Category: Peace


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

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

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

The Bondage of the Will

800px-Noe_fettersOn another occasion also St. Columba prophesied in the following manner of Cormac, grandson of Lethan, a truly pious man, who not less than three times went in search of a desert in the ocean, but did not find it. “In his desire to find a desert, Cormac is this day, for the second time, now embarking from that district which lies at the other side of the river Moda (the Moy, in Sligo), and is called Eirros, Domno (Erris, in Mayo); nor even this time shall he find what he seeks, and that for no other fault than that he has irregularly allowed to accompany him in the voyage a monk who is going away from his own proper abbot without obtaining his consent.”

~ St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 6

While I know I’m supposed to be continuing my Lenten journey with St. Patrick, as the spiritual father of all the Irish, one cannot escape his spirit in the saints who rose up after him and continued his missionary efforts. In the case of this story, we have St. Columcille again (i.e. St. Columba) and St. Cormac. There are two themes in this story that caught my attention, both of which also reach back beyond St. Patrick to the desert fathers who figure so prominently on this blog: the desert and obedience. Continue reading

On another day; also, while St. Columba was engaged in his mother-church, he suddenly cried out, with a smile, “Columbanus, the son of Beogna, has just now set out on a voyage to us, and is in great danger in the rolling tides of Brecan’s whirlpool: he is sitting at the prow and raising both his hands to heaven: he is also blessing that angry and dreadful sea: yet in this the Lord only frightens him, for the ship in which he is shall not be wrecked in the storm; but this is rather to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.”

~ St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 5

St. Columcille of Iona (or St. Columba, as his name was Latinized) is one of my favorite saints. I’m not sure if the Columbanus (or Columbán) in this story is the St. Columbanus, but if so this would be quite the meeting of two Celtic saints.

In any case, however, this story is not about their meeting, but rather the journey of this Columbanus along the way. While sailing to meet St. Columcille, he suddenly encounters “great danger in the rolling tides of Brecan’s whirlpool.” Yet, according to St. Adamnan our narrator, St. Columcille is certain that his ship “shall not be wrecked in the storm; but this is rather to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.” Continue reading

A Flower in the Desert

For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.

~ St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians 5.4

I don’t usually do this, but I had a bit of poetic inspiration and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to share it here. What follows was actually the end of a longer poem, but the only part worth keeping and sufficient on its own:

In desert nights the soul’s sun shines

and warms and brightens but does not blind.

Deep within such spiritual depths

blooms a beauty that knows not death.

And when my eyes close for their rest,

I’ll sleep without dream, desire, distress.

Though death for a time my body will take,

I’ll continue alive, active, awake.

The Heaven of Our Hearts

The wicked man is a punishment to himself, but the upright man is a grace to himself—and to either, whether good or bad, the reward of his deeds is paid in his own person.

~ St. Ambrose of Milan, De Officiis 1.12

This perspective of St. Ambrose of Milan is one that is quite common among ancient Christians. In some sense they also expect a coming, final judgment, of course, but I am not clear that such was any different than the natural consequences of our actions now, simply taken to their logical ends. In any case, many today, perhaps, could benefit from reconsidering their concepts of sin, merit, reward, and punishment from this more anthropological perspective of St. Ambrose. Continue reading

Christ is Born!

447px-Intesa_nativityNow, Mary’s virginity and her giving birth escaped the notice of the prince of this world, as did the Lord’s death—those three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom [of evil] was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.

~ St. Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19.1-3

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 110 A.D.) gives, perhaps, a bit more dramatic picture of the Nativity of Christ—Christmas—than what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament. There, we actually only find two accounts, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Neither of them are without their own excitement, but I’ve always liked St. Ignatius’s focus since I first encountered it. It is a bit more overtly theological and highlights some interesting points relevant to the praxis of the spiritual life as well. Continue reading

From Death to Life

691px-Der_Kreislauf_des_Lebens,_Hans_CanonMan’s will, out of cowardice, tends away from suffering, and man, against his own will, remains utterly dominated by the fear of death, and, in his desire to live, clings to his slavery to pleasure.

~ St. Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thalassium 21

I previously mentioned this pointed and insightful saying of St. Maximus in an earlier reflection, but it is one about which I could probably write 100 posts. I have found no more succinct, clear, and comprehensive statement of the human condition. Death, that ultimate evil, that anti-natural state of being, casts a dark shadow over all our actions, though we seldom are conscious of it. We suffer and, out of fear of the direction suffering appears to lead—death—we cling in desperation to fleeting pleasures, which run like water through our hands. And when those pleasures die, as all such pleasure does (as opposed to true joy, which is eternal), we once again suffer, and suffering we fear, and fearing we desire, and desiring we enslave ourselves, against our own will to live, to pleasures that so assuredly pass away. It is a vicious spiral, always increasing the magnitude of the pleasure needed to distract ourselves from our suffering, which, in turn, always increases the magnitude of our suffering once it comes. Continue reading