The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

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Saint of the Week: St. Gregory of Nyssa

Today in the West is the feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331-395), the younger brother of St. Basil the Great (Saint of the Week here) and the youngest of the Cappadocian Fathers (brief blurb here), the others being his brother Basil and Basil’s university buddy Gregory of Nazianzus.  One could also include the holy women of Sts. Gregory and Basil’s family, the Sts. Macrina, their grandmother and sister, the former who helped raise them, the latter who helped raise them up to holiness.

St. Gregory was not originally destined for an ecclesiastical career.  He originally pursued law, but the bidding of his mother Emily, was drawn to the holy life.  According to abbamoses.com (see January 10), she had him come to a service in honour of the 40 Martyrs.  Tired from his journey and not especially zealous, he fell asleep.  Whilst asleep, the 40 Martyrs came to him in a dream, rebuking him for his sloth.  Overcome by penitence, he decided that he would thenceforth lead a holy, righteous, and sober life.

In 372 he became bishop of Nyssa in Asia Minor, but was exiled by the Semi-Arian Emperor Valens in 374.  In 378, the Nicene Emperor Gratian recalled St. Gregory to his bishopric.  He was present in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, which produced the form of the “Nicene” Creed in use to this day.  In 395 he fell asleep, having left behind a large body of writings.

One of the blessings that comes from reading the Cappadocian Fathers, especially this youngest of the three, is their bridging of the gap into an age where Nicene Orthodoxy was the accepted norm for theological discourse.  This gives their writings a different tone from those of St. Athanasius, who spends great energy and passion in polemic against Arianism, or in later ages when new controversies arise, producing the polemic of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo.  This must be qualified, of course, because there are always various smaller controversies, or certain local ones, that give flavour to theological writings.

Be that as it may, St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to produce works of theology that are not always on the defense but are often simply the proclamation of Orthodoxy.  It is a position of security rare in the world of theology and one not to be missed.

The only work of his which I have read in full is his Life of Moses.  I recommend it highly.  It is a guide to the virtuous life, using a “spiritual” rather than literal approach to Scripture, basing the steps of the virtuous life upon that of Moses. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, many good ideas and truths are found in this book.  It is a great introduction to how the Fathers read Scripture as well as providing much food for thought and consideration of how we live our lives.

How to honour St. Gregory of Nyssa?  Do not simply read his works, but praise, worship, honour, and glorify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom he adored.  Live a virtuous life.  The Fathers seek no higher honour than this.  Although, if you really like a guy, an icon wouldn’t hurt ;).

Tomorrow Night: Fasting with John Wesley

For the next four Tuesdays of Lent, the Classic Christian small group will be looking at four spiritual disciplines: Fasting, Simplicity, Worship, and Service.  Tomorrow night, we begin with Fasting.

Fasting is a venerable practice engaged in by many of the luminaries of Scripture, from Moses to Elijah to St. Paul to our Lord Jesus Christ himself.  The Didache relates that the early Christians fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Desert Fathers ate one meal a day around three o’clock in the afternoon.  They taught that fasting was essential to the life of prayer — and undivided prayer was their purpose in retreating to the desert.  One cannot pray on a full stomach — and John Cassian recommends never eating so much that you be satisfied.  Fasting and prayer coupled together are the best defense against the demons and the evil thoughts that infiltrate our minds and tempt us to sin.

Fasting continues to be emphasised throughout the monastic tradition, from St. Augustine and St. Benedict through to the Franciscans and the Dominicans.  In course of time, requirements for fasting on particular days and at particular seasons mellowed to abstinence, thus, not eating (red) meat on Fridays or going vegan for Lent.

In most Protestant circles, the emphasis salvation on absolutely nothing but faith in Jesus led to the falling away of fasting over time, even though Martin Luther, the loud proponent of justification by faith, fasted.  In the 1700’s, John Wesley found himself inspired by the ancient Christian witness and practice.  He fasted twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays and required that those wishing to become Methodist preachers themselves fast twice a week.

Fasting has an eminent pedigree.  We who live in a culture obsessed with food, obsessed with consumption, in the thrall of instant gratification, should seriously consider fasting.  We must not allow ourselves to become slaves to anything* — our bellies, our taste buds, food, grocery stores, advertisers, food production companies, restaurants, fast food joints.  Ruling our bodies is a step towards freedom, and fasting is a step towards ruling the body.

If you find yourself stoked about fasting & John Wesley, read his sermon on fasting, the text for tomorrow.

*This would, in fact, include being enslaved to a rule of fasting.

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.

“Learning Theology with the Church Fathers” by Christopher A. Hall

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers is Christopher A. Hall’s sequel to Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (the third in the trilogy is Worshiping with the Church Fathers).  In this book, Hall examines various theological questions, taking the question of the divinity of Christ as his jumping-off point.  The examination of the question at hand is always narrowed to certain Church Fathers, never the entire corpus of Patristic thought on each issue, an approach that keeps the book to a reasonable, readable length.  For example, in the chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, he draws principally from St. Athanasius.  In “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, our guides for the journey are St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Other issues Hall sheds Patristic upon are the two natures of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the question of sin & grace, providence, the love of God, Scripture, ecclesiology, and the Resurrection (the final one).  He realised whilst writing that the topics covered weren’t enough, that something more needs to be said.  The third volume will help us draw nearer to the mind and life of the Fathers, for these men were not mere academics but practising, preaching, and worshipping pastors—thus, the question of Patristic worship is important.

The best things about this book are:  i. It blew my mind.  ii. It made me want to read more of the Church Fathers.  Each of these will receive a post of its own later.  Some other, more general comments on the book are the order for today, however.

My favourite chapters of this book were those that dealt with what I think of as theology proper—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Thus, “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, “Christ Divine and Human”, and “On the Holy Spirit” especially, although “God’s Wise and Loving Providence” helped draw me closer to an understanding of impassibility, a doctrine I am not yet comfortable with.  This may be that I do not fully understand what it means for God to be impassible; it may be that I am clouded and biased by my 21st-century ways; it may be that the Fathers are wrong.  The last option makes me very uncomfortable, because I tend to agree with things they all agree about.

One of the aspects of Patristic thought that this book helps to draws out is its focus on real, live theology.  These days, a lot of people talk about something called “theology”, but it’s really a Christian or biblical approach to certain issues—such as eco-theology and ethics, but even at times ecclesiology, sacramental theology, liturgical theology.  Very rarely do we say, “Gee, who on earth is God?”  The Fathers did.  Who is Jesus?  How does the nature of who Jesus is affect the way we live, think, are saved?  Who is the Father?  Who is the Holy Spirit?  How on earth are there three Gods and one God all at the same time?  The Fathers addressed these foundational issues, and then from this truly theological framework—one always rooted in the foundations of Scripture and tradition—dealt with other issues, such as justification and ethics.

Hall attempts to give Nestorius and Pelagius a fair hearing in this book, but at no point does he act as though the teachings attached to their names are legitimate orthodoxy.  This is a dangerous but admirable trait.  When we look at these figures of church history, we have to realise that every saint was also a sinner, and every sinner a potential saint.  And sometimes people said things that they didn’t necessarily mean, or hadn’t thought through properly, or expressed badly, or their followers took their arguments to their logical, heretical conclusions.[1]

Sometimes you want more than a mere exegesis of the Fathers as they exegete Scripture and tradition, bringing them to bear on the theological questions at hand.  Sometimes I want to know more than just what this one Father taught, more than just this one thought on a question.  Sometimes I want to see objections to these thoughts, or counter-arguments to objections in my mind, or a thorough “modern” rationale for these ideas.  At times, these elements are lacking, but not always.  When they are present, Hall sometimes takes too long going about it, and this may be why he avoids it sometimes.  It may also be that his mind did not conceive of the same counter-arguments to the statements of the Fathers as mine did.  However, this is not meant to be a complete display of all of Patristic thought on these questions, nor even on all questions, since some never even arise.

The authors presented by Christopher A. Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers are all major thinkers of the Patristic age, and their thoughts tend to be representative of the ideological climate surrounding the theological questions he addresses.  This book, as a result, is a good book to inspire people to explore the field of Patristics and Patristic theology further.


[1] This happens today with certain types of Calvinist.

John Cassian vs. Nestorius

I recently finished reading John Cassian’s work On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Against Nestorius (De Inc.).  This work was written in reaction to certain documents of Nestorius’ circulating in the West.  Cassian wrote it at the request of Archdeacon Leo of Rome (later Pope Leo).  George Bevan sees evidence of Cassian working here with four sermons of Nestorius’ and the Contestatio of Eusebius — “Slender evidence” (116).*

The result of Cassian’s slender evidence is a document that won’t do you much good if you want to learn about Nestorius and the arguments against his teaching.  As well, Cassian is not always as precise with his language as fifth-century theologians ought to be, and some of his sentences and phrases could have been misconstrued.  However, overall, the orthodoxy of the document is that Christ is one person who has two natures, and Cassian argues against certain terminology that could be used to deny this reality.

Cassian takes the reader through a discussion of one heretic’s recantation, and then a refutation of the Nestorian documents at his disposal using Scripture, then using the baptismal creed of Antioch, and then, in Book 7, the Fathers — Sts. Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Rufinus of Aquileia, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom.

This document illustrates, especially in 6.5, the inherent conservatism and traditionalism of ancient Christianity.  We also see why any truly orthodox Christian can comfortably call Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” (usually rendered “Mother of God”).

I, personally, like this book for some of Cassian’s statements that seem (to me, at least) pretty clear statements of orthodoxy:

Therefore the Lord Jesus Christ is God. But if He be, as He certainly is, God: then she who bore God is Theotocos, i.e., the mother of God. Unless perhaps you want to take refuge in so utterly absurd and blasphemous a contradiction as to deny that she from whom God was born is the mother of God, while you cannot deny that He who was born is God. (2.5)

God could not possibly be known of men, unless He Himself gave us the knowledge of Himself. (4.2)

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (4.7)

He then alone it is who spake to the patriarchs, dwelt in the prophets, was conceived by the Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, appeared in the world, lived among men, fastened to the wood of the cross the handwriting of our offences, triumphed in Himself, slew by His death the powers that were at enmity and hostile to us; and gave to all men belief in the resurrection, and by the glory of His body put an end to the corruption of man’s flesh. You see then that all these belong to the Lord Jesus Christ alone: and therefore no other shall be accounted of in comparison with Him, for He alone is God begotten of God in this glory and unique blessedness. (4.9)

For all who believe in God are sons of God by adoption: but the only begotten alone is Son by nature: who was begotten of His Father, not of any material substance, for all things, and the substance of all things exist through the only begotten Son of God—and not out of nothing, because He is from the Father: not like a birth, for there is nothing in God that is void or mutable, but in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner God the Father, wherein He Himself was regenerate, begat his only begotten Son; and so from the Most High, Ingenerate, and Eternal Father proceeds the Most High, Only Begotten, and Eternal Son. (5.4)

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because as it was formed from the Scriptures of god by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (6.4)

This is our faith; this is our salvation: to believe that our God and Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same before all things and after all things.  (6.19)

You can read it for yourself at the CCEL.

*The Case of Nestorius: Ecclesiastical Politics in the East 428-451 CE.

Tomorrow: John Cassian and Sacred Scripture

It is Epiphany.  On January 6, we remembered the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child and worshipping him.  This event signifies the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  And Epiphany comes from the Greek for manifestation.  As we travel from Epiphany to Lent, we shall be looking at God’s revelation to us.

Thus, tomorrow night we are going to look at how we read the Bible, for the Bible is the inspired word of God, or, as some say, God’s word written.  The Bible is a special book in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian.  Cassian will be our guide.

(St.) John Cassian was a fifth-century monastic writer who lived in Egypt with the earliest monastic communities before moving to Gaul (France) where he established, according to tradition, two monasteries.  At the request of a local bishop, he recorded the wisdom of the Egyptian Fathers for a Gallic context, first their means of life in his Institutes, and then their teaching in his Conferences.  This week, it is the Conferences we shall turn to, specifically to the eighth, chh. 3 & 4 (find Chapter 3 here, follow link to 4).  We shall look, not at the authority of Scripture (the sort of thing we Protestants argue in favour of all the time), but, rather, taking that as an underlying assumption, we shall observe how to interpret Scripture.

It will be a good time!  We might even pull in some St. Augustine.

Posts here about Cassian (the first three are also about the Bible; (St.) John Cassian 1-4 are my intro to him):

Layers of Meaning

Killing Enemies and Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Part Two

Killing Enemies and Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Part One

Cassian & You – (St.) John Cassian, Part 4

John Cassian & the Desert Fathers

John Cassian’s Legacy – (St.) John Cassian, Part 3

John Cassian on Grace & Freewill

Rehabilitating John Cassian – (St.) John Cassian, Part 2

The Life of John Cassian – (St.) John Cassian, Part 1

A Quotation from Cassian on the Eucharist

The Desert Fathers