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  Due to copyright concerns, this mailing list is no longer active.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.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Iconic Icons Supplement: Icons of the Trinity

In celebration of Trinity Sunday in the Western Church today, I decided to write a short post on the history of artistic representation of the Most Holy Trinity, especially in the East.

Nowadays, there are many representations of the Trinity showing the Three Persons as an old man (the Father), Jesus Christ, and a dove (the Holy Spirit).  Before these were in vogue, the Trinity was often depicted symbolically (especially in the Western Church) in forms such as a triangle-encased All-Seeing Eye (a symbol adapted and Christianized from ancient Egyptian symbolism that is, sadly, now usually connected with Freemasonry).  In the earliest days of the Church, though, there were no representations of the Trinity apart from the Second Person Incarnate.
Eye of God, Mission San Miguel, California (19th century)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scripture Hidden in Prayers

 Scripture is obviously the basis for many prayers: the Psalms themselves are prayers, the Our Father are the exact words of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the first half of the Hail Mary is directly from Scripture.  Many prayers in the liturgy are taken from Scripture as well: the Sanctus is from Isaiah, the Agnus Dei is based in the preaching of John the Forerunner and the Book of Revelation, and the prayer immediately before receiving the Eucharist are derived from the words of the faithful centurion.  Many other prayers, from all traditions, have their basis in Scripture, though the passages are not always as well known.  Below are just a few of these.

Openings to the Liturgy of the Hours.  Two short prayers of opening,  used at different Hours, are taken directly from the Psalms: "Lord, open my lips / And my mouth will declare Your praise" (Ps 51:15) and "God, come to my assistance. / Lord, make haste to help me" (Ps 70:1).

The Franciscan Blessing.  A blessing used by Franciscans all the way back to St. Francis (he wrote it on a short manuscript given to Br. Leo, which is the only piece of writing we have in Francis' own hand) seems to be merely a part of Franciscan tradition.  However, the three-fold blessing was not created by St. Francis, but instead derives from the words of God Himself, spoken to Moses. 

"The Lord said to Moses, 'Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you:
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

So shall they put My Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them"
 (Num 6:22-27).

Prayer to the Venerable Cross.  This prayer, a popular prayer used before sleep in the Eastern Church, derives its opening from the Book of Numbers: "Arise, O Lord, and let Thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee" (Num 10:35).  The prayer is as follows:

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee before His Presence.  As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; and as wax melts before the fire, so let the demons perish before the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say in gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for You drive away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on You and Who went down to Hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us You, His venerable Cross, for driving away all enemies.  O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me, with our Holy Lady, the Virgin Mother of God and with all the Saints throughout the ages.  Amen.

These are only a very few examples of the countless prayers in the Catholic tradition that derive from Scripture.  As Scripture is the basis of our faith (for even Tradition grew out of the events related in Scripture and out of the words of Scripture), it follows that it would be the basis of our prayers as well.  Though Christianity is a "religion of the 'Word' of God," and not a "religion of the book," that does not mean that we are not devoted to Scripture (vid. CCC #108).  Let us always remember the reverence we owe to the Holy Scriptures.

Nota Bene: The "Prayer to the Venerable Cross" is taken from p. 69 of the Publicans Prayer Book by the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton, published by Sophia Press.