Fairer he in beauty
than are all mortal kind,
now a corpse we see, unsightly, bereft of form,
he who beautified the nature of all things.
~ Lamentations of the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday
I tried to find a good text of all the Lamentations, but it proved harder to find than I have time for at the moment. The link above appears to be a longer version than what I am used to, and it contains the whole service rather than just the Lamentations. What I did find (also with great difficulty) was a recording of another Orthodox parish that sings the Lamentations with the same melodies that we do in mine.
This is the only time of the year (to my knowledge) that these melodies are used, and I find them to perfectly capture the aesthetic of “bright sadness” that characterizes all of Great Lent, and indeed, all our lives. These are sung as part of what is a funeral service for Christ, who having been crucified on Holy Friday, was laid in a tomb and rested there on Holy Saturday, fulfilling the Sabbath. Continue reading
Abba Evagrius said: “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody, and long-suffering, and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 10.20
When one reads early Christian responses to Jewish practices like Kosher diet or Sabbath observance or circumcision, especially that of St. Paul, perhaps, one can get the impression that he contradicts himself. At some points, he says that so long as someone does these things with a good conscience, it is pleasing to God. At other times, he talks about how none of these things have any spiritual profit. I think this saying from Abba Evagrius gives us some insight into what that early Christian perspective really was about: prudence. Continue reading
I haven’t lately had the time to write new posts. But I came across a passage in St. John Cassian’s Conferences (1.15) that I thought speaks pretty well for itself:
[Abba Moses said:] In many ways we come to contemplate God. We know him in worshipping his very being which we cannot fathom, the vision which is yet hidden, though it is promised, and for which we may hope. We know him in the majesty of his creation, in regarding his justice, in apprehending the help we receive for our daily lives. We contemplate him when we see what he has wrought with his saints in every generation: when we feel awe at the mighty power which rules creation, the unmeasurable knowledge of his eye which sees into the secrets of every heart; when we remember that he has counted the grains of sand upon the shore and the waves upon the sea and the raindrops, that he sees every day and hour through all the centuries past and future: when we remember his mercy unimaginable seeing countless sins committed every moment and yet bearing them with inexhaustible long-suffering; when we contemplate that he has called us by reason of no merit which he found in us but simply of his free grace: when we see so many opportunities of salvation offered to those whom he is going to adopt as his sons: how he caused us to be born in circumstances where we might from our cradles receive his grace and the knowledge of his law: how he is working to overcome the enemy in us, simply for the pleasure of his goodness, and is rewarding us with everlasting blessedness: and, finally, how for our salvation he was incarnate and made man, and has spread his wonderful mysteries among all nations. There are countless other contemplations of this kind, which arise in our perceptions in proportion to our holiness of life and our purity of heart and through which, if our eyes are clean, we see and grasp God. No man in whom anything of earthly passion remains can keep the vision continually. ‘Thou canst not see my face’ said the Lord. ‘For no man shall see me and live’—live to this world and its desires.”
[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
It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers
It is easy to become discouraged in the spiritual life. It is easy to think, “I am no St. Anthony. How can I hope for blessedness? How can I even be saved?” Attempting to answer this concern is, in part, the reason for this blog. I love the wisdom of the Christian ascetic tradition, but nearly all of it is written primarily by and for monastics. Is perfection only possible in the desert? Or might there be hope for the city as well? Continue reading
[Abba Isaac said:] The fourth kind, thanksgiving, is when the mind recollects what God has done or is doing, or looks forward to the good which he has prepared for those that love him, and so offers its gratitude in an indescribable transport of spirit. Sometimes it offers still deeper prayers of this sort; when the soul contemplates with singleness of heart the reward of the saints and so is moved in its happiness to pour forth a wordless thanksgiving.
~ Conferences of Cassian 9.14
I have already reflected on the relationship between thanksgiving and joy in the past, but since there is always more to say about every subject of the spiritual life, I will reflect on the subject yet again here. In fact, such reflection, attempts to describe “an indescribable transport of spirit,” is really the heart of true theology in the first place, I would argue. And so I pass here from the mystery of thanksgiving to an even greater, more ineffable mystery here, though not really as a true theologian in that sense, I hasten to add, but merely as one who has been inspired by many. Continue reading
[Abba Isaac said:] Thanksgiving seems particularly suitable for those who have torn out of their hearts the sins which pricked their conscience and are at last free from fear of falling again: and then, recollecting the generosity and the mercy of the Lord, past or present or future, are rapt away into that spark-like prayer which no mortal can understand or describe.
~ Conferences of Cassian 9.15
Thanksgiving, in this case one of four types of prayer (perhaps I’ll write on that more general subject some other time), represents an exceptional thing. It is the proper response to true joy, that joy that comes from virtue, from tearing “sins which pricked [our] conscience” out of our hearts and being freed from the fear of falling in the same way again. It is the joy that comes when, through ascetic struggle and the grace of God, we make real progress in righteousness. Continue reading
Abba Cassian also said: “We came to another old man and he invited us to sup, and pressed us, though we had eaten, to eat more. I said that I could not. He answered: ‘I have already given meals to six different visitors, and am still hungry. Have you only eaten once and yet are so full that you cannot eat with me now?'”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 13.3
For Orthodox Christians like myself, the season of Advent has come (beginning November 15). Advent is a period of fasting leading up to the feast of the Nativity, better known as Christmas. In the United States, however, there is a significant bump along this road to Christmas: Thanksgiving. This year, not only does Thanksgiving day interrupt the fast, but I attended a conference last weekend (beginning last Thursday) that was catered with all sorts of wonderful, but non-lenten foods and drinks. So I didn’t really get to begin. On top of that, Sunday night Kelly and Brendan and I went to my mother’s to have a local family Thanksgiving. Tomorrow, we are driving down to Indiana for Thanksgiving with Kelly’s aunts and uncle and grandfather. Before too long, everyone will be having Christmas parties (before Christmas, of course, rather than during those twelve days afterward set aside for, you know, celebrating Christmas). I am starting to wonder if I will get an Advent at all this year…. Continue reading
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
Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about the desert fathers (or mothers, as the case may be) is their seemingly counterintuitive wisdom. Does your life lack meaning? Maybe you should think about death more often. Need to learn patience? Maybe you need more annoying people in your life. Feeling sick? That’s good medicine. Indeed, St. Syncletice goes on to say that “there is much profit in bearing illness quietly and giving thanks to God.” Headache? Thanks God. Fever? Thanks God. Queasy stomach? Thanks God. Continue reading
[Saint Syncletice] said: “There is a useful sorrow, and a destructive sorrow. Sorrow is useful when we weep for sin, and for our neighbour’s ignorance, and so that we may not relax our purpose to attain to true goodness: these are the true kinds of sorrow. Our enemy adds something to this. For he sends sorrow without reason, which is something called accidie. We ought always to drive out a spirit like this with prayer and psalmody.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.71
There is a lot that could be gleaned from this saying. It do not think it is controversial to say that “sorrow without reason” is a fairly common phenomenon today. What is interesting about this saying from Saint Sycletice is her perspective on sorrow in general: some sorrow is good, and “sorrow without reason” has a source (“[o]ur enemy”) and a solution: “prayer and psalmody.” Continue reading