Those medieval mystics!

My own copy of The Cloud of Unknowing

Last Monday, I had the joy and delight of giving a lecture about medieval mysticism, focussing on some foundations (so, Evagrius and Cassian, basically) and then really on the fourteenth-century English mystics — Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost. All of my students were required to read a large chunk of Julian of Norwich, and for-credit students will also have read one of the others for an essay assignment.

One student read The Cloud of Unknowing, Rolle’s Fire of Love, and then The Cloud of Unknowing again while working on the essay, and then Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love for class. She declared that she wanted to become a medieval mystic. Another student admitted to being bitter a lot of the time, but that reading The Cloud and Julian filled him with sweetness.

I, too, am fond of reading medieval mystics. Of those covered for this class, I like best Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. I also have a fondness (almost typed fandom!) for early Cistercians, especially St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. I have to admit, though, that my exposure to St Hildegard is too shallow, and the promising beginning I made in reading St Catherine of Siena was cut short by other affairs.

As you may guess, the contemplative/mystic types I spend more time with are late antique and Byzantine besides modern Orthodox pray-ers — St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Sophrony, Met. Anthony Bloom, and others.

I must confess, however, that I am very poor mystic/contemplative. Reading about high ideals stirs my heart, makes me want to climb those mountains and put in that hard labour. But acedia sets in. Sloth is easier than asceticism, right?

I recently went through a stretch where I had not been reading any Orthodox elders or late antique monks. One night, I decided to push through a portion of St Silouan the Athonite by St Sophrony (a very dense but powerful book). And I felt my spirits lightened and my resolve quickened by this experience. Reading holy literature is not wasted.

I remind myself of a story from the Egyptian desert about a monk complaining to an old man that he listens to the elders and hears the Scriptures but can’t for the life of him remember the teachings. The old man told him to take two clay pots that were dusty and dirty. Leave one alone, and pour oil into the other. Then pour the oil out. Then repeat several times. “Which is cleaner?” the old man asked. “The one I poured the oil into,” was the response.

Let’s bring this back to the mystics, then. I have expressed my misgivings about us unspiritual meatheads reading The Cloud of Unknowing on this blog. Yet perhaps the story from the desert is telling us that if we have the will or desire for these good things, then even advanced books like that are not lost on us.

So go on reading your medieval mystics, gentle reader. May you be made more pure of heart as a result.

A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:

“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”

Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.

I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.

To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.

But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?

Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:

I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.

We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.

Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.

Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.

We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.

We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.

We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.

We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.

I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)

But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.

This is basically my life’s goal.

What separates me from an Athonite monk

Athonites at prayer

One of the remarkable things about the tradition of ancient monasticism, from the Egyptian Desert to Jeremy Taylor to Mt Athos, is its concern about oversleeping. I recall reading about a monastery amongst the Desert Fathers where the monks were purposefully prevented from getting what we call “a good night’s sleep.” It was believed that the ascetic with less sleep was more able to fight demons.

When I mentioned this fact to my father, he remarked that he found himself less equipped to fight evil with less sleep. I feel the same way — more irascible, more likely to skip prayers, more likely to eat that which I should not. More likely to snap at my kids. That sort of thing.

And yet the life of St Silouan the Athonite, as recounted by St Sophrony, tells us of the opposite. St Silouan (St Sophrony’s spiritual father on the Holy Mountain of Mt Athos) would spend hours in the night sitting up praying. Sometimes he would get as little as two hours of sleep. Sometimes he would have vigils.

Yet St Silouan, despite his lack of sleep, was regarded as an even-tempered, loving man, more upset at his own sins than those of others.

And here’s what separates me from an Athonite monk:

Prayer.

What am I doing if I’m up late? Well, sometimes I’m working. Or doing chores/errands for the household. Sometimes I’m reading for pleasure. Or watching shows. Or just mindlessly surfing the worldwide web.

Now, I think for most of us a good night’s sleep does a lot of good.

But so would a good night’s prayer.

I’ve been in hospital the past few days for hernia surgery. The down time has enabled me to reset morning and evening prayer. Let’s pray the Lord gives me the blessing of duration in devotion.

Evagrius in Anglo-Saxon England

In rereading St Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, in preparation for this past Monday, I encountered (unsurprisingly) Evagrian resonances in Pope St Gregory the Great’s letters to St Augustine of Canterbury in 1.27. Evagrius of Pontus was a late fourth-century mystic and ascetic master amongst the Desert Fathers of Lower Egypt at Nitria and then Kellia. Father Luke Dysinger has an accessible biography of Evagrius here. Despite being controversial in posthumous Origenist controversies, Evagrius remains foundational for ascetic and mystical theology and practice both East and West. In the West, his teachings were transmitted and refracted through the work of St John Cassian, and then further refracted through the works of Pope St Gregory.

The Evagrian resonances were most explicit for me in St Gregory’s response to question 9.

First, Gregory recapitulates teaching common to both Evagrius and St Cassian that fornication and gluttony are intimately linked. The immediate context is the ongoing, perplexing question raised by ancient monastics as to whether someone who has nocturnal emissions has sinned or not.

Pope Gregory writes that the illusions that accompany such emissions are sometimes caused by overeating, that one’s body is essentially overburdened by eating. The correlation between gluttony and fornication is made by Evagrius in the “Texts on Discrimination” excerpted in The Philokalia Vol. 1:

For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony…

Trans. Sherrard et al., p. 38

One of the basic realities I discovered when I did my first dive into John Cassian was the interconnectedness of our whole lives, including the life of sin. Succumb to one sin, and you are setting yourself up for being bound to the others. Excel at one virtue, and you gain strength to fight all the sins. I confess here and now that I have yet to read Gregory the Great on the Seven Deadly Sins (which he adapts from Evagrius-Cassian), but I imagine his concept is much the same.

But what really got my Evagrian gears turning was this passage in Bede, EH 1.27, Q IX:

all sin is committed in three ways, namely by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. The devil makes the suggestion, the flesh delights in it and the spirit consents. It was the serpent who suggested the first sin, Eve representing the flesh was delighted by it, and Adam representing the spirit consented to it: and when the mind sits in judgement on itself it is necessary to make careful distinction between suggestion and delight, between delight and consent. For when an evil spirit suggests a sin to the mind, if no delight in the sin follows then the sin is not committed in any form; but when the flesh begins to delight in it then sin begins to arise. But if the mind deliberately consents, then the sin is seen to be complete.

Ed. McClure and Collins, pp. 53-54

Gregory the Great goes on. But this is enough to see the Evagrian anatomy of sin. The suggestion comes first — that is, the initial temptation as we would see it. We like the idea — sure, why not have another goblet of wine? We succumb; our spirit consents. (Another goblet … or three?)

It is a sublte, psychologically real approach to sin that attaches all the responsibility for action upon the human agent. Gregory notes that one may have the suggestion, and be delighted by it, but resist so as not to consent with the spirit. This circumstance, of being delighted by sin yet able to resist, is what St Paul spoke of in Romans 7:23,”But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” So we are able to fight these thoughts when they come.

This fight is what much of the surviving work of Evagrius is about, and it is also the chief business of many writers in the Philokalia. One of the chief skills Philokalic and Evagrian spirituality seeks to hone is watchfulness. We must watch our thoughts, “to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons.” (Evagrius, On Discrimination 7, p. 42)

Watchfulness and the discernment of the thoughts and the battle against temptation are central to Evagrian praktike, but central to his whole program, central to St Gregory, to the Venerable Bede, to the missionaries of Anglo-Saxon England, is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, to be met in contemplation, theoria, and worshipped and adored.

Nothing else really matters.

Why the Council of Chalcedon is (still) my favourite ecumenical council

As a final question to my students in “The Seven Ecumenical Councils in Historical Context”, I asked which council was each person’s favourite. Votes came in for Nicaea, Ephesus, Constantinople II, and Chalcedon. I affirmed that I still prefer Chalcedon. One student asked who the greatest theologian we’d read in the course was. I’ll save that for another post…

Why do I still like the Council of Chalcedon after all these years?

  1. I like the Chalcedonian definition of the faith, which I’ve translated here. It did not solve the Christological can of worms opened by Nestorius by any means, and potentially just opened up another can and poured the new worms on top of the Nestorius-Cyril worms. But I still think it is beautiful and balanced, so long as interpreted correctly.
  2. The Council of Chalcedon empowers theologians like St Maximus the Confessor to do wonderful stuff. That’s reason enough for me.
  3. I like Pope St Leo the Great and his theology. It’s nice to see traditional Latin Christological formulations showcased at an ecumenical council and enshrined as dogma. As I’ve said on a lot of job applications, I am a Latinist (I can certainly do Greek as well, but my interests and deep knowledge tend more to Rome than Athens).
  4. This might be 3a, actually — whether you like Leo or not, it’s an historically interesting fact that traditional Latin Christological formulations from Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine of Hippo are enshrined in an ecumenical council. The councils are usually dominated by eastern/Greek concerns, eastern/Greek formulations, eastern/Greek bishops, and eastern/Greek ideas. This, at least, makes the Council of Chalcedon an interesting object of study.
  5. So much evidence survives. For someone who wants to dig into the primary sources for ecclesiastical history, Chalcedon has them in abundance.
  6. The actual transpiring of the council is interesting, even entertaining, to read. The acts of the council have embedded in them both the acts of the Second Council of Ephesus (449) and the portions of the acts of the Home Synod of Constantinople of 448 relevant to Eutyches.
  7. The flurry of activity leading up to the council survives, documented chiefly in Leo’s letters.
  8. The fallout from the council is interesting to read about — monks take of Jerusalem! Bishops get killed in the streets over this! It’s crazy stuff. Historically interesting, whether morally appropriate or not.

I think any other reasons would come in as subsidiaries to these. But these are the reasons why the Council of Chalcedon of 451 is my favourite ecumenical council.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

The Church in Medieval England

When I was a kid, if you were to ask me what my favourite things were, the answer would be easy — knights, castles, and the Middle Ages. What were my favourite stories? The answer could be found by finding me crouched just inside the door to my bedroom where the hall light spilled across the floor, reading a library book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What was my favourite historical event? The Crusades.

Add to this the fact that I was reared in the Anglican Church with a priest for a dad who loves history. In confirmation class, maybe also through osmosis or conversations around the home or in the car, I came to understand that the Anglican Church wasn’t like other Protestant churches — we stood in line with the medieval church in England, stretching back to Augustine of Canterbury. All we did was clear away some abuses (like clerical celibacy!) and clarify some unclear teachings (like, say, justification by faith alone).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I am to be offering my course The Church in Medieval England: 597-1485 for Davenant Hall this spring term, starting in April! You can sign up here.

To pique your interest, here’s the description I put in the syllabus:

The period known as the Middle Ages is often thought of as “dark”, particularly as far as Christianity is concerned. In this course, we will study the path of Christianity in England from the arrival of Italian missionaries in 597 to the accession of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485, a journey from small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms through the Norman world, up the cusp of the Reformation era. In the lectures, I will move generally chronologically, examining events and major figures as they arise. Particular attention will be given to the twelfth century because of the transformations of the wake of the Norman Conquest, the emergence of the Cistercians, and the rise of universities, as well as late medieval piety and calls for Reform.

What we shall see is a nuanced world of many layers, where the deep Augustinian theology of Thomas Bradwardine (Archbishop of Canterbury, d. 1349) co-exists with those he felt were Pelagian. Alongside the monasteries and universities, there is also the popular world of medieval religion, found in poems, plays, and pilgrimages, devoted to Christ’s passion, the saints, the Eucharist. In a sort of middle place, we will find time for the mystical writings of hermits, canons, and Carthusians, some, like the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, directed to the laity.

We will read Gildas, Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Dream of the Rood, the Life of Alfred by Asser, Eadmer’s Life of St Anselm, Simeon of Durham, Aelred of Rievaulx, primary sources about Thomas Becket, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Everyman, shorter devotional poetry, Pearl, Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, and medieval liturgy.

Other big names will also turn up, names like Aneirin, Boniface, Aelfric, William of Ockham, William the Conqueror, William II Rufus, Henry I, Henry II, lots of other kings and queens, Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Margery Kempe, John Peckham (Archbishop of Canterbury), Queen St Margaret of Scotland, and so forth, as well as some continental biggies like Gregory the Great, Innocent III, Gratian, Thomas Aquinas, et al.

So sign up here now!

Durham Cathedral Priory in the snow (my picture)

The Christmas Councils

In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.

This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:

  1. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
  2. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
  3. John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.

The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.

Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.

Register for the lecture for free here.

Register for my 10-week class starting the week of January 10 here.

Watch last year’s December fellow’s lecture here.

“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.