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:
2. The clergy of Egypt observe the feast of Epiphany as the time of our Lord’s birth as well as the time of his baptism, and, unlike the western Church with its two separate festivals, keep both commemorations upon the same day. They keep a custom of immemorial antiquity that after Epiphany the Bishop of Alexandria sends a letter to every church and monastery in Egypt declaring the dates for the beginning of Lent and Easter Day.
A few days after the first conference with Abba Isaac, arrived the customary festal letter from Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria. Besides declaring the date of Easter, he included in the letter a long refutation of the absurd heresy of the Anthropomorphites. Nearly all the monks in Egypt, being uneducated and therefore holding wrong ideas, received this with bitterness and hostility: and a large majority of elders from all the ascetic brotherhood decreed that the bishop was guilty of a grave and hateful heresy, because (by denying that Almighty God was formed in the fashion of a man, when Scripture bears clear witness that Adam was created in his image) he seemed to be attacking the text of Holy Scripture. Even the hermits in the desert of Scete, who were more educated and more spiritually advanced than any other Egyptian monks, rejected the letter of Theophilus. The priests who were presiding over three of the four churches in Scete would not allow the letter to be read at their meetings: and the only exception was Abba Paphnutius, who was the priest of my own congregation.
3. Among those caught by the error was a monk named Sarapion, who had for many years lived a life of strict discipline and had achieved the leading of a truly good life. Almost first among monks in merit and in years in the desert, equally he was almost first in his ignorant prejudice against orthodox believers.
The saintly priest, Paphnutius, used many exhortations to bring him back to the true belief, but unsuccessfully. To Sarapion the view seemed a novelty, not found in tradition.
It chanced that a deacon of great learning, named Photinus, arrived from Cappadocia with the object of visiting the brothers in Scete. Paphnutius gave him a warm welcome. And to support the doctrine contained in the letter of Bishop Theophilus, he led Photinus into the middle of the congregation, and in, the presence of all the brothers, asked how the Catholic Churches of the East understood the text in Genesis: “Let us make man after our image and likeness.” Photinus explained how all the leaders of the churches understood the text spiritually, not literally nor crudely, and made a long speech adducing numerous proofs from Scripture. “That immeasurable, incomprehensible, invisible majesty cannot be limited by a human frame or likeness. His nature is incorporeal, uncompounded, simple, and cannot be seen by human eyes nor conceived adequately by a human mind.”
At last old Sarapion was moved by the numerous and convincing assertions of this learned man, and consented to the traditional faith of Catholics. Abba Paphnutius and the rest of us felt great joy at his assent; joy that the Lord had not allowed a man of such age and goodness, who had erred in simple ignorance, to end his days unorthodox in the faith.
When we stood up to give thanks to the Lord in prayer, the old man felt mentally bewildered at having to pray, because he could no longer sense in his heart the anthropomorphic image of God which he had always before his mind’s eye when praying.
Suddenly he broke into bitter weeping and sobbing, and throwing himself prostrate on the ground with groans, cried: “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, and I have none to grasp, and I know not whom to adore or to address.”
Germanus and I were deeply moved by this scene. And with the effect of the last Conference still in our hearts, we returned to Abba Isaac.
[Abba Isaac said:] “I said in my first Conference that every soul attains the kind of prayer proportionate to its purity: for it can abandon the contemplation of the earthy and material only in proportion as its state of purity carries it upwards to see Jesus in the mind’s eye, Jesus still in the humility of his incarnate life, or Jesus glorified and coming in majesty…. Only those of purest sight look upon his divinity, men who have climbed up from earthly acts and thoughts and have gone apart with him into a high and lonely mountain. Jesus, untroubled by any earthly thought and passion and sin, exalted in the purity of his faith and goodness, discloses the brightness of his face and likeness to men who can look upon him because their souls are pure.”
~ Conferences of Cassian 10.2-3, 5
There is much that can be said about this story, but I will limit myself to just a few remarks.
First of all, while the fact that the impetus for this controversy among the desert fathers came due to Patriarch Theophilus’s Christmas letter, it is worth considering whether this detail is purely of historical interest.
Personally, I think it is best with ancient texts to always remember that there may be something more going on than what a purely surface reading gives. That is, St. John Cassian is a good writer; I think this detail has literary worth as well.
What is so important about Christmas in this context? In the story of Christmas, God, who is immaterial, uncreated, everywhere present, and so on, is born to us for our salvation as a tiny child. While, according to St. John Cassian’s account, many less educated Christians seem to have had an anthropomorphic understanding of the divine, I can say that the idea of God’s immateriality is not some foreign import into the Christian faith. It comes from the Old Testament just as much as Greek philosophy:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Hades, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
(Psalm 139:7-17 [MT])
The Scriptures can use anthropomorphic language to speak of God, but it is uncharitable to assume that ancient people therefore meant such language to be taken in the crudest way possible. The psalmist here describes God as beyond, yet pervading, all creation. Indeed, this is precisely the reason the Lord gives for prohibiting the making of idols: nothing in creation is an adequate image of the Creator.
Ah, but there is a catch (or two): God did create one image of himself, us. This is where the desert fathers had run into some confusion. Rather than understanding that there must be something transcendent like God about us, those like Abba Serapion who fell into this way of thinking imagined that God was somehow base like us.
Yet, here is one of many miracles of Christmas: though God is not, by nature, base like us, he took upon himself our nature and our baseness for our salvation. What these fathers needed to do, as Abba Isaac points out, is to look, first of all, to Jesus Christ.
Setting aside any theological concerns this error raises, Abba Isaac points to a practical one: “every soul attains the kind of prayer proportionate to its purity: for it can abandon the contemplation of the earthy and material only in proportion as its state of purity carries it upwards to see Jesus in the mind’s eye….” Abba Isaac reminds us of yet another aspect of the good tidings of Christmas: those who struggle to understand spiritual realities can begin by looking to Jesus.
In doing so, however, we see more than a mere man. As St. (Ps.-)Dionysius wrote, “He was not man, not as not being man, but as being from men was beyond men, and was above man, having truly been born man, and for the rest, not having done things Divine as God, nor things human as man, but exercising for us a certain new [divine-human] energy of God having become man.”
Okay, that’s convoluted, I know, but the point is this: Those of us who have only attained a low “state of purity” can look to Jesus in his humanity. Yet in looking upon him we see him held by his Virgin Mother. We see him walk on water. We see, as he summarized his ministry to St. John the Baptist, “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). Best of all, we see him risen from the dead.
We do not merely see a man, but God. We do not see some anthropomorphic God, but God become man. We see a man like us who is utterly unlike us. We see in him the synergy between our humanity and God, for which we were created. We see, untarnished and restored, the true image and likeness of God. And when we see him in this way, then we can truly pray.