The Desert Fathers and Anglican Devotion

Launcelot Andrews (1555-1626)

It’s pretty easy to make an argument for any Protestant to read the Church Fathers at large. Do you believe in the Trinity? Recite the Nicene Creed? Well, then, read St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Augustine. Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man? Well, then, read Sts Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus the Confessor. Grappling with the question of religious images? Read St John of Damascus. Are you pondering why God became man? Well, then, read St Irenaeus of Lyons. Want to read the Bible better? Read St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana.

From the perspective of Anglican devotion, St Augustine’s theology of grace gives us good insights into the theology of the Prayer Book collects. Sts Hippolytus and John Chrysostom show us something about the history of our Eucharistic liturgy — as well as the “Prayer of St Chrysostom”. At the heart of the Anglican daily office lies the Psalter: Here, Sts Athanasius and Augustine are a great help.

Spending time with these Fathers will only help us do a better job of being Anglican, Protestant, whatever.

But what about the Desert Fathers? What do we gain from celibate men and women who cut themselves off from normal society, were consciously sleep deprived, ate only once a day, and were professional pray-ers? What can ancient monks do for the devotional lives of Anglicans? And lay Anglicans, at that?

This question is particularly strong for people of my generation who grew up in Anglican churches, at least in Canada, that had a strong Sunday liturgical tradition of Holy Communion and even hymns, but whose devotional world, Monday-Saturday, was the same as that of the Baptist down the road. A lot of room to be truly healthy and holy, but not a lot that was specifically Anglican. At a certain level, hey-ho, that’s fine! Holiness is the goal, not Anglicanness.

But if a standard, evangelical “quiet time”, maybe with some charismatic elements tossed in, is what your devotional life is used to, then the Desert Fathers can be quite foreign, I can assure you.

They can also be quite reassuring and challenging in a good way, though. When I was an undergrad, like a lot of young people, I briefly flirted with the idea of not being purposely and consciously Anglican. And yet whenever I came up against something with which I disagreed, whether from Roman Catholics or evangelicals, I found myself simply Anglican. So I read the 39 Articles again and decided that, regardless of what it meant for other Christians to be Pentecostals, Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, or Free Methodists, I was, quite honestly, Anglican. It was silly to pretend otherwise.

Thus, one Lent I chose for my devotional exercise the praying of one office from the BCP (1962) every day. This ended up being Compline, and this time also ended up being my time of “conversion” (if you will) to the Prayer Book. Anyway, that was the same year I met the Desert Fathers and fell in love with their wacky monomaniacal devotion to the Triune God.

This compline-desert confluence is where the Desert Fathers help out the Anglican. The daily office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, is fairly central to the Anglican devotional tradition. At the heart of the office, alongside the set canticles common to each day, are a monthly rotation through the Book of Psalms and a yearly cycle through the Bible.

Reading the Desert Fathers and learning about their rule of prayer is actually, at base, a simply encouragement for an evangelical Anglican who wants to discover the divine office, for here you will meet the antiquity of your own devotional practices. Not in a “Ha ha, Alliance Church!” sort of way, but in a reassuring way, that this is part of our own heritage and bigger than any single Christian tradition.

At the heart of the devotional life and prayer of the Desert and the tradition that flows from it, whether Benedictines and Cistercians in the West or Mount Athos and St Catherine’s, Sinai, in the East, is the Psalter, coupled with trying to live the words of Scripture. I’ll share some of the Desert Fathers’ wisdom on psalmody later, but their approach to the Psalms can really help transform the impact Psalmody has on the praying of the divine office.

I confess to not having read all of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, but it strikes me that one central aspect of his book is intentionality in what we do, as well as not attempting to seem holier than we really are. A large quantity of desert literature deals in this question of intention, using the term “watchfulness” (check most of Philokalia, Vol. 1). Watch your thoughts, watch the reasons you choose to do things, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts, watch your actions, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts. Seek purity of heart. Clear the mind of all but Christ.

And if you do decide to get down with the Anglican divines, you’ll discover that ascetic practices (fasting, regulating sleep, etc) are there in William Law and Jeremy Taylor, and the spiritual sense of Scripture peaks through Lancelot Andrewes. The Desert is not so far, after all.

The Desert and my career

I recently made a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video saying that you shouldn’t study the Desert Fathers (not my best video, but here it is) — look at me, after all! I went from being a happy-go-lucky evangelical-charismatic who wanted to study Virgil for his PhD to … whatever it is I am now. Let’s consider this journey briefly…

It all began, as I’ve said before, with Athanasius’ Life of Antony (in Carolinne M White’s volume, Early Christian Lives), alongside the Penguin Classics The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward of blessed memory, which had just come out in 2003 when I found it hanging out at the university bookstore. I already had something of an interest in monkish things — in John of the Cross’ poem of The Dark Night of the Soul and in St Francis of Assisi and Brother Cadfael and had read the Rule of St Benedict in history class.

With these texts in hand, it only made sense to take up my friend’s idea while taking a course Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire: “Why not do those crazy guys who moved into the desert for your essay topic?”

So I wrote an essay about the Desert Fathers in third-year undergrad, looking at the “why” of anachoresis, of monastic retreat into the desert, adding the Life of St Simeon the Stylite to my small bundle of primary sources and relying heavily on Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” and Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert.

I loved it. (Today, I would revisit the sociological reasons given in that paper and lean even more heavily on what I now call the literal-mimetic tradition of scriptural interpretation.)

And so I took the sayings of the Desert Fathers with me to Cyprus when I worked for InterVarsity there. I picked up the Philokalia, too, and visited Byzantine churches and witnessed the divine liturgy of St John Chrysostom and got to know Orthodox priests. All of this made me desire to become more like the Desert Fathers as well as to study them academically some day.

And so, after returning to Canada, when I got around to my MA in Classics, I studied John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And when I did my MTh, I studied monks’ lives by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus.

But the Desert Fathers were just my gateway drug. I studied a lot more Late Antiquity and I’ve taught both secular/political history and Christian history now. My PhD was not on a monastic topic (I thought I’d be more likely to get a job that way. Ha!) but on Leo the Great. But the monks have always been there both for personal devotion and academic study.

And now when I look at St Maximus the Confessor, a little bit of whose work I taught as part of my ecumenical councils course, I see the way the Desert tradition as well as the Athanasian-Cyrilline tradition is flowing through him. And when I teach St Athanasius (just finished a whole course on him a couple of weeks ago!), I see the ways in which his thought is part of the same thought-world as the Desert Fathers, even if he is more clothed in the garb of “Greek/philosophical” learning.

These are a few musings. The desert monks have helped me fight against anger, taught me how to pray, challenged my attitude towards food, brought me face-to-face with my failure to live the Scriptures, and reminded me how the entire devotional life of the Christian is undergirded by grace.

I hope they can help you, too.

PS: Today, September 14, is the last day to sign up for my course…

Evil is not part of God’s original creation – Evagrius

Christ on the Cross as the Tree of Life, San Clemente, Rome

I’m working through Robert E. Sinkewicz’s translation of Evagrius of Pontus’ ascetic works preserved in Greek — partly for my own growth, partly as a critique of the Enneagram, partly as preparation for teaching him alongside other Desert Fathers this fall (sign up here!). And today I found, left over from when I was revising a forthcoming article about Evagrius, this draft post here on WordPress, with the above title and these two passages:

5.14 I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly

62. There was [a time] when evil did not exist, and there will be [a time] when it no longer exists; but there was never [a time] when virtue did not exist and there will never be [a time] when it does not exist. For the seeds of virtue are indestructible. And I am convinced by the rich man – almost but not completely given over to every evil – who was condemned to hell because of his evil, and who felt compassion for his brothers (Luke 16:19-31). For to have pity is a very beautiful seed of virtue.

The first is Proverbs 5:14, and the second is an Evagrian scholion from Father Luke Dysinger’s excellent Evagrius website. I was working through these texts as part of a study of Evagrius’ and Cassian’s demonology, and so the origins of evil are part of the question of demons. It struck me because until I studied Cassian for the first time those many years ago, the question of evil’s origins had not fully imprinted itself upon me.

And one of things that I learned from Cassian is that nothing is by nature evil. God does not create evil. Therefore, everything is created good. Evil comes later. And what we see in Evagrius is that not only does evil come later — evil will cease.

There is a pastoral dimension to this, of course. Consider whatever evils one faces, whether it’s temptations to sin or the evils wrought by others against us. Virtue is stronger. Virtue will be there at the end of all things, for it is good and part of the good.

Evil is weak. Evil is a lack.

Good (virtue) is strong. The good is plenitude of being.

So take heart: Evil has not always existed. It will not always exist, either.

I’m teaching the Desert Fathers this Autumn!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love the Desert Fathers. They are my first love in patristics, beginning with Athanasius’ Life of St Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. As I say on the product page where you can sign up:

How do we reach up to God? How can we pray without ceasing? What even is prayer? Are we really meant to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? What is the place of fasting in the Christian life? Questions like these drove a great movement of men and women from the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, into the wilderness or desert, beginning in the fourth century—a movement so large it was said that these men and women made the desert into a city. These earliest monks of the Christian Church sought to live the Scriptures and fill their lives with prayer, seeking after God with a single-minded, wholehearted devotion. The monastic desert cities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria became the foundation of the spiritual disciplines as practiced through the long centuries to our own day. Their legacy is found not only in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, not only from Ireland to Iraq, but also in the spirituality of St Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ has been read and beloved by Protestants of every generation, and in John Calvin, whose own spirituality bears the mark of St Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this course, we are going to dive into the sands of the desert, moving chronologically from the life and letters of St Antony of Egypt, the reputed “first Christian monk/hermit”, in the early 300s and whose life was recorded by St Athanasius, up to the letters of Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s. Along the way, we shall spend time with the famous sayings of the Desert Fathers—short, pithy quotations or anecdotes with a deep meaning similar to the Proverbs of Scripture—as well as the work of Pachomius who was the first abbot of a community of monks; the lives of various Desert Fathers recorded by Palladius of Aspuna; the ascetic and mystical work of Evagrius Ponticus; and the life of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar in the Syrian desert. I promise that we’ll meet a lot of behaviors and some teachings that are weird to us. I also promise that we’ll be challenged to go deeper in our own devotion to God, our own study of the Scriptures, our own pursuit of pure prayer. To study the Desert Fathers well is not simply to study the history of Christianity but to open up yourself to the transformative power of the same God whom they met in huts and caves on the banks of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Orontes.

So sign up today!

Athanasius and the Fatherhood of God

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I made sure to have a video chat with my Dad and to watch Cars 2 during a thunderstorm with my kids. And crack open a cold one in the evening while preparing tonight’s lecture about Wycliffe and suchlike. I also thought a bit about God as Father.

Most of us think of God as Father in three ways:

  1. Creator of everything. Thus, Father of all humans by analogy.
  2. Adopter of redeemed humans. Thus, Father of some humans by divine will.
  3. Father of the God Word, God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Thus, Father by his own nature.

Actually, most people today, no matter how orthodox their idea of the Trinity, probably rarely think of number 3. St Athanasius (sign up for my Athanasius course today!) did, and when I encountered his ideas early on in my journey into the Fathers, they cemented for me two facts:

  1. The Trinity must be true.
  2. It good and healthy to speak of God as Father, despite the failings of human fathers.

It’s point number 1 that came home to me time and again. Basically, if we take seriously the Bible as being revelatory of God’s nature, then biblical names mean something. The names the Bible uses of God reveal to us something of His nature. Thus, if a biblical name for God is “Father”, we need to take that seriously. The name “Father”, rather than something we came up with like, say “unbegotten”, is revelatory of the divine nature. It means that God has always existed as Father, according to St Athanasius. And therefore, there has always been a Son from eternity.

St Athanasius nuances this with the analogy from human fathers, an analogy that some felt divided Father and Son so that the Son could not be fully God. According to St Athanasius, sons have all the same essential and natural attributes as their fathers. I am a human by nature; so are my sons. Whatever is necessary to my humanity is necessary to theirs — this is in virtue of my having begotten them.

Likewise in the Godhead. Anything that can be predicated of the Father — eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immortal — can be predicated of the Son. Grasp this with the biblical teaching of God being only one, with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and you are headed straight for the Trinity.

Point number 2 is partly related to this. We need to be able to speak of God as Father because that’s how the Bible does. And biblical names matter. By speaking of God as Father, Athanasius was able to see how Father and Son are homoousios.

Furthermore, in the life-and-worldview of the ancient Christians, influenced by both Scripture and Plato, the reality of human fathers failing did not bear on God the Father at all. God, as Father in all three ways listed above, is the perfect Father, of whom every human father is an imperfect image. Think of the absolute best Dad, and then multiply him by infinity — then you have a poor analogy for the perfect divine Father, God the Creator, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And once we embrace these biblical names and the transcendent realities they point us toward, there is no fear of uttering the Scriptural names of the Three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sign up for my Athanasius course today!

Demons: From sword and sorcery to civilizational collapse

My latest YouTube video is a discussion of demons, sparked by some thoughts I was having about sword and sorcery, and then coupling them to my upcoming course on St Athanasius, thus tying in On the Incarnation and The Life of Antony. Enjoy!

St Athanasius round-up

Life is very busy (so I’ve not blogged as much I’d like), but you should know that I have an upcoming course with Davenant Hall this summer called “Athanasius Against the World”. I hope you will be able to join me for it! In the meantime, here are some of my previous Athanasius things, culminating at the bottom with my recent St Athanasius video on YouTube:

Reflections on John 12 (from 2021)

A little Trinitarian incarnational theology for you (from 2021 — video of my Davenant Fellows Lecture from December 2020)

Irenaeus and Athanasius (from 2013)

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius (from 2010)

Wish I had more time for St. Athanasius (from 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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