Sunday, December 30, 2012

Gems From the Treasury: December 24-28, 2012

This past week of Gems From the Treasury on my Twitter featured quotes from St. Ephraim (Ephrem) the Syrian, a Doctor of the Church.

12/24/12: "Divinity flew down to rescue and lift up humanity."--Hymns on Virginity 48.17
12/25/12: "Blessed is the birth on which a generation thundered with hallelujahs of praise."--Hymns on the Nativity 21.3
12/26/12: "Blessed is He Who made our body a Tabernacle for His hiddenness.  Blessed is He Who with our tongue interpreted His secrets."--Hymns on the Nativity 3.7
12/27/12: "Blessed be the Babe Who made His mother the lyre of His melodies."--Hymns on the Nativity 15.4
12/28/12: "Blessed is the Unlimited Who was limited."--Hymns on the Nativity 23.2

Next week's series of Gems From the Treasury, to continue the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, will contain quotes from various Byzantine liturgical hymns from throughout this season of the Nativity.

St. Ephraim the Syrian, pray for us!

Nota Bene: If I remember correctly, all of these quotes come from the collection of St. Ephraim's hymns translated by Kathleen McVey in Hymns in the Classics of Western Spirituality series by Paulist Press.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gems From the Treasury

I am a compulsive collector of quotes, most notably those of saints and other Christian spiritual writers.  My collection is large and growing, and I do not want to keep them to myself.  Therefore I have decided to start a new project using my little-used Twitter account.  Each weekday I will tweet a quote from my collection, and I will place the quotes along with their bibliographical information in posts here.  Each week will have some sort of theme, beginning with a week of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Doctor of the Church, with quotes from his Hymns on the Nativity (except for the Eve of the Nativity).  I hope this project inspires readers with its quotes from throughout the Catholic (and probably also Orthodox) tradition.  May St. Josemaría Escrivá, who understood the power of short quotes, as seen in his writings, pray for me throughout this endeavor.  If you wish to be inspired by this project, you can follow my Twitter account with the link to the right or read the posts I will publish each week.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

St. Josemaría Escrivá, pray for us!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Franciscan Fasting

 "Induebar cilicio, humiliabam in ieiunio animam meam, et oratio mea ad sinum meum revertetur."

"I wore sackcloth, I afflicted myself with fasting.  I prayed with head bowed on my bosom."--Ps 35:13.

No Christian life is without suffering, for Christ suffered.  Even the most joyful Christian recognizes the necessity of suffering, whether voluntary or no.  The Seraphic Father, St. Francis of Assisi, was no different in this regard.  Yet so many portray him as solely a lover of God's creation (which he most assuredly was).  How many know of his tears, his tears so plentiful that they ran furrows in his cheeks, that they took away his sight?  Who knows of his public self-deprecation when he took a spoonful of meat broth while fasting?  Who knows of his flight into a thorn bush to conquer the passions of the flesh?

St. Francis was not just a man of joy who loved God's creation, but he was a man who suffered for the Lord, who mortified himself for the Lord.  "Each one has the [real] enemy in his own power; that is, the body through which he sins.  Therefore blessed is that servant (Mt 24:46) who, having such an enemy in his power, will always hold him captive and wisely guard himself against him" (Admonitions X.2-3).  His call to poverty, Lady Poverty whom he married, was joined with a call to mortify oneself.  He calls blessed those who "hate their bodies with their vices and sins...and produce worthy fruits of penance" (The First Version of the Letter to the Faithful §§I.2, 4).  "We must also fast and abstain from vices and sins (cf. Sir 3:32) and from any excess of food and drink, and be Catholics...We must also deny ourselves (cf. Mt 16:24) and place our bodies under the yoke" (The Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful §§32, 40).

He did not only speak in generalities even, but in specifics as well.  He decreed much fasting for his brothers: from All Saints until Christmas, from Epiphany until Easter, and every Friday (cf. The Earlier Rule §§III.11-12; The Later Rule §§III.5-8).  Though he later allowed them to not keep the post-Epiphany fast, asked that those who do keep it "be blessed by the Lord" (The Later Rule §III.6).  It is easy to see how great a love for fasting and for penance and for bodily mortification St. Francis had, a love which he strove to pass on to his brothers.

May those who love our Father Francis not see merely his joy and his love of creation but his love of poverty, of fasting, of bodily mortification as well.  Let us follow his example and not live only in joy, but also in penance.  Let us strive, too, to live in penance as he recommended: let us live a life of fasting.  Though it may be fatiguing, let us strive none the less: "For you will sell this fatigue at a very high price and each one [of you] will be crowned" (The Canticle of Exhortation to Saint Clare and Her Sisters §6).

San Francesco, prega per noi!
St. Francis, pray for us!

Nota Bene: All quotes come from the volume of the Writings of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi translated by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M., published as part of Paulist Press' Classics of Western Spirituality Series.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Saint Nicolas Cantata by Benjamin Britten

Happy feast of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra!  Though usually known only for his work of charity in giving dowry money to a peasant so his daughters could be married (and from that gift-giving the figure of Santa Claus eventually appeared), St. Nicholas was also a holy bishop and a slapper of heretics (famously slapping Arius at the First Council of Nicea), and he is also the patron of the Ruthenian Catholic Church.  To celebrate his feast day, above is the 8th movement from the cantata Saint Nicolas by Benjamin Britten, a 20th-century Anglican composer.  If the music interests you, the entire cantata can be found at the website of the St. Nicholas Center, with full text available here.

I pray that your Nativity Fast or Advent is proceeding prayerfully, and once again, happy feast of St. Nicholas!

St. Nicholas of Myra, pray for us!

Monday, December 3, 2012

An Introduction to Eastern Monastic Spirituality: Silence/Stillness

Requested by a reader.

[I apologize for the long span of time between my last post in this series and the present post.  Life has intervened, as it does among those of us who are not monastics.  I once again apologize for my excessive tardiness.]

This is my second in a series of three posts on the major themes of Eastern Christian monastic spirituality.  In my earlier posts you can learn about the sources of Eastern Christian monasticism and the first major theme: solitude.  I apologize if I misrepresent any part of monastic spirituality.  I just hope that this is in some extent helpful.


St. Diadochos of Photiki

"Flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness," said the Lord to Abba Arsenios (AP, Arsenios #2).  Having covered the theme of solitude in my first post, now it is time to move on to silence.

As with solitude, there is definitely a literal aspect to how to live out silence.  "To live without speaking is better than to speak without living" (AP, Isidore of Pelusia #1).  Silence allows one to focus solely on God without being distracted.  As is generally the case even today, monasteries generally discourage any speech except for select times (although sometimes other types of communication are allowed: some medieval monks even created their own forms of sign language).

Talkativeness in oneself "dissipates [the soul's] remembrance of God through the door of speech," like an open door allows heat to escape a steam bath; thus, "timely precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts" (St. Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination §70; PK I.276).  However, this does not mean speaking in itself is evil: instead, the silence must be "timely."  "A sense of the right moment and a sense of proportion go hand in hand with an intelligent silence" (Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology §I.26; PK III.37).  Silence, then, should be used in moderation to combat the vice of excessive talkativeness and to support the spiritual life of both oneself and others.  In the famous words of Abba Pambo, "If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech" (qtd. in AP, Theophilus the Archbishop #2).

 This ideal of silence is not meant to be solely something exterior, though, but also something interior.  This interior silence is best exemplified by the concept of stillness, ἡσυχία.  A short definition is "living a life without distraction, far from all worldly care" (St. Peter of Damaskos, Book I, A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline; PK III.89).  A slightly longer is "a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure and the guarding of heart and attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him" (PK, Glossary).  A definition at great length is as follows:

"Stillness is an undisturbed state of the intellect, the clam of a free and joyful soul, the tranquil unwavering stability of the heart in God, the contemplation of light, the knowledge of the mysteries of God, consciousness of wisdom by virtue of a pure mind, the abyss of divine intellections, the rapture of the intellect, intercourse with God, an unsleeping watchfulness, spiritual prayer, untroubled repose in the midst of great hardship and, finally, solidarity and union with God" (Nikitas Stithatos, On the Inner Nature of Things and on the Purification of the Intellect §64; PK IV.125).

In a sense, stillness is a silence inside the soul.  It is the quieting of all passions and turbulent thoughts in order to focus solely on the Lord.  As David writes in His voice, "Devote yourselves to stillness and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10).  The entire goal of the solitude discussed in the previous post is to prepare oneself to more easily achieve both exterior and interior silence, that is, silence of speech and silence of thoughts (stillness).

 As with my last post, I feel woefully inadequate in writing on these topics, especially because I am so recently introduced to them.  Therefore, I will again refer to our holy predecessors, the God-Bearing Fathers.  May their words (and the words of a few other spiritual writers) teach you more than I ever could.

"The beginning of purity of the soul is silence."--St. Basil the Great

 Sts. Barsanuphius and John

"First, if a person does not enter deeply into himself and does not have complete mastery over himself, silence begets only an exaggeration opinion of oneself.  But if one does master himself, he will excel in humility."--St. Barsanuphius

"All my days have I grown up among the Sages and I have found naught better for a man than silence; and not the expounding [of the Law] is the chief thing but the doing [of it]; and he that multiplies words occasions sin."--Simeon bar-Gamaliel, The Mishnah, Aboth 1:17 [Jewish spiritual writer].

"Expel from yourself the spirit of talkativeness. For in it lurk the most dreadful passions: lying, loose speech, absurd chatter, buffoonery, obscenity. To put the matter succintly, 'through talkativeness you will not escape sin' (Prv 10:19 LXX), whereas a silent man 'is a throne of perceptiveness' (Prv 12:23 LXX). Moreover, the Lord has said that we shall have to give an account of every idle word (cf. Mt 12:36). Thus silence is most necessary and profitable."--St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, A Century of Spiritual Texts §79 (PK II.31)

"For those newly engaged in spiritual warfare the swift path to the recovery of virtue consists in the silencing of the lips, the closure of the eyes and the stopping of the ears; for once the intellect has achieved this kind of intermission and has sealed off the external entrances to itself, it begins to understand itself and its own activities."--Nikitas Stithatos, On the Practice of the Virtues §26 (PK IV.85)

"Purity of heart constitutes prayer more than do all the prayers that are uttered out aloud, and silence united to a mind that is sincere is better than the loud voice of someone crying out."--Aphrahat, Demonstration IV.1

"Anyone coming into the land of silence must always bear in mind the end to which it gives access, so that his heart may never stray."--Seraphim of Sarov [Russian Orthodox saint]

"It is necessary to strive to reach silence of spirit, because there can be nothing good in a stormy soul."--Seraphim of Sarov

 St. Gregory of Sinai

"Nothing so fills the heart with contrition and humbles the soul as solitude embraced with self-awareness, and utter silence."--St. Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; on Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and also on Stillness and Prayer §104 (PK IV.235)

"When you allow any distraction to disturb the mind, such draws the mind away from silence.  For silence is had only in peace and tranquility, since God is peace and is beyond all agitation and noise."--Nil Sorsky [Russian Orthodox saint], The Monastic Rule [Ustav] II

"You should refresh yourself...with conversation about the life of virtue when you relax from silence."--Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology §III.17 (PK III.49)

"Spiritual conversation is silver, but silence is golden."--A Holy Father, qtd. in Father John, Christ is in Our Midst: Letters From a Russian Monk, Letter #55

"I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent."--AP, Arsenios #40

"Stillness and prayer are the greatest weapons of virtue, for they purify the intellect and confer on it spiritual insight."--St. Thalassios the Libyan, On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect §I.67 (PK II.311)

 St. Ephraim the Syrian (15th c. Armenian icon)

"In luminous silence within the mind let prayer recollect itself, so as not to stray."--St. Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on the Faith XX.5

"It is stillness, full of wisdom and benediction, that leads us to this holy and godlike state of perfection."--Nikitas Stithatos, On Spiritual Knowledge, Love and the Perfection of Living §25 (PK IV.146)

I hope this collection of extracts has not proven too long for you, and I hope that it, along with the short reflections above, have helped you to begin to grasp this concept of silence and stillness.  I apologize for any failures or misteachings on my part.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Ἀββᾶς Ἀντώνιος, πρέσβευε ὑπέρ ἡμών!
Abba Antonios, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Abbreviations for this post are as follows: AP = Apophegmata Patrum, PK = The Philokalia.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Christ Is Not Yet Born

"Bethlehem, make ready.  Ephrathah, prepare yourself!"  "Behold, a  virgin shall conceive and bear a son."  The Nativity of our Lord has not yet come: we still await this great feast.  Christ is not yet born.
It is true that we do not deny His historical birth, and we still proclaim in the Creed and in the Hymn to the Only-Begotten that the Son of God was made man.  Yet we do not particularly celebrate this fact, this momentous event, for we are still awaiting.  "The people who wait in darkness": this describes the Church at this time.  All creation is waiting with Her, with us, though the great event has occurred.  Despite this, we wait for the dawning of that day: Christ is not yet born.
This time of preparation, while it may vary in length, is present throughout the Church.  In the East it is the Nativity Fast, and in the West it is Advent.  It is a time of waiting and of penance before that great, great feast, the Nativity.  As in Lent, the Great Fast, we await the death and Resurrection of Christ, in this time we await His Nativity.  The Western Church recognizes this with her liturgy, for both times, Advent and Lent, share that liturgical color of purple, that time of dark waiting before the dawning of the glorious light.  We await that marvelous feast of the Nativity.  Christ is not yet born.
Today, so many small or great "feasts" abound before that holy day, so many "feasts" to celebrate "Santaclaustide."  Yet once the long-awaited day of the Nativity comes, it seems the "feasts" peter out and we are left with merely dreary winter.  Is not this a twisted reversal of the truth?  For now we are in darkness, but then we shall be in light.  Now we fast so that then we may feast.  There is a time for everything, and now is the time for penance and waiting and fasting, but then shall be the time for joy and celebration and feasting.  May Christmastide conquer Santaclaustide, at least in the lives of Christians.  For let us remember the fact of our waiting.  Christ is not yet born.
Though many start it on the 15th of December, the start of the Nativity Fast, according to tradition, is the 15th of November, giving forty days for penance and waiting, just as in Lent.  Not only the East, but also the West, has this fast in tradition, for St. Francis of Assisi once decreed, among his brothers, the keeping of Philip's Fast.  Yet even if we do not yet fast from food, should we not still fast from premature celebration?  There is a time for fasting, and there is a time for feasting, and now we fast: Christ is not yet born.
Let us then keep this fast, whether in body or only soul, for a fast precedes every feast.  When the Bridegroom is born, let us then keep the feast for days and days to come.  Christ will be born: of that we can be certain.  But equally certain should we be: Christ is not yet born.

"Bethlehem, make ready.  Ephrathah, prepare yourself."  "The virgin shall conceive and bear a son," but her journey to the cave still continues.  Christ is not yet born.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An Introduction to Eastern Monastic Spirituality: Solitude

Requested by a reader.

In an earlier post, I discussed the historical origins of Eastern Christian monasticism, from St. Anthony to St. Basil.  In this post and two later ones, I will discuss some of the major themes of Eastern Christian monastic spirituality.  This will be by no means comprehensive, and I apologize if I misrepresent any part of monastic spirituality.  I just hope that this is in some extent helpful.

Abba Arsenios

"Flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness."  Abba Arsenios heard God command him thus in prayer (AP, Arsenios #2).  This summarizes three of the key themes of monastic spirituality: solitude, silence, and unceasing prayer.

Monasticism begins with solitude.  The saint marked as the founder of monasticism, St. Anthony, was a recluse in the desert.  He lived alone, battling demons and growing closer to Christ.  Though he attracted disciples and sometimes visited the city, St. Anthony was a hermit, and hermits are, by nature, in solitude.  Eremitic monasticism, derived from St. Anthony's example, is solely solitude, while sketic monasticism is heavily solitary, with a communal aspect from cenobitism added in.  

The monastic Fathers often exhorted solitude. "Remain sitting in your cell and your thoughts will come to rest" (AP, Systematic Sayings #66).  "The man who has learned the sweetness of the cell flees from his neighbour but not as though he despised him" (AP, Theodore of Pherme #14).  "If a man does not say in his heart, in the world there is only myself and God, he will not gain peace" (AP, Alonius #1).  Even for those who are not hermits, solitude is viewed as a necessary aspect of spirituality.

What does solitude mean?  Part of it is most definitely truly being alone, taking a literal interpretation of the Gospel: "When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father Who is in secret" (Mt 6:6).  The Fathers always recommend moderation, including in this area: "For it is dangerous to isolate oneself completely, relying on one's own judgment with no one else as witness" (St. Mark the Ascetic, Letter to Nicholas the Solitary; PK I.158).  Though it involves withdrawal from the world and from evil (or even just foolish and immature) men, it does not involve hatred of men.  As St. Anthony the Great, the founder of monasticism, said, "Our life and our death is with our neighbour.  If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ" (AP, Anthony the Great #9).
St. John Klimakos (Climacus)

Physical solitude is also not necessary for the spiritual life: for example, St. John Klimakos (Climacus), a writer in the later-developed hesychast strain of monastic spirituality, writes, "The cell of a hesychast is the body that surrounds him" (LDA, Step 27).  In another place, the same saint writes, "Everyone can pray in a crowd.  For some it is a good thing to pray with a single kindred soul.  But solitary prayer is only for the very few" (LDA, Step 19).

If physical solitude is not necessary for monastic solitude, what does the word mean?  It means separating oneself from the world, becoming an "alien to the world," or, as the common Christian phrase says, "in the world but not of it."  For the Christian, "his mind is captive, and in his character and thoughts he is an alien to the ways and customs of the world in which he is sojourning" (Simon Taibutheh, On Prayer and on the Meaning of Communion with God).  The thirteenth-century Orthodox writer, Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, explains this flight well:

"Flight from the world is rewarded by refuge in Christ.  By 'world' I mean here attachment to sensory things and to worldly proclivities.  If you detach yourself from such things through knowledge of the truth you are assimilated to Christ, acquiring a love for Him that allows you to put aside all worldly matters and to purchase the precious pearl, that is to say, Christ Himself (cf. Mt 13:46)" (On Inner Work in Christ and the Monastic Profession; PK IV.177).

In one sense, this solitude means being trapped within oneself, not solipsistically, but in order to always commune with God: "He whose contemplation is collected within his mind sees there the splendour of the Father" (John of Dalyatha, "Discourse on Self-Custody").  Two of the best images I've found for this meaning of solitude are by somewhat recent Western writers, Ven. Mother Clara Fey and St. Faustina Kowalska.  Ven. Mother Clara said that our hearts should remain "like sanctuary lamps before the tabernacle," constantly in spiritual communion with Christ, and St. Faustina wrote of "a little cell in my heart where I always kept company with Jesus." (Sources can be found in this post.)  This concept is succinctly described Nikitas Stithatos' description of the spiritual dimension of solitude: "The solitary life is subdivided into three modes: the practice of the virtues, the spiritual cognition of created beings, and the indwelling of supranatural energy" (On Spiritual Knowledge, Love and the Perfection of Living §45; PK IV.152).

In short, what do the monastics mean by solitude?  They of course mean, in one sense, literal separation from the world as a mean of focusing on God, and this is valid even for those who are not hermits.  We can all take some time alone to commune with God (though this type of prayer may not be useful for all, as St. John Klimakos noted).  In another sense, this solitude means separation from the world in the sense of detachment, a common spiritual concept.  Thirdly, this solitude can mean being in constant communion with God in a "cell" in one's heart.  

I could keep discussing, but I feel my words are not penetrating much into this monastic concept.  The best I feel I can do is lay out the teaching of saints and other spiritual writers so that you may begin to come to an understanding of solitude.  The Fathers can teach better than I can, and I think the same holds true for other spiritual writers as well.

"For, as all shell-molluscs and crustaceans find rest nowhere except in their shells, in which they find shelter as in a house, so the mind can naturally find peace nowhere but in the chamber of the heart and in the inner man, where he shelters as in a fortress, and thus successfully wages war with thoughts, enemies and passions, also hidden there, within him, although most people do not know it."--Unseen Warfare I.26; the concept of spiritual warfare will be discussed later.

"One wishing to learn how to please God must leave the world."--Nil Sorsky [Russian Orthodox saint], Letter II (To Gurii Tushin).

St. Symeon the New Theologian

"The monk is one who is not mixed with the world
and always converses with God alone."--St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns on Divine Eros 3:1-2.

"A person who turns to the world becomes deprived of life."--St. Isaac of Nineveh

"By embracing solitude let us avoid meeting those who do us no good, for the company of frivolous people is harmful and undermines our state of peace.  Just as those who live in an unhealthy climate are generally ill, so those who spend their time with worthless men share in their vices."--St. Neilos the Ascetic, Ascetic Discourse (PK I.247)

"Language has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone, and the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone."--Paul Tillich [Protestant spiritual writer].

"Nothing so fills the heart with contrition and humbles the soul as solitude embraced with self-awareness, and utter silence."--St. Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; on Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and also on Stillness and Prayer §104 (PK IV.235)

"If you embrace the knowledge of the primordial Intellect, Who is the origin and consummation of all things, infinite in Himself, and existing both within all things and outside them, then you will know how to live as a solitary either by yourself or with other solitaries.  For you will suffer no loss of perfection through being on your own, and no loss of solitude through being with others.  On the contrary, you will be the same everywhere and alone among all.  You will initiate in others their movement towards a life of solitude and will embody the highest perfection of virtue that they set before themselves."--Nikitas Stithatos, On Spiritual Knowledge, Love and the Perfection of Living §92 (PK IV.170)

Solitude is "the mother of wisdom."--St. Neilos the Ascetic, Ascetic Discourse (PK I.231).

"Expunge from yourself the disgrace of negligence and the ignominy of disdaining God's commandments.  Dispel self-love and battle with your fallen self unsparingly.  Seek out the judgments of the Lord and His testimonies.  Scorn glory and dishonour.  Hate the titillating appetites of the body.  Avoid overeating, because this enkindles your lower organs.  Embrace poverty and hardship.  Resist the passions.  Introvert your senses toward your soul.  Inwardly assent to the doing of what is more noble.  Be deaf to human affairs.  Expend all your strength in practising the commandments.  Mourn, sleep on the ground, fast, endure hardship, be still and, last of all, know, not the things around you, but yourself.  Transcend the lowly state of visible things.  Open your spiritual eye to the contemplation of God and recognize the delightfulness of the Lord from the beauty of creation.  And when you descend from these heights of contemplation, speak to your brethren about eternal life and the mysteries of God's kingdom.  This is the purpose of flight from men through the strictest asceticism, and the ultimate goal of the life of solitude."--Nikitas Stithatos, On the Practice of the Virtues §74 (PK IV.98)

I apologize.  I fear this post has not been helpful or clear.  My greatest hope is that the numerous sayings from the Fathers and later spiritual writers will assist you in your spiritual life and in understanding the monastic concept of solitude.  Again, I apologize for the failures on my part, and I thank God for any benefit you gain from this work, most importantly from the quotes from the Fathers and others.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Αββας Αντωνιος, πρεσβευε υπερ ημων!
Abba Antonios, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Abbreviations for this post are as follows: AP = Apophthegmata Patrum, LDA = The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Klimakos (Climacus), PK = the Philokalia.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Works of St. Hildegard von Bingen

 As many will have heard by now, St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), or St. Hildegard of Bingen (for English speakers), was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI on October 7, 2012.  Though she had little education as a child, she became a polymath, composing hymns, penning a musical morality play, corresponding with people from monks and nuns to popes and emperors, explaining the Rule of St. Benedict and the Athanasian Creed, preaching commentaries on the Gospels, and writing two books on medicine, along with being a Benedictine abbess and recording (with the help of others) three books of the visions that she received starting from the age of 15.  Truly, St. Hildegard was (or is, since she lives now in Heaven) an extraordinary saint and woman. 

I thought it would be a helpful service for those wishing to learn about this new Doctor of the Church to have a list of links to complete translations of her works into English.  Most of these are links to Amazon listings for these publications, while a few of them are on-line versions.  I hope you find this useful.

NOTE: I have not read all these translations, so I do not know how accurate they are or what the introductions/commentaries consist of.  Some of these translators may not be in accord with the Catholic faith (at the very least, Matthew Fox, who translated the Liber Divinorum Operum, is a former Roman Catholic priest who left the Church to become an Episcopal priest and preach "New Age" spirituality, so be especially cautious with him).

Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures): One of St. Hildegard's two books on natural medicine.  
Epistolae (Letters): St. Hildegard wrote hundreds of letters: the English translation covers three volumes (one of which I couldn't find a good listing for on Amazon).
Explanatio Regulae Sancti Benedicti (Explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict): The community of the Convent of Hunniensis asked St. Hildegard for a commentary on and explanation of their founder's rule, and the saint obliged.
Explanation of the Athanasian Creed: A lesser-known work, quite possibly a sermon on the feast of St. Rupert, a saint she had a great devotion to.
  • Here is an online edition of a translation by Thomas M. Izbicki that I did not find on Amazon. 
Expositiones Evangeliorum (Homilies on the Gospels): A series of homilies given by St. Hildegard (did I mention that she also gave multiple preaching tours throughout Germany?). 
Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works): The 3rd book of St. Hildegard's visions.
Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of the Merits of Life): The 2nd book of St. Hildegard's visions
Lingua Ignota (Unknown Language): A language possibly constructed by St. Hildegard, possibly divinely revealed.  The language only consists of an alphabet (23 letters, like Latin), 1011 (or 1012?) words with Latin, and sometimes German, glosses (translations), plus one short Latin text incorporating 5 lingua ignota words, only one of which exists in the dictionary.
Ordo Virtutum (The Play of the Virtues): A musical morality play describing the virtues.
Physica: St. Hildegard's more famous book on natural medicine.
Scivias: The 1st book of St. Hildegard's visions, and more arguably her most famous.
Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations): The collection of St. Hildegard's famous hymns.
Vita Sancti Dysibodi Episcopi (The Life of Saint Disibod, Bishop): A hagiography of St. Disibod, an Irish saint that St. Hildegard had a devotion to.
Vita Sancti Rupperti Confessoris (The Life of Saint Rupert, Confessor): A hagiography of St. Rupert, whom St. Hildegard had a devotion to.

I hope you found this list helpful.  If you have any additional links for me, please feel free to leave a comment, and I will add the link to this list.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Hl. Hildegard von Bingen, bitte für uns!
St. Hildegard of Bingen, pray for us!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Sources of Eastern Monasticism

Requested by a reader.

It does not take one long in studying Eastern Christian spirituality to realize that the influence of monasticism is immense.  A common view is that, in the Eastern Church, monasticism is the basis of all spirituality and that the spirituality of a Christian in the world should only differ from a monastic's in degree, not in essence.  Having a knowledge of monastic spirituality is thus a necessity to understanding Eastern Christian spirituality in general.

My approach to this introduction will be to first, in this post, outline the major saints and writings that are basic to monasticism and then, in a later post, to outline some of the major themes of monastic spirituality.  Since this will be so brief, there will be much left out, and I am sorry for any misinformation and glaring omissions, but I encourage you to read deeper if you are interested.


The traditional founder of Eastern Christian monasticism is St. Anthony of the Desert (251-356), also known as St. Anthony the Great and Αββας Αντωνιος (Abba Antonios).  After hearing the words of the Gospel read, he was struck to the heart by them and decided to live evangelically (St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi had similar experiences).  His encounter with the Gospel drove him to live alone in the desert where he could dedicate all of his time and effort to the Lord through prayer and asceticism.  Occasionally he would visit a nearby town when called upon in order to preach, debate (for instance, against the Arians), and heal the sick.  Other Christians, inspired by his example, would come to visit him in the desert and learn from him.  Among these were St. Serapion, St. Makarios (Macarius) of Egypt, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.  This last disciple is the biggest reason for St. Anthony's fame: St. Athanasius' Life of Saint Anthony the Great is the only written source for St. Anthony's teachings (he himself leaving no writings), and it was immensely spread, both in its original Greek and in Latin translations.

St. Makarios (Macarius) of Egypt (295-392), or St. Makarios the Great, a disciple of St. Anthony, is prominent in the monastic tradition, not so much for his actions and example as for his extraordinary Homilies.  They are considered one of the basic texts of monastic spirituality, and they were often (and quite possibly are still) read by monastic novices as part of their preparation.  They are even included, in a paraphrase by St. Symeon Metaphrastes, in the Philokalia, a famous 18th-century Greek collection of Eastern Christian spiritual texts.

Around the same time as these two saints was St. Pachomios (Pachomius) the Great (292-348).  While St. Anthony practiced eremitic monasticism (living as a hermit), St. Pachomius began the practice of cenobitic monasticism, where monks or nuns live in community and share their possessions (this is the main style of monasticism in the West).  To help guide the monastic communities he started, he wrote a Rule that still survives, though it is not generally used as the basis of a community any longer.  The other large contribution of St. Pachomius is the introduction of the prayer rope (chotki, kombostkini) into Eastern Christian spirituality.  This rope, usually consisting of 33, 50, or 100 knots, uses a knot involving seven overlapping crosses which was supernaturally taught to St. Anthony as a knot the devil could not untie.  The traditional way to use the rope is to pray the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") on each knot.  This is a traditional prayer style in the Eastern Church, especially among monastics and those practicing hesychasm, a later-developed prayer technique based on the Jesus Prayer.

 St. Basil the Great (1405) by Theophanes the Greek, teacher of Andrei Rublev

The last great figure in monasticism was St. Basil the Great (329/330-379), brother of St. Gregory of Nyssa and friend of St. Gregory of Nazianzus.  Although he ended up becoming a bishop and working in the world, he began his spiritual journey in the monastic life, where he wrote two rules building off of the teachings of St. Pachomius, the Shorter Rule and the Longer Rule, which are the basis of most Eastern Christian monastic communities to this day.  Not only that, but these rules were extremely in the West due to all that St. Benedict of Nursia took from them in making his famous Rule.

 Icon of the Holy Fathers of Mount Athos, the most famous contemporary representative of sketic monasticism

Besides the eremitic style of monasticism begun by St. Anthony and the cenobitic style founded by St. Pachomius and developed by St. Basil, there is also the monastic skete.  This style of monasticism is a mix of the other two, with monks having their own private hermitages but joining together regularly for public prayer, especially the Divine Liturgy.  There is no exact founder of the skete style of monasticism, but it takes its name from the Scetis region of Egypt where it was most prevalent.  This style was much practiced in the early days of monasticism, and there are still some sketes today throughout the world.

Icon of three Desert Fathers

Icon of eight Desert Mothers

The final necessary source of monasticism is the Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).  This collection of sayings from Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers is important for monastic spirituality.  The various sayings influenced countless Christians and saints throughout the ages.  Though other collections of tales and spiritual advice (the Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus, the Letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John) have been popular, none have been as popular and influential as the Apophthegmata.

If you wish to read some of these texts on-line, the Rule of St. Pachomius and about half of the Homilies of St. Makarios can be found here, while selections from the Apophthegmata Patrum can be found here.  The entirety of St. Makarios' Homilies can be found, scanned from a 1921 edition, at Internet Archive, and St. Athanasius' The Life of St. Anthony can be found at New Advent.

A later post will discuss monastic spirituality itself, drawing from these sources and others.  I hope this post was helpful.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Αββας Αντωνιος, πρεσβευε υπερ ημων!
Abba Antonios, intercede for us!

Nota Bene: I apologize if the Greek intercession at the end of the post is incorrect.  I do not fully know Greek yet, so I found that phrase described as meaning "pray for us" or, more specifically, "intercede for us" on this forum thread.  If the phrase is incorrect, I welcome corrections.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


I have not posted on here in months, partly due to busyness, partly due to lack of motivation.  I do not like to write solely for the sake of writing or solely for myself.  I want anything I write to be useful to others.  Trying to guess what others would want me to write is a possibility, but I would rather know that someone will get something out of what I write.  That's why I want to start this new idea: Request-A-Post.  It's very simple: if you have an idea of a post you would like me to write,—on theology, on spirituality, on events, on media, etc.—send me an e-mail with a description, and I'll do my best to write it well and post it if I think I can.  If I don't think I can do a good job with it, or if I know a post by someone else that is far better than anything I could write, I'll tell you.  I do not know if anyone will even see this post, but if so, I hope that this idea will lead to my being able to actually help others with my writing.  I may occasionally write something of my volition, but in general my posts will mostly come from this idea.  In short, e-mail me if you an idea of a post you would like me to write, and I will hopefully write it for you, and I apologize in advance for any posts I write that I end up writing badly.  I hope this idea ends up being helpful for you.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Sts. Sergios and Bakchos (Sergius and Bacchus), whose feast it is today, pray for us!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

E-Scribe to the Philokalia

"There is no other virtue that is either higher or more necessary than sacred Prayer, because all the other virtues--I mean fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, ascesis, chastity, almsgiving, and all the rest--even though they are ways of imitating God, even though they cannot be taken away from us and constitute the immortal ornaments of the soul--do not united man with God, but only render man fit to be united.  Sacred Prayer, and it alone, unites.  It alone joins man with God and God with man, and makes the two one spirit."

Nikodemos (Nicodemus) the Hagiorite (of the Holy Mountain) (1749-1809), a Greek Orthodox saint, wrote the above passage on the necessity of Prayer.  This view of the necessity of Prayer led to what is probably Nikodemos' most famous work: the Philokalia.  The Philokalia is a collection of texts by saints and other holy writers from the origins of Christianity until around the 15th century, compiled by Nikodemos and Makarios (Macarius) of Corinth (1731-1805), another Greek Orthodox saint.  The texts deal primarily with prayer and asceticism, often focusing on the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") and the tradition of Hesychasm related to it.  This work is one of the most popular spiritual works in the Eastern Church, often being called "the Bible of Orthodox spirituality."  Nikodemos himself called it "the treasury of watchfulness, the keeper of the mind, the mystical school of prayer of the heart...the paradise of the Fathers...the deep teaching of Christ, the trumpet which calls back the grace...the instrument itself of deification."

Most of the Philokalia consists of collections of short texts often called "centuries" (when in groups of a hundred texts).  Due to this, I think the Philokalia lends itself easily to a daily e-mail of spiritual fuel, just as the writings of St. Josemaría Escrivá do.  I am thus starting a new e-mail list: E-Scribe to the Philokalia.  Just sent me an e-mail if you want to be included on this list (my e-mail can also be found on my profile, if necessary).  Due to copyright concerns, this mailing list is no longer active.  The spiritual practices in the Philokalia can be difficult, but in the end I think they will be most rewarding; I also think it is always a wonderful thing to bring the treasures of the Eastern Church into the hands of the Western Church.  I will end with two quotes from Evagrios Pontikos (Evagrius Ponticus), a famous 4th-century monk and spiritual writer, to give just a hint of the contents of the Philokalia:

"Pray gently and calmly, sing with understanding and rhythm; then you will soar like a young eagle high in the heavens" (On Prayer §82).

"Prayer is the energy which accords with the dignity of the intellect; it is the intellect's true and highest activity" (On Prayer §84).

Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Nota Bene: The quotes from Nikodemos come from his Proem. to Anthology from the Psalms of the Prophet-King David (quoted on Full of Grace and Truth) and a work on the Philokalia by Fr. Anthony Coniaris (quoted on Mind in the Heart).  The Philokalia quotes come from Vol. I, p. 65, of the edition I will use for the list: the four-volume translation by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bp. Kallistos Ware.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Iconic Icon Supplements: The Symbols of Icons
 Icon of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Mother of Carmel) by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Terre Haute, IN

One of the biggest difficulties Western Christians have in appreciating icons is a lack of understanding.  I have previously discussed some of the theology behind iconography, but in this post I will discuss another big difficulty: the symbolism of iconography.  Even if one can understand the theology of the icon and why one should venerate it, it is still difficult to venerate something that seems to be such a strange mess of non-understood symbols.  This post will hopefully clear up some of that difficulty so that others can better understand icons and venerate them more worthily.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers: St. Mary of Egypt

[Though the term "Holy and God-Bearing Fathers" is used for those great saints that went before us in the faith, it does not only apply to men, as this post will show.]

St. Mary of Egypt (344-421 or d. 522) was a hermitess who lived in the desert near the River Jordan after repenting from a life of prostitution.  She is patron of penitent women and reformed prostitutes, and she is also a patron asked for intercession against sexual temptation.  In the Western Church, she is liturgically celebrated on April 3, while in the Eastern Church she is celebrated both on April 1 (the day of her death) and on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent.

At the age of twelve, St. Mary ran away from her parents in Alexandria in order to live a life of dissolution.  She became a prostitute merely for the sake of fulfilling her lustful desires, rejecting money for men, instead gaining her living by begging and spinning flax.  After seventeen years of this sinful life, she went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross as an "anti-pilgrimage," acting the prostitute for those she travelled with and continuing her life of harlotry in Jerusalem.  One day, though, St. Mary approached the Church of Holy Sepulchre in order to see the Cross of the Lord, but she was stopped by an unseen force.  After this had happened thrice, she looked up and saw an icon of the Theotokos outside the church, and she spent the night in weeping and prayers, asking the Theotokos that she might be allowed to see the True Cross, and if that occurred, she promised to spend the rest of her life renouncing her worldly desires and following the commands of Our Lady.  The next day, St. Mary entered the church and venerated the True Cross.

Upon leaving the church, she gave thanks to the Theotokos by venerating her icon, and upon doing so, St. Mary heard a voice telling her, "If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest and true peace."  The saint hurried to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the Jordan, where she received the Mysteries of Confession and the Most Sacred Body and Blood of Christ.  She then fled to the desert across the Jordan, where she lived as an ascetic, surviving for years on three loaves of bread and scarce herbs.  After fighting temptations for seventeen years, she overcame them through the prayers of the Theotokos. 

 St. Mary of Egypt receiving the Sacred Mysteries from St. Zosima

After 47 years in the desert, St. Mary met a priest, St. Zosima.  He begged her to tell him of her life, which she did, expressing marvellous clairvoyance.  After recounted her life, St. Mary asked the priest to come back on Holy Thursday the following year to give her the Sacred Mysteries.  He did so, and she walked across the River Jordan in order to receive the Eucharist from St. Zosima.  She asked him to meet her again the next year on Holy Thursday.  The next year, St. Zosima came to the spot where he first met St. Mary, but he found her dead.  An inscription in the sand near her head recorded that the hermitess had died the day she received the Sacred Mysteries the year before.  Her body was miraculously transported from her place of death and preserved incorrupt until the priest could find it.  With the assistance of a passing lion (as the legend goes), St. Zosima buried the body of St. Mary of Egypt.  The story of her life was passed down orally until finally being recorded in writing by St. Sophronius I, Patriarch of Jerusalem (560-638).

 St. Zosima venerating the incorrupt body of St. Mary

There are no writings of St. Mary of Egypt: her legacy comes from her Life written by St. Sophronius.  She is one of the most popular of the early hermits and hermitesses.  As mentioned above, she is so well-renowned that she is celebrated on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, when it is customary for the priest to bless dried fruit during the Divine Liturgy.  A chapel is dedicated to her within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, commemorating the moment of her conversion.  Even outside the Church, she is well-known, appearing in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust: A Tragedy (which is not a work I recommend, philosophically or literarily).

Below are the hymns used during the liturgy of the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent:

"In you, O Mother Mary, was restored the likeness of God, for you carried your cross and followed Christ.  You taught by your deeds how to spurn the body, for it passes away, and how to value the soul, for it is immortal.  Wherefore, your soul is forever in happiness with the Angels" (Troparion, 8th Tone).

"O Glorious Mary of Egypt, you cast out the darkness of sin and followed the light of penance.  You directed your heart to Christ and offered Him His All-Pure Mother as an all-compassionate intercessor.  Wherefore, you avoided sin and now live in the joyful company of the Angels in Heaven" (Kontakion, 4th Tone).

St. Mary of Egypt, our holy and God-bearing Mother, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Information for this post comes from OrthodoxWiki (Mary of Egypt, Sophronius I of Jerusalem), Wikipedia, and Saints,  The Troparion and Kontakion for St. Mary's Lenten feast come from the Publican's Prayer Book by the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton, pp. 262-263.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers: St. John of Damascus

 St. John of Damascus (676-749), also known as St. John Damascene or Chrysorrhoas ("streaming with gold"), served as Chief Councilor (Protosymbullus) of Damascus under Muslim rule before later retiring to live the monastic life in the Monastery of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem.  He was a prolific writer whose work was incredibly influential, even to this day.  A particularly important note about his work was his exposition of the theology underlying icons: his work was thus key to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicea II (787).  The Eastern Church often refers to him as "the last of the Fathers," and he is a Doctor of the Church often referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption.  His feast day in both the Western and Eastern Churches is December 4, though from 1890-1969 it was celebrated on March 27 in the Western Church.

St. John was brought up under Muslim rule in Damascus, where his strong Christian family held high hereditary public office under the caliphs.  When he reached the age of 23, his father found a Sicilian monk named Cosmas among prisoners of war, and this monk became the Christian tutor of St. John and his foster-brother, St. Cosmas the Hymnographer.  St. John eventually gained a post as protosymbullus of Damascus due to the high political status of his father.

In 726, the Byzantine emperor at the time, Emperor Leo the Isaurian, released an iconoclastic edict, which made St. John furious.  The saint at that time wrote his first work, Three Apologies Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images.  The iconoclastic emperor was not pleased, so, upon finding a manuscript written by St. John, Leo forged a letter in which St. John was supposedly offering to betray the city of Damascus into the Emperor's hands.  The caliph who ruled Damascus did not accept St. John's pleas of innocence, and he punished the saint by cutting off his right hand.

To the utter shock of the caliph, St. John's hand did not stay detached: after praying before an icon of the Virgin Mary, the saint's hand was miraculously reattached.  In order to thank the Theotokos for this miracle worked through her intercession, St. John created a silver cast of his hand and attached it to the icon, thus giving the icon the name Trojeručica, or the Three-Handed Theotokos.

St. John of Damascus entreating the icon of the Theotokos for healing

Following this miracle, the caliph apologized for his false accusations, and he offered St. John his same public office.  The saint declined, though, instead retiring to the Monastery of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem, where he spent the rest of his life in fervent prayer and copious writing until his death in 749.  Shortly after his death, he was revered as a saint, and in 1883 the Holy See named him a Doctor of the Church, placing him on the universal Church calendar in 1890.

As mentioned above, St. John was a copious writer.  His first work, Three Apologies Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images, is most likely the most important work on the theology of icons, and it was highly influential for the Second Council of Nicea.  A discussion of some of his arguments, along with those of St. Theodore the Studite, can be found in an earlier post of mine.  Below is a fantastic quote on our "salvation through matter" from the first Apology:

"I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter Who became matter for my sake, Who willed to take His abode in matter; Who worked out my salvation through matter.  Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!  I honor it, but not as God...God's Body is God because It is joined to His Person by a union which shall never pass away" (1.16).

 Another major work of St. John's was The Fountain of Wisdom (Fountain of Knowledge), a work divided into three parts: Philosophical Chapters, Concerning Heresy (which includes one of the first Christian polemic writings against Islam, and the first from a member of the Byzantine Church), and An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (De fide orthodoxa) (the first work of Scholasticism in the Eastern Church).  The last section of this work, a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Fathers, is quoted and referenced frequently by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.

Besides those two greatest works of his, St. John wrote many shorter works, including An Introduction to Elementary Dogmatics, On the Two Wills of Christ (written against the Monothelites), and, a work with a fascinating title, On Dragons and Ghosts.  St. John also penned the Octoechos (Οκτοηχος), the liturgical book containing the weekly variable texts in the eight tones of Byzantine Psalmody.  (St. John is considered to be the one who systematized the eight-tone system of Byzantine liturgical music.)  Among multiple canons that he wrote is a popular Paschal canon, including such wonderful prayers as these:

"Let the God-inspired Habakkuk the Prophet stand with us on the holy watch-tower.  Let him point out to the radiant Angel who proclaims with vibrant voice: 'Today, Salvation comes to the world, for Christ is risen as All-powerful!'" (Fourth Ode)

"We celebrate the very death of Death and the overthrow of Hell, and the beginning of another life, which is eternal.  Let us sing in joy to the Author of these marvels: the only blessed and most glorious God of our Fathers!" (Seventh Ode)

"Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord has shone upon you.  Rejoice and be glad, O Sion, and You, O Pure One, O Mother of God, exult in the Resurrection of Your Son!" (Ninth Ode)

St. John wrote many other popular prayers, used in daily prayers and preparation for receiving the Sacred Mysteries, among other purposes.  What may be one of his most popular prayers (as a hint at its popularity, the first line is quoted in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace) is a prayer recited just before heading to bed:

"O Lord, Lover of mankind, is this bed to be my coffin, or will You enlighten my wretched soul with another day?  Here the coffin lies before me, and here death confronts me.  I fear, O Lord, Your Judgment and the endless torments; yet I cease not to do evil.  My Lord and God, I continually anger You, and Your Immaculate Mother, and all the Heavenly Powers, and my Holy Guardian Angel.  I know, O Lord, that I am unworthy of Your love, but deserve condemnation and every torment.  But, whether I want it or not, save me, O Lord.  For to save a good man is no great thing, and to have mercy on the pure is nothing wonderful, for they are worthy of Your mercy.  But show the wonder of Your mercy to me, a sinner.  In this, reveal Your love for man, lest my wickedness prevail over Your unutterable goodness and mercy.  And order my life as You will."

To end this post, let us remember with gladness our holy and God-bearing Father, St. John of Damascus, for he defended the holy images, taught us to chant joyful hymns to the Lord in sacred music, expounded the true faith, and gave us many prayers.

"Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and true worship,
the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls."
(Troparion of the Feast Day of St. John of Damascus, Tone 8)

St. John of Damascus, our holy and God-bearing Father, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Sources of information for this post included OrthodoxWiki (John of Damascus, Cosmas the Hymnographer, Octoechos) and Wikipedia (John of Damascus, Second Council of Nicea).  The quote from the Apologies comes from the translation in On the Divine Images in the St. Vladimir's Seminary Press' Popular Patristic Series.  Quotes from the Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus come from the Publican's Prayer Book by the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton, pp. 297, 302, and 304, respectively; the prayer before bed comes from p. 68 of the same book.  The Troparion of St. John's feast day comes from his above-cited OrthodoxWiki article.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers: St. Makarios the Great

The Church has a devotion to those great men and women who went before them in the faith, teaching the Gospel fervently and helping others to deepen their living of the true Christian life.  In the Eastern Church, the title "our holy and God-bearing Fathers" is used for the great saints of the past.  In this series (which I will hopefully not give up on, as I have with some of my past series), I hope to introduce members of the Western Church to some of the great saints venerated in the Eastern Church and explain how powerful their memory is for the Eastern Church.  The first saint I will discuss is St. Makarios the Great.

St. Makarios (Macarius) the Great (295-392), also known as St. Makarios the Egyptian, St. Macarius the Spirit-Bearer, and the Lamp of the Desert, was a disciple of St. Anthony the Great, the first monastic.  His name means "blessed" in Greek, and it was chosen because his birth was such a blessing to his infertile parents, fittingly named Abraham and Sarah.  His father forced him to marry, but Makarios stalled the marriage by feigning sickness for a few days and then heading to the wilderness to relax.  In the wilderness, a Cherub led him up a high mountain and showed him the desert all around him, saying, "God has given this desert to you and your sons for an inheritance."  Upon returning from the wilderness, he learned his fiancee had died.  Soon afterwards, his parents also departed this life, and he gave away all his belongings to the poor.  The townspeople of Shabsheer, Egypt, where he lived, were astounded at his holiness, and they implored the bishop to ordain him.  St. Makarios was ordained and began to live in a small place outside the city built by the townspeople, where he helped attend to their spiritual needs.

Following a false accusation of unchastity, which St. Makarios did not deny but rather accepted the consequences of, he headed for Scetis, an area of Egypt where early monasticism flourished.  There he dwelt in the inner desert.  One day, he visited St. Anthony the Great, who lived nearby, and the latter bestowed the Great Schema (the highest degree of monastic tonsure) on St. Makarios.  Following this, he returned to the desert.  His holiness and monastic life attracted many men to follow his example, and a monastic community grew up around him, which built on the monastic foundations laid by Sts. Anthony the Great and Pachomius.  His community eventually became the present Coptic Orthodox Monastery of St. Makarios the Great.

In addition to his monastic life, St. Makarios also fought against Arianism, even being exiled for his support of the teachings of St. Athanasius.  After a miraculous exorcism performed by the saint, he was welcomed back from exile, returning to his monastic life.  St. Makarios passed over into eternal life in 392, at the age of 97.

 Coptic icon of St. Makarios with Sts. Maximos and Domadios

There are two main aspects to St. Makarios' legacy.  First, his influence on the development and spread of monasticism is memorable due to the high importance of monasticism for Eastern Christian spirituality.  Second, the writings attributed to him have been very influential for centuries.  One letter of his, known by the Latin title "Ad filios Dei," seems to quite possibly be a genuine letter of his.  The other writings of his, the Great Letter and the Fifty Spiritual Homilies, are usually now referred to as written by "Pseudo-Macarius," but that does not stop their immense influence.  Those beginning the monastic life often read the Spiritual Homilies (or their paraphrase by St. Symeon Metaphrastes, found in Volume III of the Philokalia) to help them become accustomed to the ascetic lifestyle and its spirituality.

"The heart is Christ's palace: there Christ the King comes to take His rest, with the Angels and the spirits of the Saints, and He dwells there, walking within it and placing His Kingdom there" (Homily XVI).

St. Makarios with a Cherub

Apart from his writings, some of his prayers are in frequent use among Eastern Christians, especially during morning and night prayers.  The prayers are often focused deeply on repentance and protection from temptation.  The following prayer is common for use before heading to bed:

"O Eternal God and King of all Creation, Who have granted me to arrive at this hour, forgive me the sins that I have committed today in thought, word, and deed, and cleanse, O Lord, my humble soul from all defilement of flesh and spirit.  And grant me, O Lord, to pass the sleep of this night in peace, that when I rise from my bed, I may please Your most Holy Name all the days of my life and conquer my flesh and the fleshless foes that war within me.  And deliver me, O Lord, from vain and frivolous thoughts and from evil desires which defile me.  For Yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.  Amen."

Let us ask for the intercession of our holy and God-bearing Father St. Makarios the Great, that his prayers may help all monastics grow deeper in their angelic life, and that all of us may grow deeper in our deified life: St. Makarios the Great, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Information for this post comes from OrthodoxWiki and WikipediaThe quotes come from pages 569-570 and 57-58 of the Publican's Prayer Book by the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton.  The Great Letter and Spiritual Homilies attributed now to "Pseudo-Macarius" can be found in a volume of Paulist Press' Classics of Western Spirituality series.