The Desert and my career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope they can help you, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evil is weak. Evil is a lack.

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

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

Protestants and the Desert Fathers

Earlier this summer, I was blessed to be raised to the rank of Professor of Christian History at Davenant Hall. During the interview, which was one of the best live (alas, not in-person) theological conversations I’ve had in a very long time, one of my colleagues remarked that he thinks it’s cool that we, a Protestant theological college, are offering a course on the Desert Fathers. (Sign up here!)

But, of course, the question is always: How do I sell this to my fellow Protestants?

Why study the Desert Fathers with me? Or at all?

For some people, the Desert Fathers and the entire monastic movement that flows from them represent something in Christianity that is unnecessary at best, Pelagian at worst. Isn’t asceticism an unholy hatred of the body? Don’t the Desert Fathers teach works righteousness?

If we want to answer these questions, we must quickly (if briefly for a blog post) go to the sources (ad fontes! in good Reformational fashion). What is asceticism? What do the Desert Fathers believe about grace? Can we today learn things from them?

Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which is the Greek word for “training”, like athletic training — askesis is the word St Athanasius uses to describe the lifestyle and path of St Antony the Great. It is, then, more like “spiritual training” than hatred of the body. However, the entire human life is lived in the body. Therefore, the training of most Christians in history has involved embodied aspects — and, when healthy, no hatred of the body. Fasting, for example, is simply, well, expected of us by our Lord. And simple eating, simple living, are themselves caught up in various Scriptural injunctions, not to mention St Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus.

Here is the lifestyle of St Antony as described by St Athanasius:

All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. [2 Thes 3:10] He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. [See Mt 16:6 and 1 Thes 5:17] Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.

Life of Antony, 3.5-7, trans. Vivian and Athanassakis

Somewhere, either Evagrius or the Life of Antony, the mean between abuse of the body and its indulgence is counselled in the wisdom of the Desert. The Desert Fathers do not hate the body.

Oh, and before addressing grace, look at where St Antony’s inspiration for askesis came from: Scripture. Indeed, he seems to have lived a life saturated with the Bible, doesn’t he? This is their ideal. In the first monasteries that shared a common life, besides a regular round of praying the Psalms and other Bible-reading, they had major Bible teaching twice a week.

What about grace? The Desert Fathers, after all, expend a lot of energy teaching about, well, expending a lot of energy. One of the famous sayings is that prayer is hard work until your last breath. Where, then, does grace fit in? Here’s what Evagrius says in his short work On the Eight Thoughts:

A great thing is the human being who is helped by God; he is abandoned and then he realizes the weakness of his nature. You have nothing good which you have not received from God (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). Why then do you glory in another’s good as if it were your own? Why do you pride yourself in the grace of God as if it were your own possession? Acknowledge the one who gave it and do not exalt yourself so much. You are a creature of God; do not reject the Creator. You receive help from God; do not deny your benefactor. (8.12)

In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, p. 88.

Evagrius goes on, but I think you get the point.

Finally, there’s a historical reason to study any of the pre-Reformational monastic texts. As Dallas Willard notes in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, the best books about the spiritual disciplines from Benedict onwards (if not from St Antony onwards…) were written by or about monks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and apply their wisdom to our own situation.

Indeed, we learn Trinitarian theology, Christology, the doctrine of God, ethics, morality, theology of the human will, semiotics, political theology, demonology, diabology (is that the word?), angelology, and (depending on your tradition) church order, liturgy, and canon law from the Fathers.

Why not the spiritual disciplines?

And if so, why not the fathers who were devoted to nothing else in their undivided pursuit of God?

So, come, learn with me this Fall.

Household as monastery

The other day, I — @mjjhoskin — tweeted that one way to incorporate monastic wisdom into your life is to imagine that the members of your family are fellow monastics. Like that time my five-year-old ran through the kitchen naked. That could have happened in the deserts of Egypt or Syria.

One commenter noted that climbing a tree and refusing to come down for 30 years also fits. (See Mar Abraham the Dendrite in the Lives of Eastern Saints by John of Ephesus.)

My fellow monks at leisure last week.

This thought was inspired by St Evagrius Ponticus, Foundations of the Monastic Life. Evagrius argues that marriage and children are distractions that will keep him hesychia, closing the first section with the exhortation:

Do you want therefore, beloved, to take up the solitary life for what it is, and to race after the trophies of stillness? Leave behind the concerns of the world, the principalities and powers set over them (Eph. 6:12); that is, stand free of material concerns and the passions, beyond all desire, so that as you become a stranger to the conditions deriving from these you may be able to cultivate stillness properly. For if one were not to extricate himself from these, he would not be able to live this way of life successfully.

Evagrius Ponticus, Foundations of the Monastic Life, ch. 3, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford, 2003), p. 5.

The telos of the monastic life is life-with-God. It is contemplation/theoria of the most holy Trinity (Keph. Gnos. 1.27). It is pure prayer where we lose the vision of our conscious selves, as described most beautifully by Evagrius’ student, Cassian, here. For Evagrius, we seek apatheia (dispassion, purity of heart) in order to reach out for the invisible God in a place of hesychia (stillness, calmness, peace, rest).

The married man, as St Paul even notes, will have his thoughts divided and not be able to achieve hesychia as purely as the solitary, the anchorite, the monachos.

The brothers at work.

What if we took the intrusions into our stillness that a family readily provides and turned them into opportunities of grace? Consider the two photos in this post so far. One is of my sons on a slip-and-slide (although I see only one child). The other is of them at “the work site” (aka the dirt beside the house). In both, they are playing hard. Play is the serious business of childhood, after all. The running, the noise, the laughter, and so forth — these can all be a hindrance to classic theoria, classic contemplation. And certainly, I, as the supervising adult, cannot lose myself in prayer like a monk alone in a cave.

But I can still use these patches of Godlight (a Father Tim phrase from Jan Karon’s Mitford novels) to find a kind of rest, stillness, peace. Enjoy the little boys now — everyone tells me to. Their laughter and silliness and all of that — that is grace and joy and happiness. Resting in these moments, enjoying these moments, laughing with them, and not begrudging their madnesses — these are how to turn the chaos of family life into inner hesychia.

Consider two scenarios. A father with his morning coffee wishes to read some Evagrius (this father is me). However, the boys wish to dance around arhythmically to John Michael Talbot, hop like bunnies, bounce like kangaroos, spin like tops, even. Scenario one: Annoyed father tries to do some spiritual reading (this father is sometimes me). Scenario two: Thankful father puts book down and watches children, grateful to God for the gift of the small sons (this father is sometimes me).

Which scenario contains a closer approximation of hesychia?

Not exactly St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent

Now, making the household “monastic” in other ways, with regular rhythms for corporate and private prayer, doing family devotions, pursuing simplicity in various areas, etc., feels like it should go without saying. It’s really the question of how you deal with your fellow inmates that I want to prod here today.

Take the happy times as grace and find God there.

Take the hard times as grace and find God there.

Consider, as parent, that you are an abbot as St John Cassian describes, and that therefore your greatest concern is the spiritual growth of the monks. Take that more seriously than anything, and then your own times of theoria or lectio divina or whatever your prayer rule includes.

What I’m really pressing at, then, is a combination of Paul Evdokimov’s interior monasticism and Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s sacrament of the present moment. Take hold of the moment that God has thrust you into as a spouse and parent, whether it is cooking food, doing laundry, playing with children, reading a book of your own choosing, gazing longingly at a fast-cooling cup of coffee, and find God in it.

Then you can find holy hesychia and contemplate the Most Holy Trinity.

Evagrius in Anglo-Saxon England

In rereading St Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, in preparation for this past Monday, I encountered (unsurprisingly) Evagrian resonances in Pope St Gregory the Great’s letters to St Augustine of Canterbury in 1.27. Evagrius of Pontus was a late fourth-century mystic and ascetic master amongst the Desert Fathers of Lower Egypt at Nitria and then Kellia. Father Luke Dysinger has an accessible biography of Evagrius here. Despite being controversial in posthumous Origenist controversies, Evagrius remains foundational for ascetic and mystical theology and practice both East and West. In the West, his teachings were transmitted and refracted through the work of St John Cassian, and then further refracted through the works of Pope St Gregory.

The Evagrian resonances were most explicit for me in St Gregory’s response to question 9.

First, Gregory recapitulates teaching common to both Evagrius and St Cassian that fornication and gluttony are intimately linked. The immediate context is the ongoing, perplexing question raised by ancient monastics as to whether someone who has nocturnal emissions has sinned or not.

Pope Gregory writes that the illusions that accompany such emissions are sometimes caused by overeating, that one’s body is essentially overburdened by eating. The correlation between gluttony and fornication is made by Evagrius in the “Texts on Discrimination” excerpted in The Philokalia Vol. 1:

For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony…

Trans. Sherrard et al., p. 38

One of the basic realities I discovered when I did my first dive into John Cassian was the interconnectedness of our whole lives, including the life of sin. Succumb to one sin, and you are setting yourself up for being bound to the others. Excel at one virtue, and you gain strength to fight all the sins. I confess here and now that I have yet to read Gregory the Great on the Seven Deadly Sins (which he adapts from Evagrius-Cassian), but I imagine his concept is much the same.

But what really got my Evagrian gears turning was this passage in Bede, EH 1.27, Q IX:

all sin is committed in three ways, namely by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. The devil makes the suggestion, the flesh delights in it and the spirit consents. It was the serpent who suggested the first sin, Eve representing the flesh was delighted by it, and Adam representing the spirit consented to it: and when the mind sits in judgement on itself it is necessary to make careful distinction between suggestion and delight, between delight and consent. For when an evil spirit suggests a sin to the mind, if no delight in the sin follows then the sin is not committed in any form; but when the flesh begins to delight in it then sin begins to arise. But if the mind deliberately consents, then the sin is seen to be complete.

Ed. McClure and Collins, pp. 53-54

Gregory the Great goes on. But this is enough to see the Evagrian anatomy of sin. The suggestion comes first — that is, the initial temptation as we would see it. We like the idea — sure, why not have another goblet of wine? We succumb; our spirit consents. (Another goblet … or three?)

It is a sublte, psychologically real approach to sin that attaches all the responsibility for action upon the human agent. Gregory notes that one may have the suggestion, and be delighted by it, but resist so as not to consent with the spirit. This circumstance, of being delighted by sin yet able to resist, is what St Paul spoke of in Romans 7:23,”But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” So we are able to fight these thoughts when they come.

This fight is what much of the surviving work of Evagrius is about, and it is also the chief business of many writers in the Philokalia. One of the chief skills Philokalic and Evagrian spirituality seeks to hone is watchfulness. We must watch our thoughts, “to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons.” (Evagrius, On Discrimination 7, p. 42)

Watchfulness and the discernment of the thoughts and the battle against temptation are central to Evagrian praktike, but central to his whole program, central to St Gregory, to the Venerable Bede, to the missionaries of Anglo-Saxon England, is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, to be met in contemplation, theoria, and worshipped and adored.

Nothing else really matters.

Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Evagrius’ mystical communion

In light of my post on Sunday about virtual communion, the following proverbs from the Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus are worth some attention:

118. Flesh of Christ: virtues of praktiké;
he who eats it, passionless shall he be.

119. Blood of Christ: contemplation of created things;
he who drinks it, by it becomes wise.

120. Breast of the Lord: knowledge of God;
he who rests against it, a theologian (theologos) shall he be.

-Trans. Jeremy Driscoll, Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 62

Here, Evagrius has completely allegorised and spiritualised Holy Communion, it would seem. The Eucharistic imagery is used to direct the reader/listener to the three stages of Evagrian ascent to God — praktikephysike, and theologike. The first is ascetic labour — battling the eight wicked thoughts, pursuing the virtues, engaging in the lifestyle of the hesychast. The second is the first level of theoretike, of contemplation, where we contemplate created things. The created order, at this stage, is not viewed for its own sake, but rather for the sake of what it can show us of God. It is, essentially, a sacramental worldview, one similar to Coleridge’s idea of symbols being gateways to God, passages to the numinous (not sure he used the word numinous, though). The third level is moving upward to direct contemplation of God.

These three stages are referenced throughout the Evagrian corpus. A single example should suffice, I hope. Evagrius sees these three levels of the spiritual life in Scripture, writing in the Scholia on Proverbs:

The one who has widened his heart through purity will understand the logoi of God – those connected with praktike, physike, and theologike. For all matters which concern the Scriptures, are divided into three parts: ethics, physics, and theology. And to the first correspond the Proverbs, to the second Ecclesiastes, and to the third the Song of Songs. (Scholion 247) –Trans. Luke Dysinger

In Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27, Evagrius says that contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity is the highest level and goal of the contemplative life. We also read in Ad Monachos:

Better is knowledge of the Trinity than knowledge of the incorporeals;
and the contemplation of it beyond reasons for all the aeons. -ch. 110, trans. Driscoll

This tripartite scheme of spiritual ascent has been applied by Evagrius here in Ad Monachos to the Eucharist. My immediate inclination is to see this as allegorising, as I say. However, through comparison with other Evagrian texts (interpret Evagrius with Evagrius, the right way forward), Jeremy Driscoll warns us against such an interpretation, saying:

These three proverbs would be badly misunderstood if the reader were to see in them merely a spiritualizing or allegorizing tendency such that the flesh of Christ is thought to be no more than a scriptural code word for virtue or his blood no more than something of the same for contemplation. The point is rather quite the opposite. The proverbs mean to express that the very possibility of progress within praktiké and from this to contemplation and from this to the knowledge of God is grounded in the mystery of the Incarnation. But here Evagrius says more. What the Incarnation makes possible is communicated through the action of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood and the intimacy that this implies. Further, it should be noted that the expressions “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” are generally so closely associated with the Eucharist that it seems unlikely that Evagrius would not have wished the same connection to be made here. (Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, 321)

Indeed (I need not display the evidence here), Evagrius makes reference to the Eucharist and its effect on us elsewhere in his writings. This, I think, is important, because I think we sometimes develop an image of the Desert solitary of Egypt sitting alone in his cell, eschewing all human contact and meeting God directly through the uncreated light. However, Evagrius, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and the various stories about them in a number of historical sources all point to the weekly celebration of Holy Communion in the Desert communities of the fourth and fifth centuries.

And yet.

As we sit here now, 1600 years or more later, it can be a comfort, I think, to meditate on mystical communion with Christ, communion of a sort that does not mean gathering within six feet of a large group of people and drinking wine out of the same silver chalice. He comes to us alone in our cells (apartments, houses). Let us open our hearts to Him as we practise the virtues, seek knowledge of Him in creation, and hope one day to ascend to contemplation of God Himself directly, a sort of mystical holy communion with its own grace abounding in our hearts.

Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

Digital resources for the daily office during your daily confinement

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that a Desert monk of the fourth-century Egyptian desert would have spent most of his or her time confined to the cell praying and reading Scripture. In particular, in fact, they were devoted to praying the Psalms. One example of many:

Oblige yourself to practice the discipline/attention of the psalms, for that will protect you from being captured by the enemy.-Isaiah of Scetê Ascet.
logos 9 (p.84)/Sys. 5.53. (Cited by John Wortley in his article “How the Desert Fathers ‘Meditated’“)

Evagrius writes:

The singing of Psalms quiets the passions and calms the intemperance of the boy. Prayer, on the other hand, prepares the spirit to put its own powers into operation. –Chapters on Prayer 83 (trans. John Eudes Bamberger p. 69)

Prayer in the Egyptian Desert of antiquity happened at fixed times, and it involved singing Psalms.

This practice, variously called the divine office, daily office, liturgy of the hours, fixed-hour prayer, etc., is older than monastic asceticism, attested as early as Tertullian around 200 and the Apostolic Tradition a few decades later (I’ve talked about the latter at least once). Scot McKnight, in his excellent, readable book Praying with the Church, shows the New Testament and Jewish roots of this practice.

So if you’re stuck at home, alone, wondering what to do, seeking some tools to kill time and grow spiritually, maybe even seeking hesychia, here are some resources to help you pray the fixed hours of prayer, beginning with apps for your phone, then online resources, then digitised books.

Apps for your phone

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – This app has Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer in both BCP language and “contemporary.” It gives you the daily readings, including Psalms and both main lessons, and the Collect. This is an advantage over flipping through a BCP and a Bible for ease of comfort — an advantage all born-digital daily office resources tend to have!

iBreviary – This Catholic resource has the Roman Breviary in Italian, English, Spanish, French, Romanian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Ambrosian Rite in Italian, Monastic Rite in Italian, and Latin, both Tridentine and Novus Ordo. I use the Tridentine Latin, myself, but that’s because I’m old-fashioned and weird. It does the full round of offices of day and night.

Common Prayer – This ecumenical Protestant resource comes from Shane Claiborne, drawing from different traditions but also with a good amount of Scripture. It also means that there is more of an emphasis on social action in the prayers and meditations included. Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer.

I see some Orthodox resources in the Google Play store, such as Orthodox Daily Prayers from the Orthodox Church in America, but I haven’t tried any out. I’m also sure Lutherans have come up with something, too.

Online Resources

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – Like the app but a website.

Celtic Daily Prayer – The daily offices of the Northumbria Community, providing Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer. Typically rooted in mediaeval Irish and Scottish sources but with some Desert Fathers in it as well.

Celebrating Common Prayer – This is the daily office of the Anglican Society of Saint Francis with Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Compline.

The Synekdemos: Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians – Provided by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Divinum Officium – This Roman Catholic resource appears to be similar to the iBreviary app noted above.

There are undoubtedly many others, but I’ve never used them!

Digitised Books

Coptic Offices – It seems only right (rite?), given our inspiration here, to include the daily office of the Coptic Orthodox Church, here translated into English.

Breviary Offices from Lauds to Compline – An English translation from mediaeval Use of Sarum, that is, the mediaeval English office. I do not know how easy this would be to use digitally!

The Lesser Hours of the Sarum Breviary – An English translation made principally to fill gaps in the Book of Common Prayer.

Orthodox Daily Prayers  – A 1982 publication from St Tikhon’s Monastery.

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 …