‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

Philokalic Friday: My Goodreads review of The Philokalia, Vol. 1

The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete TextThe Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text by G.E.H. Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first of a massive, five-volume anthology of texts running from the fourth through fifteenth centuries, compiled on Mount Athos in the eighteenth century by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth. Of the five, only the first four have been translated into English; Kallistos Ware says he needs to start refusing speaking engagements so they can finish the fifth. This volume begins in the fourth century and includes texts into the seventh; therefore, this volume (and the next, at least) is part of the common heritage of both western and eastern Christians.

Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware have done an inestimable service to the English-speaking world in providing us with this rich collection of documents, that represent a core of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that has exerted a powerful influence since its publication in 1782 (on which see Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present Day). The translation is clear and lucid, and the editorial material provides many aids to the reader. These aids are, in my opinion, essential to understanding texts so far removed from us in time, space, and situation. We are not desert hermits or monks. Many of the readers of this volume are, rather, urban laity with little or no monastic context. Many of us, moreover, are not even Orthodox.

In fact, the Introduction and the Glossary are themselves an education in hesychastic spirituality (on which, more below). The main themes of the text and its function are introduced in the former, and the ancient Greek Christian understanding of a variety of important, specific terms is provided in the latter. Moreover, we are reminded that these texts alone are not the entirety of the path to holiness these authors themselves were on: many of them lived in communities, they celebrated the liturgy, they practised acts of mercy, they read Scripture, and so on. And many of them wrote texts on other topics not included because they are not the focus of The Philokalia.

The specific focus of The Philokalia is the prayer of the heart, or inner prayer, which is cultivated and practised as essential on the road to hesychia — peace, calmness, stillness, silence. Practical considerations are here, such as Evagrios the Solitary counselling against the eight wicked thoughts (later, seven deadly sins in the western tradition) in his treatise ‘On Prayer’. Elsewhere, Hesychios the Priest gives an extended series of chapters on ‘watchfulness’.

Watchfulness, in fact, may be the watchword for attaining hesychia in Philokalic spirituality. We are called to watch our thoughts, guards our hearts, be on the lookout for temptation. We are counselled to bring to mind the stories of Scripture, both the examples of the saints therein and the life and deeds of Christ. We are reminded to meditate on the grace of God as we have experienced it in our own lives. We are called to focus on and pray the Name of Jesus.

All of these, arguably, are forms of watchfulness. Either they are the mind itself watching for danger and fleeing from danger, or they are the mind occupying itself with things above, and thus being prepared for temptation or a wicked thought when it comes.

Many of these texts are difficult. Well, maybe all of them are. This is not an easy book. It took my two years to read it, after a first failed attempt 12 years ago. Much of the content is either not applicable to us or hard to apply. Discernment of what is wisdom for the urban layman is required. Watchful, attentive reading and prayer must come here alongside humility. I suspect that many will give up, either judging the authors of these writings for not being their own breed of Christian or just finding it too hard. I understand. I also counsel you: Keep going.

One difficulty you will face is simply a matter of genre. Many of these are collections of short sayings, from a sentence to a paragraph. They are not always arranged in a visibly logical way. It can be hard to read many of them at once. I recommend reading only as many as you can take at once and meditating on them. I also, on my third reading of Evagrios ‘On Prayer’, took notes and tried to find structure and meaning within the texts. These are, for the most part, not extended discussions or discursive essays properly united with a theme and an argument. Simply be ready for that.

This volume includes selections from: St Isaiah the Solitary, Evagrios the Solitary (aka Pontikos), St John Cassian (the only Latin in the whole five volumes), St Mark the Ascetic (aka Mark the Monk), St Hesychios the Priest, St Neilos the Ascetic (of Ancyra), St Diadochos of Photiki, and St John of Karpathos, as well a barely Christianised Neoplatonic text attributed to St Antony the Great.

The only thing I wish were here is the original introduction by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain.

View all my reviews

Philokalic Friday: The Failure of My Achievement

I did it! Twelve years after my first attempt, and two years after the start of my second, I finished The Philokalia, Vol. 1 this Lent! Well done, me! I mean, how many people can boast that, after all? Sure, people read the Rule of St Benedict, or St Augustine’s Confessions, or, say, the Bible all the time. But, really, to struggle through the difficult content of the first volume of The Philokalia in any language is something of an achievement in the world of devotional reading.

After all, it took me two years.

Off and on, that is.

Mind you, it’s not as though I spend very much time praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s not as though I spend my life in ‘watchfulness’. Given how quickly I grow annoyed or impatient, I don’t think I have that much hesychia. And those eight deadly thoughts (logismoi) that Evagrius talks about so much? Probably all here, not really being resisted that much.

Nonetheless —

I hope it has been good for me to read this book, and reread some sections of it. I think I’ve read Evagrius On Prayer four times now. I am sure I could profit from another read. I know that I do, at times, reflect on teachings from this book and how they’ve helped me.

But the point here is:

Just because I have read a (difficult) devotional book and occasionally apply its lessons does not make me holy.

Practising holiness is what makes us holy.

Oh, wait. No. The Philokalia would only partly agree with that …

The grace of God is what makes us holy.

Could we put together a Latin Philokalia?

This Lent I succeeded at finishing the English translation of vol. 1 of The Philokalia. Still four volumes to go (although vol. 5 still in production)! As I think on Philokalic spirituality, and the Athonite tradition of hesychasm, and the Greek Byzantine environment that fostered the 1000 years of Greek spirituality contained in the anthology, I ask myself:

Could we do this for Latin Christianity?

What to read next?

I suppose it would take a saint like St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain to properly sift the vast amount of Latin Christian spirituality that is out there to consider. I would want to keep it pre-Reformation and post-Constantine, similar boundaries to the Greek Philokalia. The first difficulty is discerning a common thread to unite the texts selected. Not all of Greek spiritual thought is in The Philokalia, after all — there are certain concerns that have been chosen. Thus, one of the most popular of all Greek ascetic texts, The Ladder by St John of Sinai (aka The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus), is not there. Nor are swathes of St Maximus the Confessor. No hagiography. No liturgy. No monastic rules. No Cappadocian Fathers. No St Athanasius. No St Cyril. No Ante-Nicene Fathers. No Pseudo-Dionysius.

Anyway, who are the neptic Fathers of Latin Christianity?

I’m not sure, but as an initial brain-storm, perhaps a prayerful exploration of theses guys would be good. Remember, we’re thinking selections with a theme, not the Complete Works.

  • John Cassian
  • Jerome
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Julianus Pomerius
  • Prosper of Aquitaine, De Vita Contemplativa
  • Gregory the Great
  • Hildegard?
  • Bonaventure?
  • Guerric of Igny?
  • Richard Rolle?

I know many would want to see, say, Meister Eckhart in the list, but I don’t know enough about his works to know if he’s worth searching for a common thread of Latin spirituality running from Jerome to the Renaissance. On the other hand, I know that, while Julian of Norwich is worth reading, her work is of a specific nature and, I think, very distinct from the tradition that links Bernard and Aelred with Cassian and Augustine.

Indeed, the late medieval mystics are hard. What about St Catherine of Siena? I’ve yet to read The Cloud of Unknowing. Would any of it fit?

Likewise, the scholastics. Bonaventure, sure. St Thomas Aquinas? Or the pre-scholastic Anselm: I love him, but I don’t think he belongs, even if he was a practicioner of the tradition from Julianus Pomerius to the Cistercians. My own inclinations lean towards Cistercians more than scholastics for this, but maybe that’s false?

Of course, should we cut it short with the Reformation? Will we suffer for the lack of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila?

Just some thoughts. It is at least an interesting thought experiment. Maybe a way to make a personal reading list, even if not a multi-volume anthology.

Philokalic Friday: The Cross in St Mark the Ascetic

I am on the cusp of finishing the first volume of The Philokalia. One of the big concerns that will strike many a Protestant who comes across books such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer or the Desert Fathers and Mothers or Dionyius the Areopagite is an apparent lack of crucicentrism. While few of us are not necessarily that excited by Gothic altarpieces, we have a devotion to Jesus that is focussed upon his atoning death and sacrificed that oned us to God.

The first way to assuage any such concerns is to remind the person that anthologies such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer do not include everything written by the authors. Maximus the Confessor wrote a great many things not in The Philokalia. The second is to point out that there is a difference of genre here from what is being sought; this is not dogmatic theology, nor even devotion as understood in the later Middle Ages. It is about certain aspects of Christian praxis, namely how to achieve stillness (hesychia) and meet with the risen, ascended Christ here and now.

The third is to check the index of The Philokalia, vol. 1, and see where/how the cross figures in the book.

Keeping in mind the genre of the text, consider St Mark the Ascetic, ‘On the Spiritual Law’:

30. The law of freedom teaches the whole truth. Many read about it in a theoretical way, but few really understand it, and these only in the degree to which they practise the commandments.

31. Do not seek the perfection of this law in human virtues, for it is not found perfect in them. Its perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ.

St Mark here assumes that his readers know about salvation through the Cross of Christ and what the Cross of Christ means. The law of freedom is found perfect in the cross. We should probably read him in light of his other statements, as in ‘On Those Who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works’ (an anti-Pelagian tract):

2. Wishing to show that to fulfil every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: ‘When you have done all that is commanded, say: “We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty”‘ (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.

4. ‘Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. …

20. If ‘Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures’ (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), and we do not ‘live for ourselves’, but ‘for Him who died and rose’ on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

21. Christ is Master by virtue of his own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He crates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

23. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

26. While man can scarcely keep what belongs to him by nature, Christ gives the grace of sonship through the Cross.

In his ‘Letter to Nicolas the Solitary’, St Mark the Ascetic encourages Nicolas in various ways, largely through recollection of God’s grace to him, and writes:

What repayment for all these blessings can you possibly make to Him who has called your soul to eternal life? It is only right, then, that you should live no longer for yourself, but for Christ, who died for your sake and rose again. (p. 153 English)

He encourages Nicolas to keep in mind ‘the great humiliation which the Lord took upon Himself in His ineffable love for us’ (p. 156 English). St Mark goes on to give a beautiful synopsis of the Gospel story from Incarnation to ascension. Consider Christ’s humiliation — and then endure your own suffering.

The point of these texts is to encourage Christians in the path to righteousness, to give them practical advice about prayer and the spiritual life. It is to remind them that none of their good works are anything worth but, rather, the manifold and great mercies of God make them so.

The Cross of Christ stands in ascetic theology as very briefly excerpted above in three ways, then.

  1. Christ has died for us and given us grace. This grace enables us to live holy lives.
  2. Christ has died for us; we should live holy lives out of gratitude.
  3. Christ has suffered and died; we should endure our sufferings with patience.

There is not laying out in full of a theory of the atonement here, but that is not what St Mark is aiming at. He almost assumes such knowledge on the part of the reader from the start.

So, this Good Friday, how will the Cross of Christ impact how you live?

Philokalic Friday: The monastery and ‘the world’

Today I read John of Karpathos’ second text in The Philokalia, the ‘ascetic discourse’, also addressed to encourage the despondent monks of India (Ethiopia). Frankly, this work is an example of what is wrong with much in the monastic movement. John’s way of encouraging them to stay in the monastery is to argue that life in the world, with marriage and children, is lesser, that has less merit before God, that people ‘in the world’ live according to the passions, whereas the monastery is where asceticism happens and where true blessedness is found.

As a husband and father, I can assure this ascetic that there is an asceticism of marriage and an asceticism of parenthood.

Is not the heart of ascetic labour, ‘Take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and come, follow me’?

How is the married estate excluded?

Now, if you are a newcomer, fear not: I don’t hate monasticism, and I know that not all monks think that they’re holier than us. I have no doubt many of them are, but not because of their monastic profession. Rather, it is their faithfulness in discipleship in their vocation, just as it would be for a holy married person.

But it still rankles when I read it.

Philokalic Friday: Encouragement from John of Karpathos

This season has not been the best.

This past Saturday I received a rejection letter from a two-year postdoc that was the position I most wanted this coming year. And yesterday I was rejected by a one-year postdoc that I also fervently desired. My current job ends at the close of August, so academic work is not simply a matter of building my career or living my dream but of survival for my family. This is not an easy season, Lent or not.

Lent hasn’t really been working very well, either. We were travelling the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, and I had a lecture to finish preparing and then to deliver that evening, so I missed any Ash Wednesday service. Besides the Lent Book Poll resulting in finishing off The Philokalia, Vol. 1, as my Lenten reading, I didn’t really pray or think about a discipline or abstinence of any sort. So I’ve felt a bit off to begin with.

This reading of The Philokalia has brought me to John of Karpathos’ writings encouraging monks in ‘India’ (apparently actually Ethiopia) who wanted to throw in the towel. So:

The demons try to undermine your inward resolution by buffeting your souls with an untold variety of temptations. Yet out of these many tribulations a garland is woven for you; Christ’s power ‘comes to its fulness in us in our weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). It is usually when our situation is most gloomy that the grace of the Spirit flowers within us. ‘Light has shone in darkness for the righteous’ (Ps. 112:4 LXX) — if, that is, we hold fast to our confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firmly to the end (Heb. 3:6). (Ch. 19)

When you are being tested by trials and temptations, you cannot avoid feeling dejected. But those who till the hearth of hardship and tribulation in their hearts are afterwards filled with great joy, tears of consolation and holy thoughts. (Ch. 30)

Whatever you’re facing, may you have strength to carry on today.