Living Scripture

In the Coptic Life of the fourth-century Desert Father Pambo, we read this story:

When he came to the brothers he went and found an old man and said to him, “Teach me a psalm,” for he was illiterate, and the old man began to teach him this psalm: “I said, ‘I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue.'” [Ps 38:2 (LXX)]. And after the old man had given him the beginning of the text, Pambo stopped him, saying, “My father, since I haven’t yet learned the beginning of the text, I will not learn the rest.” And when Abba Pambo went to his cell, he spent eight years putting into practice the saying that he had learned, for he came into contact with no one, saying, “Unless I first master my tongue, I will come into contact with no one lest I fall into sin on account of my tongue.” After eight years, he went and paid a visit to the old man who had given him the psalm. The old man said to him, “Pambo, why haven’t we seen you until today? Why didn’t you come to learn the psalm?” Apa Pambo said to him, “Since I hadn’t learned the first verse, I didn’t return to you to get the second since God had not given me the grace until now to learn it. In order not to act as if I despised you, I have come to visit you, my father. For if I learn the first verse, I will come to see you again.” And when he returned to his cell, he stayed there another ten years and did not come into contact with anyone. -Trans. Tim Vivian, Four Desert Fathers, pp. 58-59

This story is a perfect example of what may be called the Desert hermeneutic — Scripture is not learned or interpreted correctly unless it is lived. It is an approach to the Bible that is common not only to fourth-century Egyptian monks but to The Philokalia as well, as discussed by the chapter by Douglas Burton-Christie in the edited volume, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality. It’s an idea I first heard articulated in Christopher J. Kelly’s book Cassian’s Conferences, for it is a perspective shared by John Cassian.

Most of us, when we think about “learning” a Psalm probably think how I expect Abba Pambo’s spiritual father was thinking in the story: Pambo will memorise the Psalm and learn how to sing it. And if we think about interpreting a Psalm, we’ll think about dissecting it in various ways: its original poet and audience; its later use in the Temple and Synagogue; its theological significance at the time of composition as well as today; how it can inform our own life of prayer and worship.

For Pambo, the Scriptures are not learned unless they are lived.

He hears, “I will watch my ways so as to be unable to sin with my tongue,” and determines that unless he is unable to sin with his tongue, he has not learned the Psalm. So off he goes to practise.

This is similar to Antony who hears, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” (Mt 19:21 NIV) and, rather than relativising or contextualising it as we all have since Clement of Alexandria, he did exactly what the Scripture commands.

It is interesting that this lived hermeneutics, this mimesis or imitation as interpretation, also typifies the Pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim; he hears 1 Thess. 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” and will not rest until he learns the secret — and The Way of a Pilgrim is a book steeped in The Philokalia, a great popularising text of Philokalic spirituality.

I also think this slow approach to the Bible is interesting. I find I have trouble doing things in bits and bobs. Give me a different large-ish chunk to read every day, and I’ll try and read it. Give me one verse to read and meditate on every day, and I’ll get sick of it. I want to blitz through a text — the Bible, a novel, a book of theology. If I divide something up into small bits, it becomes disjointed in my mind.

But for Abba Pambo, internalising the Scripture so that it becomes a characteristic of his own life requires dealing with it one bit at a time.

I have to admit that I’m not the greatest Bible reader. I miss days, sometimes weeks and months, in fact. Sometimes I read quickly and digest nothing. I’d rather be reading a science fiction novel or watching Frasier or Star Trek much of the time. But I am also stirred by high, lofty ideals. Imagine internalising Scripture. Just spending time in it, verse by verse, little by little, learning how to live it, really and truly live it.

It would require grace. I think it may also require a spiritual father — or, at least, a spiritual friend.

As the great Abba Antony said:

Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved. –Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Antony 3 (trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 2)

Dispassion and stillness (apatheia and hesychia)

I have been reading Evagrius, and about Evagrius, lately, either with the purpose of understanding his approach to Scripture (hence his inclusion in my post, Early Ascetics Talking About the Bible) or his demonology. Along the way I encountered Luke Dysinger’s Evagrius website, about which I recently blogged, and there I was able to read his text and translation of select scholia on Proverbs by Evagrius.

These scholia, like most of Evagrius’ works, are little nuggets to ponder over — in this case, to help you understand Scripture. Proverbs 1:33 reads, “He who hears me reposes in hope and lives in tranquility, fearless of any evil.” Evagrius writes:

Ὁ ἀπαθὴς ἡσυχάζει ἀφόβως ἀπὸ παντὸς κακοῦ λογισμοῦ

The person who has dispassion (apatheia) lives in stillness (hesychia) with no fear from any evil thought. (My trans.)

The [one who possesses] apatheia [dispassion] lives in tranquillity without any fear of evil [tempting-thoughts] (Dysinger trans.)

This is a scholion you could read over and over and ponder anew in different ways. We see very clearly Evagrius’ concision with language — he has a single Greek noun to that I render with three English words, and a single verb that likewise takes three English words. It’s not just ‘Greek has such precision’ here — Evagrius uses great concision, as well. These two words, apathés which derives from apatheia and hésychiazo which derives from hésychia are the subject of this post. These two words are key to grasping Eastern Christian spirituality.

Apatheia

I have mentioned apatheia on this blog before, with reference to Clement of Alexandria — passionlessness, dispassion, freedom from the passions: these are normal ways of Englishing it. It became controversial around the turn of the fifth century, so John Cassian avoided it in his Conferences, using the phrase puritas cordi, purity of heart, instead. (I’ve also written about that.)

Apatheia doesn’t sound very fun to us these days. It sounds like being grim and maintaining a stiff upper lip — stoic in a bad sense. We like to laugh, to cry — all these emotions. However, I do not think this is what the ancient ascetics mean by it. Evagrius himself says:

“Whether all of these [thoughts] trouble the soul or do not trouble it does not depend on us. But whether they linger or do not linger or whether the passions move or are not moved, that depends on us” (Praktikos 6, trans. Jeremy Driscoll in the introduction to Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 13). 

The passions are those movements within our hearts, minds, souls, that affect us. We do not necessarily control them. A life lived at the mercy of the passions is not necessarily happy. To consider an extreme case, I have a friend with bipolar who, when he was undiagnosed, purchased a very expensive set of Civil War figurines online because he was sure they would be collectibles and multiply in value over the years. They have not. He wasted that money in a manic moment precisely because he was being ruled by his passions — his enthusiasm for these figurines and how cool they were.

That is the sort of life apatheia wants to set us free from.

My son, approaching three years old in a few months, currently asks endlessly, “Why?” Sometimes the answer is, “Because I/you/he/she/the bird felt like it.” In Evagrius’s world, the person possessing apatheia — the apathés — might “feel like” doing something, but whether or not he or she did it would be based upon discretion/discernment, wisdom, love, and knowledge.

A life thus lived is, as a result, calm, peaceful, tranquil — it possesses hesychia, peace, stillnness, quietude.

Hesychia

The result of attaining apatheia is to live in hesychia. I first met the term hesychia in John Michael Talbot’s book The Music of Creation. Talbot provided the image of a pool of water that is stirred up so that you cannot see the bottom. Hesychia is the peacefulness and stillness of the so that it becomes clear and limpid, so that you can see the bottom and pull out any garbage you might see.

In the English translation of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, the translators give the following definition in their glossary:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepend by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him. (p. 365)

Much of The Philokalia is about watchfulness, as with Evagrius. The watchful Christian attains heyschia, calmness and stillness. It is, perhaps, paradoxical,that pure prayer leads to hesychia, given that one of the Desert Fathers (I forget which), said that prayer is a struggle until your last breath. But this state of peacefulness is always under attack from the thoughts arising from within our own fallen minds as well as those provoked by the demons. 

Hesychia comes up at various points in Evagrius. In Ad Monachos he writes:

The double-tongued monk agitates the brethren,
but the faithful one brings stillness. -ch. 95

In the one singing psalms, irascibility is quiet (hésychiazei);
and the long-suffering one, fearless shall he be. -ch. 98 (trans. Jeremy Driscoll)

Not that seeking hesychia is easy:

As it is impossible to purify water once troubled unless it remain undisturbed, so too is it impossible to purify the state of a monk unless he practise stillness with all rigour and perseverance. -Exhortation 1 to Monks, ch. 7 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz)

This is the quest of Evagrian and Philokalic spirituality — hence why its later exponents, such as Gregory Palamas, were called hesychasts.

As you sit in your house today, maybe working from home, maybe taking care of children, maybe alone with your spouse, maybe truly alone, perhaps now is a good time to attempt to quiet those many thoughts that come through all of us. Take a few moments to cultivate hesychia, seeking apatheia and purity of heart, after all:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

St John Cassian

Yesterday (leap day, of all days in the calendar!) was the feast of John Cassian, monastic founder and one of the ascetic fathers of Latin Christianity. Clearly, though, he has something of a mixed reputation to get a feast that comes only once every four years!

Cassian’s reputation is marred by the predestination controversy, in which the Augustinians in Gaul (modern France) were so particular and powerful that an anti-Pelagian such as Cassian could still come under suspicion and find himself labelled “semi-Pelagian”. Cassian’s teaching on this subject is found in his thirteenth Conference. What we find there has been called by one scholar “semi-Augustinian” rather than semi-Pelagian. Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church says that what Cassian writes here is essentially Eastern in spirit, which is no surprise, since Cassian is from the Balkans, lived as a monk in Bethlehem, toured Egypt’s monasteries for about ten years, and spent time with John Chrysostom in Constantinople before moving West.

But Cassian, despite this label, despite so inauspicious a feast day, has had an enduring influence on Western asceticism and mysticism, from St Benedict to Steve Bell. Besides a couple of obvious references in Benedict, if you look through the commentary on the Rule by Georg Holzherr, you will find many passages inspired or paralleled by Cassian.

Indeed, Cassian is one of the great ascetic fathers of the Latin church — hundreds of copies of his main works, the Institutes and Conferences, exist. His teaching about the inner life has found eager readers in every generation. What is the telos (end) of the monastic life? The Kingdom of Heaven. What is the skopos (goal)? Purity of heart. Aim for purity of heart, and you will find the Kingdom of heaven. This wisdom is not just monastic but for all Christians, is it not?

His teaching on discretion is a reminder that true Christian asceticism at its best is not typified by standing on a pillar, tying a chain around your waist, wearing iron underwear, or mortifying the flesh to such extremes that you become ill. It is typified, in Cassian as elsewhere, by the words of Sergei Bulgakov, ‘Discipline the flesh that you may gain a body.’ It is what Kallistos Ware calls ‘natural asceticism’.

Conference 10 on prayer is a classic treatise on the subject — and the reason we say, ‘O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us,’ at the start of the daily office!

It has been a long time since I read all of Cassian in full; in recent years, I have only whetted my appetite with the selections in The Philokalia, Vol. 1. There is a lot of wisdom, as I recall; I’ve blogged about it here. Clearly, being unpopular in your teaching about predestination is not enough to keep you from being read and digested for centuries. In fact, Lossky says that Cassian’s popularity results in St Bernard’s views on grace and freewill being more like the Eastern Church’s than the predominantly Augustinian West (take that for what it’s worth, though; I am skeptical about Lossky because of his misunderstandings of Aquinas on the Trinity).

I am going to be revisiting Cassian in greater depth soon. I think, though, that he is precisely the sort of guide to Christian “spirituality” we need in this age — an ascetic master esteemed in both the Latin and Greek churches who was not fully engulfed by either side of the predestination debate who sought purity of heart for the purpose of finding the Kingdom of Heaven.

As the empires and kingdoms of the human race descend into madness, that is the true Kingdom we all need.

Work is prayer

So I’m working on a sermon about ceaseless prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17: ‘pray without ceasing’). And I had this thought that the ancients never came up with any cop-outs for ceaseless prayer. You know, ‘St Paul means pray regularly’ or something. Or ‘ceaseless in Greek doesn’t mean the same thing when put in context.’

However, Origen almost does, as I learned doing my research for the sermon:

He prays without ceasing who joins prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer. It is only in this way that we can understand the injunction, pray without ceasing, as something that we can carry out; that is to say, if we regard the whole life of the saint as one great continuous prayer. What is usually termed “prayer” is but a part of this prayer, and it should be performed not less than three times each day. … –On Prayer, 12.2, trans. John J. O’Meara (Ancient Christian Writers 19; pp. 46-47)

Perhaps, however, this is not a cop-out. When you read the Philokalia, fifth-century writers like Hesychios the Priest of Diadochus of Photike talk about constant vigilance and ceaseless prayer, and how stopping praying can harm your progress toward holiness and hesychia (silence/stillness).

It’s a grand ideal.

But I still have to make breakfast for myself and my sons, eat said breakfast, take a shower, “go to work”, change diapers, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, maintain a healthy and human relationship with my wife and any other people I see during the day, buy groceries, help cook supper and lunch at times, bathe my sons, brush my teeth, and so forth.

Some of these acts I can pray during. Others I cannot, for they require my attention for one reason or another.

Origen’s approach, then, is to turn these non-prayer-acts into prayers. Work is prayer.

This is, in fact, an idea I found once in a book about Benedictines (possibly Esther de Waal, Seeking God?), that our work, especially in service to others, is itself prayer. As I empty the dishwasher, I often say to myself, ‘Work is prayer. Prayer is work. Service is love.’

Furthermore, if we commit ourselves more fully to undivided prayer when we do set aside times for seeking the face of God, prayer will begin to imbue our lives, and we will become a living prayer. At least, that’s what they say…

Ceaseless Prayer (from Diadochos of Photiki)

I had to cut this from a sermon I’m working on, so I’ll share it here, instead:

‘Those who desire to free themselves from their corruption ought to pray not merely from time to time but at all times; they should give themselves always to prayer, keeping watch over their intellect (nous) even when outside places of prayer. When someone is trying to purify gold, and allows the fire of the furnace to die down even for a moment, the material which he is purifying will harden again. So, too, a man who merely practises the remembrance of God from time to time, loses through lack of continuity what he hopes to gain through his prayer.’ –‘On Spiritual Knowledge’, 97, Philokalia 1, pp. 293-94.

Acedia and raising children

Acedia, by Hieronymous Bosch

Today, six months of sleep deprivation got the better of me and I slept through most of the sermon. One of the few notes I wrote was unrelated to what was going on in front of me, but instead what was going on inside of me. I wrote:

ἀκηδία has taken hold

Latinised as accidia or acedia, this is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, often translated as sloth. It is not laziness, but, rather, dejection as Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translate it in the Philokalia, or despondency as in the English title of Gabriel Bunge’s book on the subject, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus on Acedia. Here’s one of a few good posts by Fr Aidan Kimel on Bunge’s book. The pastor at my church calls it spiritual apathy.

In his text, ‘On Discrimination’ (part of The Philokalia), Evagrius Ponticus writes:

All the demons teach the soul to love pleasure; only the demon of dejection refrains from doing this, since he corrupts the thoughts of those he enters by cutting off every pleasure of the soul and drying it up through dejection, for ‘the bones of the dejected are dried up’ (Prov. 17:22 LXX). (ch. 11)

Cassian, the student of Evagrius who brought the riches of Evagrian asceticism to the Latin West, writes:

the demon of dejection … obscures the soul’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. He instils a hatred of every kind of work and even of the monastic profession itself. Undermining all the sou’s salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralysed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts. (From The Philokalia, Vol. 1, ‘On the Eight Vices’, which is a Greek translation of selections from Institutes 5-12)

Acedia is called the noonday demon. Imagine being a monk in the Egyptian desert. If that seems impossible, imagine being a monk in a Toronto heat wave. When else is such dejection more likely to come upon you?

Well, one other time it is likely to come upon you is when you are sleep-deprived because of your 6-month-old up in the night, combined with a toddler who gets up at 6 AM, on a day when you have been baked in the sun pushing the stroller to church and had the toddler reject a perfectly good snack on heaven-knows-what grounds, and you find yourself just wanting to take your introverted self away somewhere, but there is nowhere to go, and church just seems too much.

But you have to stay.

Your kid is in the toddler room.

Leaving church would be like using it as a daycare, wouldn’t it?

So I sat and sang the songs. I did not stand. I slept through most of the sermon. And I fled the church with my son as soon as I could.

Now, my elder son may have been an acedia trigger today, but part of the overshadowing of despondency in that pew is the rest of this life. The lack of work for September and the slowly drying prospects of work in my own field. The general spiritual weariness of anyone fool enough to consider his’erself Anglican. Not knowing where we’ll live in September. Not feeling that excited about my research. Feeling uncertain about this blog (that one being the least of my wearies).

So much. More than that, really.

But when your kid is Sunday school, and the noontide demon tempts you to just run away, you force yourself to stay at least for appearances, maybe with a tiny bit of hope that the Blessed Sacrament is what you believe it is and can do what you say it can do.

In other situations, you simply cannot run away at all. I could have decided not to maintain face and gone on a walk until the end of church. Maybe no one would even have known! But when acedia tempts you to just give up at other times, the toddler won’t let you. You will build the fort in his room. You will play with water on the porch. You will read a book seven times in a row.

And sometimes, you even like it. (Honestly, sometimes you still don’t. And sometimes you fall asleep reading to the poor creature.)

So the relationship between children and acedia is complicated. They can help cause it. They can help cure it.

Know yourself to know the Bible

Mosaic from San Gregorio, Rome, now in Baths of Diocletian. 1st c AD. ‘Know thyself’

I am slowly working my way through the collection of essays, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif. Right now, I am reading the chapter about Scripture in The Philokalia by Douglas Burton-Christie (who wrote a good book about Scripture and the Desert Fathers called The Word in the Desert). Of the many important and interesting things he is bringing to light from the teachings of the fathers in the The Philokalia is this:

You must know yourself to understand Scripture.

Gnothi seauton — Know thyself, said the old oracle at Delphi.

How does knowledge of myself contribute to knowledge of Scripture?

One of the important things we need to keep in mind when we consider the entire monastic, ascetic, and mystical tradition of Christianity, is that the Bible is not simply a repository of stories and facts that we can come to a full apprehension of by our application of better philological and historical methodologies. For them, it was the word of God, and understanding it was part of being transformed, part of acquiring wisdom, part of knowing God.

This tradition, that draws from Origen but, in this Philokalia, includes St Maximus the Confessor and Evagrius, is more concerned with the spiritual sense of Scripture (which includes but is not limited to allegory).

We have here two different ways of knowing Scripture, ways that Henri de Lubac, in Medieval Exegesis, sees as both important, although one had (and has) the ascendancy. The way most of moderns read Scripture is the pursuit of facts, details, surface realities. This, at a certain level, anyone can do. It does not necessarily require knowledge of myself to have an intellectual grasp of the Pauline articulation of justification, or to argue that the Philistines were so good at beating the Israelites because they entered the Iron Age first. It requires philology, history, maybe philosophy.

The other way is the pathway of wisdom. This is the pathway where the question of justification is driven into my own beating heart and cannot keep itself to my intellect. Here, in this pathway, factoids like, ‘Philistines had iron’, are interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the drive towards understanding myself, the divine, the world, and how best to live in the midst of them all.

This latter method reads the prophets and asks, ‘How shall I live?’ The former reads the prophets and asks, ‘What did this mean to the original audience?’

But to be able to use Scripture to draw oneself up to God, to be able to be deified by reading Scripture, to figure out how to live with Scripture as a light — this requires self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is not something any age, our own included, has been particularly comfortable; explaining why the ancient wisdom keeps harping on it.

This theme, ‘Know thyself’, is a favourite amongst many poets, among them Sir John Davies (1569-1626), as explicated by Malcolm Guite in Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here). So let me break off and give you instead a selection from Sir John Davies, Nosce Teipsum:

For this the wisest of all mortal men
Said, He knew nought but that he nought did know;
And the great mocking master mocked not then,
When he said, Truth was buried deep below.
For how may we to others’ things attain,
When none of us his own soul understands?
For which the devil mocks our curious brain,
When, Know thyself, his oracle commands.
For why should we the busy soul believe,
When boldly she concludes of that and this;
When of herself she can no judgment give,
Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what she is?
All things without, which round about we see,
We seek to know, and how therewith to do;
But that whereby we reason, live, and be,
Within ourselves we strangers are thereto.
We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.
We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.
We study speech, but others we persuade;
We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;
We interpret laws, which other men have made,
But read not those which in our hearts are writ.
Is it because the mind is like the eye,
Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees–
Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly–
Not seeing itself when other things it sees?
No, doubtless, for the mind can backward cast
Upon herself her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt and so defaced,
As her own image doth herself affright.