Earlier today I submitted an article to a journal using hagiography to dispute the idea that in the Byzantine world Christ was distant from worshippers, the unapproachable God, the Pantokrator on high. Because I’m a lumper, I could not help bringing in, alongside many references to Late Antique ascetic literature East and West, a couple of references to sixth-century art.
When people think of Christ Pantokrator, the image from many Eastern Christian domes springs to mind, such as this eleventh-century one from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens (my photo):
Or, better, this famous thirteenth-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople:
I didn’t mention these in the article, but for many people they convey distance and inaccessibility of the divine Person.
A Justinianic mosaic that I did mention and which can be seen to communicate a similar idea of unapproachable glory and Light is the icon of the Transfiguration from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai:
The thing is, when I read monastic literature of the fifth and sixth centuries, I do not find an inaccessible Christ. Although there is evidence of the growing cult of the saints (see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints — and I’ve read a good review of Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?), the piety of the vast majority of early Byzantine ascetic/mystic/monastic texts is Christocentric, and Christ is not far or unapproachable to His followers.
Thus, the preferred Christ Pantokrator is sixth-century, not eleventh or thirteenth. Like the Transfiguration, it comes from St Catherine’s, Sinai:
This is one of the most famous icons in the world; it is the first of the Pantokrator type, from what I recall, and one of the oldest Eastern Mediterranean images of Christ to survive. Christ Pantokrator appears here with one half of his face gentle, one half stern. He is the perfect Desert abba, if you think of it.
The oldest Coptic icon may also be sixth-century and currently resides in the Louvre (I’ve seen it!). It is a different vision of Christ from any of the above — Christ and Apa Mena (my photo):
Christ is Pantokrator. All-powerful. For He is the Second Person of the Trinity.
Christ can also be our Friend. For such is how He described Himself to His Disciples.
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:
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).
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.
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!
Things are busy with writing my own papers and marking other people’s papers right now, so no saint went up last week. So today, since I have time on Sundays, last week’s saint will come up this week; whether this week will have its own saint remains to be seen. And on to our saint, a mystic, John Climacus (who is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church today).
St. John Climacus (c. 579-649 and thus a contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor) was a monk of the monastery of Sinai, at the foot of the Mount of God, the mountain which Moses ascended and where the Lawgiver entered the Cloud, saw the back of YHWH, and received the Law of God, from which Moses descended with shining face from his encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The spot is pregnant with meaning.
At this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John, aged sixteen, took preference for the semi-eremitic life — a life halfway between the ‘total’ seclusion of the hermit/anchorite and the total community of the ‘coenobite’ (most Western monastics — e.g. Cistercians and Benedictines are ‘coenobites’ living in a coenobium). All three forms of monasticism were practised within the walls of this monastery, founded by Justinian (556-57).
In this middle way, one pursues the monastic life of prayer and stillness under the supervision of an elder; John’s was one Abba Martyrius. Abba Martyrius, after John had demonstrated his worthiness over a few years of pursuing the monastic vocation, took John up the Mountain of God and had him tonsured, admitting him into the fullness of the monastic life.
Shortly thereafter, Abba Martyrius died, and John pursued the life of the hermit, entering into seclusion to enter hesychia and the stillness of God’s presence. He retired to Tholas and spent 40 years there, admitting the occasional visitor who came for spiritual guidance.
At the end of his 40-year stint he was elected to be abbot of the coenobitic community. In good monastic form, he resisted (one also typically resists being ordained priest or consecrated bishop if a monk), but was overcome by the brethren. He lived out the rest of his life as abbot of the monastery at Sinai. Whilst abbot, he wrote down his famous work Scala Paradisi, The Ladder of Paradise.
As with our last mystic (Bonaventure here), it is not the exterior as found in these details but the interior that matters; it is the mystic’s encounter with God and the things of God that really matters.
From John’s Ladder we learn of the ascent of the soul to God. As with many mystics, this ascent is gained through askesis, or asceticism, through the training and labours undertaken by the one seeking God in order to purify the soul/mind/heart so that union with God and the vision of God are possible, so that the contemplative can see Him clearly (though never in His fullness or essence, as God is ultimately incomprehensible).
The thirty steps of the ladder’s ascent unto God are divided into three sections (this is also common, as we saw Bonaventure’s six levels divided by two into three; it is at least as old as Origen — cf. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition 58-59).
The first seven steps are about acquiring general virtues that are necessary for the ascetic life (cf. Origen’s ethike or ethics). These days, I think few Christians are inspired to climb any higher than these seven. I believe that we need to reclaim holiness and see a life beyond simple virtue. John Climacus can help.
The second series of steps runs from 8 through 26. These nineteen steps are about even greater ascent in virtue as the ascetic learns to overcome the vices and acquire virtues in their place. Indeed, cultivation of virtue is the only way to fully extirpate vice and cleanse the soul so that we can draw near to God and theosis, deification.
The final steps are the higher virtues. How many in our day even draw nigh to these virtues? I know not. I think they tend to be those imperturbable people who seem to radiate peace, calm, and a certain gentleness of spirit. They are also often wise. If you haven’t met such a person, it is your great loss.
At the top of the ladder, we go beyond everything we do, everything we know. We encounter the living God. He is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And he alone is all we want and all we need.
NB: I haven’t yet read John Climacus (I wanted to, but the copy in the library is missing), so if there are any inaccuracies, I gladly welcome critique in the comments! 🙂