Archive for April, 2013


To Love Much

The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Your Divinity, O Lord, assumes the role of a myrrh-bearer; and lamenting, she brings the myrrh before your burial. “Woe to me!” she said; “For me, night is an ecstacy of excess, dark and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, You, Who gathers into clouds the water of the sea. Incline the groanings of my heart, You, Who in Your ineffable condescension, bowed down the Heavens.

“I will embrace and kiss Your sacred Feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head. Your Feet, at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear, when she heard Your footsteps while You were walking in Paradise in the twilight. O my Saviour and soul-Saver! Who can ever track down the multitude of my sins, and the depths of Your judgment? Do not disregard me Your servant, You, Whose mercy is boundless.”

~ Hymn of Kassiani, from the Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins

The hymn above is one of the finest in the Byzantine tradition. It is written by the nun Kassiani, a saint of the ninth century. On Holy Wednesday we commemorate the woman from the Gospel who comes to Christ and weeps at his feet. This hymn midrashicly takes up the woman’s perspective in a beautiful display of repentance. Continue reading

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Joseph, Shadow of Christ

Let us now add our lamentation, and let us shed our tears with those of Jacob, bewailing Joseph, his memorable and wise son. For Joseph, though enslaved in body, preserved his soul in freedom, becoming lord over all Egypt. For God grants his servants an incorruptible crown.

~ Oikos for the Matins of Holy Monday

Holy Week has finally arrived for Orthodox Christians like myself. It is full of services with beautiful hymns that truly enchant the hearer not only with their musical excellence but also with their deep lyrics as well. The passage above, however, is not a hymn but is to be read. Tonight, on Palm Sunday evening, we have a matins (morning prayer service) for Holy Monday by anticipation. On Holy Monday we commemorate two things, the withering of a fig tree at the command of Christ and the patriarch Joseph from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, who I would like to reflect upon here. Continue reading

Good Grief

Abba Poemen said also: “Grief is twofold: it works good, and it keeps out evil.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 3.12

Sayings like this (and there are many) are not easy to understand at first. The desert fathers and others talk about joy, and I have highlighted this in the past. So why grief? Why compunction? Why praise the virtues of a tearful life? There are many reasons, but I will look at just a few with reference to this saying of Abba Poemen here. Continue reading

The Angelic Life

John the Less of the Thebaid, a disciple of Abba Ammonius, was said to have lived for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill, and sitting on a mat near him. But the old man was always cross with him; and although John worked a long time for him, he never said: “May it be well with you.” But when the old man was on his death-bed, in the presence of the elders of that place, he held John’s hand and said: “May it be well with you, may it be well with you.” And the old man commended John to the old men, saying: “This is an angel, not a man.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.4

John the Less (not to be confused with John the Short) lived, according to this story, “for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill.” And yet, not once did he hear from the old man, “May it be well with you.” I think that there are many in John’s situation in the world today—serving others thanklessly for years and years. Yet how many of us have eyes to see: “This is an angel, not a man [or woman].” How many of them know what saints they are? Continue reading

Solidarity in Sin

A brother sinned, and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church. But Abba Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying: “I too am a sinner.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 9.2

The Christian confession that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and that we ought to remember this fact with regards to ourselves daily can often strike people (including Christians themselves) as overly pessimistic. But is such a claim one of pessimism? Is it necessarily like the dreary, uncharitable (but common) caricature of Calvinism? I, at least, do not think so, and I doubt Abba Bessarion would either. Continue reading

Except for All the Castles

Saint Syncletice said: … If a hen stops sitting on the eggs she will hatch no chickens: and the monk or nun who moves from place to place will grow cold and dead in faith.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.15

I had the opportunity these last two days to visit Princeton for an academic conference. It is a beautiful place, but in many ways it does not feel much different than home in the Midwest … except for all the castles, that is. Continue reading

There was a story that some philosophers once came to test the monks. One of the monks came by dressed in a fine robe. The philosophers said to him: “Come here, you.” But he was indignant, and insulted them. Then another monk came by, a good person, a Libyan by race. They said to him: “Come here, you wicked old monk.” He came to them at once, and they began to hit him: but he turned the other cheek to them. Then the philosophers rose and did homage to him, saying: “Here is a monk indeed.” And they made him sit down in their midst, and asked him: “What do you do in this desert more than we do? You fast: and we fast also. You chastise your bodies and so do we. Whatever you do, we do the same.” The old man answered: “We trust in God’s grace, and keep watch on our minds.” They said: “That is what we cannot do.” And they were edified, and let him go.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.16

I have always liked this story. It’s message is pretty straight-forward, but I will record here a few observations. Continue reading

Rays of the Sun of Righteousness

Abba Hilarion once came from Palestine to Abba Antony on the mountain: and Abba Antony said to him: “Welcome, morning star, for you rise at break of day.” And Abba Hilarion said: “Peace to you, pillar of light, for you prop up the earth.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.4

This exchange between Abba Hilarion and Abba Antony comes, in my collection, under the category “Of Charity,” i.e. “On Love.” Thus, key to understanding this imagery is that this is a lesson about love: Abba Antony praises Abba Hilarion for his discipline (“you rise at break of day”), but Abba Hilarion praises Abba Antony for his self-giving, universal love (“you prop up the earth”). In both instances, however, the metaphor is one of light (“morning star”/”pillar of light”), indicating only a difference of degree in yet the same blessedness: communion with the divine. Continue reading

At the Bank of This River

When You did awesome things for which we did not look,
You came down,
The mountains shook at Your presence.
For since the beginning of the world
Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear,
Nor has the eye seen any God besides You,
Who acts for the one who waits for Him.

~ Isaiah 64:3-4

The saying from my previous post forms the context for the following poem. It is easy to forget sometimes that the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are not just wise proverbs but real stories of real people. Wondering what it must have been like for Abbess Sarah to live those sixty years at the bank of that river inspired me to write this: Continue reading

Beauty Unseen

They said of Abbess Sarah of blessed memory, that for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked down to see the water.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.19

I have read this saying several times over the years, and it has always bothered me. Perhaps it is simply because I am a Celt (in addition to being German) and I have a strong, natural affinity for the beauty of nature, but such inner strength, such fortitude, that Abbess Sarah must have had is difficult for me to even imagine, let alone realize in my own life.

Until recently, I do not think I can even say that I understood the point of this saying. Many of the desert sayings are still a mystery to me, in fact; I only reflect on the ones about which I actually have a little understanding and a little something to say myself.

The problem that I have with this story is that, despite acknowledging that it must take great inner strength to live “for sixty years … on the bank of a river,” and yet “never [look] down to see the water,” I’ve always thought that such natural beauty was a good thing. After all, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 [18:1 LXX]). But Great Lent has recently given me a little insight into what might be going on in this story. Continue reading