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.

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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.

Teresa of Avila’s Lizards

I mentioned in my post on St. Teresa as weekly saint that she talks about the lizards that are in the area surrounding the Interior Castle. Shortly after I wrote that post, Mark Armitage at Enlarging the Heart posted a quotation from that section of the Interior Castle! You can read it here:

Teresa of Avila: Spiritual Battles and Interior Peace « Enlarging the Heart.

St. Teresa’s lizards are our spiritual battles that lead to inner peace. They are the sufferings we all must go through if we wish to attain the heights of (to be Methodist) Christian perfection. We want the easy path, but it is not the path to wholeness, fullness, union with God, or perfection. Instead, we must encounter the lizards. Read the above post, it is good!

Its sequel is here.

Saint of the Week: Charles Wesley

This week’s saint is Charles Wesley (1707-1788), given that the day for his and John’s commemoration was two days ago (John Wesley was saint of the week here and here). Charles is the less famous of the two famous Wesley brothers, and I think this is a bit of a shame.

Charles Wesley was as much a man of action as his elder brother. He, too, was a founding member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford, meeting with friends to read the Greek New Testament and to transform their lives. He, too, lived a disciplined life — a discipline with method, thus Methodist and Methodism.* He, too, was an ordained priest of the Church of England. He, too, was involved in the evangelical revival and preaching the Gospel amongst the poor of England. He, too, went to preach the Gospel in Georgia. He, too, sought Christian Perfection.

Charles, however, was not merely a man of action like unto his brother. He was also a man of action in opposition to his brother. An example of such opposition was when he burst in on John’s first wedding and dragged his brother out, explaining to the elder Wesley that he wasn’t exactly suited to marriage. My understanding is that John’s second attempt at getting married succeeded but without happy product — proving Charles right.

Unlike John, Charles was happily married, to Sarah Gwynne. Sarah Gwynne, like their mother Susannah Wesley, probably counts as one of the many intrepid women of the Faith, for she accompanied her husband on his evangelistic journeys.

Charles eventually ended his itinerant lifestyle, which probably helped keep his marriage a happy one. He looked after the Methodists of Bristol from 1756-1771, then relocated to London, where his ministry included Newgate prison.

Charles also differs from John in virulent opposition to any schismatic activity on the part of the Methodists. He wished to keep Methodism a movement within the Church of England, and thus he wrote a hymn against the event of John ordaining Coke rather than celebrating it.

Hymn-writing, of course, is what we best remember Charles Wesley for. He wrote over 5500 hymns in his lifetime, so, although his prose works are few (are there any?) compared to John’s, his own literary output is not inconsiderable. Amongst this enormous corpus are such favourites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Despite confusing moments such as when he writes in “And Can It Be?” that Christ “emptied Himself of all but love,” these hymns demonstrate Wesley as one of the great devotional minds of the English language. Indeed, the nearness of the Divine in these hymns their clarity of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian life make them among the works of wondrous, clear theology. They are praise of God worth singing, the sort we encounter far less often in the newer songs of today.

Charles Wesley was also a clever man in his hymnography, for his words could be set to the tunes of drinking songs. This made them very memorable for the poor, drunken souls for whom the hearts of the Wesleys burned. And so Gospel truths could be sung and remembered as cast in the simple poetry of Charles Wesley. This is a very great gift to the English people, and one not to be underestimated.

So, to close, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*I’ve heard it said that the terms actually come from how John organised the movement; yet I have also heard that it was a nickname applied to the Holy Club back in their Oxford days, so I think that it’s probably both — certainly the latter is more likely to be what people think when they hear, “Methodist.”

Saint of Last Week: St. Teresa of Avila

So I meant to do a post on St. Teresa of Avila last week. And then I didn’t.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) rocks. Hard. She was a Discalced (“Shoeless”) Carmelite nun involved in the Catholic Reform movement of the sixteenth century, along with our friend St. John of the Cross (saint of the week here). Sts. John and Teresa took their part in the healing of Christ’s church in sixteenth-century Spain particularly through the reform of the Discalced Carmelite monastic order.

This is a reminder that Catholic Reform wasn’t simply sending out the Inquisition to burn a few Prots. For the record.

St. Teresa, like St. John, was a contemplative and a mystic. She was blessed by God both with visions as well as with genuine spiritual insight. Thus she was able to help lead her monastic community of nuns well and help work through reforms. Even if some of her confessors doubted her visions.

But men are like that.

St. Teresa of Avila is most famous for her book Interior Castle. I read the translation by E. Allison Peers, whose interest in Spanish literature and mysticism has blessed us with translations of St. Teresa’s works as well as St. John’s and a fine biography of my old friend Ramon Llull. Anyway, Interior Castle is amazing.

St. Teresa had this vision, see, and it was of the mansions of the spirit. As in, your own spirit. And first you get past the outer world which is full of distracting lizards and stuff like that. Then you get further and further into the castle/through the mansions. Each mansion is about the cleansing of your soul at some level and what each stage looks like.

At the centre, when God has purified your heart through prayers and effort and trials and, ultimately, His good grace, there is the light of His Spirit. And it is there for anyone who is able to enter into the stillness and take the effort to stop being distracted by the lizards.

But most of us, unlike people like St. Teresa, St. John, St. Gregory Palamas, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, spend much of our lives gazing at those damned lizards.

And that’s not the blessing that calls us to. He calls us to a union of love with him.

So spend time in quiet. In silence. In prayer. With Jesus. Enter the mansions of the spirit. Find Him in the light at the centre of your soul, calling out to you gently while you’re busy staring at lizards and honey badgers.

Nikolaos, Part II

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

That night Nikolaos drifted to sleep in his prison cell to the sounds of the night life of Nikaia. He was awakened after what seemed to be a most refreshing — but brief — nap by a Light flooding the chamber. He opened his eyes, and the yellow sandstone seemed to glitter as gold. A sourceless radiance was filling the room. His mortal eyes had trouble adjusting, but he thought he saw a figure. No, two figures.

In an instant, Nikolaos was prostrate on the ground. He had indeed seen a Figure, a most glorious Figure, dazzling in brilliant raiment. Konstantinos paled by comparison. All earthly things, all creation, paled in comparison of the One Who Himself was Light.

“Woe to me!” he cried aloud at this Vision of the Magnificence. “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips! And I have seen the Lord Himself!”

And then the Figure laughed. Not a patronising laugh. Not a laugh of mockery. The laugh of an old Friend, glad to see His comrade. “Nikolaos, faithful servant, you may look upon me.”

Nikolaos, living by faith alone, dared to look upon the glory of the Anointed. He seemed to be the Source of the Light, although not as light radiates from a flame. Nikolaos could never properly put it into words in the years to come, and whenever friends would say him, “Father Nikolaos, tell us about the time you saw Jesus and His Mother,” he would decline comment. But His face was kind, His eyes ageless, brown and timeless like a slice from the heart of an ancient oak tree. He was smiling down upon Nikolaos, his very teeth radiant and pale like the moon.

“Nikolaos,” said a feminine voice to the left of the Anointed, “you may rise.”

Nikolaos stood, and only glanced briefly at the Mother of his Lord. She smiled at him with kind eyes. But was impossible not to look at the One she accompanied. And this was how the Virgin would have it.

“Your zeal for My Name and My honour is like Elijah’s, Nikolaos. If all overseers of My Assembly had such zeal and respect, then you would not all be here in Nikaia arguing about Me!” The Anointed smiled a sad smile.

“My Son and I have brought you gifts,” Holy Mary said. “Here is the stola of an overseer, for we confirm you as an overseer in the Assembly.”

Nikolaos took his eyes off the Anointed Jesus only long enough to receive the gift. “Thank you,” he uttered.

“And here is the book of the Good News, telling the story of my dwelling upon earth. For as overseer, you have done well in the task of bringing this Good News to the people; you have upheld the virtue of your office, and shall continue to do so,” the Glorious One handed Nikolaos a golden Book.

When the guards came to wake Nikolaos in the morning, he was found clutching these two objects to his breast as he slept; his office as overseer and his understanding of the Anointed confirmed, he was allowed to rejoin the gathering.

Nikolaos sighed a little, for he knew that, between the vision of the Majesty and that miracle involving the money for the poor girls, he would become a celebrity in no time. His name would live forever, and all he really wanted was for the Name of Jesus, the Divine, Eternal Word to live forever. He chuckled to himself, thinking they might even slap the word holy in front of his name.