Remembrance of wrongs

John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 9, ‘On Malice’ includes:

Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of ins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an unsleeping wrong, rancor by the hour. A dark and loathsome passion, it comes to be but has no offspring, so that one need not say too much about it. (Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell)

I was going to comment on the above, but I think the saint of Sinai says it perfectly. Let’s all try to keep from brooding on the wrongs done to us so as to keep our hearts healthy.

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The Venerable Bede a Church Father?

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

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

Bede is not ancient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byzantine Syria: Oppressive Hierarchies vs. Personal Connection with God

Last night I read the article “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians” by Don Belt in the June issue of National Geographic (I read it in print).  I do not doubt that Don Belt knows much more intimately the state of affairs for the modern Arab Christian; the article was very good and balanced and informed on that front.  However, the following statement makes me wonder at his knowledge regarding their Byzantine ancestors:

When the Musliam Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased.  But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. (p. 94)

My issue is with the final sentence, not the first.  The first is true, verifiable, historical fact.  The second is speculation.  We do not know the motives behind most conversions of local populations at that time because most of them were unlettered — not necessarily illiterate, but not about to write a paperback about “My Conversion to Islam.”  I imagine that their conversion to Islam was similar to that of many Roman citizens in 313 or more likely 381.  This is the new religion in town, the rulers recommend it.

I acknowledge that the Church has had her times of “oppressive hierarchies” and that the Byzantines would not have been entirely free from them.  However, we should note a few things that make Byzantine Christianity different from Roman Catholicism (since most people imagine everything from Constantine to the Reformation to be the same sort of creature).

One fact is the lay nature of the monks.  Monasticism was a lay movement started and maintained by the laity of the Eastern Church, not governed or regulated by the clergy.  There were no bishops sitting around approving which orders were allowed to found monasteries; there are no orders in the East.  They are all just monks.  And often, especially in places like Syria and Palestine, the monks were local holy men, involved in the life of the community.  Lay monasticism was a source for popular piety amongst the Christians of the Holy Land, something not enshrined in the hierarchies.  These holy men would have stressed the importance of a personal connection with God.

Second, there was a robust Syriac and Aramaic Christian literature, as seen in the earlier St. Ephraim and the liturgies of the Syrian Church.  Many theologians would have been writing in Greek, the international language of the day.  St. John of Damascus, a Syrian, did, as did many across Asia Minor and in Egypt.  The existence of Christian literature in the vernacular speaks of the existence of personal piety in Late Antique/Byzantine Syria.

Third, the role of the clergy, this so-called “oppressive hierarchy” was to baptise, preside at the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), and to teach the people.  In a proper setting, Eastern Christian clergy are not intermediaries between the lay people and God, but exhorters of the lay people, instructors of the lay people, shepherds who help keep the lay people on their pathway to their own personal connection with God.  The Eucharist is not about the priest standing between me and God; it is about God coming to me in the bread and wine.  Perhaps some people find the fact that it’s always a priest or bishop consecrating the elements oppressive; a proper understanding of the Eucharist creates popular piety and devotion to God (even a bad one can, both being seen in Mediaeval Catholic piety).

This personal connection with God would have been demonstrated in the attendance at morning and evening, and occasionally noon, prayers.  This is the same expression of a “personal connection with God” that Islam would have offered.  I could see an uneducated, uncatechised Christian not seeing much difference between Christianity and Islam due to similarities such as this; yet I do not imagine that they would say, “Great!  I am free from those oppressive hierarchies!”

Fifth, the whole point of Pseudo-Dionysius (aka Denys, before AD 532) was the accessibility of God to every Christian.  Mysticism is not meant solely for the monks and the priests.  That’s the point.  And Pseudo-Dionysius was very popular in the Byzantine world, as were many other mystical writers from St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. John Climacus.  Very popular as well was St. Ephraim the Syrian.

Sixth, if the hierarchies of this era were oppressive, what was a layman like St. John of Damascus doing producing such excellent and well-informed theology?

There was ample opportunity for a personal connection with God in the world of Byzantine Syrian Christianity, through monasticism and contact with monks, through the sacraments, through daily prayer, through the literature of Syrian Christians, through mysticism.  I think that a shift from Christianity to Islam on the part of the local inhabitants of the Middle East was fairly gradual and the result of a cultural form of Christianity that had not taken root in the hearts of the people.

Yet to this day there are many Christians residing in the Holy Land, praying where Christ and the Apostles prayed, walking where they walked, living where they lived, dying where they died.