The Strangeness of the Patristic Legacy: Saved by the Hermeneutic of Love

Let us, for the moment, restrict “Patristic” to the first five centuries, even though the likes of me push the boundaries to Sts. John of Damascus and Bede the Venerable in the mid-700s. As Phil noted in the comments to this post, setting out to read the Fathers for oneself can be a bit of a strange experience. Indeed, I am tempted to say “bewildering.”

This is unsurprising, given the fact that 500 years covers an immense span of history and the Mediterranean world covers a variety of cultures, no matter how Romanised or Hellenised many of the writers in question were. Even if we imagine those bits of the Patristic legacy that are more or less Graeco-Roman in outlook, reading them is not exactly the easiest thing one can do.

More than 1500 years separate us from these authors. They think in different categories much of the time. There is an uncomfortably strong undercurrent of misogyny in many of the Fathers, along with an uncomfortably strong feeling of Judenhass.* Even when we would probably agree with their morals, we find them thinking like Platonists or Stoics — or, at least, what looks to be Platonism and Stoicism in Christian garb.

For those with a Classical background, the Fathers are less jarring.

Without such a background, I would like to recommend a particular way of reading that would be especially good for the Fathers. This way of reading is what NT Wright in The New Testament and the People of God refers to as the “hermeneutic of love” rather than that of suspicion:

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. (64, read the whole paragraph to get the idea; I hate long quotations on blogs)

The hermeneutic of love allows the Fathers to be strange; even to remain strange. But it says to them, “Ah, but you are my fellows on the journey with Christ! You are my brothers in the faith! You have experienced Him too, and your experience has in it wisdom to enlighten my own!”

This wisdom is sometimes hiding in places that need a lot of love to be unlocked, as in my occasional forays into demonology show us. However, the meaning of demonology for virtue, ethics, and the battle against evil in all its forms has been unlocked by a loving, attentive reading of Patristic hagiography.

With a good introduction and persistence, the Fathers become less strange — or, at least, more comprehensible. I promise that the more you bear with them, having adopted the hermeneutic of love, the less strange they become. If you are here and thinking that you’d like to check out an introduction to the Fathers, a good single-volume introduction that does not mince words and even has a reading programme at the back is Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey.

*Lit. “Jew-hatred”, the German word for “anti-Semitism”; I picked it up from Dave Sim’s comic book of the same name and greatly prefer it because anti-Semitism is too antiseptic for the brutal evil that racial violence is.

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The Venerable Bede a Church Father?

You may have noticed that when St. Bede the Venerable was Saint of the Week on Wednesay that I mentioned his commentaries on Scripture being used in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This may seem more than a little odd, given that the Venerable Bede is, well, mediaeval.

Indeed, Bede is thoroughly and indisputably mediaeval. He was born in the 600’s and died in 735. The fiction of a Roman Empire existed in the West as Italy was nominally under the Emperor in Constantinople, but in reality the Roman Empire in the West was long gone, with no Emperor in Italy since 476. Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law and sponsor of the last flourishing of Classical art as well as the first flourishing of Byzantine art had died in 566. Barbarians had divided the West into a variety of kingdoms — Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and so forth.

Bede is not ancient.

So why include him in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture?

Those, such as Thomas C. Oden, who are calling for mainline and evangelical Christians alike to rediscover the Church Fathers and “paleo-orthodoxy” usually call us to the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought. Yet even Oden, general editor of IVP’s ACCS, knows that that isn’t really enough.

AD 500 is an acceptable cut-off point for the Classical world, although I’m willing to stretch it to Justinian’s death because of how monumental his reign was and how decidedly different the map of the world was — legally, artistically, politically — be the end of his reign. Yet if we cut of the age of the Church Fathers at 500, we’re missing Second Constantinople and its very important recasting of Chalcedonian doctrine into terms a Monophysite could hopefully reconcile with.

By cutting off the Age of the Fathers at 500, in the East, we’re missing Severus of Antioch and his brilliant statements of Cyrilline Christology in the 500’s. We’re missing St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John Climacus (saint of the week here) in the 600’s — one very important for Christology, the other for mysticism East and West — and St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here) in the 700’s — very important for his defence of icons and consolidation of orthodox doctrine.

In the West, we miss St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s — one vital for the development of monasticism and spirituality in the West, the other for biblical interpretation, conversion of the Germanic peoples, and pastoral concern — as well, of course, as Boethius and Cassiodorus, also very important and very popular Christian writers of the 500’s. We have to leave out Isidore of Seville from the 600’s — important for pretty much every idea under the sun (and beyond) throughout the Middle Ages.

Perhaps a temporal designation for “Church Father” does not quite work. The Eastern Orthodox do not do this, but instead consider the Fathers as a conceptual designation, thus including St. Simeon the New Theologian (1100’s) and St. Gregory Palamas (1300’s) as Church Fathers although they stand outside the Age of the Fathers.

Nonetheless, the idea of a Church Father tends towards the early, not the late, towards the ancient, not the mediaeval.

The Church Fathers are those who men* who have left behind a written legacy that is orthodox, who had a certain holiness of life, and who were part of the formation of Christian orthodoxy. So men like the Cappadocians or St. Augustine of Hippo who have laid foundations of theology that are so important that even today’s heterodox read them to gain insight, or those like St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who laid the foundations for monasticism and spirituality that are so important that our vision of monasticism would have been wildly different without them are easy choices for Church Fathers.

However, there is no ancient consensus, just as there was no mediaeval consensus, no Reformation consensus, and there is no contemporary consensus. What the early mediaeval and Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers provide us is a consolidation and synthesis of the patristic legacy.

Thus we get settlements over the date of Easter, the spread of Benedictine monasticism and Augustinianism in the West as well as a certain level of liturgical systemisation. By 735, the western church was inescapably mediaeval, but without the early mediaeval synthesists, the shape of the mediaeval church and beyond would have been very different.

In the East we have a similar story with Christology, icons, hesychastic monasticism and so forth in the early Byzantine world. By 749, with the death of John of Damascus, we have a thoroughly Byzantine church in the East.

Back to the Venerable Bede. What Bede provides us is the same thing any of the other Fathers provides us. He gives us a different perspective from today’s. He provides us an insight into an older form of orthodoxy and an older way of reading Scripture. He also gives us insight into the holiness of the people who lived in the age that forged our own orthodoxy and our reading of Scripture.

So, no, Bede isn’t ancient. But I believe that Bede is a Church Father and well worth reading, especially since he is the only Englishman whom the Church of Rome recognises as a Doctor of the Church!

*The “Church Mothers”, sadly, do not exist because most women in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages did not write. Our ancient Christian female writers are Perpetua (possibly), a few of the Desert Mothers (who are not so much writers as part of an oral tradition), and Egeria who left us a travelogue of her trip to the Holy Land in the fourth century. Sadly, the other holy women of this period did not leave us a written record, despite the high level of literacy amongst many of them.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikolaos, Part I

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

Re-post from 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And so is the Anointed.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

Konstantinos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] June 19.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba