St. Columba Revisited

Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.

St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.

Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.

Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.

This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.

The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.

The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.

Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.

Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.

The path of Bollandist may be futile.

The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.

When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.

So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?

Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?

Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.

St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.

St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).

St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.

St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.

These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.

Advertisements

A collection of … hagiography?

I am the proud possessor of a small but growing collection of saints’ lives. My first was a remaindered copy of the Penguin Classic Early Christian Lives by Carolinne M. White, picked up for St. Antony but also containing the delightful lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus by Jerome, Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, and Benedict by Gregory the Great. These are lives that helped establish the genre.

My interest in Desert monasticism drove my next hagiographical purchase, the Cistercian Studies translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto called The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This is an interesting travelogue that visits a bunch of the fourth-century monks and tells their stories. It is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

My third was a grab at a used book shop of another Penguin Classic, Lives of the Saints by J. F. Webb, containing the Voyage of Brendan and the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid. I bought it because of the Voyage of Brendan but greatly enjoyed Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. I have yet to read Wilfrid, but this volume contains lives that show us the world of Early Mediaeval Britain and Ireland, the saints of the “Celtic” and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Worth a read. This is, I have learned, no longer published, but the material available has been expanded in the Penguin Classics volume The Age of Bede.

My most recent acquisitions take us back to the desert, one being Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, translated by R. M. Price for Cistercian. This is a collection of seven monastic biographies by Justinianic (sixth-century) Palestinian monk Cyril. It tells the stories of some of Palestinian monasticism’s founders, such as Sts. Euthymius and Sabas. These are lives of men approximately contemporaneous with Brendan and Benedict but living on the other side of the world in the desert. Very informative about the world of sixth-century monasticism.

At the same time as Cyril of Scythopolis, I got Cistercian’s translation of Besa’s Life of Shenoute, telling the life of one of the most important figures of Coptic monasticism, Shenoute, archimandrite of the White Monastery in the first half of the fifth century. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s bound to be good.

I’m thinking of getting my own copy of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. We’ll see about that.

If I could, I would certainly add John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints, but the only English translation is that by E. W. Brooks in PO 17, 18, 19. Alas.

So many saints. Because of its chronological and geographical breadth, I’d recommend White’s Early Christian Lives if you wish to start reading hagiography yourself! The genre is introduced at the beginning of the volume, and each life contains a brief introduction to the subject. The translation is highly readable, which is always a blessing.

The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

Demonology and You

Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays.  That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes.
-Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*

The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”.  The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings.  In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.

They all believed in demons, for one thing.

In the Patristic world, demons are out there.  They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air.  Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us.  They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin.  One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin.  Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.

Yes, your sins are your own.  This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked.  Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.

Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them.  We should know our weapons.  We should know our enemies.  We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons.  According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh.  The other origin of evil is the world.  The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.

However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian.  We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism.  What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.

I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers.  We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful.  My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.

And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:

How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?

In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives.  Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best.  You should read the post.

The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:

I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.

Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.

*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.

**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

funnelbuttMy apologies for not warning you.  Put down that burger!  Lower the Slurpee!  Don’t even think about eating candy!  Flex your knees and get ready to pray!  Turn of the TV!  Rearrange your Internet schedule!

The ascetic revival has begun!  To read about the environmental benefits of asceticism, click here.

I’ve decided to take seriously the books I’ve read about simple living, prayer, and self-denial.*  I’ve read a lot of them.  But reading doesn’t mean learning.  A person could read the entire corpus of ascetic and spiritual literature and conceivably come away unchanged.  Or a person could simply hear the Gospels read once a week and be transformed from the inside out; or, like Abraham, someone could hear the voice of God without having any spiritual instruction or access to Scripture.  Palladius writes:

Words and syllables do not constitute teaching — sometimes those who possess these are disreputable in the extreme — but teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct, of freedom fro injuriousness, of dauntlessness, and of an even temper.  To all these add an intrepidity which produces words like flames of fire. (The Lausiac History: Letter to Lausus 2, trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW 34)

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

I shall pray morning, noon, and evening.  Morning shall follow the daily office and sometimes noon and evening as well.  The flexibility will allow me to spend time using different forms of prayer.

I shall fast once a week.  You won’t know which day, and this isn’t the bragging Christ warns of.  It is, rather, an exhortation that we should all fast at least once a week.  They say it accrues much spiritual benefit.

My eating shall be moderate.  This includes no pop or Slurpees save in time of celebration.  I guess that’s the old rule surrounding wine, but I’m already too cheap to drink wine.  This also includes avoiding overeating and snacks between meals — this latter is practised by monks who follow Augustine’s Rule, such as Dominicans.

I shall spend time in Scripture-reading every day.  This has been a lifelong discipline that every once in a while I fall out of for days, weeks, or months at a time.  By God’s grace, I shall maintain this discipline.

I shall exercise my body.  The Benedictines believe in hard, physical labour.  I am an urban apartment-dwelling middle-class Canadian.  I have no garden, no chickens, no building to maintain or to build.  Therefore, I shall discipline my body through exercise, chiefly through my bicycle and through walking almost everywhere.  I’ll ride my bike three to five times a week.

What else?  Buy no unneeded stuff — books, CDs, DVDs.  Don’t rent when it can be borrowed for free.  Don’t waste time watching it or reading it when there’s a better option.  Spend more time with people in pleasant occupation and company, less time simply entertaining oneself.  Continue weekly attendance at church; possibly add an extra to ensure I receive Eucharist.  Hunt down time for solitude.  Talk with Jennifer about how we might be able to spend time in service to others.

Do you have any ideas how you and I can help start the ascetic revival of the 21st century?  If you think it’s already begun, show us where and how!

*The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot; Celebration of DisciplinePrayer, and Devotional Classics by Richard J. Foster; The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton; Flirting with Monasticism by Karen E. Sloan; Finding God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal; Ecstasy and Intimacy by Edith Humphrey, and other moderns.  The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius; The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great; The Institutes and The Conferences by John Cassian; The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (well, most of it); The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross; The Letters of Saint Antony the Great; the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto; The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus; The Rule of St. Augustine and other classics.

John Cassian & the Desert Fathers

We dealt with Grace & Freewill here.  The other thing that may go over people’s heads is the discussion here about Cassian’s relationship to the Desert Fathers.

Although John Cassian spent a decade or more living with the Desert Fathers, people do not trust his writings to be an accurate reflection of the Desert Tradition.  Some say that Cassian’s writings are too philosophical and theoretical at times, too sophisticated.  The pure and true Desert Tradition of the poor, simple Coptic monks was not like this at all.

The evidence seems to be to the contrary, however.  The letters of St. Antony are one example of Coptic literacy.  And Didymus the Blind is an example of illiterate sophistication.  Furthermore, teachings of Cassian and Evagrius that many think are antithetical to the “pure” Desert Tradition are frequently found in the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

The second difficulty people have with Cassian is the fact that his Conferences are so long.  As stated originally, I do not see this as a problem at all.  Just because the Apopthegmata, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, are all short does not mean that these same men did not sometimes give longer discourses.

Finally, people point out that John Cassian himself acknowledges a certain amount of modification due to the differing circumstances of monks in Gaul as well as his faulty memory.  This is true, but we cannot fault Cassian for any resultant changes; Cassian was not seeking to write a history, such as the History of the Monks of Egypt or the Lausiac History.  He was seeking to engage with a tradition and pass on the wisdom of this tradition to people in a different situation.  I believe that he effectively did this without compromising the Desert Tradition.

Indeed, as I read Cassian, Evagrius, the Sayings, and other things, I see how big this tradition of the Egyptian desert is.  They are not all in agreement on every point, but they are still standing within the same flowing tide of teachings and practices handed down from master to disciple, beginning with Antony — though Cassian would tell us that it began with the apostles.  It is the handing on of wisdom and actions that makes a tradition.  One can be creative and true within a tradition at the same time.