Living Scripture

In the Coptic Life of the fourth-century Desert Father Pambo, we read this story:

When he came to the brothers he went and found an old man and said to him, “Teach me a psalm,” for he was illiterate, and the old man began to teach him this psalm: “I said, ‘I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue.'” [Ps 38:2 (LXX)]. And after the old man had given him the beginning of the text, Pambo stopped him, saying, “My father, since I haven’t yet learned the beginning of the text, I will not learn the rest.” And when Abba Pambo went to his cell, he spent eight years putting into practice the saying that he had learned, for he came into contact with no one, saying, “Unless I first master my tongue, I will come into contact with no one lest I fall into sin on account of my tongue.” After eight years, he went and paid a visit to the old man who had given him the psalm. The old man said to him, “Pambo, why haven’t we seen you until today? Why didn’t you come to learn the psalm?” Apa Pambo said to him, “Since I hadn’t learned the first verse, I didn’t return to you to get the second since God had not given me the grace until now to learn it. In order not to act as if I despised you, I have come to visit you, my father. For if I learn the first verse, I will come to see you again.” And when he returned to his cell, he stayed there another ten years and did not come into contact with anyone. -Trans. Tim Vivian, Four Desert Fathers, pp. 58-59

This story is a perfect example of what may be called the Desert hermeneutic — Scripture is not learned or interpreted correctly unless it is lived. It is an approach to the Bible that is common not only to fourth-century Egyptian monks but to The Philokalia as well, as discussed by the chapter by Douglas Burton-Christie in the edited volume, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality. It’s an idea I first heard articulated in Christopher J. Kelly’s book Cassian’s Conferences, for it is a perspective shared by John Cassian.

Most of us, when we think about “learning” a Psalm probably think how I expect Abba Pambo’s spiritual father was thinking in the story: Pambo will memorise the Psalm and learn how to sing it. And if we think about interpreting a Psalm, we’ll think about dissecting it in various ways: its original poet and audience; its later use in the Temple and Synagogue; its theological significance at the time of composition as well as today; how it can inform our own life of prayer and worship.

For Pambo, the Scriptures are not learned unless they are lived.

He hears, “I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue,” and determines that unless he is unable to sin with his tongue, he has not learned the Psalm. So off he goes to practise.

This is similar to Antony who hears, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” (Mt 19:21 NIV) and, rather than relativising or contextualising it as we all have since Clement of Alexandria, he did exactly what the Scripture commands.

It is interesting that this lived hermeneutics, this mimesis or imitation as interpretation, also typifies the Pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim; he hears 1 Thess. 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” and will not rest until he learns the secret — and The Way of a Pilgrim is a book steeped in The Philokalia, a great popularising text of Philokalic spirituality.

I also think this slow approach to the Bible is interesting. I find I have trouble doing things in bits and bobs. Give me a different large-ish chunk to read every day, and I’ll try and read it. Give me one verse to read and meditate on every day, and I’ll get sick of it. I want to blitz through a text — the Bible, a novel, a book of theology. If I divide something up into small bits, it becomes disjointed in my mind.

But for Abba Pambo, internalising the Scripture so that it becomes a characteristic of his own life requires dealing with it one bit at a time.

I have to admit that I’m not the greatest Bible reader. I miss days, sometimes weeks and months, in fact. Sometimes I read quickly and digest nothing. I’d rather be reading a science fiction novel or watching Frasier or Star Trek much of the time. But I am also stirred by high, lofty ideals. Imagine internalising Scripture. Just spending time in it, verse by verse, little by little, learning how to live it, really and truly live it.

It would require grace. I think it may also require a spiritual father — or, at least, a spiritual friend.

As the great Abba Antony said:

Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved. –Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Antony 3 (trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 2)

Desert wisdom about staying home

Abba Antony said:

Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.

He said also:

He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication. –The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony the Great, sayings 10-11 (The Greek Alphabetical Collection), trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 3

Before I really get moving with this post, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not staying alone even if I am staying home. My household includes at present four adults and two preschoolers. I eat three meals a day with other people, besides bathing two of them (the kids, of course), dressing them, playing with them, reading with them, praying with them. COVID-19 has not increased my solitude; if anything, it has decreased it because my evenings find themselves populated by online gatherings or phone calls to keep in touch.

But I do know others who are alone — single people with no roommates, the widowed. While I think the wisdom of the Desert about staying put is timely for all of us, it to those who find themselves physically extraordinarily alone I particularly pass these thoughts along.

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

The Desert Fathers have a lot to say about staying in the cell — the first saying of Antony the Great above is perhaps the most famous. The second reminds us that when we are alone, we still bring ourselves with us. John Cassian observes that if you suffer from anger, solitude will not cure it, for alone in the Desert your own angry self comes along. The only place to cure anger is the company others who make you angry.

Evagrius also recommends the solitude of one’s cell:

The one who guards against these arrows [of the logismos of fornication] does not frequent public festivals, nor will be go around agape on feast days, for it is better to stay at home, passing time at one’s prayers, than to become an accomplice in the work of one’s enemies by thinking that one is reverently observing the feast days. –On the Eight Thoughts 2.7

The evil thought that is most likely to drive a monk from his or her cell is akedia, listlessness, despondency, dejection. Boredom, perhaps? Called “the noonday demon”, misrepresented in English as “sloth”. The restlessness associated with akedia is doubtless relevant to all those in these strange times who want to go out, see people, walk around, shake hands with a neighbour.

In On the Eight Thoughts, 6, Evagrius writes of akedia:

5. The spirit of acedia drives the monk out of his cell, but the monk who possesses perseverance will ever cultivate stillness.

6. A person afflicted with acedia proposes visiting the sick, but is fulfilling his own purpose.

7. A monk given to acedia is quick to undertake a service, but considers his own satisfaction to be a precept.

8. A light breeze bends a feeble plant; a fantasy about a trip away drags off the person overcome with acedia.

9. The force of the wind does not shake a well-rooted tree; acedia does not bend the soul that is firmly established.

10. A wandering monk is like a dry twig in the desert; he is still for a little while and then is carried off unwillingly.

-Trans. R. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 84

The Desert tradition believes that staying put alone in the cell is good for you. Their main goal is, of course, hesychia, as I discussed yesterdayHesychia — inner calm, stillness, quietude. Maybe our goal should be, too. So maybe corona quarantine will be good for us.

If you’re wondering what the Desert tradition expects of you trapped alone all day, the answer is: Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Eat one meal around 3 PM. Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Weave a rush mat.

This is essentially the lifestyle of Evagrius as described by his disciple Palladius in the Lausiac History. He probably also read other spiritual works — Gregory of Nyssa who was his spiritual father or Origen, for example — and he spent time writing down the fruit of his prayer and meditation.

Maybe now is the time to get down with the daily office …

‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

Philokalic Friday: St Neilos of Ancyra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, Neilos writes:

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

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

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

It is about theiosis, deification.

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

Blogging Benedict: Service

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

In chapter 35 of the Rule, St Benedict writes:

The brothers should serve one another and no one should be excused from kitchen duty, unless he is sick or is busy with something particularly important, for by serving one another the brothers gain a greater reward and become more loving. (p. 60, trans. White)

This is, I think, something vitally important in our communal life, in homes, churches, workplaces, other communities. No one is above works of service. Service is love.

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a monk who visited one of the monasteries, and they invited him to join them in their manual labour, and he remarked that he was there simply to pray. They took him to his cell and left him there. Eventually, after several hours, he grew hungry, and he was wondering when they would eat, for no one had come to get him. Growing curious, and a bit concerned, he left his cell to seek out the abbot and asked him about when supper was. The abbot remarked that they had not called him for supper, since he was so spiritual that he did not need to work with his hands, clearly he did not need to eat carnal food, either.

There is more to say about manual labour in RB later, of course. But no one is exempt from the service of others in the Rule. One of the reasons why St Basil the Great (of Caesarea) favoured communal life over hermits was because how can you fulfill Christ’s commands to love and serve each other if you are hermits?

In our communities, this means that elders, wardens, pastors, priests, deacons, deaconesses, et al., take their turns in the mundane aspects of church life. My minister in Edinburgh was often invisible in the kitchen at events. In Durham, my minister helps set up and take down equipment before and after services. Growing up, my dad (a priest) spent a lot of time at the food bank that ran out of our church unloading and distributing food.

Whether you hold an official post in the church, service, which leads to humility and is an act of love, can (and should!) be part of your Christian life. Wash dishes, cook food, take care of babies in creche, organise Sunday School storage cupboards. This all serves the Kingdom of Heaven.

Stuff, stuff, and more stuff: Desert Fathers and Consumerism

Reflecting on broad lessons we can take away from late antique and early medieval ascetic texts such as the Rule of St Benedict, I think three of the biggest are: community, prayer, and property. More and better of the first two, less and better of the third. This is something that emerges time and again in these sorts of texts, my post yesterday being but one of many (links at bottom).

Here are some Sayings of the Desert Fathers, from Sister Benedicta Ward’s translation of the same name, to ponder:

Abba Andrew said, ‘These three things are appropriate for a monk: exile, poverty, and endurance in silence.’ (p. 37)

Epiphanius of Salamis also said, ‘God sells righteousness at a very low price to those who wish to buy it: a little piece of bread, a cloak of no value, a cup of cold water, a mite.’ (p. 59)

Abba Euprepius helped some thieves when they were stealing. When they had taken away what was inside his cell, Abba Euprepius saw that they had left his stick and he was sorry. So he ran after them to give it to them. But the thieves did not want to take it, fearing that something would happen to them if they did. So he asked someone he met who was going the same way to give the stick to them. (p. 62)

A brother questioned Abba Euprepius about his life And the old man said, ‘Eat straw, wear straw, sleep on straw: that is to say, despise everything and acquire for yourself a heart of iron.’ (p. 62)

Abba Theodore of Pherme had acquired three good books. He came to Abba Macarius and said to him, ‘I have three excellent books from which I derive profit; the brethren also make use them and derive profit from them. Tell me what I ought to do: keep them for my use and that of the brethren, or sell them and give the money to the poor?’ The old man answered him in this way, ‘Your actions are good; but it is best of all to possess nothing.’ Hearing that, he went and sold his books and gave the money for them to the poor. (p. 73)

It was said of Abba Theodore of Pherme that the three things he held to be fundamental were: poverty, asceticism, flight from men. (p. 74)

 

I find meditating on these words and turning them over to find what they really mean and what they might mean for my life very useful.

Other posts on the topic:

A Saying of the Desert Fathers and the Drive to Consume

Insatiability, Medieval Benedictine Reform, and Freedom from Consumerism

Simplicity: Freedom from avarice and anxiety

Asceticism Is Good for the Environment

Blogging Benedict: Humility (chapter 7)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Here are my notes on humility from chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict…

It is a universal monastic virtue. I’ll blog on that another time.

He uses an allegorical reading of Jacob’s Ladder:

That ladder is our life in this world which God raises to heaven if we are humble in heart. Our body and soul form the sides of this ladder into which the divine calling has fixed the different rungs of humility and discipline which we have to climb. (p. 24, trans. White)

The first step towards humility is to keep the fear of God in mind at all times. (p. 24)

And then Benedict gives a bunch of commands, ‘Do not forget,’ ‘Keep in mind,’ ‘Guard yourself,’ ‘Remember’ — God is watching us, and sinners suffer. This is less heartwarming than Phil Joel in the 1990s, ‘God is watching over you.’

Because God is watching us, we should keep the fear of God in our minds. This is similar, but a bit less optimistic, than the saying of St Antony the Great that one should keep the thought of God in mind at all times.

Benedict is deeply indebted to the tradition of watchfulness, of the eight thoughts, etc., that comes from the Desert and Evagrius:

One must … beware of evil desire because death lies in wait at the gateway to pleasure. And so Scripture gives us the following command, ‘Do not pursue your lusts’ (Sirach 18:30)’. (p. 25)

Benedict’s indebtedness to this tradition comes out at the fifth of his twelve steps to humility: confessing all wicked thoughts. Here I think of St Antony telling his followers to keep a journal of their thoughts. Elsewhere in the Desert tradition, we read of injunctions to confess all thoughts — good or bad — to one’s Abba in order to keep the thoughts under control. This develops in Eastern Orthodoxy into the tradition of the spiritual father, the geron or staretz, such as Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov or, in real life, St Porphyrios (d. 1991) and Archimandrite Sophrony (d. 1993).

The sixth step is very important — being content with your station, even if it is the lowliest. No raising yourself above others at any time.

Step 9 — the power of silence. We’ve been here already.

The chapter ends:

When the monk has climbed up all these steps of humility, he will reach ‘the perfect love of God which casts out all fear’ (1 Jn 4:28) (p. 30-31)

I like this, because you begin the path of humility in fear, and end it fearless. Now, the fear of the Lord is a different thing from fear of Klingon attack or of cancer. But in the end, we are called to be in a relationship of love with God…