The Oxford Dictionary of Saints

When I was a kid, my dad brought home a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Farmer from a clergy conference. It was probably the 3rd edition (1992), but maybe the 2nd (1987). I thought it was the most excellent thing ever, so I was quite pleased to buy my own copy of the 5th revised edition (2011) for half price from Blackwells last week. Since it’s the Octave of All Saints, here’s my review.

As the front cover states, the book covers ‘the lives, cults, and associated art of more than 1,700 saints’. The immediate question, especially in our ecumenical age with western Christians becoming ever more aware of the eastern churches, is: Which 1,700? Since my dad’s edition (and probably since the first), the main focus of this book has been English saints — unsurprising, given it’s point of origin. However, it has now been expanded to include saints from North and South America.

Farmer’s Introduction (p. vii) gives us these 5 criteria:

  1. All English saints including those of English origin who died abroad … and those of foreign origin who died in England.
  2. All saints whose feasts are in the important calendars such as the Roman Calendar of 1969, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Sarum rite as well as those who are patrons of churches or places.
  3. The most important and representative saints of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
  4. Other saints have been included because of their importance of the history of the Christian Church.
  5. Candidates for canonization called Venerable … or Blessed are not included in this volume

This gives us a range covering the English Venerable Bede, Augustine of Canterbury, and Willibrord, as well as Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and John Chrysostom, and modern saints such as Mary Mackillop,  Gemma Galgani, and Thérèse of Lisieux, and pre-schism eastern saints such as John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, and Theodore the Studite. The inclusion of Prayer Book saints means that Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, despite suppression by the papacy in 1969, are here.

Unfortunately, Canada seems barely to exist in this book. Kateri Tekakwitha is not here, and of the eight Canadian Martyrs only Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues are present. Canada is also not included in the list of countries and places with their patron saints. Given that the book has tried to become global by including African, South American, and Asian saints, it is a bit disappointing to see it lacking Canadians.

The next question, after considering the range of saints included, is whether the entries are any good. I believe the answer is yes. Each entry begins with the saint’s dates and a brief mention such as ‘monk and bishop of Lindisfarne.’ Then follows a brief, critical biography that mentions the activities and reputed character of the saint as well as miracles performed within his or her lifetime with neither accepting all miracle tales outright nor rejecting them out of hand.

In the case of a saint such as Cuthbert, there follows a long discussion of what happened to the body/relics and the establishment of the saint’s cultus, possibly also where mediaeval artwork concerning the saint is to be found. The entry proper closes with the saint’s feast day. Then Farmer gives a brief bibliography of both primary and secondary sources for the saint’s life, and where the works of saints who were writers may be found. Sometimes I think mentions of English translations would be useful, but the critical engagement of each entry is to be lauded.

The Introduction to the volume discusses the origins of the cult of the saints, then its progress in the British Isles in the Early Middle Ages, and then the development of the system in the Roman Church from the High Middle Ages to today including the fate of the cults during the Reformation. There is a brief bibliography as well as footnotes throughout the Introduction.

A series of appendices close the book. Appendix 1 covers ‘Principal Patronages of Saints’  — Matthew, my namesake, is the patron of accountants, while Bede and Jerome are the patrons of scholars. Appendix 2 is very helpful, ‘Principal iconographical emblems of saints.’ With this knowledge in hand, one can more easily identify saints in art. Interesting entries: ‘Breasts (on dish) Agatha’, ‘Eyes  (on dish) Lucy’, ‘Eyes (on book) Odile’, and ‘Intestines Erasmus’. Appendix 3 is a useful discussion of ‘Pilgrimages’, accompanied by maps of pilgrim sites in Britain and Ireland, Europe, the Holy Land, and North and South America. Then follows an Index of Places, a Calendar, and Patron Saints of Countries and Towns.

Finally, this book is ‘Web Linked.’ This means that OUP has a web page of useful links about saints to accompany this book, undoubtedly chosen and recommended by Farmer. The page includes links to resources on Benedictines, Cardinal Newman, some general saints websites, Celtic saints, Greek Orthodox saints, the Marist Brothers, the Crusades, the Bollandists, Mary Mackillop, and a link to the Vatican’s website.

Overall, this book is a very handy resource and I highly recommend it. Its gaps are disappointing but few. Maybe the 6th Edition will have more Canadians. 😉 Otherwise, it covers in a brief yet critical way that opens the reader up to further reading most of the saints that interest me from the Patristic and Insular world.

Saint of the Week: Saint Monica

One of the most popular saints in all of western/Latin Christianity is St. Augustine of Hippo. The Oxford Patristics Conference proved that, with at least two papers about St. Augustine being given at any moment. Whether you like St. Augustine or not, he is a force to be reckoned, if you’re a Calvinist, a Catholic, a Lutheran, or a Pelagian, you have to come to grips with St. Augustine for good or for ill.

As they say, however, behind every great man lies a great woman.

St. Monica (331-387) was the mother of St. Augustine. She was married to a man named Patricius who was a pagan, and their marriage seems not to have been a happy one; he seems to have been a violent man and opposed to his wife’s religion. He refused her requests to have their three children (Augustine, Navigius, Perpetua), although he relented for the ailing Augustine. Until Augustine recovered, of course.

Monica displayed her motherly concern for her children, such as the wayward and worldly Augustine, through prayer. Indeed, perhaps because she saw his brilliance, perhaps because the other two children, like their father, converted earlier, Monica had prayers and concern especially for young Augustine.

Widowed when Patricius died shortly after his conversion, Monica followed Augustine first to Rome and then to Milan where, in answer to seventeen years of prayer through her son’s dissolute life, Manicheanism, and paganism, she saw him converted and baptised by St. Ambrose.

In the time between Augustine’s conversion and baptism, Monica and Augustine had a sort of semi-ascetic, philosophical retreat where they spent time in prayer and conversation about spiritual things.

Monica fell asleep in the Lord at Ostia on the journey back to Africa from Italy.

St. Augustine, as I understand it, left behind the largest body of Latin literature from a single writer in antiquity. His was a keen mind, and he produced works of great erudition ranking with the greatest of theologians and philosophers. Whether you agree with him or not.

We are not all gifted as Augustine was, nor are we all blessed with the sort of education he was blessed with.

But God can save the world through us, through our prayers, for we can all be like St. Monica. We can all pray for those whom we love. And the prayer of a righteous (wo)man is powerful. God hears it.

Do you ever get uncomfortable with your own comfort?

Every once in a while, I wonder if I’m missing out in the deeper, harder joys of life by living in such ease. For example, the Life of John the Almsgiver (Patriarch of Alexandria 606-616) tells some fairly remarkable stories about this man. Once, he was given a quilt worth 36 nomismata, a fairly tidy sum. At the behest of the giver, he slept under it for the first night, but was tossing and turning all night with guilt that the money could have been better spent. So, the next morning, he sold it, bought four rough blankets for 1 nomisma, and gave the other 35 to the poor.

Chapter 23 of the same Life relates similar anecdotes about St. Serapion (is this Serapion of Thmuis, the 4th-c bp?):

Serapion once gave his cloak to a poor man and as he walked on and met another who was shivering, he gave that one his tunic, and then sat down naked, holding the holy Gospel, and on being asked, ‘Who has taken your clothes, father?’ he pointed to the Gospel and said, ‘This is the robber’. Another time he sold the Gospel to give an alms and when a disciple said to him, ‘Father, where is your Gospel?’ he replied, ‘Son, believe me, it was the Gospel which said to me “Sell all you have and give to the poor”, so I sold it and gave to the poor that on the day of judgment we may have freer access to God’. (Trans. Dawes, Three Byzantine Saints)

They tell a story about St. Francis (I think I read it in John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of Saint Francis, however it may be from the Little Flowers) that one day he was given a cloak by the brothers, not being the sort of person to wear a cloak, and the weather being cold. Submitting himself to the will of the brothers, he wore this cloak — until he saw a poor, poverty-stricken soul shivering in the winter cold. Thereupon, the goodly saint divested himself of the cloak.

According to the grand scheme of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, true happiness and contentment are found in union with God. God is Christ (the whole point of the Nicene Controversy that occupied much of the Church’s time in the fourth century), and Christ tells us that we will find Him in the poor, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. -James 1:27 KJV

Saint of the Week: Simeon the Stylite

Of the various patristic holy men you’ll encounter in readings of hagiography, few grab the imagination quite so much as St. Simeon the Stylite (c. 385-459) — not even his younger contemporary and imitator, St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here).

Years ago, I read the Life of Simeon by his (alleged?) disciple Antony (not that Antony) when I was just getting into Patristics, monasticism, and hagiography. Last week, I read Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Historia Religiosa (trans. by EM Price for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria), and one of the longer of his 30 biographical sketches was that of this famous Syrian ascetic. (I am soon to read the Syriac Life and make it a whole set, don’t worry.)

When Simeon came along, Christian Syrian asceticism already had a long and venerable history stretching to generations before Antony took refuge in the Egyptian desert. Ancient Syrian Christianity always had an ascetic streak, calling people to become “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant”, calling the faithful to live together in celibate marriages, calling believers to go into the Desert in “anachoresis” from the secular world, calling Christians to rise up and become the Perfect on the narrow road to the city of Christ (recall the Liber Graduum from this post).

By Simeon’s day, Syrian Christianity was becoming more and more Greco-Latinised, and asceticism was already looking to fourth-century Egypt for its roots, examples, and golden years. Syrian asceticism delighted in the intense. Sure, Egyptians would go off into tombs for a while and wrestle with demons as Antony did, or found monasteries of thousands of people, as Shenoute did.

Syrian ascetics would live in the wild with nothing to protect them from the elements. Some were called “grazers”, and they lived off the wild plants that grew in the Syrian wilderness. Others would wear iron tunics, only removing them when their bishop came along and enforced obedience. Still others refused to sit or lie down, sleeping in an upright position, suspended from the ceiling with ropes. What, as ER Dodds asked in Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, was the cause of all this madness?

A madness for Christ — a burning zeal to know Him and suffer for Him and suffer for one’s sins and be made holy through askesis and abandon the world and all its allures. As Theodoret says in De Caritate, appended to the end of the Historia Religiosa, it was love for God that drove the monks to perform the feats he records.

Enter, then, Simeon.

He entered the monastic life at a monastery in Teleda. During his time in this monastery, he decided that it would be a good idea to wrap a rope around his waist beneath his tunic. He tied the rope really tight and never washed it or removed it. Eventually, he started to stink, and someone stuck his hand up the tunic and the jig was up.

Simeon ultimately decided that he was more suited to the solitary life, but the abbot would not release him. However, due to some of Simeon’s antisocial ascetic practices, he was eventually free to go. So he moved into a nearby well. Soon, the abbot thought better of it, and the monks brought him back from the well.

He later escaped the monastery in Teleda.

He settled in an enclosure atop a hill near Telanissus. After several years of asceticism in this location, he built himself a pillar (Gr. stylos, hence “Stylite”) and lived atop it and two successively higher ones for the next 36 years.

Holy men and women were not unheard of in the Syrian world, as we saw above, and they had various social functions to play, arbitrating in disputes, praying for rain, cursing infidels, diverting marauding bands of Saracens — that sort of thing. The sort of thing you need someone who is removed from society to do, the sort of thing an outsider can do, the sort of thing someone who is close to the Divine can do.

So people heard that there was this guy living on a pillar. And if you live on a pillar, you must be, mad, holy, or both. And if you’re holy, you can probably arbitrate in disputes, dispense wisdom, intercede for the faithful, etc. So people started flocking to Simeon on his pillar and getting all of the above.

Amongst those who flocked to Simeon were his disciples, who built a whole monastic complex at the base of the pillar (as also happened with Daniel). They helped regulate and organise the various pilgrims and suppliants who came to Simeon’s pillar.

Simeon, when not dealing with the masses below, would pray continually. He would pray, alternately standing up straight and bending over double. This bending over eventually caused him back problems, while the constant standing caused him foot problems.

This, in short, is the long career of Simeon the Stylite up on his pillar. He was a living symbol for the entire monastic movement, a man positioned between earth and heaven, a man ceaseless in prayer, a man who cared naught for this world around him.

More on Ancient Syrian Asceticism:

Primary Sources

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, A History of the Monks of Syria. Trans. EM Price, Cistercian Publications.

The Book of Steps: The Syriac Liber Graduum. Trans. R.A. Kitchen, Cistercian Publications.

The Lives of Simeon Stylites. Trans. Robert Doran, Cistercian Publications.

The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Trans. Sebastian Brock.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101, reprinted, with additional notes, in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 103-52. Classic introduction to the holy man — however, be aware of its 25th anniversary sequel:

—. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, 1971-1997.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998): 353-376.

Burton-Christie, Douglas. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. This work focusses primarily on Egypt, yet its story of the origins of Christian monasticism is interesting and discusses aspects of the Desert Fathers of Syria.

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints. The Introduction, pp. 1-27, gives a good introduction to ancient Syrian Christianity and asceticism as found in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Persia.

Fighting the Demons 3: St. Columba

So far we have seen stories of St. Antony and St. Savvas fighting the demons as well as an aberrant one about Shenoute. Today, let us look at this week’s saint, Columba, and a story about him and some demons, for this one is notably different from any of the above.

The story is in Book III of The Life of St. Columba by Adomnán of Iona. In Chapter 8, he writes:

One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone. There, soon after he had begun his prayers — as he later disclosed to a few of the brethren — he saw a line of foul, black devils armed with iron spikes and drawn up ready for battle. The holy man realized in the spirit that they wanted to attack his monastery and slaughter many of the brethren with their stakes. Though he was alone against such an army of countless opponents, he was protected by the armour of St Paul and flung himself into a great conflict. The battle continued most of the day, and the hosts were unable to vanquish him while he could not drive them away from Iona on his own. Then the angels of God came to his aid, as he afterwards told a few of the brethren, and the devils were terrified of them and left the place.

The demons proceeded to Tiree where they invaded a monastery and caused sickness, of which many died. Only one died in Baithéne’s monastery because of the prayerful efforts of the abbot.

What this demon story has in common with the other two under discussion is the fact that the saint has gone out alone to pray when the demons attack. The lesson here, I believe, is that the Christian is to remember Christ’s exhortation and example to pray in secret, and spend time alone with God — and that, when we do this, the forces of evil will take note. The battle will ensue.

St. Columba is kept safe in this battle because of the armour of St. Paul, the armour of God, from Ephesians 6:10-17:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (NIV)

This armour is what we need as we wage peace in the battle against the forces of evil.

In this story, interestingly enough, we get a Peretti-an twist in the arrival of angels, unlike the arrival of Christ to aid Sts. Antony and Savvas. Of course, the image of the demons is much in keeping with the sort of thing Frank Peretti relishes, yet the battle is not. Savvas wins through prayer, the armour of God, and the mere arrival of angels, whose appearance is so fearsome to the demons that they flee.

This story reminds us that, if we have the supernatural worldview that accepts the demonic, the angelic is also a part of the broad world of the spiritual cosmos surrounding us on all sides. Angels are the messengers of God (literally), and they fight alongside the Christians in the battle against evil. First and foremost, we are not alone because Christ will never leave us or forsake us. We are also not alone, however, because the Lord of Hosts will send his hosts to battle with us and for us.

The arrival of angels is a reminder of the whole realm of “spiritual warfare”, the sort of thing evangelical teenagers get really excited about. Who knows what a battle in the heavenlies would like (Do they fight with swords or appear as people or chuck around mountains?) — but the biblical record seems to indicate that it does go on, and our role is that of faithfulness in prayer and growth in virtue.

This is much preferable to those who wish us all to become exorcists, for oftentimes that demonstrates an obsession with the Dark, with something that remains mostly unknown to we poor mortals.

Finally, the demons are driven by Columba to Tiree where they cause disease. Here we have an example of what our mediaeval forebears are constantly accused of doing, of attributing everything to the spiritual forces and being generally “superstitious.”

I have no wisdom to draw from the demonic source of disease. It, too, is driven away by prayer, but we know that already. When I consider the mediaeval universe and the bigness of today’s universe, physical and spiritual, I am reluctant to rule out the possibility of spiritually-caused disease. It’s not a strictly rational belief, but I don’t think the world is, either.

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.

The Venerable Bede a Church Father?

You may have noticed that when St. Bede the Venerable was Saint of the Week on Wednesay that I mentioned his commentaries on Scripture being used in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This may seem more than a little odd, given that the Venerable Bede is, well, mediaeval.

Indeed, Bede is thoroughly and indisputably mediaeval. He was born in the 600’s and died in 735. The fiction of a Roman Empire existed in the West as Italy was nominally under the Emperor in Constantinople, but in reality the Roman Empire in the West was long gone, with no Emperor in Italy since 476. Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law and sponsor of the last flourishing of Classical art as well as the first flourishing of Byzantine art had died in 566. Barbarians had divided the West into a variety of kingdoms — Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and so forth.

Bede is not ancient.

So why include him in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture?

Those, such as Thomas C. Oden, who are calling for mainline and evangelical Christians alike to rediscover the Church Fathers and “paleo-orthodoxy” usually call us to the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought. Yet even Oden, general editor of IVP’s ACCS, knows that that isn’t really enough.

AD 500 is an acceptable cut-off point for the Classical world, although I’m willing to stretch it to Justinian’s death because of how monumental his reign was and how decidedly different the map of the world was — legally, artistically, politically — be the end of his reign. Yet if we cut of the age of the Church Fathers at 500, we’re missing Second Constantinople and its very important recasting of Chalcedonian doctrine into terms a Monophysite could hopefully reconcile with.

By cutting off the Age of the Fathers at 500, in the East, we’re missing Severus of Antioch and his brilliant statements of Cyrilline Christology in the 500’s. We’re missing St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John Climacus (saint of the week here) in the 600’s — one very important for Christology, the other for mysticism East and West — and St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here) in the 700’s — very important for his defence of icons and consolidation of orthodox doctrine.

In the West, we miss St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s — one vital for the development of monasticism and spirituality in the West, the other for biblical interpretation, conversion of the Germanic peoples, and pastoral concern — as well, of course, as Boethius and Cassiodorus, also very important and very popular Christian writers of the 500’s. We have to leave out Isidore of Seville from the 600’s — important for pretty much every idea under the sun (and beyond) throughout the Middle Ages.

Perhaps a temporal designation for “Church Father” does not quite work. The Eastern Orthodox do not do this, but instead consider the Fathers as a conceptual designation, thus including St. Simeon the New Theologian (1100’s) and St. Gregory Palamas (1300’s) as Church Fathers although they stand outside the Age of the Fathers.

Nonetheless, the idea of a Church Father tends towards the early, not the late, towards the ancient, not the mediaeval.

The Church Fathers are those who men* who have left behind a written legacy that is orthodox, who had a certain holiness of life, and who were part of the formation of Christian orthodoxy. So men like the Cappadocians or St. Augustine of Hippo who have laid foundations of theology that are so important that even today’s heterodox read them to gain insight, or those like St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who laid the foundations for monasticism and spirituality that are so important that our vision of monasticism would have been wildly different without them are easy choices for Church Fathers.

However, there is no ancient consensus, just as there was no mediaeval consensus, no Reformation consensus, and there is no contemporary consensus. What the early mediaeval and Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers provide us is a consolidation and synthesis of the patristic legacy.

Thus we get settlements over the date of Easter, the spread of Benedictine monasticism and Augustinianism in the West as well as a certain level of liturgical systemisation. By 735, the western church was inescapably mediaeval, but without the early mediaeval synthesists, the shape of the mediaeval church and beyond would have been very different.

In the East we have a similar story with Christology, icons, hesychastic monasticism and so forth in the early Byzantine world. By 749, with the death of John of Damascus, we have a thoroughly Byzantine church in the East.

Back to the Venerable Bede. What Bede provides us is the same thing any of the other Fathers provides us. He gives us a different perspective from today’s. He provides us an insight into an older form of orthodoxy and an older way of reading Scripture. He also gives us insight into the holiness of the people who lived in the age that forged our own orthodoxy and our reading of Scripture.

So, no, Bede isn’t ancient. But I believe that Bede is a Church Father and well worth reading, especially since he is the only Englishman whom the Church of Rome recognises as a Doctor of the Church!

*The “Church Mothers”, sadly, do not exist because most women in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages did not write. Our ancient Christian female writers are Perpetua (possibly), a few of the Desert Mothers (who are not so much writers as part of an oral tradition), and Egeria who left us a travelogue of her trip to the Holy Land in the fourth century. Sadly, the other holy women of this period did not leave us a written record, despite the high level of literacy amongst many of them.

Mary and Euphemia: The Contemplative and Active Lives

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints ch 12*, we learn of two interesting sixth-century ascetic sisters from amongst the Syrian Mesopotamian Monophysites recounted by John.

Mary, the elder of the two, lived the celibate life in Thella (Constantina). She was overcome by the desire to see the Holy City of Jerusalem and so she went on pilgrimage there. While in Jerusalem at the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), she was overcome. She wanted to do nothing but stand there.

So she did.

And while she stood there, Mary was enraptured and had an ecstatic experience. She was drawn into the experience of the love of the great God of grace who rules all. Inevitably, some of the people who helped take care of this church thought her mad and tried shooing her out.

So Mary spent time in the street. And then would move back into the Church of the Resurrection.

Eventually, she was persuaded by some of the following that had developed around her that maybe should go home. So she went back to Armenia IV and lived as an ascetic in Thella, returning to Jerusalem every once in a while to pray to the God who had so enraptured her soul.

Of note: Mary gathered a following, and they were edified by her spiritual experiences. True mysticism always benefits the community.

Mary’s sister was Euphemia. Euphemia, unlike Mary, married and had a daughter. However, when her husband died, she was overcome by the desire to live a holy life. So she and her daughter, Mary like her aunt, learned the psalms and prayed the hours. They worked from the home, carding wool for the wealthy.

This work made them a denarius a day. Half of the denarius provided for their daily needs. The other half provided for the daily needs of anyone Euphemia could find.

Euphemia seems to have been a fiery sort of character, going about the city of Amida on the banks of the Tigris and finding poor people to do good to. And when there was a crisis, she would turn to the wealthy Christians of the city and berate them thus:

Is it well that you thus sit yourself while slaves stand and wait upon you, and enjoy a variety of tastes in dainty foods and in wines, and of pure bread and splendid rugs, while God is knocked down in the street and swarms with lice and faints from his hunger, and you do not fear him? and how will you call upon him and he answer you, when you treat him with such contempt? Or how will you ask forgiveness from him? Or how can you expect him to deliver you from hell? (Trans. E.W. Brooks)

In the West, we often make a distinction between the “active” life and the “contemplative” life. Despite Met. Kallistos Ware’s attempts to do away with these distinctions (cf. The Orthodox Way), they are often played out in reality, as in the case of these two Syrian sisters.

Both of these lifestyles are appropriate choices for the person totally surrendered to Christ. The latter, Euphemia, fits better with our conception of a good Christian. Indeed, I cannot help but say that her approach fits better with what we find in the Gospels.

Nonetheless, I think we have room — need, even? — for mystic visionaries of the contemplative life such as Mary. They are the ones who ground us in Christ. Sometimes feeding the poor becomes feeding the poor — not feeding Christ. Sometimes seeking righteousness becomes political lobbying — not seeking Christ. The contemplatives see Christ and live for him a radical way, often in bizarre, radical ways (cf. our friend Daniel the Stylite).

If we of the “active life” gather around the contemplatives, our own mission is given fuel, and it is easier to see Christ in the faces of the poor surrounding us.

Let us be encouraged by Euphemia to do good for poor, and by Mary that Christ is calling out to draw us into his warm, divine embrace.

*This chapter is in Patrologia Orientalis 17. The entire work is in fascicles from PO 17, 18, 19 if you’re interested…

This Week’s Saints Brought to You by Thomas Merton, Kallistos Ware, and the Chalcedonian Schism.

St. Augustine’s pears, St. Sabas’ apples & patristic genres

One of the more famous bits of St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions is the scene where he, as a youth, broke into someone’s orchard and stole a bunch of unripe pears which tasted terrible (the story is so popular there is even a Petra song about it). He and his buddies stole them entirely for the thrill of stealing, entirely for the excitement of sin. They didn’t even want to eat the pears; that wasn’t the point. St. Augustine, it seems, still felt bad about it years later. The story is as follows:

I wanted to commit my theft, and I did it compelled by neither want nor poverty but by a distaste of justice and a feast of iniquity. For I purloined that in which I abounded — and in much better! Nor did I wish to profit in this affair in which I was striving with theft, but only in the very theft and sin. There was a pear tree near our vineyard, weighed down with fruit alluring neither in appearance nor in flavour. To shake this tree and make off with its produce, we no-good youths made haste in the dark night when we had carried on our game in the streets according to our pestilential custom. And we carried off from there enormous loads of fruit not to to our meals but rather to cast before swine; even if we ate some, nevertheless it occurred that it was pleasing to us to do that which was not allowed.

Behold my heart, God! Behold my heart, which you pitied in the depths of the abyss. Now, behold, may my heart tell you what it sought there that I became evil freely and there was no cause of my evil except for evil. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to be lost, I loved my rebellion — not that to which I was rebelling, but my rebellion itself did I love. My shameful soul was jumping from your firmament into destruction, not seeking anything with disgrace but disgrace itself. (Conf. 2.IV, my trans.)

St. Augustine spends the rest of Book 2, chh. V-X, going into depth about the anatomy of sin and the blackness of his own heart. You can read it all in Chadwick’s translation, pp. 28-34, or online here (Latin) and here (English).

In my current research, I came across another story about a saint in an orchard. This was the tale of St. Sabas (439-532) and the apples as told by Cyril of Scythopolis (524-558) in the Life of Sabas, one of his seven Lives of the Monks of Palestine. At some point between the ages of eight and eighteen (probably earlier than later), when he was living in the Monastery of Flavianae in Cappadocia, the following occurred:

Once, when he was working in the monastery’s orchard, a certain desire came upon him to eat an apple that appeared ripe and exceedingly delightful before its regular season. Since he was burning with desire, he plucked the apple from the branch, but, when he had considered it, he prevailed against himself nobly.

So he rebuked himself with a pious reasoning, saying, “The fruit that put me to death through Adam was ripe for looking and good for eating, when he preferred that which appeared delightful to the eyes of the flesh over the intelligible beauty and considered the satiety of the belly more honourable than spiritual enjoyments. On account of this, death came into the world. And so I must not turn away from the beauty of self-control, weighed down with any spiritual drowsiness — for just as a blossom comes before all fruit-bearing, so self-control comes before the doing of good.”

Thus, when he had conquered the desire with this stronger reasoning, he threw the apple to the ground and trampled on it with his feet, trampling his desire along with the apple. From then on, he gave to himself such a rule not to experience the taste of apples until death. (Life of Sabas III, my trans.)

Following his encounter with the apple in the orchard, St. Sabas devoted his life to ascetic labour so as to produce virtue. He went on to found the Great Lavra, a monastic settlement in Palestine.

The difference between these stories about youths encountering fruit trees is striking. One is a tale of woe and sin, of seeking disgrace for disgrace’s sake. The other is a tale of victory and virtue, overcoming the flesh with the spirit. One imagines that young Augustine was more fun than young Sabas — only he seems sort of … neurotic at times, all messed up over those pears. But the real difference is not in the facts themselves but in the genre of writing we find here.

Augustine’s Confessions is among our earliest autobiographical bits of literature (other early autobiography comes from the pen of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and his poetry). This work is written as one long prayer to God, confessing both in terms of the sinful state of Augustine’s soul as well as, after conversion, the power of God and Augustine’s belief in God. Thus, it binds together in a single narrative two types of confession. It is psychological and theological, seeking to show the reality of sin within the depths of the abyss of the human heart as well as the power of God to raise us out of sin and into the virtuous life of the righteous.

The Confessions edifies through telling us what God can do for sinners like us. That is its devotional purpose. Each of us may have wicked inclinations, but God can transform us through His Spirit, through good preaching, good friends, good books, Holy Scripture, and the prayers of our mothers.

Cyril’s Life of Sabas is a different creature. It is hagiography, and as such hovers between the borders of history and myth. At one level, the purpose of hagiography is write down the stories of holy men and women so that these stories will not be lost. Good deeds must perish unless they are sung of (I forget the reference for that quote). That is the same purpose as history as well as of heroic poetry. At another level, these particular stories are written down in their particular order to demonstrate what holiness looks like. The point is not necessarily to show us psychologically real person who is simul justus et peccator (to toss a bit of Luther in). Rather, the point is to show us what a holy life looks like.

We may say to ourselves that holiness is unattainable. Or ridiculous. Why give up apples? But, two chapters after he gives up apples, we see young Sabas walking into a giant bread-oven whilst it was lit and not getting harmed. Holiness is not just ascetic labour but also the accompanying miracles and virtues. The holy men of old gave up the world, gave up their parents, gave up their inheritances, gave up apples (of all things!) to draw closer to God and meet Him where He is.

The point of hagiography is to edify us through these holy examples. We are to stand in awe of the God who can take an Augustine — such as we all are, with our dark hearts full of wickedness, seeking disgrace for the thrill of it — and make him into a Sabas — such as we all hope to be, conformed into the image of Christ. Our worship of God is thus lifted higher and exalted — the whole purpose of theological enquiry, by the way.

And we are encouraged, for it is God who makes the saints holy. Thus we can become holy ourselves. He will effect this change in ourselves. This is the point of hagiography, even if St. Sabas may never have walked through the fires unscathed (even though he may have, if you believe in a God for Whom nothing is impossible).

Thus, both genres are useful. We live in an age when things like the Confessions are more in vogue. We like to know that even good men, great men, have been there, too. Indeed, many people like to humanise our Lord Christ by making him imperfect yet still sinless (else how could he be fully human? — they say). We may find obsessing about our mothers’ teats and our desire to suckle as infants as selfishness a bit neurotic, but overall the Confessions are enduring literature that speak to a need in our souls.

I think hagiography is as well. Hopefully we’ll start to read more of it.

Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.