Justice and the kingdom of now and not-yet

There is little that I, a middle-class white guy from Canada, can add of much value to the conversation on racism now happening, a conversation that will hopefully bear fruit in all of our lives and societies, from those of us unconsciously complicit in systems that oppressed, to active oppressors, to those unjustly oppressed. In Canada, we are coming to realise that we have our own share of anti-black racism, but also, since we have proportionately fewer black people for white people to oppress, more than enough oppression of and racism against indigenous people. In Australia, I understand the Aborigines are out marching as well.

So, as we all become painfully aware, I will only offer what little I can by way of what tiny part of stuff is my expertise: a sliver of ancient Christianity …

A few days ago, Death to the World posted this amazing icon of St Moses the Black, one of the fourth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt:

Before getting to Abba Moses, it is worth pausing on Death to the World’s caption and tags that accompanied the icon:

The last true rebellion is death to self. There will be no political savior. #counterrevolution #lasttruerebellion #sainthoodisyourprotection #deathtotheworld

This is precisely what I would expect from Death to the World, and it’s always worth pausing to remember that. Death to the World, if you didn’t know, is an Eastern Orthodox group whose originally membership was drawn from the counterculture on the US west coast, especially those into heavy metal. It stills has a counterculture vibe. It actually started out as a zine back in the day! They are very big into the work of Father Seraphim Rose, who himself came out of the ’60s counterculture of hippies, New Age, and Marxism.

Death to the World will always point us in this direction. We are to abandon it all. There is no political saviour. We must give all to gain everything (okay, that’s St Clare of Assisi). We need to remember this, always. We will never build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land (contra William Blake). The last true rebellion is the overthrowing of self, the death to a corrupt and dying world, and a wholehearted embrace of truth. Be holy. Sainthood is your protection.

Abba Moses would agree. Abba Moses was a former robber who was converted late in life and became great and holy monk amongst the Desert Fathers in Scetis. I am not sure where exactly he was from, whether modern Ethiopia or Sudan or southern Egypt. But he was definitely one of the few black saints of the patristic era before the conversion of Ethiopia.

Here are four instructions from Abba Moses. The full ‘seven’ gets very long. From Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 141:

  1. The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
  2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
  3. If the monk does not think in his heart hat he is a sinner, God will not hear him.
  4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain.

The first, last, and greatest rebellion lies here, within us, within the putrid wickedness of our own hearts.

The statement, “No political saviour,” should remind us that humans are evil and will perpetrate evil. If we fight for justice and a more just society, we must be ready for failure at some level.

The tension is that the same Desert that nourished St Moses the Black — who actually received some abuse from fellow monks for his skin colour — also calls us to care for the poor as part of our death to the world:

A brother asked an aged monk: ‘There are two brothers: one of them leads a life of solitude six days a week and does much penance, while the other is dedicated to the service of the sick. Which of the two is behaving in the way that is more acceptable to God?’

The old man answered him: ‘The brother who is always making a retreat would never attain the heights that the one who serves the sick has reached, not even if you hoisted him with a hook in his nose.’ -Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers no. 224, quoted in Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, 175

St John Chrysostom, who had been a monk in the Syrian desert before becoming a priest and later bishop of Constantinople, spoke often and at length about the abuse of the poor by the rich, and called upon his wealthy, aristocratic audience to care for the poor. His audience included the emperor, remember. St Basil of Caesarea, who lived an ascetic lifestyle and had visited the famous monasteries of Egypt, also exhorted people to care for the poor, but he went a step further and built a place where the poor and sick could be cared for.

Their political system was very different from ours, but those fathers of the church who had the ear of emperors tended to call upon them to care for the poor.

Our cultural world is also very different from theirs. Ancient Romans are a fine example of how bigotry and xenophobia can exist without modern concepts of race. Not that an ancient person wouldn’t be aware that Abba Moses was black and Patrick of Ireland was a pinkish white colour. They just had a variety of other markers of ethnicity that they took into account when being cruel and oppressive, frankly.

Our questions of racism and race are, therefore, not their questions. Nevertheless, justice cries out. We do live in this particular world, this iteration of human bigotry and oppression, this cultural moment. Injustice is being wrought against fellow human beings made in the image of God. St John Chrysostom and St Basil and the Desert Fathers would all call for just treatment of black people. They would consider kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he asphyxiates and dies, with people looking on calling for mercy, to be wickedness. To be murder.

Therefore, seeking social justice in our society, in ways that we hope are effective here and now, is an act in line with the spirit of the writings of these great Fathers of the Church.

The Kingdom of the Heavens, when a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather around the throne of the Lamb, has not yet come in its fullness and power. It will not come until Christ returns to exact justice upon evildoers. Until then, all our efforts at building a just society will be partial. Nevertheless, we are called to do these things, to preach repentance to racists and our own selves for our complicity, and to seek justice for the victims of the racist oppression that to this day plagues our societies.

I suspect that the only sustainable way to do this is to die to ourselves every day so that we can more fully love our neighbour.

This is the tension of the Christian life. Now and not-yet.

John Cassian in the Philokalia: ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ – scopos and telos

StJohnCassian_vice4Allow me to begin with my ecclesiastical historian’s hat on. The second selection from John Cassian in The Philokalia (the first having been about the 8 thoughts, taken from Books 5-8 of The Institutes) is taken from Cassian’s second work, the much longer Conferences or CollationesThe Conferences purport to be the monastic elder’s encounters and conversations from the approximately ten years he and his companion Germanus spent amongst the Desert Fathers of Egypt, adapted for the situation in Gaul and possibly falsely recalled due to the faults of human memory (which he admits). Germanus is the usual interlocutor with Cassian sitting and listening in silence. An argument was made somewhere that here we find the full depth of Cassian’s spiritual theology. Here we certainly meet some his more powerful concepts, and the influence of Evagrius of Pontus, quite palpable in his discussion of the eight thoughts in The Institutes, continues. We’ll get to that in a moment. The Conferences are available online, as well as in an excellent translation with helpful notes by Boniface Ramsey. Ramsey also translated The Institutes.

The first Conference is where Sts Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth gathered the opening material for ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination’. The discussion is created of various excerpts from Conference 1, seamlessly woven together, ending with the paragraph on p. 98 of the English, ‘When the old man saw us marvelling at this…’ In Cassian’s original, the paragraph is used as a way of ending the conference with Abba Moses that day, whereas in its reworked Greek version, it becomes the segue into a discussion of discernment. The rest of ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ is a discussion of discernment/discretion taken from Conference 2. Both Conference 1 and 2 are with the same abba, Moses. I do not know if we are to assume that he is the same Abba Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or not. Throughout both Conferences we encounter an array of biblical verses, examples of biblical persons, and examples from the history of Christian asceticism.

Abba Moses begins the discussion, ‘after much entreaty on our part’, with a question. Every aspect of human endeavour has an immediate purpose and end goal. A farmer clears land of thorns and rocks — an immediate purpose — with the ultimate goal of enjoying the produce of the field. He queries:

Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this [ascetic labour]?

We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’

In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’

… we confessed that we did not know … (Palmer, Sherrard, Ward trans., p. 95)

In the Latin, Cassian actually uses the Greek scopos and telosScopos is glossed as destinatio (which is admissible in this discussion in its English descendant); telos is finis (or end). Clearing the field is the farmer’s scopos, enjoying its fruits is his telos. The scopos, or finis, of the ascetic life is the kingdom of heaven — regnum caelorum. In their English translation of the Greek Philokalia, Palmer, et al., give us purpose for scopos and goal for telos.

Abba Moses says:

The goal [telos] of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose [scopos], however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. (p. 95 in English)

Here we have the original ‘purpose-driven life’! We are called by Cassian (via Abba Moses) to seek purity of heart in all we do. That is the point. The point is not fasting, reading sacred scripture, meditating, praying, studying theology, helping the poor. The point is purity of heart. Abba Moses continues:

It is for the love of our neighbour that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. (p. 95)

For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother. (p. 96)

Abba Moses then says that love of God and of human beings, not ascetic labour, is the purpose. This is the great recurring theme of Christian spirituality, as I have discussed here in the past in relation to St Augustine and the Cistercians. From here, Abba Moses discusses how to achieve purity of heart; as Cassian and Germanus discuss the ascetic life with other Egyptian abbas, they learn more and more; there is a rising up towards this purity, found in the pure prayer of Conference 10 which leads into a discussion of perfection itself in Conference 11.

In The Philokalia, Abba Moses gives some attention to the thoughts (those Evagrian logismoi) before moving into his discussion of discernment.

You can see, I think, why The Conferences make me aware of my inadequacies! I still have no grand answers for questions of how a modern layperson, married, working full-time in a demanding job, is to pursue purity of heart. I guess thinking about it is a start. Praying daily as we do at The Witness Cloud is, undoubtedly, central. Abba Moses counsels Cassian and Germanus to keep their eyes fixed on the knowable actions of God in creation, Scripture, the deeds of the saints.

I guess being an ecclesiastical historian might actually give me some advantage, then?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. -Matthew 5:8

The Maleficent Spirit: An Example of Patristic Interconnectedness

In Conference 8.17.1, Abba Serenus says to Cassian and Germanus, “Scripture testifies that two angels cling to each of us, a good one and a wicked one.”*  We all know about the doctrine of the good angel, for that is the popular “Guardian Angel,” with scriptural evidence at Mt 18:10, Ps 34:7, Acts 12:15 as cited by Cassian.

But what of this wicked angel?  The scriptural basis for belief in a maleficent spirit that follows someone his or her entire life is slim, indeed.  Cassian gives the weak arguments of Job and Judas, both of whom had Satan’s attentions.  Their examples are to encourage the monk, the former to embolden, the latter to warn.

However, although uncited by Cassian regarding the maleficent spirit, the Shepherd of Hermas — one of those popular books that did not quite make the cut for the New Testament, and the only non-canonical book quoted by Cassian alongside Scripture — makes mention of such a being at 2.6.2:

“Now listen,” he said, “concerning faith.  There are two messengers (angeloi) with a man, one of righteousness and one of wickedness.”

Cassian is a student not only of Hermas but also of Origen, largely via Evagrius Ponticus.  While Evagrius denies that a man has a particular demon which follows him all his life (Prak. 59), Cassian stands with Origen’s teaching at De Principatibus 3.2.4 and Homilies on Luke 3.5.3-5.

The question of whether Cassian or Evagrius deviates from the Egyptian tradition on this point is unanswerable.  Indeed, both may represent separate streams within that tradition.  That Cassian in turning from his master stays within the broad river of Egyptian monasticism is found in Palladius: The Lausiac History 19.3:

In the end this abandoned man [Abba Moses the Robber], conscience-stricken as a result of one of his adventures, gave himself up to a monastery and to such practising of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him. (1918 trans. online)

Thus we see Cassian to be connected with Hermas, Origen, and Palladius/Abba Moses — the latter’s writing being something that would have brought Egyptian teaching to Constantinople.  The interconnection runs beyond the Desert, however, to Nyssa.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, in The Life Of Moses, expounds this doctrine as well.  At 2.45, he writes:

There is a doctrine (which derives its trustworthiness from the tradition of the fathers) which says that after our nature fell into sin God did not disregard our fall and withhold his providence.  No, on the one hand, he appointed an angel with an incorporeal nature to help in the life of each person and, on the other hand, he also appointed the corruptor who, by an evil and maleficent demon, afflicts the life of man and contrives against our nature.  (Trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson)

So we see that the patristic world was interconnected through this teaching of the maleficent spirit.  The root connection that this doctrine rests upon is the teaching that we are always beset by temptations.  Yes, God has appointed a “Guardian Angel” to be with us; yet we are also followed by a trail of maleficent spirits, spirits of wickedness.  Through these, too, shall we be perfected.

Through this underlying teaching, we see that Evagrius is still connected to the other Fathers in the foundations.  His denial of a single, lifelong maleficent spirit stems from his belief that as a person progresses in virtue and prayer, so stronger demons and tempters will have to be set against him (see On Thoughts 34).

Nevertheless, none of these writers deny the presence of daimones, and all of them believe that life is a struggle between virtue and vice, between fleshly lusts and spiritual glories.  We are all tempted and are never far from our tempter, be he Wormwood, Screwtape or Satan himself.

*Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this post are mine.