoying the same salvation. [7]

Finally, the last passage is also from Gerontikon, from the single apophthegm attributed to the otherwise unknown (to me) Abba Ischyrion:

The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said, ‘What have we ourselves done?’ One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, ‘We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.’ The others replied, ‘And those who come after us, what will they do?’ He said, ‘They will struggle to achieve half our works.’ They said, ‘And to those who come after them, what will happen?’ He said, ‘The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.’ [8]

[1] C.S. Lewis, ‘Introduction’, On the Incarnation, by St Athanasius the Great, new rev. ed., tr. & ed. A Religious of CSMV (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1996), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 6.

[4] Armand Veilleux, OCSO, tr., Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. 2: Pachomian Chronicles & Rules (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), p. 39.

[5] Ibid., p. 40.

[6] One might well wonder at how to interpret our Lord’s words here, since as William Harmless notes, the only significant survival of the Pachomian Koinonia, apart from the few documents extant, is the columns of the ruined 5th-c. basilica at Pbow (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 141). Fortunately, in his ‘Foreword’ to Veilleux’s translation of Pachomiana (‘Foreword’, Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. 1: The Life of St Pachomius, tr. Armand Veilleux [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1980], pp. vii-xxiii), the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has already wondered at this and offered the best answer I can imagine:

Were these first cenobites of Upper Egypt deceiving themselves as to the Koinonia’s chances of survival and of death? Along with his distressing forebodings, we are told that their Father Pachomius had received promises of perpetuity for his work. These divine promises, like so many others, were realized in a mysterious and unexpected manner. The rules and traditions, organization and hierarchy, monasteries and congregation all disappeared, and the faith literary or institutional traces of Pachomianism left to the monastic world—particularly in the latin West—would of themselves constitute only a pitiable survival. But in truth, the Koinonia of the sons of Pachomius has not ceased to exist. It is found wherever brothers gather together in the love of Christ to live in total sharing, perfect charity, and the renunciation of self-will ‘under a rule and a father’. (p. xxiii)

[7] Veilleux, Koinonia Vol. 2, p. 41.

[8] Ward, p. 111.

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