Category: Discipline


O Voice of God

In honor of the Feast of the Theophany today and the synaxis of St. John the Forerunner (the Baptist) tomorrow, I offer the following.

It is inspired by reflecting on an interesting disparity in the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Christ (which we celebrate in the Theophany). In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the voice of the Father booms from the heavens, declaring Jesus his beloved Son. In the Gospel of John, however, no voice is mentioned. That is, no voice is mentioned other than John the Baptist, who responds to the Pharisees that he is neither the Prophet, nor the Christ, but, quoting Isaiah 40, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” In the Fourth Gospel, John is the voice of God. This curiosity was confirmed to me by a hymn for the feast of the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist (which is in the summer) that refers to him in just this way: as the voice of God. Thus, the following petitions are addressed to John, through whom the voice of God spoke, witnessing to the central confession of the Gospel: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Continue reading

Bit by Bit

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

Teachable Moments

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

Make Safe the Way

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

Creative Destruction of the Soul

Saint Syncletice also said: “If you are troubled by illness, do not be melancholy, even if you are so ill that you cannot stand to pray or use your voice to say psalms. We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body; in this they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast. In the same way that a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.17

This is not an easy saying, but it is a very important one. So much so that I have reflected on it once before. The desert fathers (and mothers, as in this case) offer a different perspective on suffering than what the world teaches. St. Syncletice here teases out the implications of the saying of Christ: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24). Sickness and suffering are little tastes of death. We can have a new, resurrected life but not without dying first. If we want new creation, we must first submit to the destruction of the old. Continue reading

Fool! Heretic!

Once a provincial judge heard of Abba Moses and went to Scete to see him. They told the old man that he was on his way, and he rose up to flee into the marsh. The judge and his train met him, and asked: “Tell me, old man, where is the cell of Abba Moses?” And the old man said: “Why do you want to see him? He is a fool and a heretic.”

The judge came to the church, and said to the clergy: “I heard of Abba Moses and came to see him. But an old man on his way to Egypt met me, and I asked him where was the cell of Abba Moses. And he said: ‘Why are you looking for him? He is a fool and a heretic.'” And the clergy were distressed and said: “What sort of person was your old man who told you this about the holy man?” And they said: “He was an old man, tall and dark, wearing the oldest possible clothes.” And the clergy said: “That was Abba Moses. And he told you this about himself because he did not want you to see him.” And the judge went away much edified.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 8.10

In the Orthodox Church (as well as in the Western tradition), there is an ascetic tradition of the “holy fool” or “fool for Christ’s sake.” The basic concept is that, as a matter of ascetic calling, one may accept an extreme discipline: pretending madness in order to incite scorn and so avoid the praises of others. The goal is the most pure humility, but the practice can look sort of odd. Abba Moses was not, strictly speaking, a holy fool, but he does at times (as in this story) display a little of what that looks like. Indeed, he shows that sometimes what is foolish to the world may actually be a manifestation of true wisdom. Continue reading

An archangel was sent from Heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And beholding Thee, O Lord, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to Her such things as these:

Rejoice, Thou through whom joy will shine forth:

Rejoice, Thou through whom the curse will cease!

Rejoice, recall of fallen Adam:

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

Rejoice, height inaccessible to human thoughts:

Rejoice, depth undiscernible even for the eyes of angels!

Rejoice, for Thou art the throne of the King:

Rejoice, for Thou bearest Him Who beareth all!

Rejoice, star that causest the Sun to appear:

Rejoice, womb of the Divine Incarnation!

Rejoice, Thou through whom creation is renewed:

Rejoice, Thou through whom we worship the Creator!

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

~ Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos

This excerpt is from the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (the Mother of God), a work of great beauty by Romanos the Melodist, a saint of the late fifth/early sixth centuries. It is so treasured by the Orthodox Church that we have multiple services during Great Lent to sing it. The present fast (of the Dormition) is another good time to revisit it as well. In particular, I’d like to focus on the refrain at the end: “Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!” Continue reading

No Small Danger

Abba Ammon said [to Abba Poemen]: “If I need to talk with my neighbour, do you think I should talk to him about the Scriptures, or about the sayings and judgments of the elders?” And the old man said to him: “If you cannot keep silence, it is much better to talk about the sayings of the elders than about the Scriptures. For the danger is no small one.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.20

It may be a curiosity to some why my reflections, which focus on Christian spiritual practice, almost entirely consist of musings on the sayings of the fathers and mothers of the Church rather than the Scriptures. To be sure, the Scriptures are not absent in my reflections, but on the other hand they are always only referenced in the context of seeking to understand one of “the sayings and judgments of the elders.” The reason is quite simple, as Abba Poemen puts it: “the danger is no small one.” Continue reading

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

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