The importance of the second century

My latest offering on YouTube complements yesterday’s blog post. Yesterday, I argued for the relevance of second-century Christianity for today. In my YouTube video, I argue for the importance of the second century as its own historical moment, highlighting six areas worth considering, the first three of which are intimately connected:

  • Canon of Scripture
  • Episcopacy
  • Rule of Faith
  • Liturgy
  • Asceticism
  • Theology

Also, these guys:

  • St Ignatius of Antioch
  • St Justin Martyr
  • St Irenaeus of Lyons
  • St Clement of Alexandria
  • Tertullian

The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

Christology and Ascetic Theology

From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.

What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?

Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.

Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.

Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.

It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.

I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.

In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.

An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):

Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174

The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.

Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.

This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.

Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.

No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.

What is meant by “Cloud of Unknowing”

Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”

“That’s a cloud,” I said,

“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)

“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”

At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.

My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.

St Gregory of Nazianzus writes, in the Second Theological Oration (Oration 28):

What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.

St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.

The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.

Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.

I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.

Can we do that today?

Mysticism and asceticism in the Internet age

Every once in a while, I think that those of us who write about the disciplines or about mysticism/contemplation really have no idea what we are saying, and that the true contemplatives are not bloggers, but more likely people like my friend Father Raphael who doesn’t even have Facebook and spends a lot of time praying the Jesus Prayer, serving his parish, and studying the Scriptures and the Fathers.

Some of us, though — we just can’t help writing or talking about this stuff, even though we fall afoul of St John of the Ladder (‘Klimakos’ being Greek for ‘of the Ladder’) who says that unless you engage in praktiké, you’re not qualified to teach it.

Anyway, here are four types of people interested in these things; you’ll find us all on the web.

  1. Readers. This is my group, so I’ll start with us. We read a lot of spiritual books, and sometimes we talk about them. If we’re in a braggy mood, we might even list some (Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, John Cassian, the Rule of St Benedict, The Philokalia vol. 1, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, a Cistercian anthology, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, the Venerable Bede, Cyril of Scythopolis, St Jerome, some Origen, some Evagrius Ponticus, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Kallistos Ware, William Law, Julian of Norwich, and so forth). Somehow, we think this means that we are spiritual, even if we don’t put into practice a vast amount of what we read. We are deceived.
  2. Mysticism and asceticism lite. This is the group that hasn’t read the primary sources of ancient, medieval, and early modern Christianity but only a few contemporary authors who talk about them. We Readers pridefully show contempt for them. “I read St Ignatius of Loyola,” the Reader will say, “and the prayer of examen is much deeper and more difficult than what these people say.” There is a chance that, if the Readers could peer in the mysticism-lite heart, we would see shallowness that imagines itself to be deep. On the other hand, at least these guys actually engage in some of the disciplines instead of reading about them and then feeling good about themselves. They are probably closer to the Kingdom of the Heavens than we Readers are in our pride.
  3. Mysticism as therapy. This is an interesting group. They rightly grasp hold of the fact that Christ heals our wounds and cures our diseases. They have also had contact with some of the psychological literature that shows how things like “meditation” and practising thankfulness lead to stronger emotional health. So when they read Julian of Norwich or The Cloud of Unknowing, they gravitate towards how contemplative practice is there to help us feel better. They are not wrong — only partly right. The great truth we should all grasp from John Cassian, St Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, or The Cloud is the greatness and majesty of God and how that is the main purpose of ascetic exercise and contemplative pursuits. One again, at least this group seeks to put into practice the tradition.
  4. Social action as asceticism. This group is probably holier than the rest of us, even if I think they are inaccurate in their understanding of the tradition. These are the people whose main concern is the really active life of serving the poor, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, etc. For them, this is the true heart of the Christian spiritual tradition, and the rest of us are off-base. They may be right.

These are probably not exactly fair, I admit. And some of us veer between the different groups. All of us need grace to draw near to God wherever he wants to meet us, whether we read too much and practise too little, do too little but think big of our doings, do things for slightly off-base reasons, or spend our time in service of others but not seeking pure prayer.

Father Luke Dysinger and Evagrius Ponticus

Having recently polished off some revisions to my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great, I’m working through an article about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, based on research I did as an MA student in 2009. Besides 11 years of scholarship having transpired, I’m also aware of how much Evagrius I did not read back then. I had read all of The PraktikosChapters on Prayer, and Kephalaia Gnostica, and (in standard MA student fashion) I had used the index to Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus.

But the Gnostikos, the letters, the scholia on Scripture — I did not read these. I did not even know the scholia existed until this past summer!

But where can a person easily get his or her hands on the works of Evagrius? I have access to university libraries, but the quality of their holdings can vary widely. What about people who primarily use public libraries and do not wish to spend $80+?

Father Luke Dysinger, author of Psalmody and Prayer in the Writings of Evagrius Ponticus can help. His website, St. Evagrius Ponticus, includes texts and translations of much Evagrian material. Not all, mind you. It is a work in progress. But it is a place to start. Here you can find PraktikosGnostikosKephalaia GnosticaOn the Thoughts (Peri Logismon), On PrayerSkemmataSentencesAntirrhetikosOn PsalmsOn Proverbs, On EcclesiastesOn Job, and Letters.

Father Luke also provides an introduction to Evagrius, and pages on secondary sources, themes, and early monasticism. It looks to be a great resource; I’ve been using it for some of the material. Unfortunately, I’m going to need the full scholia on the Psalms, and we’re all on lock-down from coronavirus right now, so getting to a library is hard …

But why read Evagrius in the first place?

For some of you, I may be putting the cart before the horse. Why even read Evagrius? Wasn’t he some sort of heretic? Well, in the words of an Orthodox monk, he was also a saint!

Evagrius Ponticus was a highly influential spiritual master living in the Egyptian desert in later fourth century. His spiritual theology deeply influenced St John Cassian, one of the fathers of Latin monasticism, and, even after his posthumous condemnation as a heretic over 150 years after his death, he continued to be read throughout the Greek Middle Ages, often under another’s name, usually St Nilus of Ancyra. Beyond the Byzantine world, he was read in Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic, and continued to be an influential father in the eastern Christian tradition.

His teaching is psychologically nuanced and acute. He perceives the roots of our disordered hearts and seeks to give us advice to bind us firmly to the Most Holy Trinity. Many have found both his praktike — practical teaching — and theoretike — contemplative teaching — of enormous value. So, regardless of his influence, regardless of how orthodox (or not) he was, St Evagrius of Pontus is a figure worth getting to know for your own sake.

He can help us become more watchful against the eight evil thoughts, and then ascend through contemplation to the Most Holy Trinity. Sounds good to me.

The Monkhood of All Believers by Greg Peters

Disclaimer: Greg Peters is an online acquaintance of mine with whom I share at least one friend IRL, and this book was partly payment for professional translation work undertaken for him.

This book is an investigation into, as its subtitle says, ‘the monastic foundation of Christian spirituality.’ Greg Peters looks at the broad history of monasticism, including its critique by Martin Luther, to ascertain what its essence is, and to relate that essence to the life of all believers. As may be guessed, Peters argues, essentially, that we are called to the true essence of monasticism.

Like his book The Story of Monasticism, then, The Monkhood of All Believers, may be considered part of evangelical ressourcement. Indeed, a good amount of ancient Christianity makes its way into the discussion, something that warms my heart, as do eastern Christians, from St Symeon the New Theologian to Paul Evodokimov, stopping off with Dostoevsky along the way.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. What is a Monk?
  2. Asceticism: The Monastic Vocation
  3. The Monkhood of All Believers

The first chapter of Part 1 I found particularly invigorating. Here, Peters considered the definition of monachos as used by different ancient authors, as well as the earliest use of the term monasterion, and here we find that it is not what we meet at dictionary.com:

a man who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order of cenobites living according to a particular rule and under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

If you find the word monk in a book, dictionary.com is the place to go. But if you find the word monachos written on your heart, read Peters. So, what, in essence, is a monachos, a monk? Someone who is monotropes, someone with single, undivided attention to the things of God. As Mark Galli put it in relation to early American evangelicals: a monomaniac for God. This basic understanding of the monk is in Eusebius, Augustine of Hippo, John Cassian, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Basil of Caesarea, et al., whom Greg Peters elucidates, showing the different colouring each author brings to defining the monk.

This discussion accords with John Climacus — earlier today I found a note about Climacus I once wrote that is germane:

John Climacus is concerned not so much with the outward trappings of monasticism as with its vital content. To him the monk is a believer who has undertaken to enter prayerfully into unceasing communion with God, and this in the form of a commitment not only to turn from the self and world but to bring into being in the context of his own person as many of the virtues as possible.

In the second (medieval) chapter, Peters analyses authors who approached the question of the monkhood beyond the cloister and even offered up the idea of marriage as a form of monasticism. Here we get the image of the monastery of the heart (or the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, as the title of one text discussed runs), which leads us directly into the third (modern) chapter, ‘Interiorized Monasticism’, which begins with Elder Zossima and Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov, and then analyses Paul Evdokimov, Raimon Panikkar, and Martin Luther.

To be honest, Panikkar I do not find nearly as compelling as Evdokimov. And I think Luther’s arguments at times go too far — but I know that much Luther wrote was responding to particular abuses in his day.

To move a bit more quickly, I appreciated the idea of ‘natural asceticism’ in the chapter ‘Defining Asceticism,’ which Peters gets from Met. Kallistos ware. Natural asceticism means eating only when you are hungry, or fasting occasionally. Unnatural asceticism means eating only mouldy bread. Natural asceticism means dressing simply. Unnatural asceticism means wearing a chain around your waist that makes your flesh start to rot. That sort of distinction.

Indeed, despite the bad name asceticism has (even with the first edition of Foster, Celebration of Discipline), the disciplined life is basically the ascetic life. It is the regular, measured life. It is the sort of asceticism promoted by Clement of Alexandria and the Rule of St Benedict.

Peters also engages with Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, and I’ll have to finish Fagerberg’s book as a result. The title alone is alluring.

Ultimately, the arguments about asceticism and the priesthood of all believers and monasticism all coalesce with a certain engagement with Luther’s critiques with the arguments that we need to promote and engage in interiorized monasticism, in natural asceticism, since all Christians are monks, and that we still have room for institutionalised monks as a particular calling within the wider monastery that is all of the church.

Since this is largely a work of monastic theology, Peters doesn’t have a ‘Next Steps’ kind of chapter. But I would say: seek moderation in food and dress, as Clement of Alexandria encourages, and order your day around prayer as St Benedict encourages, and hopefully you will begin a true monk, with single-minded devotion to God.

A monomaniac.

Could we put together a Latin Philokalia?

This Lent I succeeded at finishing the English translation of vol. 1 of The Philokalia. Still four volumes to go (although vol. 5 still in production)! As I think on Philokalic spirituality, and the Athonite tradition of hesychasm, and the Greek Byzantine environment that fostered the 1000 years of Greek spirituality contained in the anthology, I ask myself:

Could we do this for Latin Christianity?

What to read next?

I suppose it would take a saint like St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain to properly sift the vast amount of Latin Christian spirituality that is out there to consider. I would want to keep it pre-Reformation and post-Constantine, similar boundaries to the Greek Philokalia. The first difficulty is discerning a common thread to unite the texts selected. Not all of Greek spiritual thought is in The Philokalia, after all — there are certain concerns that have been chosen. Thus, one of the most popular of all Greek ascetic texts, The Ladder by St John of Sinai (aka The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus), is not there. Nor are swathes of St Maximus the Confessor. No hagiography. No liturgy. No monastic rules. No Cappadocian Fathers. No St Athanasius. No St Cyril. No Ante-Nicene Fathers. No Pseudo-Dionysius.

Anyway, who are the neptic Fathers of Latin Christianity?

I’m not sure, but as an initial brain-storm, perhaps a prayerful exploration of theses guys would be good. Remember, we’re thinking selections with a theme, not the Complete Works.

  • John Cassian
  • Jerome
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Julianus Pomerius
  • Prosper of Aquitaine, De Vita Contemplativa
  • Gregory the Great
  • Hildegard?
  • Bonaventure?
  • Guerric of Igny?
  • Richard Rolle?

I know many would want to see, say, Meister Eckhart in the list, but I don’t know enough about his works to know if he’s worth searching for a common thread of Latin spirituality running from Jerome to the Renaissance. On the other hand, I know that, while Julian of Norwich is worth reading, her work is of a specific nature and, I think, very distinct from the tradition that links Bernard and Aelred with Cassian and Augustine.

Indeed, the late medieval mystics are hard. What about St Catherine of Siena? I’ve yet to read The Cloud of Unknowing. Would any of it fit?

Likewise, the scholastics. Bonaventure, sure. St Thomas Aquinas? Or the pre-scholastic Anselm: I love him, but I don’t think he belongs, even if he was a practicioner of the tradition from Julianus Pomerius to the Cistercians. My own inclinations lean towards Cistercians more than scholastics for this, but maybe that’s false?

Of course, should we cut it short with the Reformation? Will we suffer for the lack of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila?

Just some thoughts. It is at least an interesting thought experiment. Maybe a way to make a personal reading list, even if not a multi-volume anthology.

Philokalic Friday: The monastery and ‘the world’

Today I read John of Karpathos’ second text in The Philokalia, the ‘ascetic discourse’, also addressed to encourage the despondent monks of India (Ethiopia). Frankly, this work is an example of what is wrong with much in the monastic movement. John’s way of encouraging them to stay in the monastery is to argue that life in the world, with marriage and children, is lesser, that has less merit before God, that people ‘in the world’ live according to the passions, whereas the monastery is where asceticism happens and where true blessedness is found.

As a husband and father, I can assure this ascetic that there is an asceticism of marriage and an asceticism of parenthood.

Is not the heart of ascetic labour, ‘Take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and come, follow me’?

How is the married estate excluded?

Now, if you are a newcomer, fear not: I don’t hate monasticism, and I know that not all monks think that they’re holier than us. I have no doubt many of them are, but not because of their monastic profession. Rather, it is their faithfulness in discipleship in their vocation, just as it would be for a holy married person.

But it still rankles when I read it.

Philokalic Friday: St Neilos of Ancyra

I am publishing posts each Friday this Lent as I work my way through the latter half of volume 1 of The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware. If you wish an introduction by me, read here; by Kallistos Ware, here.

At present, I am reading St Neilos (or Nilus or Nilos) of Ancyra’s (modern Ankara, Turkey; he died around 430, we think) ‘Ascetic Discourse’, on pages 199-250 of the English translation of The Philokalia, vol. 1. The text begins with some insights into wisdom and the philosophic life, as I blogged last Saturday. From here, Neilos moves into a discussion of how the monastic profession and ascetic life has fallen from its original ideals. Monks attach themselves to wealthy people and live in cities. They own property and are as undisciplined as anyone else.

It sounds rather high mediaeval, if you ask me! St Neilos is in the era of what I think of as the ‘second generation’ Desert Fathers (he’s not in the desert, of course), after the Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century, when Antony, Pachomius, et al., are now ideals to pursue rather than the living embodiment of the monastic call. He is a contemporary of Shenoute of the White Monastery in Egypt and St Simeon the Stylite in Syria, as well as Sts Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian in Marseille.

Monasticism in St Anthony’s day sort of began partly as a protest movement against a perceived ‘worldiness’ taking over the church after her alleged ‘triumph’ in the conversion of Constantine. Those who entered the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Judaea with high ideals did so because they felt that the pure, high calling of the Christian life, the pursuit of Godmanhood, had been compromised by life in the city. So they went to the Desert and did battle with demons.

But 100 years later, it seems that rot has set in. The renewal and reform movement must be renewed and reformed.

Ecclesia semper reformanda — it’s not just a motto for Protestants.

St Neilos’ initial complaint is the amount of property monks and monasteries own. From St Anthony to Evagrius and Jerome, property was to be renounced by monks, family was to be forsaken, status to be shunned. St Neilos has some wise words about status we should consider wisely today, I think.

St Neilos’ concern with status is not worldly status but ‘spiritual’ status. Too many people are becoming spiritual directors too soon. These are men who have learned with their minds the teachings of the Fathers but have not lived the ascetic life, they have not experienced and enjoyed and endured the contest and the training in the battle for the human soul, the fight for purification. When I read this, I think about this blog and realise my own inexperience. I am certainly not qualified to be a spiritual director!

After warning people from seeking out spiritual headship, Neilos discusses what to do if it falls to someone anyway:

First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness. He must take care that, through copying him they do not obscure the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of sin. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples’ salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. (p. 223 English)

Later, Neilos writes:

Since warfare against the passions requires such knowledge and experience, anyone who assumes the task of spiritual direction should realize how much he needs to know in order to lead those under his charge to ‘the prize of the high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and to teach them clearly all that this warfare entails. He should not pretend to gain the victory by shadow-boxing, but must engage in a real battle with the enemy and inflict deadly wounds upon him. This struggle is far harder than any gymnastic contest. When an athlete’s body is thrown to the ground, he can easily get up; but in the spiritual warfare it is men’s souls that fall, and then it is very difficult for them to rise once more. (p. 227 English)

Now, I do not want to sound critical of contemporary spiritual directorship. But it is a different creature from what St Neilos describes. Having people take the enneagram or lead them on guided meditations inspired by St Ignatius Loyola or helping them find what spiritual gifts they have or using modern psychological analysis to help them find the wounds in their hearts that Jesus needs to cure or whatever — this is not the desert tradition of spiritual directorship by any means.

The tradition of the desert, that lives today among the Orthodox with the Russian word staretz for the spiritual elder, is about wrestling for the salvation of the disciple. It is sitting and talking to learn the disciple’s thoughts and heart and mind. It is praying. It is about obedience. It is about life lived together, life shown as example, not a half-hour sessions every fortnight to help us ‘grow’ spiritually. It is about the transformation of the human heart into the likeness of the Godman, Jesus Christ.

It is about theiosis, deification.

It is about grace, for no one is qualified for this job.