John Cassian in the Philokalia: ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ – scopos and telos

StJohnCassian_vice4Allow me to begin with my ecclesiastical historian’s hat on. The second selection from John Cassian in The Philokalia (the first having been about the 8 thoughts, taken from Books 5-8 of The Institutes) is taken from Cassian’s second work, the much longer Conferences or CollationesThe Conferences purport to be the monastic elder’s encounters and conversations from the approximately ten years he and his companion Germanus spent amongst the Desert Fathers of Egypt, adapted for the situation in Gaul and possibly falsely recalled due to the faults of human memory (which he admits). Germanus is the usual interlocutor with Cassian sitting and listening in silence. An argument was made somewhere that here we find the full depth of Cassian’s spiritual theology. Here we certainly meet some his more powerful concepts, and the influence of Evagrius of Pontus, quite palpable in his discussion of the eight thoughts in The Institutes, continues. We’ll get to that in a moment. The Conferences are available online, as well as in an excellent translation with helpful notes by Boniface Ramsey. Ramsey also translated The Institutes.

The first Conference is where Sts Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth gathered the opening material for ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination’. The discussion is created of various excerpts from Conference 1, seamlessly woven together, ending with the paragraph on p. 98 of the English, ‘When the old man saw us marvelling at this…’ In Cassian’s original, the paragraph is used as a way of ending the conference with Abba Moses that day, whereas in its reworked Greek version, it becomes the segue into a discussion of discernment. The rest of ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ is a discussion of discernment/discretion taken from Conference 2. Both Conference 1 and 2 are with the same abba, Moses. I do not know if we are to assume that he is the same Abba Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or not. Throughout both Conferences we encounter an array of biblical verses, examples of biblical persons, and examples from the history of Christian asceticism.

Abba Moses begins the discussion, ‘after much entreaty on our part’, with a question. Every aspect of human endeavour has an immediate purpose and end goal. A farmer clears land of thorns and rocks — an immediate purpose — with the ultimate goal of enjoying the produce of the field. He queries:

Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this [ascetic labour]?

We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’

In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’

… we confessed that we did not know … (Palmer, Sherrard, Ward trans., p. 95)

In the Latin, Cassian actually uses the Greek scopos and telosScopos is glossed as destinatio (which is admissible in this discussion in its English descendant); telos is finis (or end). Clearing the field is the farmer’s scopos, enjoying its fruits is his telos. The scopos, or finis, of the ascetic life is the kingdom of heaven — regnum caelorum. In their English translation of the Greek Philokalia, Palmer, et al., give us purpose for scopos and goal for telos.

Abba Moses says:

The goal [telos] of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose [scopos], however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. (p. 95 in English)

Here we have the original ‘purpose-driven life’! We are called by Cassian (via Abba Moses) to seek purity of heart in all we do. That is the point. The point is not fasting, reading sacred scripture, meditating, praying, studying theology, helping the poor. The point is purity of heart. Abba Moses continues:

It is for the love of our neighbour that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. (p. 95)

For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother. (p. 96)

Abba Moses then says that love of God and of human beings, not ascetic labour, is the purpose. This is the great recurring theme of Christian spirituality, as I have discussed here in the past in relation to St Augustine and the Cistercians. From here, Abba Moses discusses how to achieve purity of heart; as Cassian and Germanus discuss the ascetic life with other Egyptian abbas, they learn more and more; there is a rising up towards this purity, found in the pure prayer of Conference 10 which leads into a discussion of perfection itself in Conference 11.

In The Philokalia, Abba Moses gives some attention to the thoughts (those Evagrian logismoi) before moving into his discussion of discernment.

You can see, I think, why The Conferences make me aware of my inadequacies! I still have no grand answers for questions of how a modern layperson, married, working full-time in a demanding job, is to pursue purity of heart. I guess thinking about it is a start. Praying daily as we do at The Witness Cloud is, undoubtedly, central. Abba Moses counsels Cassian and Germanus to keep their eyes fixed on the knowable actions of God in creation, Scripture, the deeds of the saints.

I guess being an ecclesiastical historian might actually give me some advantage, then?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. -Matthew 5:8

John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

St. Antony and St. Paul
St. Antony and St. Paul

My brother and I have been slowly working our way through The Philokalia. The last part we finished was the selections from St John Cassian. Those of you who have put up with my musings long enough know that I wrote a Master’s thesis on Cassian’s reception of Evagrius’ demonology. He’s a character I enjoy, a teacher I appreciate, a spiritual teacher who challenges me every time I read him.

There are two selections from Cassian adapted by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios in The Philokalia, one from The Institutes and the other from The Conferences. These are Cassian’s two major works, written in Latin in Gaul in the first half of the fifth century — John Cassian has the distinction of being the only Latin author represented in The Philokalia.

The climax and crowning moment of Cassian’s Institutes is a discussion of the eight vices, adapted from his never-named spiritual father, Evagrius of Pontus (‘the Solitary’) who immediately precedes him in this Athonite anthology. This is excerpted in The Philokalia. I’ve blogged about the eight thoughts before. Today I’ll briefly summarise the version in The Philokalia with some of my own thoughts.

The ‘Eight Thoughts’ (precursors to St Gregory the Great’s seven deadly sins) are: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, self-esteem, and pride.

Gluttony

Frankly — more than just overeating. I’ve talked about this once before.

Unchastity

More than just sex (an idea I’ve talked about as well). Both of these first two logismoi, or thoughts, are battled by fasting. Cassian reminds us, however, that it is more than the bodily discipline that we need:

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour. (p. 75 in Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation)

Cassian tries to get at the root of the problem — the human heart.

Amidst the advice associated with this section is, ‘It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above.’ (p. 77)

Avarice

I’ve mentioned Evagrius and avarice here before. Cassian argues that, while some passions are natural to us, avarice is, in fact, foreign to our nature, so we must do our best to keep it from taking root in our soul. I found most of his advice on avarice unhelpful to the non-monk, unfortunately.

However, there is this good passage on the passions:

Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder. (p. 78)

Anger

As you may know, I sometimes struggle with anger, and have enlisted the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in the past. Anger is considered part of our nature, and is not of itself evil. It exists to help us fight against sin, temptation, the other passions. However, it can easily cause us to go astray, even when we are angered about things that it is right be angry about — gold leaves blind the eyes just as well as lead ones (p. 83).

Dejection

This is the one where we feel discouraged and blame everyone else for our own failings. Says Cassian,

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. (p. 87)

That idea, in fact, comes from Stoicism and is very prevalent in Seneca.

Listlessnessaccedia

This is the vice of getting a bit bored and frustrated, then dissatisfied with your own work or monastery. It is called the noon-day demon in Cassian’s Latin original. It is cured by hard work and forcing yourself to stay put.

Some years ago another blogger related this vice with the modern evangelical tendency to church hop. An interesting thought.

Self-esteem

This is seeking to be recognised by other people for being good at something — for monks, obviously the question is virtue. For the rest of us, no doubt it is whatever our occupation is. A job well done is not reward enough. Recognition of the self must follow.

Pride

This is the most subtle and serpentine vice of all. It can only strike you once you are holy, but is enough to drive you to the pit. This is the over-weening belief in your own holiness, an awareness of goodness — or rather, a false awareness, that leads you to believe yourself better than others.

These eight are intimately linked. And they are best fought by the cultivation of virtue. It is easier not to overeat by eating moderately than by fasting excessively. It is easier not to lust by consciously reading the Scriptures than simply trying not to lust. And so forth.

Next time, Cassian’s thoughts on discernment and the goal of the monastic life as excerpted in the next section of The Philokalia. The question is: How can we apply this to ourselves as non-monks, as laypeople?

Ladders of Ascent

I am trying to read St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent* for Lent this year. I say trying because I was in the midst of The Mystery of God at the start of this season, so I waited until I was done that before starting this. It struck me as a disciplined way of reading. I am, as it works out, still stuck in the Introduction by Kallistos Ware (the most prolific translator and introducer of the Orthodox world), which is itself illuminating.

I thought I would share some of my pre-reading thoughts with you. Mostly about ladders and ascent.

First, the image of the ladder is not restricted to St John Climacus (of course). It comes into Christian spiritual writing from the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:10-19 (‘Jacob’s Ladder’). In this vision, Jacob sees the angels of God ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Here is William Blake’s painting thereof:

I always find Blake’s images striking and thought-provoking, even if, like his poetry, they are not strictly orthodox.

Met Kallistos mentions that St Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 43, 71), St John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 83, 5), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks in Syria 27) all also used the image of the ladder as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Those three are St John’s precedents — the image also comes later in the West in Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection.

The idea of the ladder is, of course, of a metaphorical, spiritual ‘ascent’ to God from the lowly life of this earthly world. It is worth stressing that, overall (despite use of physical imagery), the biblical and traditional view of God and ‘heaven’ is that He is not in the heavens (that is, the sky) but as close as our very breath. Heaven is all around us. The Kingdom of the Heavens is right here (an important modern contributor to this is Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).

The heavens are here, but our senses are dulled to them — dulled by sin and by fallenness. We need to climb ‘up’, back to God, back to heaven. And so, using an image drawn from Scripture as well as some Platonic teaching, the image of the ladder goes up.

For interest, the classic anonymous text of fourth-century Christian Syriac spirituality is The Book of Steps — there, we ascend to Christ by a series of steps; there are two paths, one of which is easier to stay on but slower to reach the goal than the narrow one. We also have images from Christian piety of ascending mountains — St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt Carmel, for example, or many references, such as in St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa, of ascending Mt Sinai and like Moses.

We have all, through our shared, fallen, human state, as well as our own actual sins, to which we are, sadly, in bondage, moved away from God. Christ, however, has opened up the gate that we may return. This is the ascent. It can be arduous for us at times, but we have more than a Guide in the Good Shepherd who has shown the pathway and will carry us if need be.

The ascent of the mystic into the cloud of unknowing is nothing other than finding the Holy Trinity. And we can start the climb wherever we are, lay or monk, husband or wife, student or job-seeker, CEO or priest, housewife or factory worker. Let’s climb the ladder.

*Two things: Climacus is a latinization of Klimakos, which means ‘of the ladder.’ The name varies; it is often as quoted above in English (as in the translation by Norman Russell for The Classics of Western Spirituality, which I am reading), but sometimes just The Ladder sometimes The Ladder of Paradise.

Theophan the Recluse and realism at prayer

St Theophan the Recluse. Loving the hat.

I once googled the Jesus Prayer and got a site somewhere out there that claimed this special, powerful, little prayer was essential for salvation, using a variety of Patristic and Byzantine quotations out of context. Since I do pray the Jesus Prayer, I am interested in what people have to say on the subject, but only the truth.

At present, I am slowly working through The Art of Prayer, which is an anthology about private prayer mostly focussed upon the Jesus Prayer and mostly drawn from Sts Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) and Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867) — it was compiled for personal use by Igumen Chariton of Valamo in the early twentieth century and includes Greek Patristic passages and Byzantine writers such as St Gregory of Sinai as well as nineteenth-century Russians. I recommend this book which I see as part of Kallistos Ware’s programme — along with E M Palmer — to bring the world of Orthodoxy to the English-speaking world through modern translations of important texts.*

I find the words of St Theophan realistic and true.  One of the most important pieces of advice I read over breakfast one morning in Paris (and thus didn’t note the location in the volume) was the reminder that true prayer, that is, truly entering into mindfulness of God with our spirits/hearts, is entirely an act of grace; no technique will bring it to us — only God can. Nevertheless, we must continue working at prayer and mindfulness through the interior and exterior actions of life.

He said it better.

This morning, he gave two pieces of advice that relate to the the opening of this post. St Theophan does not believe the Jesus Prayer is magical. He does not believe it is the only way to achieve the grace of inner prayer with the mind in the heart. He does not think that it is absolutely essential for salvation. Here are two pieces of his realistic advice, from page 99 of this volume. Hopefully of use to those of you who also pray the Prayer:

The Jesus Prayer is like any other prayer. It is stronger than all other prayers only in virtue of the all-powerful Name of Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour. But it is necessary to invoke His Name with a full and unwavering faith — with a deep certainty that He is near, sees and hears, pays whole-hearted attention to our petition, and is ready to fulfil it and to grant what we seek. There is nothing to be ashamed of in such hope. If fulfilment is sometimes delayed, this may be because the petitioner is still not yet ready to receive what he asks.

The Jesus Prayer is not some talisman. Its power comes from faith in the Lord, and from a deep union of the mind and heart with Him. With such a disposition, the invocation of the Lord’s Name becomes very effective in many ways. But a mere repetition of the words does not signify anything.

*Ware and Palmer were also involved in project to translate the entire Philokalia; Ware with Mother Mary translated the Festal Menaion and Lenten Triodion. Of course, Ware’s work of bringing Orthodoxy to Anglophones goes beyond translations to his own writings, such as The Orthodox Way, The Orthodox Church, and The Power of the Name.

Kallistos Ware on Salvation

While not as far-reaching as John Michael Talbot’s, Kallistos Ware’s beard is still magnificent

One of the things that sometimes drives me crazy is when an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic writer says, ‘Protestants believe x, but we believe y,’ — I find myself believing y, not x. (This was a frequent occurrance in Clark Carlton book The Faith: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church.) Or when non-evangelicals say, ‘Evangelicals think x,’ but I certainly don’t think x, despite being raised in the evangelical wing of Anglicanism and having strong ties with IVCF/IFES and the Wee Frees in Scotland.

On those grounds, I should probably, then, delete my post on why I’m not Orthodox. But the discussion in the comments was too good, so I really don’t want to. But if you’ve read that one, take note that the position discussed there is not official Orthodoxy — maybe not even majority Orthodoxy. What follows, however, I have no doubt closely adheres to official Orthodoxy.

Because if you want to get to know official Orthodoxy, I know of no better guide than Kallistos Ware, who presents the teachings of his church in a clear, readable, accessible and often affordable way. In the midst of the conversations arising from that post, I was looking for Ware’s book on the Jesus Prayer (which I found), when a book came up in the university library catalogue, How Are We Saved? The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition.

It’s a nice, little book, and if you can get your hands on a copy, I recommend it.

Kallistos begins by talking about being asked by strangers on public transit, ‘Are you saved?’ His polite answer that probably leaves the inquirers nonplussed is, ‘I trust that by God’s mercy and grace I am being saved.’

My friend’s dad is a priest who wears a black shirt with dog collar when on duty — even when involved in music ministry at, say, Alliance churches. He has been asked by low evangelical ministers, ‘Are you saved?’ His answer is less diplomatic than Kallistos:

‘Damned if I’m not.’

Which should be enough to shame a brother or sister who’s trying to evangelise someone who’s visiting and involved in ministry because of that person’s dressed.

Anyway.

I like Kallistos’ answer. It holds onto the same faith in God’s grace as the standard Protestant response, but admits the frailty of the human who responds to the question.

The book has a new little section every two pages, with a main point bolded along the way. So here are the bolded points for your reading pleasure:

  • While the Lord’s victory is certainly an accomplished fact, my personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete.
  • I am on a journey, and that journey has not yet reached its conclusion.
  • Sin is failure to achieve the purpose for which one is created.
  • Sin is failure to be one’s own real self.
  • Beyond our individual acts of sin, we are each aware of being involved in a profound and all-embracing state of sinfulness.
  • For a writer such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373), the fall is not an isolated event but a gradual and progressive development.
  • Because of the fall we often feel ourselves trapped in a situation in which all our choices lead to evil, in which we end up doing what we know to be wrong even though we genuinely desire to do what is right.
  • By virtue of the fall, on the moral level we each have an inherited inclination towards what is sinful; we are born into a world in which it is easy for us to do evil and hard for us to do good.
  • According to Gregory of Nyssa … Adam’s transgression is something for which we must each of us ask forgiveness.
  • The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect. … In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.
  • Without being personally guilty of Adam’s sinful act, we are involved in it and even in some measure responsible for it, by virtue of the fact that we all belong to a single human family.
  • While Orthodox agree that we all suffer by virtue of the fall from a weakening of the will, we would not say with Luther or Calvin that our nature had undergone a radical depravity or total corruption.
  • In our fallen state the human will is sick but it is not dead; and, although more difficult, it is still possible for humans to choose the good.
  • Believing as it does that even in their sinful and fallen state human beings still possess the power of free choice, the Orthodox Church sees salvation in terms of synergeia or ‘cooperation’ between divine grace and human freedom. [Ware also notes: What God does is incomparably more important than what we humans do; yet our voluntary participation in God’s saving action is altogether indispensable.]
  • Even though we affirms that ‘Human free will is an essentiall condition’, in no way does this signify that salvation can be ‘earned’ or ‘deserved.’
  • We should consider that the work of our salvation is totally and entirely an act of divine grace, and yet in that act of divine grace we humans remain totally and entirely free.
  • At every point our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • We are saved by faith, and not by works; but faith signifies an act of receptiveness on our part, our willingness to accept what God is doing, and so our salvation comes to pass only with our voluntary consent.
  • Salvation is Christ the Savior.
  • We are saved through the total work of Christ, not just by one particular event in his life.
  • Salvation according to [the Irenaean] model is realized above all through indwelling — ‘Christ in us’ rather than ‘Christ for us’, although obviously both formulae possess validity.
  • He takes into Himself what is ours and in exchange He gives us what is His own, so that we become by grace what God is by nature, being made sons in the Son.
  • Only if Christ is truly human as we are, can we humans share in what he has done for us as God.
  • To be saved is to share with all the fullness of human nature in the power, joy and glory of God.
  • Orthodoxy links sanctification and justification together, just as St. Paul does in 1 Cor. 6:11
  • The determining element in our humanity is the fact that we are created in the image of God, and that means in the image of the Holy Trinity.

There is more, but this was getting long. Those are the ones that address the issues that I talked about in that other post. If only more people who bear the name Orthodox actively believed and represented that view! I agree with almost everything Ware says in the book, although I think imputation and satisfaction are not incompatible with the more common Orthodox trends of thought, along with the judiciary aspects; which is good, since I read about some of it in the Bible.

Anyway, worth a read. In his irenic manner, although he tackles St Augustine on several occasions, he even gives us an Augustine quote to demonstrate the Orthodox position on one occasion. Kallistos Ware is the most likely of Orthodox writers to convert me (if the grace of the Spirit so chooses).

 

The Riches of Christian Spirituality

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

I have talked with some other ‘young people’ who were raised in the Church who have found that the sort of Christianity we put on offer at our local congregations and in many popular books is merely intellectual(ist) or emotional(ist) or sometimes both. But what about a religion or faith or spirituality that touches the deep chasms of the human soul, the vast interior world of the human heart, itself an image of the infinite simplicity of the Triune God? What about that kind of living, believing, thinking?

When this sort of disillusionment hits, different people take different approaches. One friend struck out into the land of the chemical — MDMA and marijuana led the way to cocaine (and who knows what else). Another friend went the much safer (at least physically) route of exploring Hinduism. Another friend I know has taken an interest in Islamic Sufism.

The drug-free path or a version thereof, from what the Interwebs shows me, seems to be a popular journey for a lot of young people raised in the Church. At some point, what’s being fed to our young congregants ceases to satisfy, so people start hunting for nourishment wherever it is to be found.

I get that.

And I am too immersed in the thought of Justin Martyr and too sympathetic to Augustine’s appreciation of Platonism to think that my friends won’t find Christ’s eyes looking out at them from between the lines of an ‘eastern’ religious text or the power of the Triune God battering their hearts as they enter the path of contemplation under the tutelage of Hindus, Buddhists, or Sufis. (Don’t forget this post on Christianity and eastern religions.)

Jesus Christ is the logos who orders the entire cosmos, who undergirds everything. He is the Reason of God, and each of us, made in God’s image, shares in that Reason. He can draw us all up to himself. The exitus from God has happened in every human heart, and not every guide on the reditus need be a Christian. I have profited from the Stoics.

But we need not look beyond the community of the faithful to find reliable guides on the spiritual journey. My general concern about Christians who become more interested in any philosophy beyond the Faith is whether they will still cling to Jesus and the Trinitarian Faith in the long run. And if we are dissatisfied with what we’re being served, we can explore the depths and riches of the interior world — enter the rooms of the Interior Castle — from within the Christian tradition.

This blog is mostly about those who have already made the reditus and have entered the everlasting rest — of every age, the contemplatives, mystics, ascetics, prayer-warriors, meditators, theologoi. I am prone to pulling in John Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers as well as St Francis of Assisi, but other guides for this journey to make an appearance have included St Anselm, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Lady Julian of Norwich, St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, William Law, and John Wesley amongst many others.

But often, the problem with these spiritual masters of the past for one wishing to sail out into the sea of the interior world is the fact that simply reading them is itself a discipline — and very often it is difficult to apply their lessons to our lives. Or no visible, practical lessons seem to be forthcoming. So where do we go for guides to the spiritual world?

The church does not have a shortage of spiritual guides today, we just don’t always know where to look. I encourage you, if you are disillusioned with the shallowness, intellectualism, and/or emotionalism of your church today, before giving into accedia and going elsewhere, try to deepen your own walk first — perhaps a deeper connexion with Christ will deepen your appreciation of your own church.

Here are some recommended spiritual guides:

  • Richard Foster. Start with his most famous book Celebration of Discipline. Foster ranges far and wide across the Christian tradition, bringing in ancient, mediaeval, and modern, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, his fellow Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, and so on. Here you will get descriptions and practical tips on how to enter into the love of God and actually live for Him, being transformed, through twelve disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. This is one of the most-purchased and least-read books out there — and, I think, even less applied than read! His book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home helped sustain me while I was a missionary in Cyprus.
  • Kallistos Ware (Timothy). Foster is probably the most practical guide to the spiritual life I’ve encountered. But Ware’s works, especially The Orthodox Way but also, to some extent, The Orthodox Church, are excellent avenues into the world of Eastern Orthodox spiritual paths and spiritual thinking. He lacks the aggressive anti-western aspects of certain other writers on similar topics (e.g. Lossky, Romanides), but presents so appealing an image of Orthodoxy that you want a taste of that inner world, even if you are hesitant of joining him for doctrinal reasons.
  • Anthologies of the Masters. Although the lessons are not always easy to apply, reading shorter excerpts from the deep spiritual writers of the Christian tradition can be a good way in — so long as we are willing to go deeper. I have appreciated Richard J Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics, which has a range of authors from St Gregory of Nyssa to John Woolman. I started but did not finish the anthology Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism by Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, recommended by Edith M. Humphrey in:
  • Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. In this book, Humphrey investigates what she calls ‘spiritual theology’, looking at Scripture as well as those who have gone before (tradition as it is lived, I suppose) and at her own lived experiences as a Christian. She wrote while still an Anglican, but the influences of the Eastern church are visible.

If you read any of these, hopefully a few things will happen: You will be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity. You will pray and meditate more. You will read Scripture with fresh eyes. And you will start to read more of the masters in full, starting with such classics as St. Augustine’s Confessions (in Chadwick’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics, not Pine-Coffin’s for Penguin Classics!) and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and maybe popping in on more recent spiritual guides such as Merton’s The Inner Experience.

And, having started to read the masters in full, may you be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity, pray and meditate more, and read Scripture with fresh eyes.

Highlights from Oxford Patristics: Kallistos on Maximus

Many of the papers I went to at the Oxford Patristics Conference a few weeks ago were of high quality — Michele Salzman proving that Prosper was not Leo’s secretary — and thus could not have written the Tome; Bernard Green talking about Leo’s views on Baptism in Letter 16; Paul Parvis talking about water organs in Tertullian; Sara Parvis about the essentially positive view of women in Irenaeus; Samuel Rubenson on the formation and re-formations of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers; and many others.

Not all, I think, will be of particular interest to my readers here.

Kallistos Ware’s paper on St. Maximus the Confessor will, I think; although I am growing hazy on details. The one thing that stood out most and has been flitting through my mind since +Kallistos gave the paper is his discussion of how St. Maximus envisaged our imitation of Christ.

This imitation is not simply a moral imitation as most of us, especially those of us who are fond of St. Thomas à Kempis, may tend to think. No, it goes deeper than that. Our imitation of Christ is, rather than moral, ontological.*

Our imitation of Christ is something that is rooted in our very being. By becoming sharers in His divine life through the sacraments and through prayer, through liturgy and through moral action, we become imitators of his very person. Our character changes accordingly.

I like this idea. It is kind of breathtaking. We are made more and more like him the more we approach him. Our imitation is not simple mimicry. It is a deep and powerful transformational activity that occurs within us. It is not a work that we do or achieve ourselves. Thus we are freed, even here, from works righteousness. It is Christ who transforms us into his imitators.

Thus we go beyond not only mimicry but virtue and morality as the marks of Christianity into something higher and more difficult to imagine, yet deeper, more penetrating.

If we go through imitatio Christi as an ontological reality, that means we are drawn to two things oft-forgotten in contemporary discourse:

  1. Holiness
  2. Deification (theosis)

*Ontological is the adjective derived from ontology the study of being (the -ology of on, ontos). OED for ontology: ‘The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence.’