Archive for June, 2013


In Defense of a Double Standard

Who in the outside world has worked wonders, raised the dead, expelled demons? No one. Such deeds are done by monks. It is their reward. People in the secular life cannot do these things, for, if they could, what then would be the point of ascetic practice and the solitary life?

~ St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2

This statement by St. John Climacus might be scandalous to some, especially if I have any readers from a more “charismatic” strain of Christian piety. Indeed, he might be overstating his case a bit (really, “No one”?), but I find this saying, in general, to be a helpful caution.

Contrast this with the following from the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Continue reading

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Knees Like a Camel

[St. James] was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.

Eusebius, Church History, 2.23.6

The St. James in this story is St. James the Just, the son of Joseph, who was the betrothed of the Virgin Mary. Thus, he was one of Jesus’s (step-)brothers, at least according to tradition. (The Greek word “brother,” as is also the Hebrew, is very general in meaning and can simply mean “kindred.”) In any case, he is important for being the brother of Jesus, as I have said, and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was a major leader in the early Church and a martyr for the faith. His example, I think, is especially appropriate to recall this time of year.

(As a small disclaimer, I must apologize that the following post is a little “wonky,” to borrow from the common language of political commentary. It is full of words that I have to define that slow down the flow. On the other hand, I would rather expect much of my readership and be confusing to some rather than talk down to them and belittle many.)

After fifty days of Pascha, this past Sunday was Pentecost in the Orthodox Church, which, among other things, means a lot of kneeling. The divine liturgy and vespers both have additional, long prayers during which everyone kneels for a long time. In fact, kneeling is one of three traditional postures of prayer: standing, kneeling, and prostrations. I cannot begin to rival St. James, but it is probably the time of the year I think most about how he knelt in prayer so much that “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” Continue reading

Spiritual Utopianism

[Abba Poemen] said: “If a man makes a new heaven and a new earth, he still cannot be safe from temptation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.24A

The Roman Catholic saint Thomas More famously coined the term utopia in his book of the same name. It is actually a play on words: “topos” is Greek for “place,” whereas “ou” is Greek for “no” and “eu” is Greek for “good.” Thus one may understand it either way (“no place” or “good place”), though the likely intention is to say that the perfection of utopian societies is unattainable this side of the parousia, the return of Jesus Christ. It seems that Abba Poemen would agree.

Utopia as a concept is much discussed in the context of political theory and public policy. I do not wish to explore that here, though having found this saying I don’t doubt that I will reflect on it further in that context in a more appropriate forum at some later date. For now, however, I would rather examine the dangers of utopian thinking for our everyday, spiritual life. Continue reading

Sober

Another time a vessel of wine was brought [to Scete] from the first fruits of the vintage, so that a cup of it could be given to each of the brothers. And a brother saw that they were drinking wine, and fled up on a roof, and the roof fell in. And when they heard the noise, they ran and found the brother lying half-dead. And they began to abuse him, saying: “It has served you right, for you were guilty of vainglory.” But an abba embraced him, and said: “Leave my son alone, he has done a good work. By the living Lord, this roof shall not be rebuilt in my time, as a reminder to the world that a roof fell in Scete because of a cup of wine.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.54

I am somewhat surprised that it has taken me this long to write a reflection about sobriety. The fathers commend its value often. Sometimes they are a little extreme in their rejection of alcohol, but I think it would be a misreading to say that they opposed it in principle. Even the most vehement condemnation is more a prudential matter. As another saying goes:

They told Abba Poemen that a certain monk did not drink wine. And he said to them: “Wine is not for monks at all.” (4.31) Continue reading

An Ordinary Achievement

Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: “How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?”

I answered: “Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.”

~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “the tyranny of the ordinary.” By that I meant the way in which our daily routines can dominate our lives. But this passage from the Ladder is a helpful corrective. The ordinary can be oppressive, but it can also be an achievement. Continue reading

A Living Flame

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” The the old man rose, and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten candles: and he said: “If you will, you could become a living flame.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 12.8

Sometimes, in the midst of all the challenges of life; sometimes, when I feel that every endeavor is never enough; sometimes, I when just can’t take the tyranny of the ordinary … I wish that I too “could become a living flame.” I am no Abba Joseph, nor would I compare myself to Abba Lot. But something about this saying speaks to somewhere deep within my heart. I too try to “keep a moderate rule”—what more can I accomplish in the world? And yet, sometimes it isn’t enough for me. Not in the sense of despair, but more a zeal, I think, a realization that what I am, even at my best, is far short of what I can and ought to be. And I want to be more. I want to be “a living flame.” Continue reading

A friend of God is the one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin and who does not neglect to do what good he can…. Withdrawal from the world is a willing hatred of all that is materially prized, a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature.

St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1

The wisdom of the fathers can be hard to decipher. Sometimes they seem to completely contradict the conventional wisdom. Other times, like this quote from St. John Climacus, they seem to contradict themselves. These two sentences are, in fact, found in the very same paragraph, the one in the middle and the other at the end. While I understand the impulse of many (including scholars at times) to rashly declare any apparent contradiction a true contradiction, the more charitable (and more careful and respectful) assumption would be to assume that apparent contradictions are not simply contradictions, but rather that they are simply apparent. That is, beneath the surface they speak a high nuance of thought worth slowing down to consider.

So then, if a friend of God is “one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin [etc.],” how is it that the same writer recommends “a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature”? What is the distinction? Are we to live in communion with nature or deny it? Can these two statements be reconciled? Continue reading