Work, work, work

Work is prayer, and prayer is work. Service is love. This is the heart of the Benedictine view of work.

Ora et labora — work and pray, an unofficial Benedictine motto (not from Benedict).

Dreher doesn’t think the world is about to end, but he does think that Christians are going to find it harder to maintain a balance in the workplace in the years ahead. He thinks that if you believe in traditional sexual morality, you are going to find it harder and harder to keep your job in certain lines of employment. But I’m not sure.

First, I’m not sure because, speaking of the sorts of places where I work (universities), which are one of Dreher’s danger zones, I think that hiring policies should not give a flying fig about sexual orientation or if someone is transgendered or votes Labour or kisses icons or sings, ‘Hare Krishna.’ Furthermore, all of those things are, legally speaking, ‘protected characteristics’ in the UK, of which there are 9 (I don’t know what the official order is):

  1. Sex
  2. Age
  3. Religion or belief
  4. Race
  5. Disability
  6. Sexual orientation
  7. Pregnancy or maternity
  8. Gender reassessment
  9. Marriage and civil partnership

Now, that doesn’t mean I run around proclaiming the fact that I’m a religious nutter. I actually play it quiet, because I do think that people can have a subconscious bias against certain beliefs. That is, while I am charitable enough to think that no hiring committee would consciously reject me because I actually believe the Council of Chalcedon, I’m cynical enough to believe that they may do so unconsciously.

Second, I’m not sure about Dreher’s concerns because, while I don’t think any conservative Christian should officiate at a gay wedding, I sometimes wonder if perhaps photographers, bakers, florists, and pizza places should do their jobs for gay weddings out of charity. That is, if you believe that gay marriage is an ontological impossibility because biblical and traditional anthropology sees marriage as bound up with the difference of sexes wherein we reflect the image of God, you must also believe that love, charity, agape, is the highest good of all. Right? So bake those lesbians the best cake you can!

The whole question of Christian (and traditional Jewish and Muslim) entrepreneurs and gay marriage is fraught with difficulty, and I won’t get into it now. In fact, same-sex marriage and homosexual sex acts are among the things I actively avoid discussing on this blog since discussions of them turn toxic fast, into a vile cesspool of trolling, with all sides making all sorts of unsubstantiated claims.

That said, Christians have had a terrible track record with homosexuals in the past (like condemning Turing to hormone therapy). In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers makes an offhand reference to the fact that, if you abrogate moral law, you will pay the consequences. Due to our failures to truly love homosexuals, perhaps traditional Christians are now paying the consequences for our own failure to live up to the highest moral law of all — charity.

Whether the future is as dire as Dreher imagines, the theology of work sketched in this chapter is a taste of what all of us can and should take away from the Benedictine tradition. We are created to work. Work can be redemptive. Manual labour may even be good for us spiritually and psychologically. But we are also created to worship God and take care of our families and spiritual world. Just as family and church community should not become idols, neither should work.

I remember a monk from Athos interviewed by National Geographic a few years ago. He was clearing huge stones for a garden or something, and he said that the stones are a reminder of his sins.

FYI, the best discussion of work I’ve yet read is Dorothy L. Sayers in The Mind of the Maker.

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Saint of the Week: Elder St Porphyrios

This past Tuesday, December 2, was the second time Elder Porphyrios’ (1906-1991) feast was celebrated. It’s rare to have someone so recently canonised appear here, but I felt he was worth commemoration partly because of that fact — and because of his wisdom and holiness of life.

Elder Porphyrios was born Evangelos Bairaktaris in the village of Aghios Ioannis in the province of Karystia on the Greek island of Euboea (mod. Evia). The youngest of four, he left school after the first grade and worked in the town of Chalkida at a shop to make money for the family. He was a hard and obedient worker, and stayed there for a few years before moving to Piraeus on the mainland (it is Athens’ port) and working in a general store run by a relative.

Although he hardly knew how to read at the time, Elder Porphyrios had a copy of the Life of St John the Hut-Dweller which he read as a boy. St John inspired him. St John the Hut-Dweller was late fifth-century Constantinopolitan saint who secretly took up the monastic life at the famed monastery of the Acoimetae (Unsleeping Ones). After living for some years according to a very strict rule, St John was granted permission by his abbot to go life near his parents so as to cleanse his heart of earthly love for them. He then dwelled in a hut beside his family, identity unknown, for three years. He revealed himself to his mother on his deathbed.

Young Evangelos was inspired by St John the Hut-Dweller’s story and wanted nothing more than to become a monk. He tried to run away to Mt Athos, the Holy Mountain, to become a monk on a few occasions. When he was 12, he succeeded at his goal and entered the life of obedience to two very strict and severe elders. At the age of 14, he became a monk under the name Niketas, and at 16 he took his full vows.

During these early years of the monastic life, Elder Porphyrios was given no praise but many tasks. He spent much time alone on the mountain with no one but the birds. He learned the Psalms and the prayers by heart. And at age 19, he received a gift from the Holy Spirit of clear sight. When this gift came, he saw his elders approaching his position even though they were far away and around a corner. He knew what they were doing. Later in his life, Elder Porphyrios was able to use this gift of sight to counsel and care for the souls of the many people who came to him seeking God’s grace.

The simplicity of Elder Porphyrios’ heart is visible in his recognition of the songs of praise sung by the birds to Almighty God, a realisation he had while living on the Holy Mountain:

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the [Jesus] prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes … (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 31)

Elder Porphyrios’ love of the animal world, and of birds in particular, is illustrated by his taming of two wild parrots later in life. He wished also to tame an eagle, but I don’t know if that happened. One of his parrots would say the Jesus Prayer with him.

Ill health forced Elder Porphyrios to leave Mount Athos, and he returned to Evia where we lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos, Levka. In 1926 he was ordained priest and was given the name Porphyrios. He lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos for twelve years as a spiritual guide and confessor, and then three years at the deserted Monastery of St Nicholas in Ano Vatheia.

1940 saw the Second World War and Elder Porphyrios’ move to Athens. He became the chaplain and confessor at the Polyclinic Hospital where he served for many years, leading the liturgy and hearing confessions and ministering to the staff and patients of the hospital, many of whose previous contact with Christianity had been minimal or merely formal.

From 1955 to 1979, he lived at the Monastery of St Nicholas in Kallisia. He was still chaplain at the Polyclinic, but he was now able to also live out his lifelong dream of being a monastic at the same time. In 1979, he moved to Milesi, a village that overlooks Evia, where he lived at first in a caravan and later in a single-cell built of cinder blocks. However, the goal of founding a monastery was realised, and in 1984 he was able to move into one of the rooms of the complex under construction, and in 1990 the foundation stone of the monastic church was laid.

He returned to the Holy Mountain and died at his hermitage in Kavsokalyvia, where he had become a monk so long ago, December 2 1991.

Stories about Elder St Porphyrios abound. One time, a young man on the verge of suicide received a phone call out of the blue, and it was the saint (neither knew each other) who counselled him not to kill himself. This young man was converted, and later met Elder Porphyrios before becoming a priest himself. One young woman had a vision of Elder Porphyrios while she, too, was contemplating suicide. At both these times, Elder Porphyrios had been at prayer when the Lord made the miracle happen.

Elder Porphyrios was a man who could be deeply moved by the words of Scripture:

One Good Friday we were doing the service. The church was packed with people. I was reading the Gospel, and when I came to the phrase, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, that is, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I was unable to finish it. I didn’t read the words ‘why have you forsaken me?‘ I was overcome with emotion. My voice broke. In front of me I saw the whole tragic scene. I saw that face. I heard that voice. I saw Christ so vividly. The people in the church waited. I said nothing. I was unable to continue. I left the Gospel on the reading stand and turned back into the sanctuary. I made the sign of the cross and kissed the Holy Table. I brought to my mind another image, a better one. No, not a better one. There was no more beautiful image than that one, but the image of the Resurrection came to my mind. At once I calmed down. Then I returned to the Holy Doors and said:

‘Excuse me, my children, I got carried away.’ –Wounded by Love

Imagine if more ministers were so drawn into Scripture that their hearts were pierced in the formality of Sunday services!

I have run on long enough. There is much to say. I encourage you to learn the life and teachings of this saint — they are even available in the English book Wounded by Love: The Life and Teachings of Elder Porphyrios. 😉

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.

The Essence and Energies of God: Seeking to Understand Gregory Palamas

When a Western Christian first encounters talk of the ‘energies’ and ‘essence’ of God, this concept seems bizarre, foreign, silly, even heretical.[1] However, if we examine the writings and ideas of St. Gregory Palamas within the great tradition of theologians and mystics within which he stands, we find that, rather than being heretical, his ideas are, in fact, sensible. They are a synthesis of the dogma of the theologian and the experience of the mystic, steering a course that is able to maintain both the transcendence and immanence of God; such a task is very difficult and fraught with many dangers, as we may be tempted to fall off the horse of orthodoxy in either direction, making God the transcendent creator of deism or the immanent spiritual force of pantheism. Palamas gives us a holy, transcendent, immanent, loving God — a God to believe in.

One of the fundamental realities about the patristic and Byzantine understanding of God is the ultimate transcendence of the divine Person(s). Since God is transcendent, Palamas tells us that our understanding of Him is not, cannot be contingent upon secular, pagan learning[2] — be that learning Greek philosophy or postmodern physics. Rather, our understanding of God is based upon our own initiation into His self-revelation to humanity through the Scriptures, tradition, and the spiritual, mystical experience of the individual believer. Palamas shows us this reality of the unknowable God’s ‘knowability’ through consistent reference to the Scriptures and the sayings of the Fathers, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus of the fourth century to John Climacus and Maximus the Confessor of the seventh.

If we begin with the proposition that God is incomprehensible and his essence unknowable due to the vast gulf that separates Creator from creature, then a paradigm for interpreting the mystical life becomes of paramount importance, for mystics throughout history claim to have encountered this inaccessible, transcendent God. The Judaeo-Christian mystical tradition stretches at least as far back as Moses who saw the back of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (Ex 33:18-23), and includes Isaiah (Is 6) and Ezekiel (Ez 1) as well as the experiences of the disciples upon Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-9, Lk 9:28-36), and Paul who was ‘taken up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor 12:1-5) — these last two being of great importance for Palamas in The Triads. Finally, Christ Himself says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8). The biblical roots of the mystical encounter with God, then, are strong.

The ascetic, hesychastic tradition within which Gregory stands is also focussed upon the mystic’s vision of and union with God. Purity of heart, according to John Cassian,[3] is the goal of all ascetic discipline, the end of which is the vision of God. This mystical, ascetic tradition runs in the East through John Climacus (d. c. 649) to Gregory Palamas to Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833), John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), and the twentieth-century Athonite hesychasts Joseph (d. 1959) and Paisios (d. 1994), while in the West it runs through John Cassian (d. c. 435) to Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Lady Julian (d. c. 1416), St. Teresa of Avìla (d. 1582) and moderns such as Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941) and Thomas Merton (d. 1968). The goal of all of these contemplatives and mystics is, as stated above, union with God; the experiences of many of them are reflected in Palamas’ writings.[4] Palamites sought this union through silence and quiet (hesychia), uniting their hearts with their minds so that as purified, psychosomatic unities they could see God Himself through the uncreated light[5] — a potential impossibility, as becomes clear.

Gregory’s chief opponent in the Hesychastic Controversy of the fourteenth century was a Calabrian monk named Barlaam. Barlaam believed that God, the uncreated Creator, was completely inaccessible, making no distinction between His ‘energies’ and ‘essence.’[6] The visions of the prophets, apostles, and saints had merely been of things created by God. The light seen by the contemplatives of the ages was created at best, or a ‘fantasy of the imagination’[7] at worst. St. Gregory accordingly made the important distinction between essence and energies, keeping God transcendent as Barlaamites wished yet immanent as hesychasts had experienced. And so we come to the heart of the matter.

Papademetriou puts it most succinctly when he writes, ‘The energies of God as conceived by St. Gregory Palamas are “manifestations” and “exteriorizations” of God Himself. They are uncreated.’[8] In other words, what Palamas calls ‘energies’ are not some sort of spiritual electricity coursing through the universe into which the mystic can tap — as they sounded to me when I first heard of them. No, they are the actions, attributes, and movement of God throughout the created order, emanating from his very essence and tripersonal self. Those who, like the cherubim, have become all eye,[9] catch a glimpse of these uncreated ‘energies,’ but not of the essence of Him whose ‘energies’ they are.

Gregory gives us a good image to compare with this distinction, that of the human mind, although in my recent readings he does not make explicit the comparison between our minds and God, a comparison going back at least to Basil the Great.[10] Palamas says, ‘the essence of the mind is one thing, its energy another.’[11] This statement is made in explanation of how exactly one can call the mind back to the heart;[12] in its energies, one’s mind can be all over the place, worrying and fretting about things, thinking and considering various realities. The energies of the mind can become externalised. Yet wherever these energies go, the essence of the mind continually resides in the heart. God is similar to the mind, but his energies can go further and do more, given their uncreated and boundless existence.[13] Thus, God is able to communicate to us his properties, his actual ‘glory and splendour,’[14] while remaining inaccessible to us in terms of his essence. The mystics truly encounter the real God, contrary to Barlaam; however, their encounter is with the energies, not the essence of God. We can see a true, uncreated light that is part of God’s uncreated, ongoing, eternal action in this world, yet we cannot see God Himself and the fullness of His glory. This is the distinction Palamas makes, and it enables the dogma of the theologian to dovetail with the experience of the mystic, keeping Byzantine theology from driving a wedge between the two.

St. Gregory Palamas gives his readers a framework for understanding God as both immanent and transcendent. His theology, on the one hand, affirms the apophatic tradition running from Gregory of Nyssa, the tradition that can only describe God in negative terms — i.e. what God is not, e.g. immutable, infinite; God in His essence is unknowable. It also makes room for the cataphatic tradition running from Gregory of Nazianzus,[15] the tradition that can speak about God in positive terms — e.g. God is three prosopa with a single ousia; God in His energies is accessible to the pure in heart. The point of the hesychastic life is to purify the heart through prayer and ascetic ordeal, thereby coming to the beatific vision and the grace of the uncreated light, a wonder so glorious that those who have beheld it often have shining faces to reflect that light.[16] Palamite theology is not heresy, and it is not nonsense. It is a synthesis that enables us to make sense of the undeniable presence of the transcendent God.


[1] Re Palamas and heresy, see George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas (New York 1973), 20.

[2] The Triads, ‘Philosophy does not save,’ I.

[3] Cf. Conference 1; Cassian is the only Westerner in the Philokalia. See also Evagrius Ponticus, Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27,70, who argues that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the greatest thing one could ever achieve. On the influence of Evagrius on Byzantine monastic theology, see John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York 1979), 67-69.

[4] One example of many is Palamas’ statement that ‘the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves,’ reflecting the heart of the experience of St. Teresa of Avìla’s Interior Castle.

[5] This is the system of prayer laid out by Palamas in section C of this week’s readings, and it is one of the types of monasticism practised by the monks of Athos today, as seen in Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Monastic Wisdom (Florence, AZ 1998).

[6] George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 22-24.

[7] Cf. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ II.ii.9. This phrase shows the common western Christian bias towards the rational intellect as the only valid road to God.

[8] Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 43.

[9] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.21. Cf. Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo 1975), Bessarion 11, p. 42.

[10] Cf. Letter 233.

[11] The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ I.ii.5.

[12] That Palamas believes the mind to reside in the heart, not the brain, is evidence of his extensive reading not of pagans but of Christians, since pagans had established the residence of the mind in the brain in the writings of ‘Hippocrates’ in the fourth-fifth centuries BC.

[13] Cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, II.13.4 on God’s boundlessness as well as on His uncreated light.

[14] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.23.

[15] Both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus could be said to make use of both the apophatic and cataphatic tradition. Nyssa, however, is most famous for his postulation of knowing God in the darkness.

[16] Besides  the biblical precedents of Moses, the Transfiguration, and Stephen, Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1963), draws our attention to St. Seraphim of Sarov (pp. 131-132) and Evelyn Underhill (p. 239n.) who both underwent similar experiences.