The Desert and my career

I recently made a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video saying that you shouldn’t study the Desert Fathers (not my best video, but here it is) — look at me, after all! I went from being a happy-go-lucky evangelical-charismatic who wanted to study Virgil for his PhD to … whatever it is I am now. Let’s consider this journey briefly…

It all began, as I’ve said before, with Athanasius’ Life of Antony (in Carolinne M White’s volume, Early Christian Lives), alongside the Penguin Classics The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward of blessed memory, which had just come out in 2003 when I found it hanging out at the university bookstore. I already had something of an interest in monkish things — in John of the Cross’ poem of The Dark Night of the Soul and in St Francis of Assisi and Brother Cadfael and had read the Rule of St Benedict in history class.

With these texts in hand, it only made sense to take up my friend’s idea while taking a course Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire: “Why not do those crazy guys who moved into the desert for your essay topic?”

So I wrote an essay about the Desert Fathers in third-year undergrad, looking at the “why” of anachoresis, of monastic retreat into the desert, adding the Life of St Simeon the Stylite to my small bundle of primary sources and relying heavily on Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” and Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert.

I loved it. (Today, I would revisit the sociological reasons given in that paper and lean even more heavily on what I now call the literal-mimetic tradition of scriptural interpretation.)

And so I took the sayings of the Desert Fathers with me to Cyprus when I worked for InterVarsity there. I picked up the Philokalia, too, and visited Byzantine churches and witnessed the divine liturgy of St John Chrysostom and got to know Orthodox priests. All of this made me desire to become more like the Desert Fathers as well as to study them academically some day.

And so, after returning to Canada, when I got around to my MA in Classics, I studied John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And when I did my MTh, I studied monks’ lives by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus.

But the Desert Fathers were just my gateway drug. I studied a lot more Late Antiquity and I’ve taught both secular/political history and Christian history now. My PhD was not on a monastic topic (I thought I’d be more likely to get a job that way. Ha!) but on Leo the Great. But the monks have always been there both for personal devotion and academic study.

And now when I look at St Maximus the Confessor, a little bit of whose work I taught as part of my ecumenical councils course, I see the way the Desert tradition as well as the Athanasian-Cyrilline tradition is flowing through him. And when I teach St Athanasius (just finished a whole course on him a couple of weeks ago!), I see the ways in which his thought is part of the same thought-world as the Desert Fathers, even if he is more clothed in the garb of “Greek/philosophical” learning.

These are a few musings. The desert monks have helped me fight against anger, taught me how to pray, challenged my attitude towards food, brought me face-to-face with my failure to live the Scriptures, and reminded me how the entire devotional life of the Christian is undergirded by grace.

I hope they can help you, too.

PS: Today, September 14, is the last day to sign up for my course…

I’m teaching the Desert Fathers this Autumn!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love the Desert Fathers. They are my first love in patristics, beginning with Athanasius’ Life of St Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. As I say on the product page where you can sign up:

How do we reach up to God? How can we pray without ceasing? What even is prayer? Are we really meant to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? What is the place of fasting in the Christian life? Questions like these drove a great movement of men and women from the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, into the wilderness or desert, beginning in the fourth century—a movement so large it was said that these men and women made the desert into a city. These earliest monks of the Christian Church sought to live the Scriptures and fill their lives with prayer, seeking after God with a single-minded, wholehearted devotion. The monastic desert cities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria became the foundation of the spiritual disciplines as practiced through the long centuries to our own day. Their legacy is found not only in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, not only from Ireland to Iraq, but also in the spirituality of St Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ has been read and beloved by Protestants of every generation, and in John Calvin, whose own spirituality bears the mark of St Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this course, we are going to dive into the sands of the desert, moving chronologically from the life and letters of St Antony of Egypt, the reputed “first Christian monk/hermit”, in the early 300s and whose life was recorded by St Athanasius, up to the letters of Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s. Along the way, we shall spend time with the famous sayings of the Desert Fathers—short, pithy quotations or anecdotes with a deep meaning similar to the Proverbs of Scripture—as well as the work of Pachomius who was the first abbot of a community of monks; the lives of various Desert Fathers recorded by Palladius of Aspuna; the ascetic and mystical work of Evagrius Ponticus; and the life of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar in the Syrian desert. I promise that we’ll meet a lot of behaviors and some teachings that are weird to us. I also promise that we’ll be challenged to go deeper in our own devotion to God, our own study of the Scriptures, our own pursuit of pure prayer. To study the Desert Fathers well is not simply to study the history of Christianity but to open up yourself to the transformative power of the same God whom they met in huts and caves on the banks of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Orontes.

So sign up today!

Those medieval mystics!

My own copy of The Cloud of Unknowing

Last Monday, I had the joy and delight of giving a lecture about medieval mysticism, focussing on some foundations (so, Evagrius and Cassian, basically) and then really on the fourteenth-century English mystics — Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost. All of my students were required to read a large chunk of Julian of Norwich, and for-credit students will also have read one of the others for an essay assignment.

One student read The Cloud of Unknowing, Rolle’s Fire of Love, and then The Cloud of Unknowing again while working on the essay, and then Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love for class. She declared that she wanted to become a medieval mystic. Another student admitted to being bitter a lot of the time, but that reading The Cloud and Julian filled him with sweetness.

I, too, am fond of reading medieval mystics. Of those covered for this class, I like best Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. I also have a fondness (almost typed fandom!) for early Cistercians, especially St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. I have to admit, though, that my exposure to St Hildegard is too shallow, and the promising beginning I made in reading St Catherine of Siena was cut short by other affairs.

As you may guess, the contemplative/mystic types I spend more time with are late antique and Byzantine besides modern Orthodox pray-ers — St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Sophrony, Met. Anthony Bloom, and others.

I must confess, however, that I am very poor mystic/contemplative. Reading about high ideals stirs my heart, makes me want to climb those mountains and put in that hard labour. But acedia sets in. Sloth is easier than asceticism, right?

I recently went through a stretch where I had not been reading any Orthodox elders or late antique monks. One night, I decided to push through a portion of St Silouan the Athonite by St Sophrony (a very dense but powerful book). And I felt my spirits lightened and my resolve quickened by this experience. Reading holy literature is not wasted.

I remind myself of a story from the Egyptian desert about a monk complaining to an old man that he listens to the elders and hears the Scriptures but can’t for the life of him remember the teachings. The old man told him to take two clay pots that were dusty and dirty. Leave one alone, and pour oil into the other. Then pour the oil out. Then repeat several times. “Which is cleaner?” the old man asked. “The one I poured the oil into,” was the response.

Let’s bring this back to the mystics, then. I have expressed my misgivings about us unspiritual meatheads reading The Cloud of Unknowing on this blog. Yet perhaps the story from the desert is telling us that if we have the will or desire for these good things, then even advanced books like that are not lost on us.

So go on reading your medieval mystics, gentle reader. May you be made more pure of heart as a result.

A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:

“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”

Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.

I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.

To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.

But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?

Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:

I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.

We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.

Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.

Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.

We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.

We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.

We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.

We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.

I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)

But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.

This is basically my life’s goal.

What separates me from an Athonite monk

Athonites at prayer

One of the remarkable things about the tradition of ancient monasticism, from the Egyptian Desert to Jeremy Taylor to Mt Athos, is its concern about oversleeping. I recall reading about a monastery amongst the Desert Fathers where the monks were purposefully prevented from getting what we call “a good night’s sleep.” It was believed that the ascetic with less sleep was more able to fight demons.

When I mentioned this fact to my father, he remarked that he found himself less equipped to fight evil with less sleep. I feel the same way — more irascible, more likely to skip prayers, more likely to eat that which I should not. More likely to snap at my kids. That sort of thing.

And yet the life of St Silouan the Athonite, as recounted by St Sophrony, tells us of the opposite. St Silouan (St Sophrony’s spiritual father on the Holy Mountain of Mt Athos) would spend hours in the night sitting up praying. Sometimes he would get as little as two hours of sleep. Sometimes he would have vigils.

Yet St Silouan, despite his lack of sleep, was regarded as an even-tempered, loving man, more upset at his own sins than those of others.

And here’s what separates me from an Athonite monk:

Prayer.

What am I doing if I’m up late? Well, sometimes I’m working. Or doing chores/errands for the household. Sometimes I’m reading for pleasure. Or watching shows. Or just mindlessly surfing the worldwide web.

Now, I think for most of us a good night’s sleep does a lot of good.

But so would a good night’s prayer.

I’ve been in hospital the past few days for hernia surgery. The down time has enabled me to reset morning and evening prayer. Let’s pray the Lord gives me the blessing of duration in devotion.

My latest on YouTube — More on Liturgy!

In my latest YouTube video, I include a long quotation from Richard Hooker while discussing liturgical worship.

Hooker as quoted in the video:

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the Church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard, which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression: from hence have risen not only a number of prayers, readings, questionings, exhortings, but even of visible signs also; which being used in performance of holy actions, are undoubtedly most effectual to open such matter, as men when they know and remember carefully, must needs be a great deal the better informed to what effect such duties serve. We must not think but that there is some ground of reason even in nature, whereby it cometh to pass that no nation under heaven either doth or ever did suffer public actions [419] which are of weight, whether they be civil and temporal or else spiritual and sacred, to pass without some visible solemnity: the very strangeness whereof and difference from that which is common, doth cause popular eyes to observe and to mark the same. Words, both because they are common, and do not so strongly move the fancy of man, are for the most part but slightly heard: and therefore with singular wisdom it hath been provided, that the deeds of men which are made in the presence of witnesses should pass not only with words, but also with certain sensible actions, the memory whereof is far more easy and durable than the memory of speech can be. (Hooker, Laws, 4.I.3)

Ancient Christian Worship

Yesterday I made this video, but I wasn’t able to promote it on my blog. More shameless self-promotion for my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Christianity Before Constantine”. Enjoy!

Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

A rubric worth following

This morning, to save battery on my phone and for a bit of variety, I prayed the morning prayers from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers instead of the Prayer Book Society’s Daily Prayer App. Some of these prayers are worth praying over and over and over again as well as meditating on. What I want to blog about, however, is the final rubric (which really ought to have come first):

If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it is preferable to say only a few of the suggested prayers, with attention and zeal, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 11

I think this is a very important instruction. In fact, in Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes so far as to say that it is better to pray just one line of the Lord’s Prayer carefully, attentively, and truly mean it than it is to pray the whole thing without much thought.

As any longish-time reader of this blog knows, I am a big advocate of the Book of Common Prayer for both personal and corporate prayer and worship. But sometimes, in the midst of two kids under five, managing a cafe, and the various other pressures of life, I find myself swiftly rushing to reach the end. I often skip the Scripture lessons, to be honest. Sometimes, then, it is a blessing to have something shorter, such as the Canadian 1959/62 BCP’s prayers for use by families, or the book Celebrating Common Prayer, or, when truly pressed, to be Franciscan and pause simply to pray the Lord’s Prayer before life consumes you.

The main thing with praying fixed-hour prayer is to pray the prayers attentively and seek the Lord’s face. If you have the time to do this with the BCP or the Roman Breviary or some other long-ish book of hours — glory to God! If not, do not think yourself a failure in your hour of prayer. Make the most of the time available through attention and devotion.

Of course, there’s another facet to prayer life that’s a topic for another post, and that’s the fact that we have more time available than we think…

Athonites at prayer

Praying and praising in all circumstances

Most of us are having a hard time keeping our spirits up as we deal with government restrictions in light of this pandemic. Whatever we’re going through, I am not sure it is worse than being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, though. And that’s what happened to St Patrick. About his time as a slave, Patrick writes:

After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.

Confessio 16

Perhaps what we’re missing is more prayer?