Leo the Great, Second Sermon for the Ascension

Let’s stay in the fifth century and go back a few decades from the Rogations to Pope St Leo the Great’s Second Sermon for the Ascension. It begins thus:

The mystery of our salvation, dearly-beloved, which the Creator of the universe valued at the price of His blood, has now been carried out under conditions of humiliation from the day of His bodily birth to the end of His Passion. And although even in the form of a slave many signs of Divinity have beamed out, yet the events of all that period served particularly to show the reality of His assumed Manhood. But after the Passion, when the chains of death were broken, which had exposed its own strength by attacking Him, Who was ignorant of sin, weakness was turned into power, mortality into eternity, contumely into glory, which the Lord Jesus Christ showed by many clear proofs in the sight of many, until He carried even into heaven the triumphant victory which He had won over the dead. As therefore at the Easter commemoration, the Lord’s Resurrection was the cause of our rejoicing; so the subject of our present gladness is His Ascension, as we commemorate and duly venerate that day on which the Nature of our humility in Christ was raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father. On which Providential order of events we are founded and built up, that God’s Grace might become more wondrous, when, notwithstanding the removal from men’s sight of what was rightly felt to command their awe, faith did not fail, hope did not waver, love did not grow cold. For it is the strength of great minds and the light of firmly-faithful souls, unhesitatingly to believe what is not seen with the bodily sight, and there to fix one’s affections whither you cannot direct your gaze. And whence should this Godliness spring up in our hearts, or how should a man be justified by faith, if our salvation rested on those things only which lie beneath our eyes? Hence our Lord said to him who seemed to doubt of Christ’s Resurrection, until he had tested by sight and touch the traces of His Passion in His very Flesh, because you have seen Me, you have believed: blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).

Sermon 74, 17 May 445

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, my photo

Favourite passages of Leo’s Tome

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_Sophia_2744_x_2900_pixels_3.1_MBA few weeks ago, I misplaced my photocopy of Eduard Schwartz’s critical edition of Leo’s Tome. I assumed that I had tossed it out by accident since I had been clearing out a lot of old papers and things from my flat. Then, a week later, I found it — in my wardrobe, next to my Yellow Submarine T-shirt. My world makes little sense, it would seem. When I proclaimed this victorious discovery on Facebook, a friend asked what my favourite passages of the Tome were.

I’m not sure, actually. Nonetheless, based on my scribbled marginalia and interlinear notes, here are some passages that have caught my eye over the years.

One that stood out the very first time I read the Tome is a quick turn of phrase:

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

In context (in English) this is:

But that birth, singularly wondrous and wondrously singular, is not to be understood in such a way that through the newness of the creation the property of its type was removed.

This is a nice, little chiasmus, rhetorically balanced and pleasant to the ear. A few pages later, Leo writes:

infantia paruuli ostenditur humilitate cunarum, magnitudo altissimi declaratur uocibus angelorum.

the infancy of the boy is revealed by the lowliness of the cradle, the greatness of the most high is declared by the voices of angels

My marginale says, ‘Very good isocolon.’ Isocolon is a rhetorical device where parallel phrases (or cola) have equal length. Here we have two cola of five words in the order subject + genitive singular + passive verb + ablative of agent + genitive plural. They do not have equal numbers of syllables, though. Nonetheless, this is a nice example of isocolon and Leo’s use of balanced and parallelled passages throughout the Tome.

In fact, this is what makes the Tome such a pleasant read — Leo’s use of rhetorical balance in this way. The theology Leo is presenting in the Tome is two-nature Christology, so balance in argument and retoric makes a lot of sense. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, ‘The medium is the message,’ comes to mind.

Looking at my notes, I see many other instances of isocolon.

Leo is making the point about the duality of what is going on in the Incarnate Christ throughout the Tome, and one of the passages I like is:

esurire sitire lassescere atque dormire euidenter humanum est, sed quinque panibus quinque milia hominum satiare et largiri Samaritanae aquam uiuam, cuius haustus bibenti praestet ne ultra iam sitiat, supra dorsum maris plantis non desidentibus ambulare et elationes fluctuum increpata tempestate consternere sine ambiguitate diuinum est.

To hunger, to thirst, to tire, and to sleep are evidently human, but to satisfy five thousand people with five loaves and to bestow living water to the Samaritan woman, the drinking of which would maintain the one drinking so as not to thirst anymore, to walk upon the back of the sea with unsinking steps and to subdue the rising of the waves with the increased storm without doubt is divine.

Here Leo is emphasising that Christ maintains all the properties of humanity as well as of divinity. He gives four examples. For humanity, he gives us a nice example of brevitas, giving only one conjunction (atque), but for the divinity, he extends the examples into a periodic structure with subordinate clauses. The punchiness of the human examples is pleasant to my ear, and the way he makes the divine bigger and grander is pleasant theology.

I don’t think Leo makes the unity of Christ’s person as clear as he could in the Tome — this is because the error he has in mind is the over-unification of the natures, the reduction of the humanity of Christ to a nothingness liable to absorption in the divinity. He does say, however:

For although in the Lord Jesus Christ there is one person of God and man, nevertheless it is from one whence the insult is common in each, from the other whence the glory is common. For from ours it happens that the humanity is less than the Father, from the Father it happens that the divinity is equal to the Father. Therefore, because of this unity of person that is to be understood in each nature both the son of man is observed to have descended from heaven, when the son of God assumed flesh from the virgin from whom he was born, and again the son of God is said to have been crucified and died …

Severus of Antioch took issue in the 500s with Leo claiming Christ to have one person and maintained that Leo actually believed that Christ had two persons and was thus a heretic. Severus’s argument is that Leo spends too much time discussing how different actions and words of Christ pertain to divinity or humanity, not enough time stressing what is communis.

Most especially at issue is another passage that is rhetorically pungent but perhaps not Leo’s theological best:

agit enim utraque forma cum alterius communione quod proprium est, uerbo scilicet operante quod uerbi est, et carne exequente quod carnis est.

For each form operates in communion with the other what is its own, with the Word, that is, performing that which is of the Word, and the flesh acting that which is of the flesh.

Leo goes on, saying, ‘One of these glistens with miracles, the other succumbs to injuries. And just as the Word does not recede from the equality of the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not set aside the nature of our species…’

For the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic believers, this is grave heresy. For we western Christians, it is non-controversial dogma. Either way, I do think it’s pretty good rhetoric.

Philology and theology — just the way I like it.

If you find yourself suddenly thirsty for more Leo, the Tome is in English here.

The Council of Chalcedon today

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Glancing over their calendar of upcoming services, I noticed that today the local Eastern Orthodox church was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in honour of the Fourth Ecumenical Council — the Council of Chalcedon of 451. A happy coincidence is that I was typing up notes from old notebooks yestereven, and I found this from Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars:

If only because of the other paths that could so easily have been taken, these debates give the mid-fifth century an excellent claim to be counted as the most formative period in the whole history of Christianity. Much recent writing stresses the earlier Council of Nicea (325) as the critical moment in defining the beliefs of that faith, the critical dividing line between early and medieval Christianity. In reality, the struggle even to define core beliefs raged for centuries beyond this time and involved several other great gatherings, any one of which could have turned out very differently. (pp. 18-19)

As it turns out, I was no big fan of Jenkins’ book and ended up not finishing it. Nonetheless, the Council of Chalcedon was a big deal, is a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal for time to come. Not only that, it’s a major reason that I am where I am today. Jenkins is right to point us beyond Nicaea to the other ‘ecumenical’ councils as defining moments in Christianity — and Chalcedon has ended up being one of the biggest defining moments.

You may be surprised to read that. Indeed, several years ago I wrote a post about how Chalcedonian orthodoxy is not really that controversial. We mostly think of Chalcedon like this: Jesus is fully man and fully God. The end.

The thing is, the affirmation of Nicaea at the ‘Second Ecumenical’ Council at Constantinople in 381 established the fact that God is Jesus, that Jesus is homoousios — consubstantial — with the Father. The church within the Roman Empire also rejected a fellow named Apollinaris whose teaching subverted the full humanity of Jesus.

The question that arose in the fifth century was not, ‘Is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ but, ‘How is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been right in his Christology, and asking such questions was not necessarily the right thing to do — but they were asked. Once asked, a question cannot be unasked. And once answered, however imperfectly, it cannot be unanswered. The church had to come up with an answer that was both philosophically coherent and biblically faithful.

No mean task.

Now, you may be partisan to a different ecumenical council. That’s fine. Allow me to explain why Chalcedon is such a big deal.

The Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal because it was not universally accepted.

The Council of Nicaea, after the conversion of the Homoian (‘Semi-Arian’) barbarian kings in the Early Middle Ages, has become universally accepted (we set aside modern heretics who have resurrected Homoian and Arian thought). This is part of why it’s a big deal. Along with it, First Constantinople of 381 is also usually tacitly accepted, because a version of its creed is the one that even the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East recites at the Eucharist.

After First Constantinople, the next council in our list of ‘ecumenical’ (or ‘universal’) ones is Council of Ephesus of 431. It is rejected by the Church of the East. That should make it a big deal like Chalcedon. And it is a very big deal, and I recommend you get to know it. However, the Council of Chalcedon is somewhat larger a deal because the Church of the East’s roots lie beyond the Roman Empire. Its story, little known to us in the West, is a different story. It is a story worth knowing, with its own contours living in the Sassanian Persian Empire, then under the Caliphate, and reaching as far East as China — but it is a different story.

You see, the Council of Ephesus was accepted by the Latin West, the Greek East, the Copts, and some amongst the Syriac-speaking world. Although there was division in its aftermath, in 433 things were patched up by the Bishops of Alexandria and Antioch in a document known by its first two words in Latin translation, ‘Laetentur caeli.’

In other words, the Church of the Roman Empire, in which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, as well as Copts, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox, find their heritage, came to accept Ephesus. As did the church in Armenia.

This is why the Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal. Yes, the Church of the Empire formally accepted Chalcedon. But many of her bishops in the Greek East fought against. Some emperors tried to bury it and ignore it. Justinian called a Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople, to try and deal with the divisions surrounding Chalcedon. He also issued various edicts beforehand, trying to find ways of framing theology that would both affirm the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon and reconcile the growing Mono-/Miaphysite movement. Similar attempts at interpretation and framing of the Fourth Ecumenical Council also led directly to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, in 681.

Depending on which side of the many refractions of Chalcedon and its reception or rejection you found yourself on, you could end up imprisoned, or with your tongue cut out, or exiled to Petra, or stripped of ecclesiastical rank, or elevated to the episcopate, or given charge of a monastery, or any number of various situations, good or bad. You could find yourself in schism with Rome. You could find yourself in schism with Constantinople. You could find yourself hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople making Latin translations of the Greek acts of the Council of Chalcedon.

You might write a very long theological treatise defending certain aspects of Chalcedon. You might write a series of theological tractates excoriating Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose theology it approved, for heresy. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon true. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon false.

The Council of Chalcedon is one of the most significant events of the Late Antique Church, and we need to realise that its teaching and the reception of that teaching has shaped and moulded the lives of thousands of people for 1500 years.

I believe that understanding the theology and fallout of Chalcedon, skimmed over above, is especially important for western Christians today. First, most of us would agree with Chalcedon if we knew what it taught; many of us are members of ecclesial bodies that affirm the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon. By knowing who we are, what we believe, and why, we can live confidently in a world increasingly unmoored and harbourless.

Second, the world is not boxed off as it once was. The Internet makes it easier to encounter our fellow Christians from the eastern churches who reject this council. Understanding Chalcedon makes it easier for us to understand and love them. Furthermore, as war, terror, extremist Islam and secular (including economic) unrest shake the foundations of peaceable life in the Middle East, Middle Eastern Christians are finding their way West.

Some are Chalcedonians in direct, unbroken descent in the Greek tradition, such as the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Some are Miaphysites who reject Chalcedon and teach that Jesus has one nature, one will, and one energy — the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches are amongst them. Some are ‘Nestorian’, such as the Assyrian Church of the East — many Iraqis who flee West belong to this church. There are other groups with a messy relationship with Chalcedon, such as the Chaldean Catholics, who are in communion with the Pope but try to accept both Theodore of Mopsuestia (the great teacher of Nestorius, condemned at Second Constantinople in 553) and Cyril of Alexandria (the great nemesis of Nestorius, victor at First Ephesus in 431).

Christian history is not dry and dusty and irrelevant. For the Christians of the Middle East, it is a living, breathing reality that permeates their lives. By coming to understand it better, we can love them better.

The implications of Christ as fully Man (Met Anthony)

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayAs a student of Pope St Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon — and, thus, its aftermath — the significance of that Councils’ Symbolon of the Christian Faith, its definition (which I translated here), is often just below the surface of my mind. Thus, I greatly appreciate this from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man:

There is in the Church a vision of man which is not a theory of man. It is not the ideal man, it is not the invented man, nor man as we wish he were, and towards which we aim as a sort of created transcendence. No, we have put on the altar a concrete real man — Jesus of Nazareth — and we must have a look at what is implied. We see in the Creed that Christ was true man and true God. When we say that He was true man we imply two thing: the fact that He was God has not made Him into a man alien to us, a man so different from us that He has only the same shape and the same name while in reality He has nothing in common with us; on the other hand, we proclaim that being the true man means to be a revelation of man in his fulfilment, man as he is called to be, and that in Christ we have a vision — concrete, real, historical — of what we are called to become in our realilty, in our historicity and in our becoming. So when we say that Christ is true man, we affirm that to be united with the Godhead does not annihilate or change the nature of man, and it is only in Him, because man is united in Him with the Godhead, that man is revealed in his full potentiality. Because man as a specimen of natural history i snot man in the sense in which we believe man is truly human. Man becomes truly human only when he is united with God intimately, deeply, inseparably, so that the fullness of Godhead abides in the flesh. I am using terms which are applied to Christ in the Scriptures, but which I believe are applicable to man if we take, for instance, the words of St Peter in his Epistle that our vocation is to become partakers of the divine nature — God’s participators and not just human beings related to a God who remains an outsider to us. But that implies a quite different vision of man, and it also implies something which I believe to be important, a quite different vision of the Church. (pp. 60-61)

True humanity is only fully realised in union with God. This is, at one level, the Adamic state (did not God walk in the Garden in the cool of the evening?). At another level, it is something higher. Many of the Church Fathers believe that the human race was meant to progress in knowledge of God and perfection even without the Fall, but that sin now hampers us (Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, at least). Christ, by uniting humanity to the Divine, has reignited our ability to be who we are meant to be — and to go beyond even Adam.

Here we also have a good description of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Met. Anthony here references 2 Peter 1:3-4:

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

This reminds me of St Leo, in fact; Leo argues that because of the Incarnation and the full humanity of Christ who is also fully God, we enter into the divine relationship — and we have a duty to our human neighbours who are sharers in the same nature as Christ. And Christ is God.

A friend recently expressed doubt about the possibility of theosis reconciling itself with Scripture. Theosis is about union with God where we retain all of our humanity but share in the divine nature by God’s grace. It is based on passages like 2 Peter 1, or Ephesians 4:13, or Romans 8:29, or 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is also, when properly understood (I recommend Met. Kallistos on theosis), an implication or outgrowing of the Church’s dogmatic statements in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Rule of  Faith, and the historic liturgies.

Theosis rests, in western terminology, on both Scripture and Tradition. (So we Anglicans can accept it when it is properly understood.)

This is, of course, the goal of mysticism and asceticism:

Release me, and free my heart from all dependence on the passing consolation of wicked things, since none of these things can yield true satisfaction or appease my longings. Unite me to Yourself by the unbreakable bonds of love. You alone can satisfy the soul that loves You, and without You the world is worthless. -St Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.23, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, p. 124

Let us, therefore, seek the Face of Christ, enter into God’s throneroom, and, resting in the stillness, become partakers of the Divine Life. This is the greatest implication of Chalcedon for the Christian life today. Own it. Live it.

Pope Question: What makes Leo Great?

pope clipartA not uncommon question that arises when people hear that I did my PhD on Pope Leo ‘the Great’ is: What makes Leo great? Sometimes there is the usual anti-Catholic/anti-papal subtext of, ‘Let me guess: Power politics ’cause that’s all popes do,’ but usually, it’s simple curiosity. I like curiosity. It’s less polemical.

The basic reasons for why Leo is Magnus, ‘the Great’, came up in Why Study Leo the Great? Nonetheless, it’s worth reiterating some of this here, if only to dispell the power politics part — but also to continue to encourage people to read Leo!

So, why Leo Magnus? What’s so Great about Leo I?

Answer: The Council of Chalcedon and two-nature Christology.

Some people want to make Leo’s greatness about his foundational role in western canon law, or his ability to exercise authority throughout the western church, or his articulation of papal primacy, or his energy in promoting western interests in the eastern Mediterranean. There is a desire to see why we might think him great. Or there is a desire to see how he was great in his own geo-ecclesiological context.

True as much of the above might be, these are not the reasons we call him ‘Leo the Great.’

C. H. Turner put together a compendium of the early sources for people expressing their esteem for this pope and calling Leo Magnus in his excellent 1911 article about the dogmatic collection of Leo’s letters. (If I could be a C. H. Turner for the 21st century, I’d do it.) And when I look at the testimonies in the manuscripts I work with, the answer is the same as what Turner found:

Leo is called Magnus, ‘the Great’, because of his role in the consolidation, development, and spread of western Christology, as enshrined in his ‘Tome’ (Ep. 28), ‘Second Tome’ (Ep. 165), and the convening of the Council of Chalcedon.

From a modern perspective, Leo the Great may not be what everyone is looking for in a theologian. We prefer pioneers and ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ thinkers, or ‘subversive’ ideals. So western Trinitarianism as expressed by St Hilary of Poitiers or St Augustine of Hippo is more likely to get people really excited today. But Pope Leo the Great plays a very important role in the history of western dogma.

I’m about half-way through St Augustine’s De Trinitate. It’s not an easy ride. It’s interesting, for sure. In many ways, it’s an education in itself — Augustine faces questions of epistemology, the use of categories in thought, love, words, memory, human psychology, and more, alongside the proper interpretation of Holy Scripture, as he seeks to articulate why we should express a belief in the Trinity. Along the way, he expounds what we would recognise today as two-nature Christology, just as St Hilary had done before him.

But De Trinitate is not the sort of document you can sent around to fifth-century bishops, expect them to read and comprehend, and then get a consensus of the church’s thought on any issue. Not really. That’s what Creeds are for — in the Creeds, you can get everyone to assent to their belief in the unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity.

But Nestorius and the Eutyches were expressing ideas about the person of Christ that they believed perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of credal Christianity. As far as Nestorius is concerned, St Cyril of Alexandria, St John Cassian, Pope Celestine I, et al., were pretty sure that his expressions of faith were, in fact, beyond the pale of credal truths, especially in some of the quite damning evidence in the creeds he was trying to get people to sign that his opponents produced at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Regardless of what Nestorius actually meant/thought, he was perceived as dividing Christ into two persons who simply coinhabited the single body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eutyches was perceived as so fully subsuming the humanity in the godhead that Christ had simply become nothing but a God in a human body.

Now, by Leo’s day, Nestorius had been officially condemned by the Imperial Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nonetheless, in 448 there arose the case of Eutyches. In his dogmatic writings, Leo sought to sail between the two perceived extremes of Nestorius and Eutyches. In Nestorius, the division between divine and human in Christ was so starkly contrasted that the divinity was at risk; in Eutyches, it was the unity that was too strongly expressed, placing the humanity at risk.

Whatever faults Leo may have had in expressing himself at different moments in the ensuing controversy, what his response to Eutyches provided the western church was an articulation of traditional, Latin Christology in a simple, apprehensible document. Leo largely reiterates Sts Augustine and Hilary with recourse to a certain amount of St Cyril of Alexandria as well. Bishops throughout the western church were able to read, understand, and subscribe to Leo’s dogmatic statements.

These statements were also circulated in the East, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the ‘Tome’ was approved as the teaching of the imperial church alongside St Cyril’s First and Second Letters to Nestorius and, later in the council proceedings, a further clarification of the faith that included the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 in its full text, but which we usually just quote for its contribution to Christology.

Leo was hoping to achieve unity and consensus throughout the church with the ‘Tome’ and the Council of Chalcedon. He didn’t, as history has borne out. His theology was disputed at the council and immediately following it in the East, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt.

In the West, Leo’s dogmatic theology was never controversial. As a result, western bishops were never interested in compromises that would seem to undermine either Leo’s teachings or the Council of Chalcedon. The result of this Leonine intransigence meant schism with Constantinople later in the century (the Acacian Schism) — making Leo that much more important to western Christian self-identity. It would also mean schism between northern Italy and Rome for a few centuries (the Istrian Schism).

It would also mean that the interpretation of Chalcedon put forward in the 600s by St Maximus the Confessor would find a welcome audience in the West, where he went into exile, one-handed and tongueless, as well as a lot of other Greek-speaking eastern clerics, who would leave their mark on the liturgy and organisation of the church of Rome in the seventh century.

Leo Magnus is central to western Christianity’s theological self-identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Thus is he depicted on the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (as I learned over dinner tonight!).

Whatever else Leo did, it was his Christology that made people regard him as Magnus.

Initial reflections on Volume 1 of Gregory the Great’s letters

The top of St Gregory's crozier
The top of St Gregory’s crozier

This morning I finished reading the first volume John R C Martyn’s translation of Gregory the Great‘s letters. This covers Books 1-4. Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome 590-604, and he left behind a significant corpus of writings — sermons, The Book of Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues (which are hagiographical), and letters. The Pastoral Rule is one of the few Latin patristic texts both translated into and widely read in Greek from a very early age.

Over 800 of Gregory’s letters survive. This is considerably more than any previous pope. Indeed, one of my catch-lines about Leo the Great (pope 440-461) is that more letters survive from him than from any other pope before Gregory, and for Leo we have a corpus of ~170 items. Unfortunately, I am not clear about how Gregory the Great’s epistolary corpus stacks up against later popes in terms of quantity. My apologies.

As a result of this massive corpus of missives, we have a much better sense of who Gregory is than of the other incumbents of the Roman see. We have many more avenues to access his thought on a range of issues. We see what sorts of things he was interested in, we see what sorts of things he believed, we see what sorts of people he knew. Gregory thus stands in sharper relief than any other Late Antique Bishop of Rome.

Now, when we say these things, we have to remember that, while Gregory undoubtedly unique and had his own strengths, it is not necessarily the case that his correspondence was unique as a body of documents. The mediaeval papacy was not suddenly born in the year 590. Gregory is but one step in a long process; what makes his letters unique is their quantity, not necessarily their concerns or outlook.

Not always, anyway.

One final preliminary issue. The sorts of papal letters I read for my own research tend to be of interest primarily or only as sources for canon law. Although I believe that canon law, and papal letters in particular, is an often overlooked source for social history, it is still the case that the explicit interest of the pope at hand is canon law, and very often in broad terms. That is, Innocent I is interested in discussing monks and nuns who leave their monasteries whereas Gregory is interested in this one particular story about this one particular nun who got pregnant. Gregory’s letters, then, are universally recognised by historians as a major source for the history of the Early Middle Ages, in a way, sadly, that a lot of other papal letters are not always.

Gregory’s main correspondents are clergy — mostly bishops, but sometimes also deacons and priests — and officials or aristocrats. In Books 1-4, he writes to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, for example, as well as the Byzantine imperial daughter Constantina. He writes to the deacon who manages the church’s landholdings and financial affairs in Sicily quite often. He writes to secular officials in Dalmatia and Africa.

His correspondents are in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Dalmatia, and North Africa, only occasionally in Gaul, although Frankish lands will feature more prominently in later books of the correspondence.

He writes about ecclesiastical abuses, about who is fit to be a cleric, about allowing Jews freedom of worship, about not allowing Jews to own Christian slaves or buy property from churches, about evangelising Sardinian pagans, about schism, about theology, about monks and nuns, about misbehaving sons of clerics, about people trying to sell off church plate, about people trying to found monasteries and how that’s a good thing, about people alienating property from its rightful heirs — about the range of human existence, basically.

I will go into some of the moments that piqued my interest next time. But it was worth the read, and I will get around to the next two volumes some day.

Concupiscence beyond sex – a trip to the Desert

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

In Patristic anthropology, concupiscence is an important aspect of the inner workings of the human soul. Concupiscence is usually mentioned in the context either of the battle over grace & free will or of the early monastic movement. For a number of reasons I don’t have the time or energy or, in fact, will, to go into, concupiscence has a tendency in modern contexts to be framed mostly or only in terms of human sexuality.

I think we need to look first at the Desert.

The astute psychological readings of humanity provided by Evagrius Ponticus and the Desert Fathers, as well as the highly Evagrian author John Cassian, see our interior life dominated by concupiscence, irascibility, and reason. We have desires — concupiscence; we get hot/impassioned/angry/indignant about things — irascibility; we have intellect and rational thought — reason.

As I write this, it passes through my mind that these are the three parts of the human person/human society in Plato. In Plato, the goal is to have reason ruling the other two. St Augustine would certainly agree, and Evagrius might, but not strictly the way we typically imagine someone arguing for it.

What ‘reason’ or the intellective part of the human spirit means to Evagrius is a question for another day, though.

I’m here to discuss concupiscence.

Concupiscence and anger are both tied directly to the passions, on which I’ve blogged before. Concupiscence is swayed by the passions in terms of desire. According to St Augustine, our disordered desires, our desires that act independent of and even contrary to reason, are part of the evidence of the Fall. If the intellective part of a human is the highest part, Augustine cannot see how in the Adamic state something that is clearly concupiscible — the membrum virile and male desire for intercourse — would be so beyond the control of reason.

One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion, says G K Chesteron. St Augustine would also observe that one cannot simply have an erection because reason dictates that it is time to procreate with one’s wife. That’s not how it works.

Thus, because of this Augustinian tradition that is picked up St Thomas Aquinas, when we hear ‘concupiscence’, we think immediately of sex and the human appetite for sex that is not tied directly to the reasoning part of the human soul.

However, concupiscence goes beyond sex.

We need to remember that in our hyper-sexualised culture. A lot of us would think that our job was done if we achieved apatheia — dispassion — in matters of non-legimitate sexuality. That concupiscence had been tamed in such a case.

However, fornication is not the only temptation, not the only logismos in Evagrius’ terms, not the only passion associated with concupiscence. Most obviously, there is gluttony. And greed/avarice. And vainglory and pride, which involve concupiscence for less tangible things.

Because everything can lead back to St Leo the Great, this wider reality of concupiscence — and its less material manifestations — came to me this week as I was reading Ep. 106 in a manuscript. In this letter, Leo rebukes Anatolius, Bishop of Constantinople for concupiscentia. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), it was approved that Constantinople would have honour second only to Rome and gain rights above those of several local metropolitans. Leo saw this as a breach of the Canons of Nicaea, and believed (if we are to take his letters at face value) that Anatolius was filled with his own pride and was seeking his own gain, to the detriment — most particularly — of the Apostolic See. By which I mean Antioch, which was second city to Rome and, when the terminology developed, was one of the Patriarchates, besides being a church founded by Apostles.

Concupiscentia, to Leo, is not about sex, most obviously. It is about grasping after honours — and, to quote Leo, Ep. 14 to Anastasius, Bishop of Antioch, ‘honor inflat superbium’: honour(s) (in this case, technically high office) inflates pride.

Pride. One of the most deadly of the deadly thoughts/logismoi in Evagrius.

The goal of the disciplined Christian life is to overcome these logismoi in order to know Christ better and live for him better. Therefore, we need to learn to control our desires, to make our concupiscence seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. As Abba Alonius said:

If only a man desired it for a single day from morning till night, he would be able to come to the measure of God.