What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.

The Maleficent Spirit: An Example of Patristic Interconnectedness

In Conference 8.17.1, Abba Serenus says to Cassian and Germanus, “Scripture testifies that two angels cling to each of us, a good one and a wicked one.”*  We all know about the doctrine of the good angel, for that is the popular “Guardian Angel,” with scriptural evidence at Mt 18:10, Ps 34:7, Acts 12:15 as cited by Cassian.

But what of this wicked angel?  The scriptural basis for belief in a maleficent spirit that follows someone his or her entire life is slim, indeed.  Cassian gives the weak arguments of Job and Judas, both of whom had Satan’s attentions.  Their examples are to encourage the monk, the former to embolden, the latter to warn.

However, although uncited by Cassian regarding the maleficent spirit, the Shepherd of Hermas — one of those popular books that did not quite make the cut for the New Testament, and the only non-canonical book quoted by Cassian alongside Scripture — makes mention of such a being at 2.6.2:

“Now listen,” he said, “concerning faith.  There are two messengers (angeloi) with a man, one of righteousness and one of wickedness.”

Cassian is a student not only of Hermas but also of Origen, largely via Evagrius Ponticus.  While Evagrius denies that a man has a particular demon which follows him all his life (Prak. 59), Cassian stands with Origen’s teaching at De Principatibus 3.2.4 and Homilies on Luke 3.5.3-5.

The question of whether Cassian or Evagrius deviates from the Egyptian tradition on this point is unanswerable.  Indeed, both may represent separate streams within that tradition.  That Cassian in turning from his master stays within the broad river of Egyptian monasticism is found in Palladius: The Lausiac History 19.3:

In the end this abandoned man [Abba Moses the Robber], conscience-stricken as a result of one of his adventures, gave himself up to a monastery and to such practising of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him. (1918 trans. online)

Thus we see Cassian to be connected with Hermas, Origen, and Palladius/Abba Moses — the latter’s writing being something that would have brought Egyptian teaching to Constantinople.  The interconnection runs beyond the Desert, however, to Nyssa.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, in The Life Of Moses, expounds this doctrine as well.  At 2.45, he writes:

There is a doctrine (which derives its trustworthiness from the tradition of the fathers) which says that after our nature fell into sin God did not disregard our fall and withhold his providence.  No, on the one hand, he appointed an angel with an incorporeal nature to help in the life of each person and, on the other hand, he also appointed the corruptor who, by an evil and maleficent demon, afflicts the life of man and contrives against our nature.  (Trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson)

So we see that the patristic world was interconnected through this teaching of the maleficent spirit.  The root connection that this doctrine rests upon is the teaching that we are always beset by temptations.  Yes, God has appointed a “Guardian Angel” to be with us; yet we are also followed by a trail of maleficent spirits, spirits of wickedness.  Through these, too, shall we be perfected.

Through this underlying teaching, we see that Evagrius is still connected to the other Fathers in the foundations.  His denial of a single, lifelong maleficent spirit stems from his belief that as a person progresses in virtue and prayer, so stronger demons and tempters will have to be set against him (see On Thoughts 34).

Nevertheless, none of these writers deny the presence of daimones, and all of them believe that life is a struggle between virtue and vice, between fleshly lusts and spiritual glories.  We are all tempted and are never far from our tempter, be he Wormwood, Screwtape or Satan himself.

*Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this post are mine.

The Sign of the Cross

Making the sign of the cross, or simply even having a cross itself, is an ancient Christian practice, used to punctuate prayers and in battle against evil.  It is something that we Protestants have fallen out of doing but is still common among Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox.  Here are some reflections on the sign of the cross:

Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition (G. Dix & H. Chadwick trans.):

And when tempted, always reverently seal thy forehead with the sign of the Cross.  For this sign of the Passion is displayed and made manifest against the devil if thou makest it in faith, not in order that thou mayest be seen of men, but by thy knowledge putting it forward as a shield. (37.1)

From Palladius, The Lausiac History, (R.T. Meyer, trans. [ACW 34]):

Another time, [Dorotheus] sent me to his cistern about the ninth hour to fill a jar with water for our refreshment.  As I got there I happened to see an asp down in the well and I drew no water, but went back and told him: “We perish, Father; I saw an asp in the well.”  But he smiled solemnly and looked at me, then shook his head and said: “If the devil sees fit to turn himself into a serpent or a turtle in every well, and falls in our drinking supply, shall you forever remain thirsty?”  And he went out and drew water from the same well, and was the first to break his thirst by swallowing.  He said: “Where the cross goes, the evil of everything loses ground.” (2.4, p. 33)

Another day when the church key was lost, [Evagrius] made the Sign of the Cross in front of the lock and, giving it a push with his hand, he opened it, calling upon Christ.  (38.12, p. 114)

Evagrius Ponticus, in To Eulogius 25.27, tells of a widow whose son was possessed by a prophetic demon.  She overcame it with humility, “and after she had wept bitterly, imploring Christ and making the sign of the cross, the demon quickly ran away from her child before so many lashes of the whip.” (R. Sinkewicz, trans.)

In The Conferences, 8.18, Abba Serenus tells Cassian and Germanus of how two “philosophers,” overcome by jealousy, sent demons to attack Abba Antony the Great:

These most wicked demons would not dare to go near to him, now marking his forehead or breast with the Sign of the Cross, now bowing suppliantly in true prayer.  (8.18.2, my trans.)

Martin Luther, in the Small Cathechism, writes:

As soon as you get out of bed in the morning, you should bless yourself with the sign of the Holy Cross and say: “May the will of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be done!  Amen.”

In The Mountain of Silence, Kyriacos C. Markides tells of an encounter Fr. Maximos had with a demon-possessed man.  Fr. Maximos cast out the demon, holding the cross he kept underneath his robes the whole time.

It has uses other than the combat against demons and temptations, of course.  It is a reminder that it the Cross of Christ that has saved from the powers of sin and death, bringing us into new life forevermore.  Thus, it is fitting that it punctuate our prayers.

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

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

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

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

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

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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