Love and the moral code

Greater love hath no man...
Greater love hath no man…

Two evenings ago, the Second Lesson for Evening Prayer in the Canadian BCP included this famous passage:

Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’

Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is: “Hear, O Isreal, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

So the scribe said to Him, ‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ But after that no one dared question Him. (Mark 12:28-34, NKJV)

This morning included 1 John 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

I have discoursed on 1 John 4 here before.

I think we have an easy tendency to start to focus on all of the rest of the law. Or to immediately follow ‘love thy neighbour’ with, ‘Of course, the rest of the moral code is important as well’, or ‘Not that this means condoning sin, mind you…’ And, well, yes. Of course, the rest of the moral code is important. No, loving others doesn’t mean condoning sin.

But if that is the first thing we do after affirming our belief that loving other human beings is the second-highest calling of the Christian, are we loving others by doing so?

Loving others is a risky business. Opening your arms in embrace of someone else means that person might stab you in the back. Standing alongside those with whom we disagree might be misconstrued by everyone. Entering into someone’s life and pain might consume us.

Then again,

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Nevertheless, it is worth asking how the law of love and the moral code of Scripture live together. Love is the highest and greatest command — and, as St Augustine is paraphrased, ‘Love God and do as you please.’ There is a chance that simply loving God and neighbour will take care of this question. Nonetheless, Scripture can serve as a guide for when we are uncertain.

I am one of those rare beasts — the Anglican who subscribes to the 39 Articles, the seventh of which says:

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet not withstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

The 39 Articles elsewhere affirm that our salvation comes entirely from the grace of God, not our ability to live according to the moral code of Scripture. Such good works as we do perform come as a result of that grace and the justification that is by faith.

The moral code is succinct in the New Testament:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, KJV)

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21, KJV)

This leads straight into:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-24, KJV)

These are commandments to believing Christians, who are also commanded to live in love with everyone around them. They must be taken not only with ‘love thy neighbour’ but also with:

Judge not, lest ye be judged. (Matthew 7:1)

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. 12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, NKJV)

It does seem that unrepentant, sinning Christians are to fall under censure from church authorities. That is not most people. Most people are either not Christians or repentant. None of us is truly free from sin, so it is no use using these verses to judge others even within the church — when churches do make use of such discipline on very rare occasion, it is after much prayer and consideration, and after different parties involved have been hurt or are causing hurt.

The rest of the time? LOVE. God will judge, and He will do what is most just, most holy, and most loving.

And now, some ancient Christian wisdom (taken from the Facebook page of that name):

Whoever sees in himself the traces of hatred toward any man on account of any kind of sin is completely foreign to the love of God. For love toward God does not at all tolerate hatred for man.

+ St. Maximos the Confessor

To judge sins is the business of one who is sinless, but who is sinless except God? Who ever thinks about the multitude of his own sins in his heart never wants to make the sins of others a topic of conversation. To judge a man who has gone astray is a sign of pride, and God resists the proud. On the other hand, one who every hour prepares himself to give answer for his own sins will not quickly lift up his head to examine the mistakes of others.

+ St. Gennadius of Constantinople

And the Desert Fathers (similarly from Facebook):

A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

From Abba Agathon (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; Cistercian Publications pg. 23):

“Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass Judgment on something which he saw, Abba Agathon would say to himself, ‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.'”

I doubt that all of my thoughts are clear. All I know is that as I strive to live a righteous life, three important aspects of that are not judging others, being aware of my own sins, and figuring out how to love.

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“Cherubim with sleepless eye”

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, ‘The monk ought
to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye.’

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Bessarion 11 (trans. B. Ward)

Today is the Feast of St Ephraim the Syrian, of whom John Wesley wrote, ‘the most awakened writer, I think, of all the ancients’ (Journal 12 October 1736), and ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age, and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante’ (quotes found here).

Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)
Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)

I thus felt it quite fitting that my iPod Shuffle got around to ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence‘ (whence comes the title of this post) this morning as I prepared to work — for that hymn is taken from the Divine Liturgy of St James, an ancient Levantine liturgy. There is something in the fecund soil of Syria-Judaea that expresses Christian truth in a particularly way when writing poetry.

And St Ephraim is one of the greatest patristic poets.

For some reason, Cherubic imagery always makes me think of St Ephraim — perhaps it’s the combination of the saying of Abba Bessarion quoted above with the title of Sebastian Brock’s book about St Ephraim (which I’ve yet to read), The Luminous Eye.

It is worth thinking of, for St Ephraim’s highly-charged, deeply theological poetry is, in fact, hymnography. Hymns are meant to be sung — to be sung, in fact, in praise of Almighty God. While Bessarion’s reference to the Cherubim is most likely a reference to the need for vigilance (a la St Isaiah the Solitary, d. c. 470), I think it is more appropriately, in fact, praising Almighty God without end.

For this is what the Cherubim with their sleepless eye do, is it not?

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory. Hosanna in the Highest!

St Ephraim, then, could be called Cherubic in this truest and highest sense of the word.

In his Hymns on Paradise, number XI, Ephraim writes in the first stanza (trans. Sebastian Brock):

The air of Paradise
is a fountain of delight
from which Adam sucked
when he was young;
its very breath, like a mother’s breast,
gave him nourishment in his childhood.
He was young, fair,
and full of joy,
but when he spurned the injunction
he grew old, sad and decrepit;
he bore old age
as a burden of woes.

The response: Blessed is He who exalted Adam / and caused him to return to Paradise.

Paradise for Ephraim is not a physical place. Ephraim’s Adam is like George Herbert’s:

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother,
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

from ‘The Holy Communion’

In the third stanza of St. Ephraim’s hymn we meet the Cherubim:

The fence which surrounds it
is the peace which gives peace to all;
its inner and outer walls
are the concord which reconciles all things;
the cherub who encircles it
is radiant to those who are within
but full of menace to those outside
who have been cast out.
All that you hear told
about this Paradise,
so pure and holy,
is pure and spiritual.

With this spiritual reading of Paradise, the Cherub is no longer solely ‘full of menace’ as at the end of Genesis 3, but now ‘radiant to those who are within’. We can encounter this Paradise; it is the telos of the Christian life, where we hope to abide for Eternity with our Lord Christ.

For now, let us seek to hymn our Lord, being vigilant not merely to avoid sin, but to praise God at all times — perhaps St Ephraim can be an entry into praise for you today (read him here)!

Let us, then, praise our holy, holy, holy God like the Cherubim — with sleepless eye.

Anger (with a little help from the Desert Fathers and Evagrius)

Sts. Anthony and PaulI used to have a lot of anger issues. Rarely directed towards fellow humans (usually inanimate objects or myself) and certainly never physically violent — at least regarding humans (in first-year undergrad I once chucked a book across my room and made a hole in the wall; the book was the object of my anger). These issues, which rarely but still manifest themselves to do include a lot of physical energy and, if directed at a person, yellling.

Earlier today I got really angry with someone in a café. Which is always awkward. And I can’t get it out of my mind and focus on my work.

Out of remorse for the book-throwing and to mask my folly back in first-year undergrad, I memorised and posted on the wall over the hole James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (NIV)

Anger, according the fourth-century ascetic movement (I’m thinking mostly of Cassian and Evagrius here) is a result of our inability, postlapsarianly (?), to control the irascible part of our soul. Irascible is just a Latin-based word that means ‘anger-able’. If we were holy, our irascible part would only result in anger towards actual injustice and the abandonment of the worship of God, as we see in Christ clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. Most of us are not holy, though. And most of our anger arises out of selfishness, out of frustration, out of fallenness, out of a need to be right, out of wounded self.

So, as an exercise for myself, I’m writing this and wondering: What is the Desert teaching on anger? I have here beside me, pulled from my pile of Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic texts, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection as translated by Benedicta Ward, and The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus, translated by John Eudes Bamberger. Both are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I have extolled previously.

From the Sayings (the numbers in brackets are the number of each saying by Abba; this is not exhaustive):

Abba Agathon (19): A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.

Abba Ammonas (3): I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.

Abba Isaiah (8): When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.

Abba Isaiah (11) was also asked what anger is and he replied, ‘Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.’

Abba John the Dwarf (5): Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driving talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.

Abba John the Dwarf (6): On another occasion in summertime, [Abba John] heard a brother talking angrily to his neighbour, saying, ‘Ah! you too?’ So leaving the harvest, he took to flight.

Abba Nilus (1): Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer.

Abba Nilus (2): Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.

Abba Nilus (6): If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain.

It is clear that the Desert Fathers (and, undoubtedly, Mothers) had a fairly bleak view of human anger. Evagrius Ponticus, who was a spiritual master who dwelt among them and was highly influential in later Byzantine spirituality, lists anger in the eight deadly thoughts, which are precursors to Gregory the Great’s Seven Deadly Sins. From The Praktikos:

There are eight general and basic categories of thoughts in which are included every thought. First is that of gluottony, then impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and last of all, pride. It is not in our our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions. (6)

What, we may ask Evagrius, is anger?

The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night. (Praktikos 11)

Evagrius is insightful. These and the Sayings are all well and good — but how do we fight anger?

Reading, vigils and prayer — these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable. (Praktikos 15)

He has much more to say on anger than that. What is clear is that anger is not imagined to be part of the holy lifestyle of the Desert monk. And we are to fight anger through prayer, through Psalmody, by patience, and by almsgiving. The outward disciplines combined with an inner seeking after God, then, will help people like me be free from anger.

What more remains to me than this — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

A Coptic Page of Early Church Fathers (in English and Arabic)

Drifting about the internet today (like a leaf on the wind), I stumbled upon a page called ‘Early Church Fathers Collection‘. The Internet is making available to many people for free the writings of the Fathers in a variety of places. This particular place looks to me to have been put together by someone who is Coptic Orthodox. It includes (amongst others) pages called:

These pages are clear evidence to me that this was compiled by someone of the Coptic Orthodox persuasion. They and the others look interesting, especially the second one. Thankfully, it has the original Greek with Patrologia Graeca references as well as the Arabic translations.

Just in case you are interested in these, the first I list is in English; the third, as it says, is in Arabic; the fourth is in English; the fifth (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) is English; the sixth, also English; the seventh is English; and the eighth is in English.

I am pleased to see more Christians from various traditions getting into the Fathers and making them accessible!
This is a pleasant development. Sometimes I wonder if, besides immersing ourselves in Scripture, rediscovering the Fathers is not the way forward for the fractured Church of Christ.

A Saying of the Desert Fathers and the Drive to Consume

Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont; not quite what the Egyptians had in mind!

Perhaps the impending arrival of that High Holy Day for my American friends, Black Friday, caused this to come to mind; perhaps the proximity to Advent and, therefore, the shop-fest leading up to Christmas; perhaps it was the Holy Spirit — whatever the source, the other day a saying of the Desert Fathers (or Mothers) came to mind.

I don’t remember which collection of Sayings (Apophthegmata) or stories this particular saying comes from although I know it was not The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Greek alphabetical collection. Probably the Latin systematic collection (trans. by Sr. Benedicta for Penguin, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks), although part of me wonders if it was the Lausiac History of Palladius.

Now that I’ve bored you with my uncertainty of the source, the story, as I recall, is that one day one of the Desert Fathers was walking along and came upon the cell of one of the brothers. He came on inside, and there he beheld several books on a shelf. He scolded the brother for having accumulated all these books, telling him that these books are bread for the hungry, clothing for the naked, medicine for the sick.

The story is evidently part of the network of various stories, sayings, and teachings found in the different collections and recensions and translations of Apophthegmata, hagiography, travellers’ tales, letters, and so forth, that seeks to create the image of the true monk as being an uneducated peasant or a wealthy person who has rejected education for the simple life of the contemplative mystic, turning aside from Greek philosophy and the false wisdom of much theology for the true wisdom that comes directly from God.

Such ‘true’ monks no doubt existed from the beginning, but it was not until the First Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century that they were held up as the paragons of true monasticism in opposition to those — such as Evagrius Ponticus — who were tainted with worldly wisdom and education. From henceforth, this dichotomy continually arises in our literature about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from Egypt through Palestine into Syria, into the sixth century and re-emerging throughout the centuries in such quarrels as the Hesychast Controversy involving Gregory Palamas (on whom I have written this) in the 1300s.

However, take caution! Be wary of these sources. These wee, memorable Sayings claim to be the direct truth and represent the earliest layer of monastic tradition. However, the collections of the Apophthegmata are mostly fifth- and sixth-century in origin. They will be edited accordingly, following the First and even Second Origenist Controversies. And other sources, such as the sixth-century Lives of various Palestinian monks by Cyril of Scythopolis, are highly partisan in the Origenist controversies which always pitted simplicity against wordliness and philosophy.

I don’t think this saying and many of the others about learning and books actually represent an anti-intellectualist strand in earliest monasticism. I would counter that this particular saying is actually about the accumulation of wealth, what I have called ‘intellectual consumerism.’ Books in the ancient world are highly valuable objects; it costs a lot to make a book entirely by hand, whether of papyrus or vellum (the story, in Egypt, would be about papyrus books). It was a criticism of gathering up things that moth and rust can destroy, not about learning from books.

However, we do have references throughout our sources that are decidedly anti-intellectual. I would argue that these are not about learning per se but about a. pagan learning vs. Jesus who is the Truth and b. humility. Humility is a pervasive monastic virtue, and — as the Scriptures say — knowledge puffs up. Therefore, intellectual folks need to be put in our place. We are no better than our less-educated Christian brethren. And we should remember that.

When the First and Second Origenist Controversies broke out, these sayings took on a life in polemic. Suddenly, rather than being about humbling the proud — intellectual or not — they were about winning a fight, about proving that your Origenist opponents were heretics steeped in pagan learning and un-Christian philosophy, regardless of the truth.

What to take away from this? Besides being cautious of what you read, be humble and buy fewer books at the least, I would say. 😉

Secondary Sources Informing This Post:

Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy: A new perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’ monastic biographies as historical sources for sixth-century origenism. Studia Anselmiana.

AMC Casiday, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian.

Second and Third Generation Desert Fathers

The Great Laura of St. Savvas

Usually, when people talk about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they mean those ascetics from the period of St. Antony, St. Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Simeon the Stylite, and St? Shenoute. But what about the following generations of desert monasticism?

In my mind, the second and third generations of Desert Fathers are those who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. The sixth century Desert Fathers lived in the era after the Council of Chalcedon, in the days when the Church was drawing ever closer to fragmentation over Christological issues. They also live in the age of the Second Origenist Controversy, which resulted in a list of anathemas against certain “Origenist” teachings (available here) associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553.

The result of the Second Origenist Controversy, which was, as seems likely now, a battle between a more “intellectualist”, contemplative (hesychastic?) strain of monasticism and a more “practical” strain focussed on ascetic labours and “simplicity”, was the destruction of a large amount of valuable material by Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Didymus the Blind — although some survives in Latin or Syriac translations, other material circulated under false names, and still other stuff survived out of sheer obstinacy and the fact that a lot of monks really dug Evagrian spirituality — even if they rejected the theological system of the Kephalaia Gnostica.

Another result was the banishment of large numbers of “Origenist” monks from Palestinian monasteries. The Evagrian-Origenist legacy would continue, but with less clear force and never unambiguously — the tension between praktike and theoria would never be resolved in Desert monasticism.

The sixth-century Desert Fathers also saw some good things. This is the Age of Justinian, which included the foundation of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. This is also the age following the gathering and disseminating of collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, mostly from those first generation monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sayings, or Apophthegmata, were so popular that not only do they exist in various Greek collections and in Latin translation, there are translations of the collections into Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, and probably even Ethiopian.

Sixth-century monasticism flourished in Palestine, both in Gaza and the Judean Desert. Desert Fathers include Dorotheos of Gaza, whose spiritual works are considered by Eric P. Wheeler who translated them for Cistercian as Discourses and Sayings to be an easier introduction to the Desert tradition than the Sayings and the hagiography. Also of interest are Dorotheos’ teachers, Barsanuphius and John, a selection of whose letters has been translated by SVS Press for their Popular Patristics Series.

St. Savvas also lived in the sixth century, although he began his work in the fifth. Savvas was the great expander of Palestinian monasticism, primarily in the form of “lauras” communities of monks who lived in separate cells together but only gathered on the weekend. He was a defender of Chalcedon against the anti-Chalcedonians and made embassies to Emperors Anastasius and Justinian on the behalf of Palestinian monks.

Parallel to St. Savvas is St. Theodosius, his comrade, who did much the same things as he only for coenobitic monasticism — monasteries as we imagine them, with a full, common life.

Important for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism is sixth-century writer Cyril of Scythopolis, who wrote seven Lives of Palestinian monastic leaders, covering Euthymius, Savvas, Kyriakos, John the Hesychast, Theodosius, Theognius, and Avraamius. He is also our most important source for the Second Origenist Controversy.

The seventh century saw the continuation of the Desert tradition. In the Sinai, at St. Catherine’s, John Climacus (saint of the week here) was the abbot and produced his famous Ladder. He himself shared in the inheritance from the Fathers of Gaza as well as from the Evagrian spiritual system. St. Catherine’s was one of the most important foundations of the later generations of Desert monasticism, and it is in her libraries that many Syriac manuscripts have been found, and from here come several of the authors within the Philokalia.

The seventh century is also the century of St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, who lived in St. Savvas’ Great Laura in Palestine and is one of the spiritual masters to make his way into the Philokalia.

However, by the seventh century, the monasticism of the Desert had lost some of her impetus, no doubt due to the ongoing disputes between the Chalcedonian imperial church and the anti-Chalcedonians, who by this stage had formed a separate church in Syria through the efforts of Jacob Baradaeus and were well on the road to schism in Egypt. As well, this is the century of the exhausting wars between the Empire and Persia which affected the Syrian and Palestinian heartland of Desert monasticism. Finally, the seventh century is the century of the Arab invasions, through which the Desert was lost to the Christian Empire.

The legacy of the Desert Fathers and the outgrowth of monasticism in the sixth century is still impressive, however. Their spiritual heritage is found in St. John Climacus’ contemporary, the ascetic spiritual theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, and Syrian asceticism found new life in the last Church Father, St. John of Damascus. But the centre of gravity for Christian monasticism had shifted from Syria and Palestine to Athos and Constantinople for the Chalcedonian Greeks, but also East to Armenia and South back to Egypt and into Ethiopia.

For further reading on the later Desert Fathers:

Primary Sources

Barsanuphius and John. Letters from the Desert. Trans. John Chryssavgis. SVS Press. The Fathers of the Church series has also issued the entire corpus of lettes in two volumes (corrected from earlier today when I said it was ACW).

Cyril of Scythopolis. Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Trans. EM Price, introduction and notes by J Binns. Cistercian Publications.

Dorotheos of Gaza. Discourses and Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler. Cistercian.

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibhead and Norman Russell. Classics of Western Spirituality: Paulist Press.

The Philokalia, vol. 2. Trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. This volume contains St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Thalassios the Libyan, St. John of Damascus, A Discourse on Abba Philimon, and St. Theognostos.

Secondary Sources

Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. This book covers the archaeological remains of the multitude of monasteries in the Judean Desert at this time as well as the daily life of the monks.

Hombergen, Daniel. The Second Origenist Controversy. This is a highly technical book — in fact, a PhD dissertation — and not for the faint of heart. However, it deals with a lot of the issues in Desert monasticism leading up the Second Origenist Controversy and seeks to uncover what, exactly, the controversy was really about.

Maas, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. This book includes a section on the religious and philosophical situation in Justinian’s reign.

I would like to include Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City, but I can’t, because I don’t recommend books I haven’t read, no matter how highly recommended by others!

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.