This Christmas, I have a rather long story from the Conferences of St. John Cassian to share. I’ll add a comment or two afterward.
A minor, historical note: The whole Church, which was undivided at this time, was referred to as the Catholic Church and its Orthodox members sometimes as Catholics. The term in English has come to mean “Roman Catholic,” but reading this into the text would be anachronistic. “Catholic” means universal (literally “through the whole”) and describes both: 1) the fact that no one is barred from being a Christian by ethnicity, class, gender, or anything else accidental to the image of God within us; and 2) the fact that all across the world, the Orthodox faith is the same and the Church is the same, despite different regional traditions and customs. Thus, the Orthodox Church today, of which I am a member, is also called the Catholic Church. Nor do I mind being called a Catholic. I am just not a Roman Catholic. Hopefully, some day these distinctions will be unnecessary again.
But back to the note on different regional customs—that brings me to our story:
An old man said to a brother: “The devil is like a hostile neighbour and you are like a house. The enemy continually throws into you all the dirt that he can find. It is your business not to neglect to throw out whatever he throws in. If you neglect to do this, your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to walk inside. From the moment he begins to throw, put it out again, bit by bit: and so by Christ’s grace your house shall remain clean.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 11.48
Who likes cleaning? Really. Possibly the only thing I dislike more than cleaning is being dirty. So I try to clean often when I can (and when I’m not overtaken by sloth). This old man uses this common chore to teach an important spiritual lesson: just as a house can only be cleaned “bit by bit,” so it is with our souls. Continue reading
[I]f we have the same attitudes of heart wherein the Psalmist wrote or sang his psalms, we shall become like the authors and be aware of the meaning before we have thought it out instead of after. The force of the words strikes us before we have rationally examined them. And when we use the words, we remember, by a kind of meditative association, our own circumstances and struggles, the results of our negligence or earnestness, the mercies of God’s providence or the temptations of the devil, the subtle and slippery sins of forgetfulness or human frailty or unthinking ignorance. All these feelings we find expressed in the psalms. We see their texts reflected in the clear glass of our own moral experience. And with that experience to teach us, we do not hear the words so much as discern the meaning intuitively. We will not merely recite them like texts committed to memory, but bring them out from the depths of the heart as an expression of moral reality.
~ Abba Isaac in The Conferences of St. John Cassian, 10.11
The saying of the psalms is central to Orthodox monastic piety. And the Divine Liturgy and other services are full of verses and references to the psalms. I used to have quite a few memorized, 14 or 15, but now what I remember is more like 5 or 6. Reciting the few I retain is still part of my daily rule though—such “meditative association” can be highly beneficial to the soul. Continue reading
An old man said: “If you fall ill, do not be a weakling. If the Lord God has willed that your body be feeble, who are you to bear it with grief? Does he not look after you in all you need? Surely you do not live without him. Be patient in your illness, and ask him to give you what is right—that is, that you may do his will, and abide in patience, and in charity eat what you have.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.45
It is easy, perhaps even justified, to dismiss a saying like this one as simply one of the less sensitive sayings of the fathers. However, I think a more charitable reading can be quite fruitful. The monk who said this wants those who ponder it to question their perspective on life, particularly suffering. Too often people presume that all suffering is a bad thing. This old man reminds us that even those who suffer have much to be thankful for, that all things happen in accord with God’s will, and that every moment of our lives is thus a teachable moment. Continue reading
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.
~ Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Latin: “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”) may be my favorite Advent hymn. It was originally written in Latin perhaps as early as the eighth century. The version most of us know in English comes from the mid-nineteenth century, a time when translations, however archaic at times, strove for beauty and in this case added even more to an already content-rich hymn. While I’m not certain what the nineteenth century translators would have thought, I have an idea what “the way that leads on high” might have meant in the eighth century, and I think this verse shines through in its insight into the Christian life. Continue reading