“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

“God is not an old dude”, my latest on YouTube

The other day, my two-and-a-half-year-old son pointed at an image of God creating the world on a CD cover and asked, “Who’s this?”

Seven times.

I dutifully answered, and then later that evening I made this video that explores the question of God having a human form with a jolly ride through some ecclesiastical history around the year 400, from the Anthropomorphite Controversy to the Synod of the Oak and the deposition of St John Chrysostom. Enjoy!

Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

The wide embrace of Christ

From The Quest of the Holy Grail, a hermit speaking with Sir Lancelot:

Then looking about him, the good man saw a cross on which Our Lord was painted in effigy, and pointed it out to Lancelot, saying:

‘Sir, do you see that cross?’

‘Yes,’ he answered.

‘Then be assured,’ said the other, ‘that the arms of that figure are thus stretched wide to welcome all who come. In just the same way has Our Lord extended His arms to embrace every sinner that turns to him, both you and others, calling evermore: “Come unto Me!” And since in His loving kindness He is always ready to receive each man and woman trust comes back to Him, never doubt He will admit you if you offer yourself to Him in the manner I have described, which is that of oral confession, of true repentance and amendment. So bare your soul to Him now while I listen, and I will help and succour you to the utmost of my power, and will counsel you as best I can.”

I have two YouTube videos involving Bede

I do promise to do some real blogging soon. In the meantime, I have two videos involving St Bede the Venerable. Most recently, on June 22, I made a video about St Alban the Martyr, given that it was his feast day, and I was baptised at a church of St Alban the Martyr, and then married at a different church of St Alban the Martyr. And I think the story of St Alban’s martyrdom is just really fascinating with lots of great stuff in it. Enjoy!

The first went up in late May in commemoration of the feasts of St Bede, St Augustine of Canterbury, and St Aldhelm:

Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

The Annunciation

As we journey to the Cross, suddenly, the turning of the calendar and rolling of the year brings us face to face with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel – today is nine months until Christmas. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate God’s self-giving love, as it was poured out in the conception of Christ and culminated in his saving death and glorious resurrection. From ancient times, Christians have seen the willing obedience of Mary as a grace-filled opposite to the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Christ as the opposite of the disobedience to Adam. Here’s a hymn by St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess and mystic, the antiphon “Quia ergo femina”:

Because a woman brought death
a bright Maiden overcame it,
and so the highest blessing
in all of creation
lies in the form of a woman,
since God has become human
in a sweet and blessed Virgin.

-Trans. Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings

Here is a recording of the original Latin:

Reflections on John 12

This is my reflection on John 12:20-33, written for my church community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey:

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

In the narrative of the Gospel of John, today’s reading takes place during the final Passover feast during which Jesus will be betrayed, beaten, crucified. Everything has been moving to this point, from the preaching of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) In a few days, the Lord of glory will be slain. Yet this is not how Jesus frames it in this instance. When these pagan Greek-speakers appear, he does not say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be humiliated.” No, in foretelling his death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) St Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, a fifth-century preacher, writes:

He now desires to pass onward to the very crowning point of His hope, namely to the destruction of death: and this could not otherwise be brought to pass, unless the Life underwent death for the sake of all human beings, that so in Him we all may live. For on this account also He speaks of Himself as glorified in His Death, and in suffering terrible things at the hands of the sinners who dishonour Him. Even though by the angels in heaven He had been glorified from everlasting, yet nevertheless His Cross was the beginning of His being glorified upon earth.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 8

Jesus goes on to make this reference to his death more explicit in the next verse, saying that a grain of wheat must die and fall to the ground in order to bear fruit. We are the fruit of Christ’s death. His precious death and glorious resurrection have reaped a harvest of souls for 2000 years, raising us up with him to the heavenly realm. Yet here, bound up with the promise, our Lord also gives us a hard saying—hard to live, if not to understand: “Whoever loves his or her life loses it, and whoever hates his or her life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Thankfully, the wisdom of the ancients comes to us here as well. St John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher from Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) says:

Sweet is the present life, and full of much pleasure, yet not to all, but to those who are riveted to it. Since, if any one looks to heaven and sees the beauteous things there, that person will soon despise this life, and make no account of it. Just as the beauty of an object is admired while none more beautiful is seen, but when a better appears, the former is despised. If then we would choose to look to that beauty, and observe the splendour of the kingdom there, we should soon free ourselves from our present chains; for a kind of chain it is, this sympathy with present things. 

Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily LXVII

But this still seems too hard, too harsh, too difficult. Another ancient preacher who was alive at the time of Chrysostom and Cyril was St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine makes a distinction between using the things of this world, even enjoying them, as gateways to God and loving them for their own sake. His teaching means that with a rightly ordered heart one sees the sun rise over the Sleeping Giant, enjoys the sight, and then praises God for His handiwork. The whole of human existence thus becomes a gateway to God—my life in this world that I am called to hate for the sake of Jesus becomes transfigured into the heavenly life with Christ. Transformed in this way, I would more readily lose this worldly life for a life filled with the grandeur of the glory of God.

Our Lord Christ repeats this idea of death to self in a new manner straightaway, but couples it to great promises: “If anyone serves me, he or she must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him or her.” (John 12:26) We must follow Christ, we are told. And where does Christ go from here in the Gospel of John? To the upper room, to the garden, to betrayal, to arrest, to being slandered, to being beaten, to being stripped naked, to being humiliated, to being nailed to a cross and lifted up from the earth.

To death.

But from death to glory.

For us, Jesus says that the Father will honour the one who serves and follows him. He promises that his ignominious death is the place of his glory. And he promises to raise us up too, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) An important point in all of this is grace. It is Jesus himself who is the grain of wheat that bears much fruit. It is Jesus himself who draws us to himself. It is God the Father who honours those who follow and serve Jesus.

The path of discipleship is a narrow path of self-denial. The path of discipleship is the pathway of death, death to self and to the world. Yet it is also the path to glory, and it is made easy by Jesus who draws us to himself. It is made easy by the Father who honours us. Let us not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The life of the ancient monk Antony, one of the first to take up the monastic life, was a living parable of dying to this world to follow Christ, being drawn by him. He abandoned all of his worldly possessions because in church one day he heard the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 where the Lord says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” St Antony did so. At one stage in his retreat from worldly life, he lived in a tomb in the Egyptian countryside where he did nothing but pray and do battle with demons. When he left this tomb, a physical symbol of his death to the world, it was as a participant in the divine life of Jesus. As St Athanasius of Alexandria, his biographer writes:

Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.

Life of Antony 14

Among the sayings left by Antony, two are particularly important for us today:

“Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.”

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4:18)

Let us die to ourselves in order to be alive to God and love him to the fullest, being caught up into Christ’s life by the abundant grace of the Father.