Christianisation Under Justinian: 1

Inspired by some reading I did after this post.

As mentioned in passing previously, the later Patristic age saw a new development in Christianity as large quantities of people converted for social, political, or legal reasons. Over this period, with a succession of Christian Emperors, measures were often taken by the secular government to impose spiritual uniformity in the Empire — this was done as a means of ensuring the continued success of the Pax Romana (thus, the same reason the old pagan Emperors persecuted the Christians) as well as of helping along the spread of orthodoxy.

In response to the Emperor Justinian’s anti-Samaritan measures in this direction — measures that included the closure of Samaritan synagogues and the removal of the right to bequeath property to anyone other than orthodox Christians — the Samaritans of Palestine revolted in 529. The revolt was duly suppressed, and distressed monks sent petitions to the Emperor concerning the destruction of property of Christians. This year is the same year he is alleged to have closed or suppressed the Academy in Athens. (I need a better reference for this to confirm whether it’s true or not.)

Throughout his reign, Justinian also sought to Christianise the Empire through the dual methods of conversion and force, both of which we see in the career of John of Ephesus. John was sent by the Emperor to Asia to convert the pagans there to Christianity. He was also sent around Constantinople at a later date to round up people who were still practising “idolatry” and force them to repent, be properly catechised, and then baptised. This  latter action involved rounding up a large number of upper-class Romans in a church and forcing them to stay inside until they recanted.

In light of these actions geared towards the suppression of non-Christian religions in the Eastern Roman Empire in Justinian’s reign, in the years following 529 a lot of people converted to the Emperor’s religion. This produces interesting problems for the clergy, as we see in some of the letters sent and received by the monastic elders Barsanuphius and John of Gaza:

Letter 821:Question: A decree was promulgated by the Emperor that commands that the Greeks* [sc. Pagans] are not to make use of their customs, and similarly the aposchists [sc. ‘Monophysites‘]. Indeed, certain of them came after holy Pascha, some  to be baptised, others to enter into communion. Ought they to be received? And when ought it to be appropriate for the baptism and the holy communion?

Answer: It is necessary that those wishing to be enlightened are received, and to give them holy baptism in the holy Forty Days or on the Ascension of the Saviour, and they have the week as a festival. But if any of them is considered to do this through custom or simply through fear of the decree, say to him, “If you come because of the decree, this is a sin, but if with fear of God because of your life, it becomes two goods for you, the advantage of your life [sc. spiritual life] and of your body.” It is necessary for the same thing to be spoken by those who wish to enter communion with the Church. And if they say, “Because of God we have come,” receive them forthwith, for they are Christians. (SC 468, pp. 290-292, my trans.)

The next letter is also interesting. The question runs, “Since one of the Gentiles [sc. Pagans] was being arrogant in the midst of the faithful, many say that he ought to be killed or burned: is this good or not?” The answer is, of course, NO, that such action is not Christian. Instead, he is to be handed over to someone for catechesis so that his soul may be saved and he be baptised, entering the ranks of the church.

These two instances show us how … um … evangelism(??) works in an increasingly Christian Empire. Justinian decrees against pagans and non-Orthodox (not just Monophysites but also Nestorians and Arians — the former being driven out of the Empire), and as a result there is a very large number of baptisms and reconciliations to be made. The clergyman of Letter 821 wants to do the right thing, so inquires of the Two Old Men, who give him wise advice. No doubt many were dunked without such care.

Letter 822 reminds us that when the Church becomes an institutional power, we become confused as to what a Christian ought to do. Someone was acting hubristically towards the Christians (κρατέω is the verb used of his action; he acted like he ruled over them) — let’s kill him … no, better yet, let’s burn him! Response: “οὐκ ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο χριστιανῶν” — This is not of the Christians!

Monasticism helps preserve the way of peace and love, the way of costly grace (cf. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship ch. 1), in the face of an institutionalised Church that is becoming a cultural, social creature.

*Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans.

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Second and Third Generation Desert Fathers

The Great Laura of St. Savvas

Usually, when people talk about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they mean those ascetics from the period of St. Antony, St. Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Simeon the Stylite, and St? Shenoute. But what about the following generations of desert monasticism?

In my mind, the second and third generations of Desert Fathers are those who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. The sixth century Desert Fathers lived in the era after the Council of Chalcedon, in the days when the Church was drawing ever closer to fragmentation over Christological issues. They also live in the age of the Second Origenist Controversy, which resulted in a list of anathemas against certain “Origenist” teachings (available here) associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553.

The result of the Second Origenist Controversy, which was, as seems likely now, a battle between a more “intellectualist”, contemplative (hesychastic?) strain of monasticism and a more “practical” strain focussed on ascetic labours and “simplicity”, was the destruction of a large amount of valuable material by Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Didymus the Blind — although some survives in Latin or Syriac translations, other material circulated under false names, and still other stuff survived out of sheer obstinacy and the fact that a lot of monks really dug Evagrian spirituality — even if they rejected the theological system of the Kephalaia Gnostica.

Another result was the banishment of large numbers of “Origenist” monks from Palestinian monasteries. The Evagrian-Origenist legacy would continue, but with less clear force and never unambiguously — the tension between praktike and theoria would never be resolved in Desert monasticism.

The sixth-century Desert Fathers also saw some good things. This is the Age of Justinian, which included the foundation of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. This is also the age following the gathering and disseminating of collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, mostly from those first generation monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sayings, or Apophthegmata, were so popular that not only do they exist in various Greek collections and in Latin translation, there are translations of the collections into Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, and probably even Ethiopian.

Sixth-century monasticism flourished in Palestine, both in Gaza and the Judean Desert. Desert Fathers include Dorotheos of Gaza, whose spiritual works are considered by Eric P. Wheeler who translated them for Cistercian as Discourses and Sayings to be an easier introduction to the Desert tradition than the Sayings and the hagiography. Also of interest are Dorotheos’ teachers, Barsanuphius and John, a selection of whose letters has been translated by SVS Press for their Popular Patristics Series.

St. Savvas also lived in the sixth century, although he began his work in the fifth. Savvas was the great expander of Palestinian monasticism, primarily in the form of “lauras” communities of monks who lived in separate cells together but only gathered on the weekend. He was a defender of Chalcedon against the anti-Chalcedonians and made embassies to Emperors Anastasius and Justinian on the behalf of Palestinian monks.

Parallel to St. Savvas is St. Theodosius, his comrade, who did much the same things as he only for coenobitic monasticism — monasteries as we imagine them, with a full, common life.

Important for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism is sixth-century writer Cyril of Scythopolis, who wrote seven Lives of Palestinian monastic leaders, covering Euthymius, Savvas, Kyriakos, John the Hesychast, Theodosius, Theognius, and Avraamius. He is also our most important source for the Second Origenist Controversy.

The seventh century saw the continuation of the Desert tradition. In the Sinai, at St. Catherine’s, John Climacus (saint of the week here) was the abbot and produced his famous Ladder. He himself shared in the inheritance from the Fathers of Gaza as well as from the Evagrian spiritual system. St. Catherine’s was one of the most important foundations of the later generations of Desert monasticism, and it is in her libraries that many Syriac manuscripts have been found, and from here come several of the authors within the Philokalia.

The seventh century is also the century of St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, who lived in St. Savvas’ Great Laura in Palestine and is one of the spiritual masters to make his way into the Philokalia.

However, by the seventh century, the monasticism of the Desert had lost some of her impetus, no doubt due to the ongoing disputes between the Chalcedonian imperial church and the anti-Chalcedonians, who by this stage had formed a separate church in Syria through the efforts of Jacob Baradaeus and were well on the road to schism in Egypt. As well, this is the century of the exhausting wars between the Empire and Persia which affected the Syrian and Palestinian heartland of Desert monasticism. Finally, the seventh century is the century of the Arab invasions, through which the Desert was lost to the Christian Empire.

The legacy of the Desert Fathers and the outgrowth of monasticism in the sixth century is still impressive, however. Their spiritual heritage is found in St. John Climacus’ contemporary, the ascetic spiritual theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, and Syrian asceticism found new life in the last Church Father, St. John of Damascus. But the centre of gravity for Christian monasticism had shifted from Syria and Palestine to Athos and Constantinople for the Chalcedonian Greeks, but also East to Armenia and South back to Egypt and into Ethiopia.

For further reading on the later Desert Fathers:

Primary Sources

Barsanuphius and John. Letters from the Desert. Trans. John Chryssavgis. SVS Press. The Fathers of the Church series has also issued the entire corpus of lettes in two volumes (corrected from earlier today when I said it was ACW).

Cyril of Scythopolis. Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Trans. EM Price, introduction and notes by J Binns. Cistercian Publications.

Dorotheos of Gaza. Discourses and Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler. Cistercian.

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibhead and Norman Russell. Classics of Western Spirituality: Paulist Press.

The Philokalia, vol. 2. Trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. This volume contains St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Thalassios the Libyan, St. John of Damascus, A Discourse on Abba Philimon, and St. Theognostos.

Secondary Sources

Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. This book covers the archaeological remains of the multitude of monasteries in the Judean Desert at this time as well as the daily life of the monks.

Hombergen, Daniel. The Second Origenist Controversy. This is a highly technical book — in fact, a PhD dissertation — and not for the faint of heart. However, it deals with a lot of the issues in Desert monasticism leading up the Second Origenist Controversy and seeks to uncover what, exactly, the controversy was really about.

Maas, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. This book includes a section on the religious and philosophical situation in Justinian’s reign.

I would like to include Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City, but I can’t, because I don’t recommend books I haven’t read, no matter how highly recommended by others!

A Story Involving Relics from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor

In Book 9.6 of the Chronicle (or Ecclesiastical History) of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, a Justinianic Syriac Monophysite, we read this story:

After [the Persian Emperor] Kavadh, his son Khusro reigned. His mother, during the life of her husband Kavadh, was possessed by a demon, and all the magi, sorcerers, and enchanters who were called by her husband Kavadh, who very much loved her, did not profit her at all, but truth be told, they added demons upon demons to her. She was sent in the fourth [indiction year] in the days of the dux Liberarius to the blessed Moses who had a monastery above Dara, some two parasangs from the region. He was famous, and she was with him a few days and was purified, and returned to her land, having taken from this holy Moses of the monastery called Tarmel the blessing of the bones of Cyriacus the martyr so that she could take refuge in it for her protection, so that the [evil] spirit would not return upon her; and she built for him in a secret [place] a house of prayer in her land in order to honour [him], and he was venerated there. When she remembered the grace that had happened to her through this blessed Moses of Tarmel, she aided the country of the Romans with a purpose and reason that are described below. (Trans Robert R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn in the TTH trans, ed. Geoffrey Greatrex)

According to n. 95, p. 328, Christian literature abounds with stories of Persian monarchs being cured by saints, and according to the Armenian version of Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, Khusro’s mother was actually baptised.

This story reminds me of a biblical parallel (and no doubt on purpose), the story of Na’aman in 2 Kings 5. Na’aman was a Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. Like the Persian Queen Mother in Pseudo-Zachariah, he went to the man of God, in this case the Prophet Elisha (successor to Elijah). To make a long story short, Na’aman was cured by washing in the River Jordan and returned healthy and hale to his people. He vowed that he would worship YHWH in secret — whenever his master bowed to the god Rimmon, he would bow as well, but secretly incline his heart to the God of Elisha. Khusro’s mother also worshipped in secret according to Pseudo-Zachariah, building a shrine to St. Cyriacus (apparently a popular martyr’s name).

Yet unlike Na’aman, the Persian Queen does not convert. She does not offer prayers to Christ our God. Instead, she takes back with her some sort of relic — I imagine the “oil of the saints’, oil that has made contact with a relic and is used for the purposes of healing the sick and casting out demons. The tomb of St. Euthymius in the Judean Desert has a hole through which to pour the oil, and it comes out a little drain at the bottom for you to gather it; such oil recurs frequently throughout the Life of Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), and Cyril of Scythopolis often speaks of the “oil of the holy Cross”, which is probably a similar idea.

Her reverence is for the holy man and the saint who cured her, not, to use the popular Byzantine turn of phrase, “Christ our God.” This is too bad, really. The Church should certainly be seeking to heal those who are sick, be it with demonic possession or physical ailments, but what about the ultimate, deepest sickness, the fallenness of the human soul? Should not Moses have introduced this Persian aristocrat to Christ the Physician? Perhaps he tried, and she would have none of it.

Alas, then, that this woman was cured of a temporal sickness but refused the medicine of the eternal sickness, taking away superstition rather than true religion! No doubt the history of the Church is full of such stories.

More on Pelagians and Myself

There have been some comments (finally!) on my post about Pelagians, so I should set the record straight on a few things. If you are here for Pelagians and sex, you can skip the stuff about me and scroll down to the bold words “Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex”.

First, I have rightly got into trouble for this:

“Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.”

That was gall, not righteousness. Mea culpa.

Second, I have been accused of two things: never having read Augustine and being “one of the Calvinist illiterates who believes whatever [my] deranged pastor tells” me. So, these require full treatment, I feel.

  1. I have not, it is true, read much of Augustine. I have read The Confessions, various homilies, On Grace and Freewill and things he says about demonology. Oh, and portions of De Doctrina Christiana and of On Marriage.
  2. I am not Calvinist. This is an amusing thought, given this post and this post amongst others. I wish I were more easily labelled (does Franciscan Orthodox — Eastern — Wesleyan Prayer-book Anglican even cover enough bases?), but if we wish to concern ourselves with grace & freewill, I prefer the imperfect ideas of John Cassian’s 13th Conference, sometimes called “Massilianism” (NOT the Eastern heresy “Messalianism”, an unrelated thing) or “Semi-Pelagianism”. Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey prefers to see Cassian as Semi-Augustinian; Eastern Orthodox Scholar AMC Casiday wishes to eliminate all “semi’s” from the discussion and read the authors on their own terms.
  3. Also, I don’t believe whatever my pastor tells me, deranged or not. I’m unfortunately critical of most sermons, although those at my local church do better than many elsewhere.

Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex

I will agree with my opponent, rey, that Augustine and the tradition that follows from him, as well as many of the Fathers, had a confused view of sex. While I disagree categorically with diagnosing any historical person as “a classic case of insane transference whereby a nutcase asserts that everyone else is as messed up as he is” or even as necessarily sexually deviant — except in cases such as Nero, and even then the record is incredibly biased against him — because we don’t know enough about him. The only non-modern people we really know that much about are Cicero and the merchant of Prato, and I don’t think we should diagnose them, either.

Augustine’s animosity towards intercourse no doubt comes from his own previous years with a concubine with whom he had at least one child. At the point of his conversion, although St. Monica wished to arrange a marriage with a lovely young lady, Augustine devoted himself to the monastic life (contra rey: “He remarried a wealthy Catholic woman, and this helped him achieve the status of bishop. [To be bishop, you needed wealth.]”) We know of this from the most popular text of Late Antique Latin Christianity, The Confessions. That the only sex Augustine ever had was in a more or less sinful state (concubines are a foggy area even to ancient Christians sometimes) no doubt helps contribute to his views on sexual intercourse.

Concerning Augustine on sex in marriage, see “On the Good of Marriage.” Here we see some rather convoluted things, and it is clear that Augustine would prefer a world without sexual intercourse, but he has to admit that it is not actually sinful in marriage. Given the enormous quantity of Augustine’s corpus, he may have said elsewhere that sexual intercourse in marriage is evil; I know that Aquinas at least implied it in the 13th century. Indeed, it is rather absurd to imagine that living like a celibate with your own wife is the best pathway; yet he still concedes that having intercourse is allowable. That which is allowed is not sin, is not evil.

This odd sort of teaching is the sort of thing that comes from monastic discourse throughout the Mediterranean and Near East and is not peculiar to Augustine. People seem to imagine that, while it’s okay to have sex and raise children, it’s best to be celibate. I have discussed this issue in relation to St. Gregory of Nazianzus here. I do not agree with these people (much to my wife’s relief). If Julian called St. Augustine out on this silliness, this is a good thing.

Regarding rey’s statement that one needed wealth to be a bishop in Late Antiquity, I would like evidence. I do not think that this is true. One certainly tended to need class, but class and wealth are not the same thing. If we consider how many poor ascetics were made bishop, I cannot see how wealth is a prerequisite to the office of bishop.

Moving on to grace. Rey says, “Grace is not magic power to enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.” No one ever said that it is. Gratia, lexically, as my opponent has said, is favour. It is:

Favour which one finds with others, esteem, regard, liking, love, friendship

as well as:

Favour which one shows to another, mark of favour, kindness, courtesy, service, obligation (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary; I don’t yet have the OLD — apologies).

In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. we also find this amongst the usual suspects:

any benefit or blessing from God.

Gratia in the second sense involves action. If an Emperor shows favour to me, he is likely to use his power to help me. For example, we could say that when St. Savvas entreated the Emperor Justinian for help in his monasteries against dissenters and raiders, Justinian showed his favour, his gratia, to St. Savvas by helping reorder the monasteries and build a fortress against the raiders. This is favour, is it not?

So, when we say that we are saved by God’s grace, that means that God has done something to help us. We are saved by God’s favour, which inevitably involves action. When we say that God’s grace helps us to do good, that means that he, through his favour towards us, chooses to help us do a good action. Grace is not power, no, but it implies the use thereof.

Grace is not, however, as the lengthy comment contends, mercy. There is no hint of mercy within the lexical range. Latin words for mercy are clementia and misericordia. These all have to do with having pity upon someone. Indeed, mercy and favour are related; they are not synonymous.

All of this is to say that, for a Latin-speaker, God’s grace would most certainly have helped us do good as a real possibility.

And Greek only bolsters our case, as we note the third meaning of charis in the LSJ:

in concrete sense, a favour done or returned, boon, charin pherein tini confer a favour on one, do a thing to oblige him

When Paul speaks of being saved by God’s grace, he does not mean that God saves us by his mercy. He means that God saves us for no merit of our own. He looks upon us with favour, “not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences” (BCP). Or, to bring out my evangelical youth, “When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing” (the Newsboys).

Given that grace has both the sense, in Late Latin as well as in Greek, to be both favour and action done out of favour, then verses such as Noah having found grace in God’s eyes are clearly not about God giving him power to do a good action. This is a different question altogether, for it is another use of the same word within its lexical range. Words have nuance, and we always need context. To imagine that grace always means mercy is illiterate, in my opinion.

Re Col. 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man,” I would argue that LSJ’s first definition of charis — outward grace or favour, beauty — works best. Let your speech be always beautiful and favourable to others.

The problem with Pelagianism is the assertion that God will not help us do good. Pelagians teach that our will is untarnished and capable of doing good all the time and doing enough good to save us. God’s grace, whether favour or mercy, does not help us in this endeavour. Woe to me, if I am the only responsible for my salvation! I know the weight of my sins. How can I be free of them save by the favour of God that pardons my offences?

Most of the second comment our friend rey made is about my alleged Calvinism. It does, however, include this:

The Celtic church was Pelagian.

This may be true. I, personally, only have the evidence from the Venerable Bede concerning Germanus’ visit to Britain in the 5th century that was meant to stamp out Pelagianism. I do know, however, that the big seventh- and eighth-century issues as we see in the Life of St. Cuthbert seem largely to be about the date of Easter and monastic foundations, not Pelagianism.

We must remember that the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval/Byzantine world was still very connected, even with a few barbarian kingdoms around. The Celtic monastic foundations (ie. Iona) included in their libraries Latin editions of the Mediterranean Fathers such as Basil & Co (Basil’s is the only name I can remember). Furthermore, according to an article I read a couple of years ago, they had much in common with St. Maximus the Confessor (Eastern theologian of the 600’s).

If the Mediterranean Church chose to do away with Pelagianism, despite any politicking that inevitably went on, it did so for good reason. These reasons were ultimately not those given by Celtic Daily Prayer in the original post. They were the issues of grace and freewill. The Celtic Church was connected to the Mediterranean Church, and if she leaned more towards John Cassian than towards Augustine, she was in good company (see the ENTIRE EASTERN CHURCH).

The Eastern Church, however, also turns away from Pelagianism even as it anathematises Augustinian doctrines of predestination as heresy. From what I’ve seen, in some poems from Iona, the life of St. Columba, the Voyage of Brenden, Patrick’s autobiography, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and so forth, the insular Celtic Church was not at odds with the Mediterranean Church and out-and-out Pelagian but, rather, had many things in common with the Eastern Church, which also explains the clashes in the seventh-century, since Latin West and Greek East were starting their own clashes at about the same time.

Note also that if the Mediterranean Church was not monolithic by any means, neither were the Celts on these Isles. Thus, even if many were Pelagians, it is likely that many weren’t, just as many in the Mediterranean world were not Augustinian.

Finally, rey took exception to my statement:

Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost.

Apparently, this is “illiteracy mixed with lies,” because Gen 3 “shows how apes became human.” If we are to read Gen 3 literally, this reading cannot work. And if we are to read Gen 3 allegorically, we are in sparse company when we read it that way. I do not even know where to begin figuring out the hermeneutics that led to rey’s position.

So, I shall state the following instead. Rey says that the Fall is “a Manichean myth handed down by word of mouth among the illiterates since Augustine’s time.”

According to St. Irenaeus (I am likely to blend in Athanasius — apologies), the second-century apologist (a full two centuries before Augustine), humanity was created in innocency. This is what we see in the chapters before Genesis 3. Our forebears naturally did what was right, but were like children. They did not know really know right from wrong. They could not fully perceive. However, God had a plan that He would strengthen them and enable them to grow into understanding. Then they would be like Him, knowing right from wrong.

But the humans, in their greediness, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before their time. This led to them gaining knowledge they were not prepared for, and as a result led to death which is the separation of our soul from our body, an unnatural event.

As a result, we have lived out our lives in a world of pain and toil, growing into the maturity that God gives us through his grace but without the ease of the Garden. God will recapitulate all things at the end of time, as effected through the Incarnation and Second Coming, restoring things to a better state than before we fell. Because we fell, God’s Incarnation as a man also involves his suffering and dying, so that he may taste of all we have tasted and may be a sacrifice for our sins and the conqueror of death.

This narrative, this world of recapitulation, makes more sense to me than a world where God told us not to eat the tree through reverse psychology so that we would gain “moral capacity, the ability to know right and wrong and to CARE.” That eating from the tree then and there was God’s plan. And if eating from the tree was God’s plan all along, why did he proceed to curse the man, woman, and snake? Furthermore, if Gen 3 teaches neither Fall nor Curse, why is there a curse in it? Interpreting the curse may be difficult, but denying it is avoiding what is there before us on the page.

This view of Gen 3 leaves us in a world that is as it was meant to be. A world with a God who wants cancer and war and hatred and violence. Why? Because there is no fall. We are living our lives exactly according to God’s plan. With the fall, we have a frame of reference, that this beautiful, tragic world is great but could be greater, and was meant to be so. With the fall, we have redemption. Without the fall, the Cross is meaningless, redemption impossible.

With the fall, we also see why it is that we do not do what we want to do.

Playing Nice

I would like to call out rey for not playing nice. Endlessly referring to one’s opponents in a debate as “illiterate” is not nice or fair. Calling their ideas “lies” is not fair.

Assuming that your opponent is one thing and then writing from that frame of reference based upon a single thing he wrote one evening in less than half an hour — that’s just bad argument. Especially when said opponent has an entire website right in front of you that could show you several things, such as not being a Calvinist, such as having read a certain amount of Patristic literature, such as knowing Latin and Greek. Just for starters.

Also, saying, “Well duh,” does not count as playing nice.

And talking down to people throughout the entire comment is not playing nice.

Why play nice? Because playing nice helps people listen to you. Not playing nice makes them decide to take you to town and have many knee-jerk reactions to everything you say. People get angry all the time at Augustine for not playing nice. I would argue that, while clearly being as heretical a Pelagian as ever there was, you have played the game as an Augustinian this round, rey. Too bad.

If you wish to argue with me about Predestination & Freewill, my thoughts on John Cassian’s doctrine are here and here.

Metrophanes

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

Re-post from 2008.

Metrophanes (on the far right) was old and frail at the time of the gathering at Nikaia. He had retired from being overseer of Byzantion eleven years before the gathering at Nikaia[1], although some say otherwise.[2] We learn from a fresco painter on the island of Kypros that he was present at Nikaia. The scholars[3] are mostly silent.

Despite the conflicting reports of tradition, internet encyclopaediae, fresco-painters, and scholars centuries in the future, Metrophanes of Byzantion stood quietly in the market of Nikaia, examining a pomegranate.

“It is funny,” he noted to Antonios the fruit-seller, “my family is from the upper classes, you see. My grandparents worshipped the old gods; my father was the first to follow Jesus. And, well, the old stories are still a part of who I am.”

“The old stories are part of us all. It’s no shame, old man,” [4] replied the fruit-seller.

“I have a friend,” explained Metrophanes, “who looks at pomegranates, and you know what she thinks of?”

“What?”

“Solomon’s Temple! Pomegranates were one of the chief decorations of the splendour of that place. Imagine. I, on the other hand, think immediately of Persephone, the story of how she was abducted by Hades. Whilst in the Underworld, she eats pomegranate seeds, thus sealing her doom to spend a portion of every year in the Underworld.”

“I know the story well,” said the fruit merchant. “Thus comes the season of winter, say the old stories. It is no shame that a pomegranate reminds you of the stories of the ancients. These stories are part of who we are, whether we be Khristianos, Platonistos, Stoikos, Manichaios, Gnostikos, or worshipper of the Unconquered Sun; we all are Romans.”

An older woman standing nearby held up a pomegranate. “Indeed,” she said, “let us not forget the teachings and stories of the ancients, even if we do not believe in them all; thus can we spoil the Egyptians, like the Israelites did.”

“This is good wisdom,” noted Metrophanes. “I am not acquainted with you, dear lady. My name is Metrophanes.”

“I am Makrina,”[5] she replied. “If we think more deeply on the pomegranate, my brothers, we will find in it a spiritual lesson. For the skin of this fruit is very thick and tough. This is like the beginning of the spiritual life. We find the discipline hard, odious even. We do not wish to pray or fast or get out of bed on the Sun’s Day for the Lord’s Supper. Every act of charity, even for a poor widow or an orphan, feels like an unwanted burden. It does not taste sweet.

“But if we endure past this hard exterior and persevere, within the pomegranate we find these gems, jewels of sweetness,” Makrina tore open the pomegranate, plucked out a seed and began to eat it. “So it is with the spiritual life. Over time, we find that it is sweet to our souls, that the prayers are like the water of life to us, that we cannot even live without the Lord’s Supper. On that note, good sir, I would like to buy three.”

“Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Makrina,” noted Metrophanes. “Are you from these parts, or did you travel to Nikaia?”

“I come from Kappadokia,” she replied. “I came here to see what the overseers would decide regarding the faith.”

“You are not Makrina the Confessor, are you? We have heard of your bravery under Diokletianos in Byzantion!”

“Many were brave in those days, Metrophanes of Byzantion,” Makrina said with a smile (was it sly or sad?). “I see a new kind of bravery need now, though, mark me. Rumour has it Byzantion is going to become the New Roma.”

“Well . . . I . . .”

“That’s what I hear, too,” Antonios noted, receiving the coins from Makrina. “Have they not already begun building houses of the Lord there and tearing down the old temples?”

“Indeed, they have,” noted Metrophanes.

“It is to be a city dedicated to the one and only God,” said Makrina. “No pagan ceremony will ever be performed in it, no pagan temple shall stand, no monument to any god but the one, true God.”

“Ah,” snorted a customer leaving with some lemons, “I hear there’ll be a statue of Konstantinos arrayed like the Unconquered Son. Which one, true god does anyone mean these days?” He trooped off.

“The heart of Konstantinos is good,” said Metrophanes. “He is still somewhat young in the faith. We must give him time and see where things go.”

“Indeed, let us hope his thoughts about God do not remain as naive as what we’ve seen in the council,” noted Makrina.

“His thoughts on architecture, on the other hand,” said Antonios, making change for a customer, “are not to be missed! You spoke, madam, of spoiling the Egyptians. Well, Konstantinos has been doing just that for the past year. He is stripping the monuments to the old gods and old emperors to furnish this new city! There shall be fora filled with art from all over the Empire.”

“Yes, my friends, Konstantinos is remaking Byzantion in a new image. The old is going, and the new is on its way. This is his thankoffering to the Most High for his defeat of Likinios and the maintenance of true religion, the triumph of the Anointed’s Assembly,” Metrophanes looked at the two of them.

“However,” Makrina noted, “is it not dangerous, this union of City and Assembly? Ought we not to always be looking to the City of God? Yet Konstantinos plans to give us a City of Earth.”

“He’s a politican,” Antonios replied, “Earth is his domain, not the heavens.”

“You have touched on a key aspect of it all, Makrina,” responded Metrophanes. “This is what the overseer, Alexandros, and many of the others in the city are concerned about. We have all, of course, been anxious to see what will come of this gathering here, about Arios’ fate. But we have another issue at hand in Byzantion — keeping the heavenly kingdom free from compromise as Konstantinos comes with his grand plan of reforming Roma’s dominion. It is a very difficult calling, and markedly contrasted with yours, dear lady. No longer will our faith be tried and tested with the sword, the wheel, the stocks, the rack, burning coals — instead, Satan, the False Accuser, will come after us with mammon, with power, wealth, earthly glory, a share in the course of the events of the empire, status, prestige, comfort, food. Rather than scare us into submission, he will try to buy our souls. It will be the hard task of future generations not to sell them to Hades and its denizens.”

“Well said, Metrophanes. God’s good blessings,” she walked off into the market.

“Well, old man, will you buy the pomegranate or not?” Antonios asked.


[3] J B Bury, Later Roman Empire; Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire; Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; W H C Frend, The Early Church (all we know from him is that he counts Alexander as bishop of Byzantium at the time of Nicaea); A H M Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (the content surrounding the discussion of Constantinople comes from here, pp. 190-193, but all opinions and conjectures are my own or the characters’); Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church. Also silent: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The Catholic Encyclopedia

[4] In ancient Greek culture, calling someone “old man (geron)” was not rude but respectful.

[5] St. Macrina the Elder was probably not at Nicaea, thus rendering this entire an unlikely fiction. Also, the analogy she is about to make was one that her grandson, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was to make in his Life of Moses. Since this venerable lady exercised an influence over the education of her grandchildren, who is to say that St. Gregory’s idea did not come from her?

The Essence and Energies of God: Seeking to Understand Gregory Palamas

When a Western Christian first encounters talk of the ‘energies’ and ‘essence’ of God, this concept seems bizarre, foreign, silly, even heretical.[1] However, if we examine the writings and ideas of St. Gregory Palamas within the great tradition of theologians and mystics within which he stands, we find that, rather than being heretical, his ideas are, in fact, sensible. They are a synthesis of the dogma of the theologian and the experience of the mystic, steering a course that is able to maintain both the transcendence and immanence of God; such a task is very difficult and fraught with many dangers, as we may be tempted to fall off the horse of orthodoxy in either direction, making God the transcendent creator of deism or the immanent spiritual force of pantheism. Palamas gives us a holy, transcendent, immanent, loving God — a God to believe in.

One of the fundamental realities about the patristic and Byzantine understanding of God is the ultimate transcendence of the divine Person(s). Since God is transcendent, Palamas tells us that our understanding of Him is not, cannot be contingent upon secular, pagan learning[2] — be that learning Greek philosophy or postmodern physics. Rather, our understanding of God is based upon our own initiation into His self-revelation to humanity through the Scriptures, tradition, and the spiritual, mystical experience of the individual believer. Palamas shows us this reality of the unknowable God’s ‘knowability’ through consistent reference to the Scriptures and the sayings of the Fathers, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus of the fourth century to John Climacus and Maximus the Confessor of the seventh.

If we begin with the proposition that God is incomprehensible and his essence unknowable due to the vast gulf that separates Creator from creature, then a paradigm for interpreting the mystical life becomes of paramount importance, for mystics throughout history claim to have encountered this inaccessible, transcendent God. The Judaeo-Christian mystical tradition stretches at least as far back as Moses who saw the back of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (Ex 33:18-23), and includes Isaiah (Is 6) and Ezekiel (Ez 1) as well as the experiences of the disciples upon Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-9, Lk 9:28-36), and Paul who was ‘taken up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor 12:1-5) — these last two being of great importance for Palamas in The Triads. Finally, Christ Himself says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8). The biblical roots of the mystical encounter with God, then, are strong.

The ascetic, hesychastic tradition within which Gregory stands is also focussed upon the mystic’s vision of and union with God. Purity of heart, according to John Cassian,[3] is the goal of all ascetic discipline, the end of which is the vision of God. This mystical, ascetic tradition runs in the East through John Climacus (d. c. 649) to Gregory Palamas to Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833), John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), and the twentieth-century Athonite hesychasts Joseph (d. 1959) and Paisios (d. 1994), while in the West it runs through John Cassian (d. c. 435) to Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Lady Julian (d. c. 1416), St. Teresa of Avìla (d. 1582) and moderns such as Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941) and Thomas Merton (d. 1968). The goal of all of these contemplatives and mystics is, as stated above, union with God; the experiences of many of them are reflected in Palamas’ writings.[4] Palamites sought this union through silence and quiet (hesychia), uniting their hearts with their minds so that as purified, psychosomatic unities they could see God Himself through the uncreated light[5] — a potential impossibility, as becomes clear.

Gregory’s chief opponent in the Hesychastic Controversy of the fourteenth century was a Calabrian monk named Barlaam. Barlaam believed that God, the uncreated Creator, was completely inaccessible, making no distinction between His ‘energies’ and ‘essence.’[6] The visions of the prophets, apostles, and saints had merely been of things created by God. The light seen by the contemplatives of the ages was created at best, or a ‘fantasy of the imagination’[7] at worst. St. Gregory accordingly made the important distinction between essence and energies, keeping God transcendent as Barlaamites wished yet immanent as hesychasts had experienced. And so we come to the heart of the matter.

Papademetriou puts it most succinctly when he writes, ‘The energies of God as conceived by St. Gregory Palamas are “manifestations” and “exteriorizations” of God Himself. They are uncreated.’[8] In other words, what Palamas calls ‘energies’ are not some sort of spiritual electricity coursing through the universe into which the mystic can tap — as they sounded to me when I first heard of them. No, they are the actions, attributes, and movement of God throughout the created order, emanating from his very essence and tripersonal self. Those who, like the cherubim, have become all eye,[9] catch a glimpse of these uncreated ‘energies,’ but not of the essence of Him whose ‘energies’ they are.

Gregory gives us a good image to compare with this distinction, that of the human mind, although in my recent readings he does not make explicit the comparison between our minds and God, a comparison going back at least to Basil the Great.[10] Palamas says, ‘the essence of the mind is one thing, its energy another.’[11] This statement is made in explanation of how exactly one can call the mind back to the heart;[12] in its energies, one’s mind can be all over the place, worrying and fretting about things, thinking and considering various realities. The energies of the mind can become externalised. Yet wherever these energies go, the essence of the mind continually resides in the heart. God is similar to the mind, but his energies can go further and do more, given their uncreated and boundless existence.[13] Thus, God is able to communicate to us his properties, his actual ‘glory and splendour,’[14] while remaining inaccessible to us in terms of his essence. The mystics truly encounter the real God, contrary to Barlaam; however, their encounter is with the energies, not the essence of God. We can see a true, uncreated light that is part of God’s uncreated, ongoing, eternal action in this world, yet we cannot see God Himself and the fullness of His glory. This is the distinction Palamas makes, and it enables the dogma of the theologian to dovetail with the experience of the mystic, keeping Byzantine theology from driving a wedge between the two.

St. Gregory Palamas gives his readers a framework for understanding God as both immanent and transcendent. His theology, on the one hand, affirms the apophatic tradition running from Gregory of Nyssa, the tradition that can only describe God in negative terms — i.e. what God is not, e.g. immutable, infinite; God in His essence is unknowable. It also makes room for the cataphatic tradition running from Gregory of Nazianzus,[15] the tradition that can speak about God in positive terms — e.g. God is three prosopa with a single ousia; God in His energies is accessible to the pure in heart. The point of the hesychastic life is to purify the heart through prayer and ascetic ordeal, thereby coming to the beatific vision and the grace of the uncreated light, a wonder so glorious that those who have beheld it often have shining faces to reflect that light.[16] Palamite theology is not heresy, and it is not nonsense. It is a synthesis that enables us to make sense of the undeniable presence of the transcendent God.


[1] Re Palamas and heresy, see George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas (New York 1973), 20.

[2] The Triads, ‘Philosophy does not save,’ I.

[3] Cf. Conference 1; Cassian is the only Westerner in the Philokalia. See also Evagrius Ponticus, Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27,70, who argues that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the greatest thing one could ever achieve. On the influence of Evagrius on Byzantine monastic theology, see John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York 1979), 67-69.

[4] One example of many is Palamas’ statement that ‘the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves,’ reflecting the heart of the experience of St. Teresa of Avìla’s Interior Castle.

[5] This is the system of prayer laid out by Palamas in section C of this week’s readings, and it is one of the types of monasticism practised by the monks of Athos today, as seen in Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Monastic Wisdom (Florence, AZ 1998).

[6] George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 22-24.

[7] Cf. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ II.ii.9. This phrase shows the common western Christian bias towards the rational intellect as the only valid road to God.

[8] Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 43.

[9] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.21. Cf. Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo 1975), Bessarion 11, p. 42.

[10] Cf. Letter 233.

[11] The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ I.ii.5.

[12] That Palamas believes the mind to reside in the heart, not the brain, is evidence of his extensive reading not of pagans but of Christians, since pagans had established the residence of the mind in the brain in the writings of ‘Hippocrates’ in the fourth-fifth centuries BC.

[13] Cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, II.13.4 on God’s boundlessness as well as on His uncreated light.

[14] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.23.

[15] Both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus could be said to make use of both the apophatic and cataphatic tradition. Nyssa, however, is most famous for his postulation of knowing God in the darkness.

[16] Besides  the biblical precedents of Moses, the Transfiguration, and Stephen, Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1963), draws our attention to St. Seraphim of Sarov (pp. 131-132) and Evelyn Underhill (p. 239n.) who both underwent similar experiences.

Saints of the Week: Cyril and Methodius

There has been talk of upping the number of female saints included on this blog. This is a good thing (cast your votes now: St. Teresa of Avila or Mary Ward, who first?), as would be upping the number of non-monastic persons, especially adding some who were even married. Holiness is attainable to all persons, regardless of gender or marital state. Somehow, though, the monastic men make the bulk of the big ST’s…

Apologies also for how Orthodox this blog is getting. I’ll try to play to my Anglican and Evangelical constituents a bit more someday. For now, though, I would like to discuss two stellar exemplars of missionary work who can inspire Christians of all stripes, from evangelical Baptists to charismatic Anglicans to Pope Leo XIII (who enrolled them into the western calendar of saints in 1880) and the Russian Orthodox.

In the West, the “Holy-Equal-to-the-Apostles” Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs and co-patrons of Europe with St. Benedict of Nursia, are commemorated in the West on the same day as St. Valentine (he was the weekly saint a year ago), in the East they share a feast on May 11.

Sts. Cyril (d. 869) and Methodius (d. 885) were brothers from Thessalonica. St. Cyril started his career as a librarian at Ayia Sophia (librarians can be destined to greatness, and not just Rex Libris!) while St. Methodius served as a soldier. Both left their secular employment to become monks.

It seems that they began their work not among the Slavs but among the Khazars when their king asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael to send missionaries for them to learn more about Christianity and the Trinity. There is a chance that they converted the king and many noble Khazars to the Christian faith, but I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that (if you CAN, please tell us in the comments with a citation).

Their big work, their life’s work, began in 862 when a similar petition was made by Rastislav of Moravia for people to come and instruct him in the Christian faith. The monastic brothers from Thessalonica were sent to fulfill King Rastislav’s request.

There was already a Christian presence in Moravia, founded by western missionaries, and Cyril and Methodius came to continue their work, as Rastislav had expelled the western missionaries in his angling for political power against the Frankish King (Mediaeval and Byzantine religion is never far from politics). They set about organising the church ministry and hierarchy.

Whilst in Moravia, it is said that they met some of the western missionaries whom they said believed the “Heresy of the Three Languages” — that worship and the Scriptures could only be in one of three languages — Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. This was clearly contrary to how Cyril and Methodius envisaged the church operating, for they devised a new alphabet for the Moravians and their language, then proceeded to translate service books into the local tongue. The Heretics of the Three Languages opposed this, but, apparently, the pope supported such action and protected Sts. Cyril and Methodius (see abbamoses).

Indeed, their work was so highly favoured by Rome that Pope St. Nicholas I himself invited them to Rome and praised them for their work, despite the attempts of certain Roman clergy to claim that the Thessalonian brothers were messing around in their turf. This was in 867. They returned to Moravia and continued their work, not only structuring the state-supported church but evangelising as well.

In 869, Cyril died. St. Methodius continued the work alone until his death. Unfortunately, after the death of these brothers, the pressure against their followers in Moravia (from fellow Christians!!) was so great that they left and brought the Gospel and the Cyrillic alphabet to the Bulgars instead. That alphabet was the basis of the alphabet for all Slavic languages today, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian. That missionary enterprise was the basis of the Slavic churches today as well.

God bless Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their approach, going so far as to create a new alphabet, is reminiscent of missions to the First Nations of North America, especially the efforts among the James Bay Cree to create a syllabary (by James Evans) with the New Testament for the new believers (adapted for Inuktitut by Edmund James Peck, saint of the week here). May we all seek to translate the everlasting Gospel of Christ into the language of the people, be that language postmodern English, modern Greek, an Amazonian language, or Scots — and communicate it to the hearts of the people that they may understand and find Jesus, with the Gospel taking root in their lives and producing the fruit of the Spirit.