My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.
But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.
It began in the Desert.
Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!
I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.
Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.
Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).
My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.
Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.
A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.
As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.
And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?
In conversation over Skype recently, I held up my copy of The Philokalia, vol. 1, as a way to signify who Kallistos Ware is. ‘Ah yes, that book you’ve been blogging about,’ is an approximation of the response. Which is fair enough. I realised that I’ve not actually told the reading public what The Philokalia is. Since it is what my brother and I are slowly wading our way through (and hopefully becoming better pray-ers as a result), here we go.
The Philokalia is a multi-volume anthology of Greek spiritual texts on the subject of prayer. The authors range from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. So far, the English translation includes four out of a proposed five. The inescapable, inimitable Met Kallistos Ware (for many of us, our first introduction to Orthodoxy, through The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) is one of the translators. The collection was assembled on Mt Athos, the monastic/spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, in the 17th century by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios.
You may recognise some of the authors they included: Ps.-Antony the Great, Evagrios ‘the Solitary’ (aka ‘Ponticus’, in the original attributed to St Neilus of Ancyra), St Maximus the Confessor, St Makarios the Great, St Gregory of Sinai.
This multi-volume anthology is not a comprehensive guide to the entire ascetic life. As I said, it is about prayer. Thus, the external aspects of Christian spirituality, such as fasts and vigils, are lacking. In fact, it is not even about the entire life of prayer. It is about ‘inner prayer’, about the inner kingdom, about the prayer of the heart. I believe that in its later volumes (they arranged roughly chronologically) it is more specifically about The Jesus Prayer (I’ll discuss that prayer soon, I think).
The goal of this inner prayer is the encounter with God through purity of heart, through seeking hesychia — peacefulness, stillness. The Greek spiritual movement associated with the word hesychia is called hesychasm, and its monastic practicioners are hesychasts. The Francisco-Benedictine musician John Michael Talbot described hesychia as being like sitting on the edge of a pool, and letting the detritus subside. When it still and clear, you can see to the bottom and see both the good and the bad. (See The Music of Creation.)
The bad can thus be removed.
It is an approach towards intimacy with God.
Of course, all the texts were selected by hesychast monks for monks and written by monks to begin with. Not everything here will suit all readers, but much wisdom is to be found for the prayerful, attentive reader. A guide, a companion, will help. We are reading vol. 1 straight through, but I’ve discovered a piece by Met Kallistos that has a series of recommended texts to start with. I close with his words, then:
Sometimes I am asked: in what order should the writings of the Philokalia be read? Should we start at the beginning, on page one, and read straight through to the end? Probably that is not the best method. To one who is unfamiliar with Hesychasm but who has a serious and deep longing to discover its true meaning, I sometimes suggest the following sequence of texts:
i. St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesy-chasts (Philokalia IV, 197-295, English translation Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, 164-270) (27).
ii. St Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness (Philokalia I, 141-73, English translation I, 162-98).
iii. Evagrios the Solitary (alias Neilos the Ascetic: i.e. Evagrios of Pontus), On Prayer (Philokalia I, 176-89, English translation I, 55-71).
iv. A Discourse on Abba Philimon (Philokalia II, 241-52, English translation II, 344-57).
v. St Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion; On Stillness; On Prayer (Philokalia IV, 66-88, English translation IV, 257-86) (28).
But here I strongly recommend readers not to attempt the physical technique mentioned by St Gregory, unless they are under the direct instruction of an experienced spiritual teacher.
The final selection from Cassian in The Philokalia is selections, primarily from Conference 2, about discretion/discernment. Here we meet various Desert figures and desert stories, including one of my favourite stories, which I’ll recount in a moment. (For a newcomer to these discussions, I’ve talked about Cassian in The Philokalia thrice recently: once on the eight thoughts, once on purity of heart, then on scopos and telos with a bit of textual background.)
The virtue of discretion/discernment is said to be the most important. Without it, monks go too far, after all — consider those, like John Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi, who end up with chronic health conditions because of extreme asceticism in their youths. I heard somewhere that Francis, for one, regretted having gone too far. On the other hand, some abuse the flexibility inherent in all communal life. Thus, ‘hospitality’ becomes an excuse for overindulgence.
The extreme examples given by Cassian are about monks who almost die of thirst or starvation because of their lack of discernment. One monk converts to Judaism at the instigation of a demon disguised as an angel. In John of Ephesus’ sixth-century Lives of Eastern Monks, some monks venerate a local woman whom the demons have disguised as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of us are not likely to go as far as these.
Nonetheless, in questions of fasting, vigils, Scripture reading, prayer routine, discernment is needed. We have the wisdom of our elders in the faith — that great Cloud of Witnesses. But each of us is different. Thus, by prayerful discernment, we can consider with the guidance of Scripture, the Fathers, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts what is the right path to holiness for our individual selves.
If only most of us ever spent the time and energy involved!
I will tell you a fact which may supply us with some wholesome teaching, without giving the name of the actor, lest we might be guilty of something of the same kind as the man who published abroad the sins of the brother which had been disclosed to him. When this one, who was not the laziest of young men, had gone to an old man, whom we know very well, for the sake of the profit and health of his soul, and had candidly confessed that he was troubled by carnal appetites and the spirit of fornication, fancying that he would receive from the old man’s words consolation for his efforts, and a cure for the wounds inflicted on him, the old man attacked him with the bitterest reproaches, and called him a miserable and disgraceful creature, and unworthy of the name of monk, while he could be affected by a sin and lust of this character, and instead of helping him so injured him by his reproaches that he dismissed him from his cell in a state of hopeless despair and deadly despondency. And when he, oppressed with such a sorrow, was plunged in deep thought, no longer how to cure his passion, but how to gratify his lust, the Abbot Apollos, the most skilful of the Elders, met him, and seeing by his looks and gloominess his trouble and the violence of the assault which he was secretly revolving in his heart, asked him the reason of this upset; and when he could not possibly answer the old man’s gentle inquiry, the latter perceived more and more clearly that it was not without reason that he wanted to hide in silence the cause of a gloom so deep that he could not conceal it by his looks, and so began to ask him still more earnestly the reasons for his hidden grief. And by this he was forced to confess that he was on his way to a village to take a wife, and leave the monastery and return to the world, since, as the old man had told him, he could not be a monk, if he was unable to control the desires of the flesh and to cure his passion. And then the old man smoothed him down with kindly consolation, and told him that he himself was daily tried by the same pricks of desire and lust, and that therefore he ought not to give way to despair, nor be surprised at the violence of the attack of which he would get the better not so much by zealous efforts, as by the mercy and grace of the Lord; and he begged him to put off his intention just for one day, and having implored him to return to his cell, went as fast as he could to the monastery of the above mentioned old man— and when he had drawn near to him he stretched forth his hands and prayed with tears, and said O Lord, who alone art the righteous judge and unseen Physician of secret strength and human weakness, turn the assault from the young man upon the old one, that he may learn to condescend to the weakness of sufferers, and to sympathize even in old age with the frailties of youth. And when he had ended his prayer with tears, he sees a filthy Ethiopian standing over against his cell and aiming fiery darts at him, with which he was straightway wounded, and came out of his cell and ran about here and there like a lunatic or a drunken man, and going in and out could no longer restrain himself in it, but began to hurry off in the same direction in which the young man had gone. And when Abbot Apollos saw him like a madman driven wild by the furies, he knew that the fiery dart of the devil which he had seen, had been fixed in his heart, and had by its intolerable heat wrought in him this mental aberration and confusion of the understanding; and so he came up to him and asked Whither are you hurrying, or what has made you forget the gravity of years and disturbed you in this childish way, and made you hurry about so rapidly?
And when he owing to his guilty conscience and confused by this disgraceful excitement fancied that the lust of his heart was discovered, and, as the secrets of his heart were known to the old man, did not venture to return any answer to his inquiries, Return, said he, to your cell, and at last recognize the fact that till now you have been ignored or despised by the devil, and not counted in the number of those with whom he is daily roused to fight and struggle against their efforts and earnestness—you who could not— I will not say ward off, but not even postpone for one day, a single dart of his aimed at you after so many years spent in this profession of yours. And with this the Lord has suffered you to be wounded that you may at least learn in your old age to sympathize with infirmities to which you are a stranger, and may know from your own case and experience how to condescend to the frailties of the young, though when you received a young man troubled by an attack from the devil, you did not encourage him with any consolation, but gave him up in dejection and destructive despair into the hands of the enemy, to be, as far as you were concerned, miserably destroyed by him. But the enemy would certainly never have attacked him with so fierce an onslaught, with which he has up till now scorned to attack you, unless in his jealousy at the progress he was to make, he had endeavoured to get the better of that virtue which he saw lay in his disposition, and to destroy it with his fiery darts, as he knew without the shadow of a doubt that he was the stronger, since he deemed it worth his while to attack him with such vehemence. And so learn from your own experience to sympathize with those in trouble, and never to terrify with destructive despair those who are in danger, nor harden them with severe speeches, but rather restore them with gentle and kindly consolations, and as the wise Solomon says, Spare not to deliver those who are led forth to death, and to redeem those who are to be slain,Proverbs 24:11 and after the example of our Saviour, break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, Matthew 12:20 and ask of the Lord that grace, by means of which you yourself may faithfully learn both in deed and power to sing: the Lord has given me a learned tongue that I should know how to uphold by word him that is weary:Isaiah 50:4 for no one could bear the devices of the enemy, or extinguish or repress those carnal fires which burn with a sort of natural flame, unless God’s grace assisted our weakness, or protected and supported it. And therefore, as the reason for this salutary incident is over, by which the Lord meant to set that young man free from dangerous desires and to teach you something of the violence of their attack, and of the feeling of compassion, let us together implore Him in prayer, that He may be pleased to remove that scourge, which the Lord thought good to lay upon you for your good (for He makes sorry and cures: he strikes and his hands heal. He humbles and exalts, he kills and makes alive: he brings down to the grave and brings up) , and may extinguish with the abundant dew of His Spirit the fiery darts of the devil, which at my desire He allowed to wound you. And although the Lord removed this temptation at a single prayer of the old man with the same speed with which He had suffered it to come upon him, yet He showed by a clear proof that a man’s faults when laid bare were not merely not to be scolded, but that the grief of one in trouble ought not to be lightly despised. And therefore never let the clumsiness or shallowness of one old man or of a few deter you and keep you back from that life-giving way, of which we spoke earlier, or from the tradition of the Elders, if our crafty enemy makes a wrongful use of their grey hairs in order to deceive younger men: but without any cloak of shame everything should be disclosed to the Elders, and remedies for wounds be faithfully received from them together with examples of life and conversation: from which we shall find like help and the same sort of result, if we try to do nothing at all on our own responsibility and judgment.
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.
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)
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)
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).
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.
Listlessness – accedia
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.
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.
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?
I was just made aware by Keith in the comments of this blog that there is a Patristics site aptly named Patristics. It is very visually appealing and swanky. Given its swankiness and the fact all of the blog posts are from 2016, I imagine that it is new.
This website wants to be for everyone, and in many ways it is, but its editorial choices betray the fact that its authors and editors are Orthodox. For example, on the Apostolic Succession page, only the successions of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem are listed; one would have thought that Rome, as one of the three ante-Nicene proto-patriarchates, would have made the cut. Thankfully, though, even if these guys are Orthodox, they aren’t the dytikophobic John Romanides kind, as seen in the well-balanced blog post about St Augustine of Hippo.
You can’t criticise people for having their own bias. I’m Anglican, after all, and it would be disingenuous to write from any other perspective.
As a resource for the Church Fathers, the goal of this website is to gather together Patristics sources in readable English. Not everyone likes ANF and NPNF or other Victorian translations out there; I like them well enough, but find them to be among the more difficult texts to read from a screen instead of a book. As far as comprehensiveness is concerned, the site is clearly still under construction; not only are the proposed authors few, but many still lack texts. This is not a criticism; undoubtedly it will grow over time. Putting proofread texts on the Internet takes time, and I am glad to see a website that seems to be taking the time required. As you wait for Patristics to grow, don’t forget my page on where to find various Church Fathers online!
That said, this website happily fills in some of the gaps in ANF and NPNF: The Didache, Patristic selections from The Philokalia (St Antony the Great, St Mark the Ascetic, St Isaiah the Solitary, ‘St'[?] Evagrius the Solitary, St John Cassian, St Nilus the Elder), Sayings of the Desert Fathers (the source of which is unattributed), St Maximus the Confessor, and St Isaac the Syrian.
Other content I appreciate are links to applicable podcasts (chiefly Ancient Faith Radio); it would be cool to see these expanded to include Catholic and Protestant podcasts and even YouTube videos. But that may be too much to organise for the administrators and could overwhelm users.
Besides the content of the texts, there is also a page listing different ancient heresies. One idea for expanding this is to link to both heretical texts and their ancient opponents. First, of course, the website should grow its database of Church Fathers.
These criticisms are put forward in love — this website is so aestethically pleasing that I would be very glad to see it succeed and grow! Hopefully the editors and engineers can take these comments graciously and apply them. 🙂
It is not immediately obvious how to reach your goal of reading the Fathers themselves while navigating the Church Fathers page, unfortunately. Nonetheless, some texts are there if you click on an author and then click once again in the left sidebar.
The text of 1 Clement, the only one of his texts available, is written in Victorian English, surprisingly. It is attributed to Daniel Loych, whoever that is — presumably one of the intrepid volunteers engaged in the usually thankless task of uploading content. The translation is the Ante-Nicene Fathers one by John Keith. Translator credits are essential.
This raises serious concerns for me — why do we need a new, sexy website to give us access to public domain translations already posted online by Calvin College at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and New Advent? Is a third online version of ANF and NPNF really necessary? Is the market people who want sexy websites? Indeed, their homepage even states:
Many people struggle with reading archaic sentence structure. Our English versions are carefully worded to provide the most relevant understanding of ancient texts.
My other concern is the extent, but I hope that that will merely be fixed with time. The only Latin Fathers they provide are Tertullian, Hilary of Poiters, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and John Cassian. Missing Jerome is a bit of a blow, but if one were to start with any group of Latin Fathers, this would be it.
One proofreading concern is that hierarch is misspelled heirarch.
Texts I’d like to see. I am most interested in seeing readable, online editions on here — besides the authors in ANF and NPNF — of these monastic texts: The Rule of St Benedict, the ascetic corpus of St Basil, the Rule of Pachomius, The Life of Simeon the Stylite, and the hagiographical texts of Three Byzantine Saints (The Life of Daniel theStylite, The Life of Theodore of Sykeon, The Life of John the Almsgiver [but he’s not a monk]).
Non-monastic texts: Salvian of Marseilles, Romanos the Melodist, ancient liturgies, Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelii and Gospel Problems.
Apocryphal texts: I think it would be really helpful to make available apocryphal texts such as the Protoevangelion of James that are the sources for stories accepted by tradition.
Canon law: It would also be helpful to see some western canon law texts appearing; these are, however, available in NPNF2, vol. 14.
As I say, this is a swanky, visually appealing website. I look forward to watching its library of Patristic texts grow in time to come!
I try to avoid polemic on this blog. I’d rather discuss those things from the Great Tradition and various other traditions of Christianity that most of us can benefit from, or those things that really just tickle my fancy. However, today I have a burning desire to write something less than irenic.
I write this post as a result of the fact that I dare to pray for other people when praying the Jesus Prayer. This, according to one commenter, is the height of arrogance, and is based on my proud assumption that I am already saved. And, apparently, I have made this assumption because I’ve read a lot of books and think I can pray:
Or you already apriori decided that once u have read and learn anything and “think” u can pray u r saved?)
I don’t know why the random parentheses are scattered across said commenter’s comments.
This brings me to the heart of why I am not Orthodox: salvation.
Reconcile me to the Virgin, the saints, the necessity of kissing icons, the Orthodox view of church history, Palamite hesychasm, the Eucharist, and so forth. I’m willing to be convinced. But I will be much harder to convince because of how this tradition approaches salvation.
At its best (and I try to look at all non-heretical Christian groups at their best), the Orthodox tradition wilfully refuses to parse salvation, saying that simply praying the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough to be ‘saved’, that salvation is found in the ongoing life of faith that follows.
At its best, Protestantism says, ‘Yes. That moment of conversion by faith is when we are initially justified, and then we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the ongoing life of faith that follows.’
The whole bundle is ‘salvation’ for the Orthodox, while we parse the different bits.
Each catches a bit of the truth.
But this leads to difficulties for many of the eastern tradition, going back at least to Mark the Monk, a fifth-century Greek monk who lived in the Egyptian desert (maybe; it’s a common name, so all the sayings attributed to Mark the Monk may not all be by the same monk named Mark). If you read the selections from said Mark in The Philokalia, one of the things that will become apparent to a Protestant reader is that Mark has no assurance of salvation.
Mark the Monk, for all the various pieces of wisdom on prayer and the spiritual life he has, lives in the fear of Hell.
This may not be the best of Mark the Monk, and it may not be the best of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is not uncommon.
Indeed, is this why many Orthodox pray the Jesus Prayer? For me, it is a way of drawing nearer to the Saviour who I know has saved me. If it is ‘salvation’, it is the ongoing purification from the presence of sin or the tendency toward sin in my life, not escape from Hell.
This is why it’s not so bad that we Protestants tend to parse salvation, even if we may go too far sometimes.
This concern of self-salvation is prominent in my Orthodox commenter’s concerns, evident when she quotes Seraphim of Sarov (but possibly attributing it to the Desert Fathers?) in the form:
Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.
This seems to be a popular version of the quotation, although I have hitherto only encountered it as:
Keep your heart at peace, and a multitude around you will be saved.
And I immediately hear Fr John Romanides yelling in my ear, ‘Keeping your heart at peace, acquiring peace in your nous IS salvation, Protestant!’ And I respond, ‘It is a result of salvation, given by grace and usually after years of the walk of faith.’
If I save myself, if I keep my heart at peace, that is a terrible burden. I cannot lift that.
Is this not the entire point of the Gospel of Grace? God became man so that man might become like God? We are, each of us, beset by sin on all sides. We cannot, of our own accord, save ourselves. We, God’s beloved creation, are tending towards destructin. So he becomes one of us, and by the power of that Incarnation, and then the death of One of the Most Holy Trinity on our behalf, and then when He destroys death with the lightning flash of his Godhead and rises again, He gives us the grand gift of salvation from the penalty of sin.
And as we accept this gift of grace, he empowers us to live holier lives, day by day, lives of grace. If we accept his daily grace and walk with Him regularly and engage in the disciplines, we become holier and holier. This is the life of salvation, but all of it is grace.
Grace. The great scandal at the heart of the most ancient strand of the Christian tradition. The great incomprehensibility lying in wait for us in the Scriptures (read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians). A power so mighty that even those who claim the strongest ties to the ancient church live much of their lives as though salvation depended on themselves, not on it.
Maybe this is arrogance on my part. Maybe it is arrogant to say, ‘I have read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers and much of the Tradition. The earliest strand and truest strand and the strand most consonant with the Scriptures is grace.’ If it is, God have mercy on my soul.
And I know — to forestall certain comments — that Vera is not the Orthodox position, and that there is a diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that there are shades of meaning in ‘salvation’ in Orthodox discourse, and that what I describe is not indicative of the experience of a great many Orthodox, and so forth. I have no doubt. But I have witnessed it with my own eyes — all the more, then, do I grieve for this state of affairs.
Usually, when people talk about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they mean those ascetics from the period of St. Antony, St. Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Simeon the Stylite, and St? Shenoute. But what about the following generations of desert monasticism?
In my mind, the second and third generations of Desert Fathers are those who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. The sixth century Desert Fathers lived in the era after the Council of Chalcedon, in the days when the Church was drawing ever closer to fragmentation over Christological issues. They also live in the age of the Second Origenist Controversy, which resulted in a list of anathemas against certain “Origenist” teachings (available here) associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553.
The result of the Second Origenist Controversy, which was, as seems likely now, a battle between a more “intellectualist”, contemplative (hesychastic?) strain of monasticism and a more “practical” strain focussed on ascetic labours and “simplicity”, was the destruction of a large amount of valuable material by Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Didymus the Blind — although some survives in Latin or Syriac translations, other material circulated under false names, and still other stuff survived out of sheer obstinacy and the fact that a lot of monks really dug Evagrian spirituality — even if they rejected the theological system of the Kephalaia Gnostica.
Another result was the banishment of large numbers of “Origenist” monks from Palestinian monasteries. The Evagrian-Origenist legacy would continue, but with less clear force and never unambiguously — the tension between praktike and theoria would never be resolved in Desert monasticism.
The sixth-century Desert Fathers also saw some good things. This is the Age of Justinian, which included the foundation of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. This is also the age following the gathering and disseminating of collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, mostly from those first generation monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sayings, or Apophthegmata, were so popular that not only do they exist in various Greek collections and in Latin translation, there are translations of the collections into Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, and probably even Ethiopian.
Sixth-century monasticism flourished in Palestine, both in Gaza and the Judean Desert. Desert Fathers include Dorotheos of Gaza, whose spiritual works are considered by Eric P. Wheeler who translated them for Cistercian as Discourses and Sayings to be an easier introduction to the Desert tradition than the Sayings and the hagiography. Also of interest are Dorotheos’ teachers, Barsanuphius and John, a selection of whose letters has been translated by SVS Press for their Popular Patristics Series.
St. Savvas also lived in the sixth century, although he began his work in the fifth. Savvas was the great expander of Palestinian monasticism, primarily in the form of “lauras” communities of monks who lived in separate cells together but only gathered on the weekend. He was a defender of Chalcedon against the anti-Chalcedonians and made embassies to Emperors Anastasius and Justinian on the behalf of Palestinian monks.
Parallel to St. Savvas is St. Theodosius, his comrade, who did much the same things as he only for coenobitic monasticism — monasteries as we imagine them, with a full, common life.
Important for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism is sixth-century writer Cyril of Scythopolis, who wrote seven Lives of Palestinian monastic leaders, covering Euthymius, Savvas, Kyriakos, John the Hesychast, Theodosius, Theognius, and Avraamius. He is also our most important source for the Second Origenist Controversy.
The seventh century saw the continuation of the Desert tradition. In the Sinai, at St. Catherine’s, John Climacus (saint of the week here) was the abbot and produced his famous Ladder. He himself shared in the inheritance from the Fathers of Gaza as well as from the Evagrian spiritual system. St. Catherine’s was one of the most important foundations of the later generations of Desert monasticism, and it is in her libraries that many Syriac manuscripts have been found, and from here come several of the authors within the Philokalia.
The seventh century is also the century of St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, who lived in St. Savvas’ Great Laura in Palestine and is one of the spiritual masters to make his way into the Philokalia.
However, by the seventh century, the monasticism of the Desert had lost some of her impetus, no doubt due to the ongoing disputes between the Chalcedonian imperial church and the anti-Chalcedonians, who by this stage had formed a separate church in Syria through the efforts of Jacob Baradaeus and were well on the road to schism in Egypt. As well, this is the century of the exhausting wars between the Empire and Persia which affected the Syrian and Palestinian heartland of Desert monasticism. Finally, the seventh century is the century of the Arab invasions, through which the Desert was lost to the Christian Empire.
The legacy of the Desert Fathers and the outgrowth of monasticism in the sixth century is still impressive, however. Their spiritual heritage is found in St. John Climacus’ contemporary, the ascetic spiritual theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, and Syrian asceticism found new life in the last Church Father, St. John of Damascus. But the centre of gravity for Christian monasticism had shifted from Syria and Palestine to Athos and Constantinople for the Chalcedonian Greeks, but also East to Armenia and South back to Egypt and into Ethiopia.
For further reading on the later Desert Fathers:
Barsanuphius and John. Letters from the Desert. Trans. John Chryssavgis. SVS Press. The Fathers of the Church series has also issued the entire corpus of lettes in two volumes (corrected from earlier today when I said it was ACW).
The Philokalia, vol. 2. Trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. This volume contains St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Thalassios the Libyan, St. John of Damascus, A Discourse on Abba Philimon, and St. Theognostos.
Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. This book covers the archaeological remains of the multitude of monasteries in the Judean Desert at this time as well as the daily life of the monks.
Hombergen, Daniel. The Second Origenist Controversy. This is a highly technical book — in fact, a PhD dissertation — and not for the faint of heart. However, it deals with a lot of the issues in Desert monasticism leading up the Second Origenist Controversy and seeks to uncover what, exactly, the controversy was really about.
Maas, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. This book includes a section on the religious and philosophical situation in Justinian’s reign.
I would like to include Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City, but I can’t, because I don’t recommend books I haven’t read, no matter how highly recommended by others!