Archive for January, 2013


Praying[Abba Isaac said:] Whether the prayer is expressing repentance, or is pledging the heart in the confident trust of a pure conscience, or is expressing the intercessions which spring from a charitable heart, or is rendering thanks in the sight of the great and loving gifts of God—we have known prayers dart up like sparks from a fire. It is therefore clear that all men need to use all four kinds. The same person according to his diversity of affective states will use prayers of repentance or offering or intercession or thanksgiving.

The first kind seems particularly suitable to beginners, who are still smarting under the recollection of their sins. The second kind seems particularly suitable to people who have already attained a certain progress towards goodness. Intercession seems particularly suitable to people who are fulfilling the pledges of self-offering which they made, see the frailty of others, and are moved by charity to intercede for them. Thanksgiving seems particularly suitable for those who have torn out of their hearts the sins which pricked their conscience and are at last free from fear of falling again: and then, recollecting the generosity and the mercy of the Lord, past or present or future, are rapt away into that spark-like prayer which no mortal can understand or describe.

~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.15

I have written in the past about the destructive cycle of passions that so often leads to tragedy in our lives here. And I have reflected on this particular passage with regards to thanksgiving here. However, I would like to focus a little more closely on this passage and see the connection that Abba Isaac draws between different forms of prayer and virtuous passions that typically follow a particular order—how the way out of the vicious cycle of death is a virtuous progression of life. Continue reading

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The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Proof of [St. Antony’s] virtue and that his soul was loved by God is found in the fact that he is famous everywhere and is marveled at by everyone, and is dearly missed by people who never saw him. Neither from writings, nor from pagan wisdom, nor from some craft was Antony acclaimed, but on account of religion alone. That this was something given by God no one would deny. For how is it that he was heard of, though concealed and sitting in a mountain, in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa, unless if it was the God who everywhere makes his men known who also promised this to Antony in the beginning? For even though they themselves act in secret, and may want to be forgotten, nevertheless the Lord shows them like lamps to everyone, so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.

~ St. Athanasius, Life of Antony, 93

In a time before Facebook, according to St. Athanasius, St. Antony (also “Anthony”) was “famous everywhere and [was] marveled at by everyone,” even “in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa.” He wasn’t tweeting instagrams of the bread and salt he ate once a day (if that) either. No, people knew about this man who lived “concealed and sitting in a mountain” because “his soul was loved by God” and “on account of religion alone.” St. Athanasius is furthermore convinced that this is a sign of God’s grace, “so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.” Continue reading

Souls like Feathers

400px-Feather2[Abba Isaac said:] There is a good comparison between the soul and a delicate little feather. If a feather has not been touched by [moisture], it is so light that the slightest breath of wind can puff it high into the air. But if even a little [moisture] has weighed it down, it cannot float, and falls straight to the ground. In the same way the mind, if not burdened by sin and the cares of daily life and evil passion, has a natural purity which lifts it from earth to heaven at the least breath of a meditation upon the invisible things of the spirit. The Lord’s command is sufficient warning—“Take heed that your hearts be not weighed down by drunkenness and the cares of this world” [Luke 21:34]. So if we want our prayers to reach the sky and beyond the sky, we must make sure that the mind is so unburdened by the weights of sin and passion as to be restored to its natural buoyancy. Then the prayer will rise to God.

~ Conferences of Cassian 9.4

This beautiful image from Abba Isaac is perhaps even more fitting when one remembers that ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all used the same word for breath, wind, and spirit (within each language, not between them). An example can be seen in the words of Christ himself (originally recorded in Greek): “The wind [pneuma] blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit [pneuma]” (John 3:8). In this context, Christ is talking about being born again (or “from above”) by water and the Spirit, i.e. through baptism. Nevertheless, his insight in this verse relates to anyone who truly prays in purity of heart. As Abba Isaac says, “[I]f not burdened by sin and the cares of daily life and evil passion, [the mind] has a natural purity which lifts it from earth to heaven at the least breath of a meditation upon the invisible things of the spirit.” Continue reading

The Way of Contradiction

When a certain brother in Scete was going to the harvest, he went to Abba Moses, the Black, and said unto him, “Father, tell me what I shall do; shall I go to the harvest?” and Abba Moses said unto him, “If I tell thee, wilt thou be persuaded to do as I say?” And the brother said unto him, “Yea, I will hearken unto thee.” The old man said unto him, “If thou wilt be persuaded by me, rise up, go, and release thyself from going to the harvest, and come unto me, and I will tell thee what thou shalt do.” The brother therefore departed and obtained his release from his companions, as the old man had told him, and then he came to him. And the old man said unto him, “Go into thy cell and keep Pentecost, and thou shalt eat dry bread and salt once a day [only], and after thou hast done this I will tell thee something else to do later on”; and he went and did as the old man had told him, and then came to him again.

Now when the old man saw that he was one who worked with his hands, he shewed him the proper way to live in his cell; and the brother went to his cell, and fell on his face upon the ground, and for three whole days and nights he wept before God. And after these things, when his thoughts were saying unto him, “Thou art now an exalted person, and thou hast become a great man,” he used to contradict them, and set before his eyes his former shortcomings, [and say], “Thus were all thine offences.” And again, when they used to say to him, “Thou hast performed many things negligently,” he would say, “Nevertheless I do small services for God, and He sheweth His mercy upon me.” And when by such means as these the spirits had been overcome, they appeared unto him in the form of corporeal creatures, and said unto him, “We have been vanquished by thee”; and he said unto them, “Why?” and they said to him, “If we humble thee, we are raised up by thee to an exalted position, and if we exalt thee we are accounted by thee for humility.”

~ Paradise of the Fathers 1.18

There is a lot going on in this story, but I will skip to the end. After keeping Pentecost, fasting in solitude for some period of time, being instructed by Abba Moses regarding how to work in his cell, and weeping before God for three days and nights, the brother in this story engages in a particularly enlightening practice of watchfulness. Continue reading

Easier Said Than Done

798px-1-Green_peasOnce Abba Agatho was going on a journey with his disciples. And one of them found a tiny bag of green peas on the road, and said to the old man: “Father, if you command, I will take it.” The old man gazed at him in astonishment, and said: “Did you put it there?” The brother replied: “No.” And the old man said: “How is it that you want to take something that you did not put there?”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.8

The conventional wisdom in the above situation, or at least my own first impulse, would be that if someone finds something that is not his/hers in the road, the proper thing to do is to take it and seek out the rightful owner. If no owner can be found, then finder’s keepers. There is an important lesson here, however. Continue reading

The True Theologian

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

~ Evagrios the Solitary (of Pontus), 153 Texts on Prayer 61

Abba Evagrios (=”Evagrius”) gives a different definition of “theologian” than what is often the popular one. I have studied theology and even received a degree or two, but I do not accept the title of theologian. A theologian, according to Evagrios, is not primarily one who has read many books, but one who can truly pray. And that I struggle to do, and what I manage hardly matches up to his description. Continue reading