St. Augustine’s pears, St. Sabas’ apples & patristic genres

One of the more famous bits of St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions is the scene where he, as a youth, broke into someone’s orchard and stole a bunch of unripe pears which tasted terrible (the story is so popular there is even a Petra song about it). He and his buddies stole them entirely for the thrill of stealing, entirely for the excitement of sin. They didn’t even want to eat the pears; that wasn’t the point. St. Augustine, it seems, still felt bad about it years later. The story is as follows:

I wanted to commit my theft, and I did it compelled by neither want nor poverty but by a distaste of justice and a feast of iniquity. For I purloined that in which I abounded — and in much better! Nor did I wish to profit in this affair in which I was striving with theft, but only in the very theft and sin. There was a pear tree near our vineyard, weighed down with fruit alluring neither in appearance nor in flavour. To shake this tree and make off with its produce, we no-good youths made haste in the dark night when we had carried on our game in the streets according to our pestilential custom. And we carried off from there enormous loads of fruit not to to our meals but rather to cast before swine; even if we ate some, nevertheless it occurred that it was pleasing to us to do that which was not allowed.

Behold my heart, God! Behold my heart, which you pitied in the depths of the abyss. Now, behold, may my heart tell you what it sought there that I became evil freely and there was no cause of my evil except for evil. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to be lost, I loved my rebellion — not that to which I was rebelling, but my rebellion itself did I love. My shameful soul was jumping from your firmament into destruction, not seeking anything with disgrace but disgrace itself. (Conf. 2.IV, my trans.)

St. Augustine spends the rest of Book 2, chh. V-X, going into depth about the anatomy of sin and the blackness of his own heart. You can read it all in Chadwick’s translation, pp. 28-34, or online here (Latin) and here (English).

In my current research, I came across another story about a saint in an orchard. This was the tale of St. Sabas (439-532) and the apples as told by Cyril of Scythopolis (524-558) in the Life of Sabas, one of his seven Lives of the Monks of Palestine. At some point between the ages of eight and eighteen (probably earlier than later), when he was living in the Monastery of Flavianae in Cappadocia, the following occurred:

Once, when he was working in the monastery’s orchard, a certain desire came upon him to eat an apple that appeared ripe and exceedingly delightful before its regular season. Since he was burning with desire, he plucked the apple from the branch, but, when he had considered it, he prevailed against himself nobly.

So he rebuked himself with a pious reasoning, saying, “The fruit that put me to death through Adam was ripe for looking and good for eating, when he preferred that which appeared delightful to the eyes of the flesh over the intelligible beauty and considered the satiety of the belly more honourable than spiritual enjoyments. On account of this, death came into the world. And so I must not turn away from the beauty of self-control, weighed down with any spiritual drowsiness — for just as a blossom comes before all fruit-bearing, so self-control comes before the doing of good.”

Thus, when he had conquered the desire with this stronger reasoning, he threw the apple to the ground and trampled on it with his feet, trampling his desire along with the apple. From then on, he gave to himself such a rule not to experience the taste of apples until death. (Life of Sabas III, my trans.)

Following his encounter with the apple in the orchard, St. Sabas devoted his life to ascetic labour so as to produce virtue. He went on to found the Great Lavra, a monastic settlement in Palestine.

The difference between these stories about youths encountering fruit trees is striking. One is a tale of woe and sin, of seeking disgrace for disgrace’s sake. The other is a tale of victory and virtue, overcoming the flesh with the spirit. One imagines that young Augustine was more fun than young Sabas — only he seems sort of … neurotic at times, all messed up over those pears. But the real difference is not in the facts themselves but in the genre of writing we find here.

Augustine’s Confessions is among our earliest autobiographical bits of literature (other early autobiography comes from the pen of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and his poetry). This work is written as one long prayer to God, confessing both in terms of the sinful state of Augustine’s soul as well as, after conversion, the power of God and Augustine’s belief in God. Thus, it binds together in a single narrative two types of confession. It is psychological and theological, seeking to show the reality of sin within the depths of the abyss of the human heart as well as the power of God to raise us out of sin and into the virtuous life of the righteous.

The Confessions edifies through telling us what God can do for sinners like us. That is its devotional purpose. Each of us may have wicked inclinations, but God can transform us through His Spirit, through good preaching, good friends, good books, Holy Scripture, and the prayers of our mothers.

Cyril’s Life of Sabas is a different creature. It is hagiography, and as such hovers between the borders of history and myth. At one level, the purpose of hagiography is write down the stories of holy men and women so that these stories will not be lost. Good deeds must perish unless they are sung of (I forget the reference for that quote). That is the same purpose as history as well as of heroic poetry. At another level, these particular stories are written down in their particular order to demonstrate what holiness looks like. The point is not necessarily to show us psychologically real person who is simul justus et peccator (to toss a bit of Luther in). Rather, the point is to show us what a holy life looks like.

We may say to ourselves that holiness is unattainable. Or ridiculous. Why give up apples? But, two chapters after he gives up apples, we see young Sabas walking into a giant bread-oven whilst it was lit and not getting harmed. Holiness is not just ascetic labour but also the accompanying miracles and virtues. The holy men of old gave up the world, gave up their parents, gave up their inheritances, gave up apples (of all things!) to draw closer to God and meet Him where He is.

The point of hagiography is to edify us through these holy examples. We are to stand in awe of the God who can take an Augustine — such as we all are, with our dark hearts full of wickedness, seeking disgrace for the thrill of it — and make him into a Sabas — such as we all hope to be, conformed into the image of Christ. Our worship of God is thus lifted higher and exalted — the whole purpose of theological enquiry, by the way.

And we are encouraged, for it is God who makes the saints holy. Thus we can become holy ourselves. He will effect this change in ourselves. This is the point of hagiography, even if St. Sabas may never have walked through the fires unscathed (even though he may have, if you believe in a God for Whom nothing is impossible).

Thus, both genres are useful. We live in an age when things like the Confessions are more in vogue. We like to know that even good men, great men, have been there, too. Indeed, many people like to humanise our Lord Christ by making him imperfect yet still sinless (else how could he be fully human? — they say). We may find obsessing about our mothers’ teats and our desire to suckle as infants as selfishness a bit neurotic, but overall the Confessions are enduring literature that speak to a need in our souls.

I think hagiography is as well. Hopefully we’ll start to read more of it.

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John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 2)

Where does Part 1 land me?

I am a self-professing Anglican who currently worships at a Reformed church. I have found, for a long time, that I tend fall in line with the 39 Articles of Religion. However, ever since I worshipped at a Tridentine Mass, things have been moving in … different directions; and the Orthodox have not really moved those directions back towards low-church Protestantism.

I remember the day I started to make a mental break with the 39 Articles for the first time. It was at St. Thomas’ Church in Toronto (aka Smokey Tom’s), and we were worshipping in Latin according to the Use of Sarum. You can read some of my thoughts from that event here and here. Various un-Reformation things occurred besides not worshipping in a language such as the people understandeth (vs. Article 24). They also bowed to the Sacrament (vs. Article 28). There were prayers to saints (vs. Article 22). But, dangnabbit, it was beautiful!

And so I reconsidered how tightly we should hold to the Articles of Religion, even though I tend to see adherence to the Tradition as the safest way to avoid falling into the Pit of Heresy. I am still of a mind that Article 24 is of great importance for regular Sunday worship. But some of these others … I am becoming ‘iffy’ or noncommittal or ‘agnostic’ as to whether they are as important for faith as once I thought.

Furthermore, regarding avoiding the Pit of Heresy, for a long time many Anglicans, from the Welseys onward if not earlier, have not held to Article 16, ‘Of Predestination and Election.’ As well, many others go against Article 37 that embraces Just War Theory. And I’m not sure how long certain Anglo-Catholics have been bowing before monstrances and invoking saints, but certainly longer than I’ve been alive. So there seems to be a grand tradition of ignoring inconvenient Articles of Religion. Nonetheless … nonetheless …

Back to John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances, then.

First, I have been having my Eucharistic thought-life shaped by the Fathers for  a while now, and this year many of my patterns for thinking have been if not challenged by the Fathers, nuanced and immersed in the Fathers due to my own immersion in them, from Justin to Leo, Ignatius to Chrysostom, Severus to Maximus to John of Damascus.

Second, I have actually been reading the ipsissima verba of Reformers, and Luther with greater pleasure than the Reformed side (inevitable, I guess).

And once a week(ish), I step through a little black door with a bronze Russian cross on it, light a candle, then kiss an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and icon of the BVM, and an icon of St. Andrew. I cross myself numerous times and bow whenever the incense comes by.

These things stand in the trajectory of my life post-Latin Mass.

I am now able to comfortably kiss objects, having soaked in the teachings of St. John of Damascus. There is no Article of Religion against this. However, he has made it easier for me to bow to the Eucharistic elements. We have seen this in the last post; given that I have moved to a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, this is even easier for me.

Thus, Articles of Religion I am non-committal on as of now:

  • Article 17: Of Predestination and Election: This is a long-standing issue of mine; I dance back and forth re predestination/free will. And St. Augustine only confused the matter.
  • Article 22: Of Purgatory, thus: ‘Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’
  • Article 25: Of the Sacraments, thus: ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about …‘ While I believe that chiefly, they are best used in … use … I am not so hard-core re not gazing upon or carrying them about.
  • Article 28: Of the Lord’s Supper is a trickier one, because the entire first paragraph is precisely what Luther has demonstrated to me, and I’ve never believed transubstantiation no matter what Innocent III says. But I do not wish to go so far as to say, ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ This makes me think of one man, and his name starts with Z. It also reiterates the bit I’m unsure of from Article 25 against reserve sacrament, carrying it about, lifting it up, worshipping it.
  • Article 27: Of the Civil Magistrates, thus: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’ I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable with this, but I’m willing to let it stand at present.

The upshot is, at one level, that it’s not 1563 or 1662 anymore. Issues of praxis that were very important to the English reformers are less important today. But this is a foundational document. How can we say that we are within the Anglican tradition if we start pulling out Articles of Religion willy-nilly because people like me have grown iffy in our compliance with them?

I ask because this makes me some sort of monster, a creature with no nature proper to itself but which may fit in with nature as a whole (cf. John Philoponus, In Phys.). There are people who are uncomfortable with the Nicene Creed because they claim it’s just a lot of Hellenistic philosophy (vs. Article 8). There are people who think science has proven miracles — including the Resurrection — false (vs. Article 4). Some think the Holy Trinity not actually scriptural (vs. Article 1). Some are actual Pelagians (vs. Article 9). Many believe in a real free-will (vs. Articles 10 & 17). I know of some who believe in Purgatory, icons, relics, invocations of saints (vs. Article 22). Some engage in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (vs. Article 28).

There is no body of thought or persons that says which Articles of Religion are ‘essential’. Anyone who has tried keeps getting censured by the voices of the official bodies of the Anglican Communion or their local Provinces. What makes an Anglican? Whatever you please?

But whatever it is, am I it anymore?

Nikolaos, Part II

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

That night Nikolaos drifted to sleep in his prison cell to the sounds of the night life of Nikaia. He was awakened after what seemed to be a most refreshing — but brief — nap by a Light flooding the chamber. He opened his eyes, and the yellow sandstone seemed to glitter as gold. A sourceless radiance was filling the room. His mortal eyes had trouble adjusting, but he thought he saw a figure. No, two figures.

In an instant, Nikolaos was prostrate on the ground. He had indeed seen a Figure, a most glorious Figure, dazzling in brilliant raiment. Konstantinos paled by comparison. All earthly things, all creation, paled in comparison of the One Who Himself was Light.

“Woe to me!” he cried aloud at this Vision of the Magnificence. “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips! And I have seen the Lord Himself!”

And then the Figure laughed. Not a patronising laugh. Not a laugh of mockery. The laugh of an old Friend, glad to see His comrade. “Nikolaos, faithful servant, you may look upon me.”

Nikolaos, living by faith alone, dared to look upon the glory of the Anointed. He seemed to be the Source of the Light, although not as light radiates from a flame. Nikolaos could never properly put it into words in the years to come, and whenever friends would say him, “Father Nikolaos, tell us about the time you saw Jesus and His Mother,” he would decline comment. But His face was kind, His eyes ageless, brown and timeless like a slice from the heart of an ancient oak tree. He was smiling down upon Nikolaos, his very teeth radiant and pale like the moon.

“Nikolaos,” said a feminine voice to the left of the Anointed, “you may rise.”

Nikolaos stood, and only glanced briefly at the Mother of his Lord. She smiled at him with kind eyes. But was impossible not to look at the One she accompanied. And this was how the Virgin would have it.

“Your zeal for My Name and My honour is like Elijah’s, Nikolaos. If all overseers of My Assembly had such zeal and respect, then you would not all be here in Nikaia arguing about Me!” The Anointed smiled a sad smile.

“My Son and I have brought you gifts,” Holy Mary said. “Here is the stola of an overseer, for we confirm you as an overseer in the Assembly.”

Nikolaos took his eyes off the Anointed Jesus only long enough to receive the gift. “Thank you,” he uttered.

“And here is the book of the Good News, telling the story of my dwelling upon earth. For as overseer, you have done well in the task of bringing this Good News to the people; you have upheld the virtue of your office, and shall continue to do so,” the Glorious One handed Nikolaos a golden Book.

When the guards came to wake Nikolaos in the morning, he was found clutching these two objects to his breast as he slept; his office as overseer and his understanding of the Anointed confirmed, he was allowed to rejoin the gathering.

Nikolaos sighed a little, for he knew that, between the vision of the Majesty and that miracle involving the money for the poor girls, he would become a celebrity in no time. His name would live forever, and all he really wanted was for the Name of Jesus, the Divine, Eternal Word to live forever. He chuckled to himself, thinking they might even slap the word holy in front of his name.

Nikolaos, Part I

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Nikolaos (the one in the middle of the cluster to the right of Konstantinos) sat in the yellow sandstone cell. While his monastic lifestyle had accustomed him to harsh living conditions, he had normally sought them of his own will; being in prison was not the same as being a monk. He breathed in and out, trying to focus his thoughts, praying the name “Jesus” with each movement of his lungs.

“Jesus,” he breathed slowly in, focussing on the wall across from him. “Jesus,” he breathed out again. He had heard of some contemplatives who had made the prayer longer, larger, fuller, a declaration: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Nikolaos had found that simply calling out the Name of the Anointed Jesus was all he needed, that by so doing the risen, ascended Lord of Creation came near to him and indwelt his being, making him full. It helped quiet his thoughts and bring him to a place where the praise of God could truly be always on his lips. “Jesus,” he uttered once more.

But now — now his thoughts were having trouble calming down. He had been shocked to hear of the declarations of Elder Arios of Alexandreia, who declared, “There was when he was not.” How could that be true? The Anointed Jesus is Lord, so all the Assembly of God, so all the New Jerusalem scattered across the world declared. And there is only one Lord, and he is God himself. For Nikolaos, it was simple — Jesus the Anointed was God enfleshed; he was the . . . the God-Man! God had taken flesh up into himself; by this action, all humanity was able to be redeemed. If the Anointed Jesus were not God, then we are not saved. Nikolaos would be doomed; so also would be Arios. As the letters, messengers, and travellers passed through Myra, Nikolaos, as overseer, had learned of Arios and of the condemnation of his teachings in Antiokheia.

When the summons to Nikaia came, Nikolaos could not stay away from Bithynia. He set out to this gathering of all the overseers of the world. He was, as anyone would be, impressed by the grandeur of Konstantinos, his palace, and the houses he had built for the Lord in the city. But, as a monk, he saw that no matter how much gold was poured out, no matter how many gems were embroidered in garments, no matter how many beautiful images were painted, the hearts of men are still corrupted and corruptible. Indeed, amidst the 300 overseers, he was surprised that there was less virtue and discipline than he had anticipated — almost as though the brief years of what some called the Triumph had already corroded the very fabric of the Assembly.

The meetings troubled Nikolaos still further. Arios was not the only one who held that the Anointed was a created being, that the Word was begotten and created! This was heresy; Jesus was begotten, not made. Arios’ supporters explained that at the base of everything in the universe lay one uncreated, unbegotten Being who had no beginning and who was free from the vicissitudes of change. This Being had one substance and one divine nature. This Being was the Being to whom the Anointed Jesus referred as Father. There could be but one divine nature, they argued, since there could be a single divine substance; if Jesus has a divine nature as well, he must share it with the Father. Either this produces two gods or it reproduces the teachings of Sabellios, which confuse the persons of the Son and the Father. Surely, they argued, none of the overseers present was a heretical Sabellian, or so uncultured as to say that somehow there could be two divine natures and somehow a single substance! This would go against the clearly demonstrable rules of philosophy!

“We are not here,” declared Nikolaos when they had continued on long enough about Platon and Aristoteles, “to discuss philosophy. Philosophy is created by man, by pagans; it is flawed. What has Athenai to do with Jerusalem? We are here to discuss the infallible truths of the Book and the Traditions of the Holy Ones! What do these tell us? Did not Holy Johannes, companion of our Lord, write, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’? How could the Word both be God and not God at once? Does not your Aristoteles warn against contradiction in his teachings on philosophy?”

An Arian had stood and said, “According to the Book of Proverbs, the Son of God was created before time and everything was created through him in his guise as the Wisdom of God; he is pre-eminent before the rest of creation; he goes by the names God, Word, Wisdom, and Strength due to the grace of God, not due to his very nature.” [1]

Nikolaos interrupted, “But does Holy Paulos not write in his letter to Philippi that he was in very nature God?”

“Yes,” came the Arian response, “but Holy Paulos continues and declares that the Anointed did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But the Anointed had his will perfect with the Father for all time, despite his changeability; thus, the Father granted him glory before all worlds. He is subordinate in terms of rank, authority, and glory. The Son is alien and dissimilar in every way to the essence and selfhood of the Father. He is a creature.”

“I am a creature; you are a creature; this very building we overseers stand is a creature.”

“And so is the Anointed.”

“A creature? Like me? How in Hades could a creature save a fallen creature?! This is sheer self-contradictory madness!” Nikolaos turned his blazing monastic eyes to Arios amidst the elders and holy servants. As he did so, he stepped from among the overseers and mindlessly walked across the gathered council. “I had no idea your idiocy ran so deep, Arios! If you are not excommunicated by the end of this for your deep blasphemy and hatred of the truth, I shall turn in my holy orders as overseer in the Anointed’s Holy Assembly! For there is nothing holy about an assembly in which such destructive evils as your teachings can abide! You are a scoundrel and an anti-Christ, heretic!”

And then the peace-loving ascetic overseer from Myra, a man who believed only in doing good works for the Anointed and his people, did the unthinkable. Using his right hand, the old man struck Arios with a back-handed blow. Elder Arios stumbled backwards, Nikolaos’ ring of office leaving a mark on his face.

Thus Nikolaos found himself in turmoil in his cell, trying his utmost to pray the Jesus Prayer, seeking the place of rest, of inner peace, where he could abide with his Maker and calm his thoughts. As the cell grew dark, he lay down on the straw pallet and drifted into sleep in a strange city, suffering the harsh justice of the Revered Konstantinos.

* * *

[1] All discussions of Arian theology are based on Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 235-237.

Saint of the Week: Daniel the Stylite

I recently read the Life of Daniel the Stylite here. St. Daniel lived from 409-493 in the Eastern Roman Empire. I recommend his Life. It’s long, but the author gives a nice recap at the end:

Our all-praiseworthy father Daniel bade adieu to his parents when he was twelve years old, then for twenty-five years he lived in a monastery; after that during five years he visited the fathers and from each learned what might serve his purpose, making his anthology from their teaching. At the time when the crown of his endurance began to be woven the Saint had completed his forty-second year, and at that age he came by divine guidance, as we have explained above, to this our imperial city. He dwelt in the church for nine years, standing on the capital of a column, thus training himself beforehand in the practice of that discipline which he was destined to bring to perfection. For he had learned from many divine revelations that his duty was to enter upon the way of life practised by the blessed and sainted Simeon.

For three and thirty years and three months he stood for varying periods on the three columns, as he changed from one to another, so that the whole span of his life was a little more than eighty-four years.

During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’;( 1 Philipp. 3:14.)1 he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all, yet he possessed nothing on earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built. And though many, amongst whom were sovereigns and very distinguished officials occupying the highest posts, wished to present him with splendid possessions he never consented, but he listened to each one’s offer and then prayed that he might be recompensed by God for his pious intention.

One of the things from this life that interested me was his battle with demons in a little church. This demon-battling role is something that we find frequently in the monks and anchorites of the fourth and fifth centuries. The holy man does battle with the spiritual forces of evil on our behalf. St. Daniel cast out demons from people as well as places. He also healed the sick.

Holiness for the ancients wasn’t simply good, moral living. That’s called virtue. Holiness is that something more, that way of life that goes to the next level.

Martyrs, for example, bear witness to Christ through their deaths. The ascetic, once Roman persecution ceases, takes his place, bearing witness to Christ through his suffering. The martyrs are glorified by the wounds from their deaths — Tertullian imagines that they will still have them even at the Resurrection. Daniel was glorified through the wounds on his feet caused by standing on a pillar all the time.

The Stylite — a type of asceticism founded by Simeon — is a living symbol of what all monks are. He stands on his pillar between Earth and Heaven, interceding for the people below. He is an intermediary, and the pillar clearly shows us this aspect of the monastic role in society.

Daniel is also notable because, being a Stylite and being so close to Constantinople (1 mile North along the Bosporos), he was easily accessible to the emperors and aristocrats. The pious Emperor Leo of blessed memory (as the Life calls him) liked listening to Daniel so much that he had a palace built nearby. The Monophysite usurper Basiliscus sent an envoy to essentially get Daniel’s blessing. A very different world than our friend St. Antony of Egypt!

And so we see Daniel the Stylite. Living on a pillar isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it seems to have worked for him. One last thought from his biographer to close:

While we bear in mind our holy father’s spiritual counsels let us do our utmost to follow in his steps and to preserve the garment of our body unspotted and to keep the lamp of faith unquenched, carrying the oil of sympathy in our vessels that we may find mercy and grace in the day of judgment from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost now and henceforth and to all eternity, Amen.

Konstantinos

Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus (my photo)

This is a re-post from 2008. The rest of the series to follow!

Konstantinos (he’s the one in the middle) strode into the midst of the greatest gathering of overseers that the Holy Assembly of the Anointed Jesus had ever seen. There were between 200 and 300 overseers present, he understood. On the fringes were the elders and blessed servants as well as the faithful themselves, come here to Nikaia to see what the overseers would decide. Amongst them he noted the notorious elder from Alexandria who had started all this trouble — one whom the Revered Konstaninos had already berated as being a wild animal.[1] As he walked, a hush fell over the gathering, which was exactly what he had intended.

Before him had come his retinue, who themselves were impressive, arrayed in notable Eastern finery. But now Konstantinos the Victor, Greatest, Revered, the sole ruler of East and West was in their midst, and they stood in awe of him. He was clad in a purple robe that had gold interwoven amidst its threads as well as ornamenting it variously. Gems adorned it and glittered under the light from the candles and the windows. The effect was notable, for he seemed to Eusebios, Overseer of Kaisareia, to be emitting light itself — once more, exactly in line with Konstantinos’ intention. Nevertheless, in so august a company, he did not hold his head high as he would have with his soldiers; nor did he perceptibly cast his piercing eagle’s gaze upon them. Rather, he walked with his eyes down, and even with a bit of a blush on his face — what am I, a soldier, and politician, doing here, in the midst of men whom my predecessors persecuted so harshly?

He passed by the seats arrayed on either side of him, noting Makarios of Jerusalem, Eustathios of Antiokheia, Alexandros of Alexandreia, a fellow in a hat that resembled a beehive, and Alexandros of Byzantion. He reached his golden chair, set on a raised dais at the far end, and turned, standing in front of it and facing the overseers. Then the light of East and West sat.

Eusebios of Nikomedeia stood and opened the proceedings with a speech and a song of praise to the Supreme. Then all eyes were once more on Konstantinos. He gazed upon them all, eyes shining and loving, as he stood to speak. They had come to settle two disputes that were tearing at the fabric of The Anointed’s Holy Assembly, the date of the Christian Passover and the troubling teaching of Elder Arios from Alexandria.

Konstantinos had lost much sleep over the issue surrounding Arios — not, mind you, for the theological implications but for the fabric of the Assembly, so delicate and so recently brought out of darkness into light, for the union of the holy ones; theology was secondary to peace and peaceableness; Konstantinos had even implied in his letters that, “There was when he was not,” was so trivial a matter that it would have been better for Arios not to have brought it up. Why had he not kept silent when Alexandros asked him the question? Or, indeed, how could he not see that the Anointed Jesus had to be eternal with God the Father, that he could not be a creature, for how could a creature save us?

The fabric was being torn once more, as the followers of Donatus had already torn it. Now was to be the triumph of the Assembly, not its downfall! No, Konstantinos would not allow this Holy Apostolic Assembly to be torn asunder. Not now, not after the defeat of Licinius, not after the Lord’s property had been returned. Not here, in Nikaia, Bithynia, thirteen days before the Kalends of Iunios, 1078 years after the founding of Roma.[2]

The time for polemic was over, for the overseers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would choose truth and properly describe the nature of the Anointed Jesus. Order in other matters would be established, and the Assembly would operate as smoothly as possible and the Peace of Roma would be maintained. And so, with so many thoughts whirling through his mind on this first day of the first world-wide council (from Hosius of Cordoba to men of Arabia), Konstantinos addressed the assembled overseers in Latin, his native tongue. Eusebios of Kaisereia recalls that it ran somewhat as follows:

It was the object of my prayers, my friends, to share in your company, and now that I have received this, I know I must express my gratitude to the King of all, because in addition to everything else he has allowed me to see this, which is better than any other good thing; I mean, to receive you all gathered together and to observe one unanimous opinion shared by all.

Let no jealous enemy ruin our prosperity; now that the war of the tyrants against God has been swept away by the power of God the Saviour, let not the malignant demon encompass the divine law with blasphemies by other means. For to me internal division in the Church of God is graver than any war or fierce battle, and these things appear to cause more pain than secular affairs.

When therefore I won victories over enemies through the favour and support of the Supreme, I considered that nothing remained but to give thanks to God, and to rejoice also with those who had been liberated by him through our agency. When contrary to all expectation I learnt of your division, I did not defer attention to the report, but, praying that this too might be healed through my ministration, I immediately sent for you all.

I rejoice to see your gathering, and I consider that I shall be acting most in accordance with my prayers, when I see you all with your souls in communion, and one common, peaceful harmony prevailing among you all, which you, as person consecrated to God, ought yourselves to be announcing to others.

So do not delay, my friends, ministers of God, and good servants of the common Lord and Saviour of us all, to begin now to bring the causes of the division between you into the open, and to loosen all shackles of dispute by the laws of peace. Thus you will be achieve what is pleasing to the God of all, and you will give extreme gratification to me, your fellow servant.[3]

Konstantinos sat down, and the overseers began the debate in earnest. He was to watch over the proceedings until thirteen days before the Kalends of Iulios,[4] and bring them to a resolution and a statement of belief, even suggesting — though he was not a theologian or philosopher himself — that they say that the Anointed Jesus was of one substance with the Father — in Latin consubstantialis, in Greek homoousios.

Throughout the rest of his earthly life, Konstantinos saw that Nikaia’s formulation held the field throughout his domain. Little did he know what would happen in the years to come, when the whole earth would groan to find itself following Arios, or the debates that would arise due to the very word he introduced, some saying that it made inroads for the teachings of Sabellios. But in Nikaia, upright teaching and upright worship won the day, paving the road for the rest of the Assembly’s understanding of the Three-in-One to be put into words, thoughts, and statements, casting a fence around belief and fostering true worship.


[1] Cameron, Averil & Stuart G. Hall, Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 251.

[2] That is to say, 12 days before; May 20, AD 325.

[3] Eusebius, (Cameron & Hall) 125-126.

[4] June 19.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.