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!