Lectio Divina!

Aelred of Rievaulx (he practised some of lectio divina)

This Sunday, our minister preached about learning about the practice of lectio divina helped him go deeper with the Scriptures, enjoy them more, and profit more from his reading — more so than the advice he had been given over and over again, ‘Read your Bible and pray’, which he found singularly unhelpful. Anyway, he didn’t actually give any details as to how on earth one does this, but…

Our Bible studies are based on the sermon! And I, not knowing this would be the topic and for reasons entirely unrelated, volunteered to lead this week’s study for my group.

So now I get to lead my small group in a discussion about lectio divina as well as a guided session of reading.

As a trained ecclesiastical historian and enthusiast about pre-modern Christian spiritual practices, I don’t know what to do.

For example, is it really worth talking about how the set procedure we (post)moderns call lectio divina isn’t what even St Benedict meant? That, out of Christians who write in Latin (and thus may have used the pair of words lectio divina), most of them before the High Middle Ages used the phrase to mean sacred reading in a broad sense, including prayerful and meditative reading as well as what we today would distinguish as ‘study’ and sometimes not reading the Bible at all but commentaries on it or spiritual writers of acknowledged richness?

The fact is, if I do say that, it may not really affect the way any of us in the room practise the reading of sacred Scripture. The procedure our minister has outlined for us in preparation for Thursday will help us ruminate upon the word in a quiet, prayerful manner, and, even if it is not absolutely and precisely ancient has its roots in ancient Christianity.

Then again, I feel like history matters. The modern practice of lectio divina is itself part of tradition as a living thing. We are seeking the same God with the same Scriptures, and we engage with the practices of our predecessors in making something like this, something that does utilise ancient and medieval beliefs about Scripture and about how God talks as well as about prayer and the relationship between the individual Christian and Scripture and whatnot.

But I am excited about trying something different from standard Bible study group fare. I am not the most generous person, and I often find the takeaway from Bible studies fairly low. There are times I would rather have read a commentary on my own and simply had coffee with my Bible study people. Okay, so it’s not yet been bad at this church, but this week will only be my fourth time making it to Bible study.

I am also excited about getting people into any of the older spiritual practices. This one is a good entry point — something about Scripture (evangelicals rightly love the Bible) with ancient and medieval roots, tweaked for today’s Christian. It’s probably an easier sell than St Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise or 100 communal Jesus Prayers.

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The remarkable piety of the people of Constantinople

Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 7.22, on the virtues of Theodosius II (r. 408-450):

In a certain year, during which the weather had been very tempestuous, he was obliged by the eagerness of the people to exhibit the usual sports in the Hippodrome; and when the circus was filled with spectators, the violence of the storm increased, and there was a heavy fall of snow. Then the emperor made it very evident how his mind was affected towards God; for he caused the herald to make a proclamation to the people to this effect: ‘It is far better and fitter to desist from the show, and unite in common prayer to God, that we may be preserved unhurt from the impending storm.’ Scarcely had the herald executed his commission, when all the people, with the greatest joy, began with one accord to offer supplication and sing praises to God, so that the whole city became one vast congregation; and the emperor himself in official garments, went into the midst of the multitude and commenced the hymns. Nor was he disappointed in his expectation, for the atmosphere began to resume its wonted serenity: and Divine benevolence bestowed on all an abundant harvest, instead of an expected deficiency of grain.

I, for one, am amazed that they left the chariot races to pray against bad weather ‘with the greatest joy’.

Review: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable EnemiesAtheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the intellectual side of ecclesiastical history, and Hart’s goal is not simply to debunk misconceptions that the so-called ‘New Atheists’ have been spreading abroad (without cease, despite this book having been out for 8 years) but also to introduce the ancient Roman world and what distinguished the Christian revolution from its pagan predecessor and how it impacted western culture in Late Antiquity and beyond.

For those interested in some of the deep debates about philosophy and the history of ideas, the notes are few. Hart says this is because the book is really an extended essay. Nonetheless, this choice is too bad, because I suspect that some of his judgements regarding Late Antiquity would be challenged by other scholars (not just Ramsey MacMullen, whose misuse of evidence Hart takes on with full force). But this is not really a book to win converts, anyway — the title is too provocative, the prose, at times, too biting to allow its opponents the peace of mind to engage deeply. This is not a criticism — it strikes me that Hart knows the audience for such a book as this, and it is not Richard Dawkins.

One strength of the book is that, while Hart (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) believes in Christianity and the Christian gospel, and thus Christian morality and ethics, he is not triumphalist about certain aspects of the story he tells. For example, the Emperor Julian is duly noted as, in terms of general character and policy, more ‘Christian’ than the Christian emperors of Late Antiquity. He also sees the transformation of Christianity into the state religion of the Roman Empire as a great disaster — for both Christianity and the Empire.

Yet he sees with clear eyes the glories of the Gospel and what Gospel means for society. God became man; in fact, he took on the form of a slave, according to Philippians. This casts the pitch of biblical anthropology an octave higher than the glorious truth that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1) — God has partaken of our nature. He loves each of us. All human beings, finite and changeable and weak and powerless, are of infinite value, beloved by the infinite God: men, women, slaves, free, Jews, Gentiles. What we gain from the Christian revolution, that paganism never (and, in Hart’s view, never could) gave is the human person.

What we gain, then, over centuries of a culture imbued with this charity — despite all the many failures of the institutional church and of particular Christians — are the abolition of slavery, hospitals, advances in medicine, human rights, innumerable charitable organisations, love of the unlovely, justice for the unjust, and more.

The great cloud that hangs over the final chapters is: Will we lose all this in a post-Christian society? He notes ethicists such as Peter Singer who calls for the abortion and infanticide of the severely disabled. To what end is it morally acceptable to kill, to murder, to destroy people with Down syndrome? People who, as Hart observes, despite any suffering they endure, are often much more filled with joy than we who lack disabilities. Why should they not have the right to life?

The book ends with a reminder of the Desert Fathers who, at Christianity’s alleged ‘triumph’, retreated from the institutional church into the wild to seek to live out pure prayer, perfect charity, and purity of heart, to gaze upon God and the world with the luminous eye. He does not say that we need a new monastic movement, but that the same high impulse that drove many of the Desert Fathers (setting aside the human failings of certain members of the movement, of which Hart is aware) might inspire us to find ways to live with Gospel witness and courage on the fringes of post-Christendom. I wonder what he would say to fellow Eastern Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher, who wrote The Benedict Option? (Not having read Dreher, I have no clue, but from what I’ve heard, Hart has a much more secure grasp of the intellectual history of the period.)

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Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Spyridon

Spyridon
Saint Spyridon — You can tell him from his beehive hat (My photo from St Sozomenos’ Church, Galata, Cyprus). Also, he is my WordPress avatar.

After Barnabas, the Church of Cyprus slips into the mists of unreliability. Cyprus re-enters reliable history in 325 at the Council of Nikaia. In different records for this council, 12 or 14 bishops from Cyprus are recorded as having been present. They all seem to have supported the teaching that Jesus is fully God, homoousios with the Father—a debate we will look at more closely tomorrow.

Two of them were singled out by fourth-century historians as being men of special holiness: Spyridon (two posts on him here and here) and Paphnutios. I want to focus on Spyridon. You will have undoubtedly seen his name on various churches on the island. You may probably have even heard the story how, at the Council of Nikaia he stood up and performed a miracle with a tile to prove that three things could be one. This miracle is not attested in any of our early sources for the events of the council, and I am disinclined to believe it.

Our two earliest records for the life of Spyridon are two ecclesiastical historians, Socrates and Sozomenos. They were both active in the first half of the 400s, so over 75 years after Nikaia. Socrates gives us the more sober account of this man’s life:

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon.

Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed.

Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.[1]

There is no necessity for us to believe these miracles. However, since we do believe in a mighty God who can do anything, I see no real reason as a Christian to doubt them. I have read a lot of church histories and saints’ lives, and when I combine these with the stories I have heard from today’s missionaries — whether in the jungles of South America or the jungles of London — I am inclined to accept that, whether these particular miracles are true, God was at work in these sorts of ways in the ancient Church.

Besides these miracles and others, Sozomenos gives us some other indicators of the character of Spyridon. For example:

It was a custom with this Spyridon to give a certain portion of his fruits to the poor, and to lend another portion to those who wished it as a gratuity; but neither in giving nor taking back did he ever himself distribute or receive: he merely pointed out the storehouse, and told those who resorted to him to take as much as they needed, or to restore what they had borrowed.[2]

Sozomenos also tells us that Spyridon was hospitable to strangers and travellers and careful in administering his role as a bishop. What I find most encouraging about the story of Spyridon is its reminder that personal holiness and wisdom from God are what matter most in our ministers.

I am working on a PhD in church history. No doubt some people think this will make me uniquely qualified to be a pastor. I disagree—it will make uniquely qualified to be a university lecturer, but what have those skills to do with leading God’s people in the face of wisdom and strong character? Thus, our last glimpses of the Cypriot church before Konstantinos are of a hierarchy that is open to any believing Christian who has wisdom and good character.


[1] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History Book 1.12, NPNF2, Vol. 2.

[2] Sozomenos, Ecclesiastical History Book 1, Chapter 11, NPNF Vol 2.

Irenaeus and Athanasius

I almost typed Athanasios. I’ve been Hellenising everything all week. Tonight, I spoke about the ecclesiastical history of Cyprus from Barnabas to Epiphanius to 478 when Cyprus became autocephalous. Tomorrow, it’s Trinity and Mission, with a brief history of Christology from Irenaios to Khalkedon.

I’ve fallen behind in Read the Fathers whilst in Cyprus, and tonight, doing my catch-up, I found something interesting in Irenaios. He is trying to prove that all the generations and processions of the Gnostic Basilidians are false, and does so by demonstrating that light begotten of light is necessarily one in substance, not multiple:

If, again, the Æons were derived from Logos, Logos from Nous, and Nous from Bythus, just as lights are kindled from a light—as, for example, torches are from a torch—then they may no doubt differ in generation and size from one another; but since they are of the same substance with the Author of their production, they must either all remain for ever impassible, or their Father Himself must participate in passion. For the torch which has been kindled subsequently cannot be possessed of a different kind of light from that which preceded it. Wherefore also their lights, when blended in one, return to the original identity, since that one light is then formed which has existed even from the beginning. But we cannot speak, with respect to light itself, of some part being more recent in its origin, and another being more ancient (for the whole is but one light); nor can we so speak even in regard to those torches which have received the light (for these are all contemporary as respects their material substance, for the substance of torches is one and the same), but simply as to [the time of] its being kindled, since one was lighted a little while ago, and another has just now been kindled. (Irenaios, Against the Heresies, 2.17.4)

This is not dissimilar to arguments used by Athanasios which I shall discuss tomorrow night — but Athanasios is using them to prove positively that Jesus is homoousios with the Father:

We see that the radiance from the sun is integral to it, and that the substance of the sun is not divided or diminished; but its substance is entire, and its radiance perfect and entire, and the radiance does not diminish the substance of the light, but is as it were a genuine offspring from it. thus we see that the Son is begotten not from without, but ‘from the Father,’ and that Father remains entire, while the ‘stamp of his substance’ [Heb 1:3] exists always and preserves the likeness and image without alteration. (Athanasios, Orations Against the Arians 2.33)

Here we see the intellectual heritage of Athanasios, standing in the trajectory that leads from Irenaios straight to Kyrillos. I mean, Cyril. (With whom I saw Athanasios in a big ikon at Faneromeni church the other day.)

καληνύχτα

Saint of the Week: St. Spyridon

I just returned from Cyprus, and one of the saints who figures largely in the church dedications of the island is St. Spyridon, one of the Fathers who made the journey to Nicaea in 325.

You can always tell St. Spyridon when you see him on a church wall (as on the exterior of St. Sozomen’s Church in Galata, Cyprus [my photo to the left]) because of his beehive hat. Spyridon was a literal shepherd before he became a spiritual shepherd (in Latin, that would be pastor). As a sign of his humble origins, he is always shown wearing this traditional Cypriot headgear.

The image to the left is from a large fresco of the Council of Nicaea (the whole thing is viewable here). It’s hard to tell because I didn’t have a good angle to take the photo (I took it from a good distance below the image), but Spyridon is pictured performing a miracle that tradition relates concerning his actions at Nicaea.

He is clutching in his fist a tile. Out of the top of the tile comes a flame, from the bottom drips water, and soil remains in his hand. This threefold nature of the tile was a refutation of Arius, showing how three things could share a single essence, an object lesson in the Holy Trinity.

Because what we have from the histories is brief, allow me to quote Socrates Scholasticus in full (from CCEL):

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon. Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed. Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.

What I like about the story of St. Spyridon is the fact that he was made a presbyter for all the right reasons — it wasn’t because he had a clear singing voice for the liturgy, or because he was the only literate man in the village, or because he had the right educational credentials but because of holiness of life. He was so holy and had such spiritual authority that, although a simple shepherd, the people knew that he was the right man for the job.

This is a stark contrast with the lawyers and aristocrats who fill the clergy elsewhere in fourth century! It is a stark contrast to today where we are more concerned with one having the right training than we are with whether one is actually a spiritual leader. Perhaps seminaries and bishops should take the life of St. Spyridon to heart when they are seeking out and evaluating postulants for ordination. Imagine if we had a whole generation of clergy chosen for the holiness of their lives! We might even see spiritual fruit as a result!

Remember as well: God chooses the simple. Few of us are Origens — and he was branded a heretic post-mortem — but by the grace of Christ, many can be Spyridons.