Category: Virtue


Humility: The Gateway Virtue

Abba John the Short said: “The gateway to God is humility. Our fathers endured much suffering and so entered the city of God with joy.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.22

Humility is often praised (perhaps paradoxically) in the most exalted ways by ancient Christians. But rightly so! I’ve heard that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” I’m not sure whether that is true, but humility, I know, is a “gateway to God.” It is a gateway virtue. I can see the public service announcement now: “Parents, have you talked to your children about humility?” If only, right? Humility, indeed, is so powerful in its apparent weakness that it can even turn suffering into great joy.

I am reminded of a saying of St. Anthony: “I saw the snares that the enemy spread out over the world, and I said groaning, ‘What can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humiity.'” Continue reading

Salvation for the City

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

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

Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.

~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 6

I have written before on the remembrance of death, but having just read St. John Climacus’s treatment of the subject (which is short, profound, and highly recommended), and since it has been a while, surely I have room for another reflection on the same subject. After all, if it is truly “the most essential of all works,” then I can’t imagine a limit to what of value can be said about it. Continue reading

Seeing the Unseen

Abba Hyperichius said: “Let your mind be ever upon the kingdom of heaven, and you will soon win its inheritance.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.35

The kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) is not an obvious concept to many people today. I cannot claim any comprehensive understanding myself, but I can offer here a few basic observations, particularly in relation to faith, itself an often misunderstood concept. 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

An Ordinary Achievement

Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: “How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?”

I answered: “Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.”

~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “the tyranny of the ordinary.” By that I meant the way in which our daily routines can dominate our lives. But this passage from the Ladder is a helpful corrective. The ordinary can be oppressive, but it can also be an achievement. Continue reading

A friend of God is the one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin and who does not neglect to do what good he can…. Withdrawal from the world is a willing hatred of all that is materially prized, a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature.

St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1

The wisdom of the fathers can be hard to decipher. Sometimes they seem to completely contradict the conventional wisdom. Other times, like this quote from St. John Climacus, they seem to contradict themselves. These two sentences are, in fact, found in the very same paragraph, the one in the middle and the other at the end. While I understand the impulse of many (including scholars at times) to rashly declare any apparent contradiction a true contradiction, the more charitable (and more careful and respectful) assumption would be to assume that apparent contradictions are not simply contradictions, but rather that they are simply apparent. That is, beneath the surface they speak a high nuance of thought worth slowing down to consider.

So then, if a friend of God is “one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin [etc.],” how is it that the same writer recommends “a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature”? What is the distinction? Are we to live in communion with nature or deny it? Can these two statements be reconciled? Continue reading

It is through the Holy Spirit that there will be a universal resurrection. I do not mean the resurrection of the bodies at the end (Heb. 9:26), for then the angel will blow the trumpet and the dead bodies will rise (1 Cor. 15:52), but I mean the spiritual regeneration and resurrection of the dead souls that takes place in a spiritual manner every day. This [resurrection] He gives who has died once [for all] and risen (Rom. 6:9f.), and through all and for all those who live in a worthy manner He causes the souls to rise who have died with Him in will and faith and raises them up. This He grants through His all-holy Spirit as He even now bestows on them from henceforth the kingdom of heaven.

~ St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Example and Spirit of Symeon the Pious

Christ is risen! For Orthodox Christians like myself, Pascha (Easter) is more than just a day, it is also a forty day season. For the first week (this past one) we don’t even fast at all! Having just finished with this Renewal Week (or Bright Week), I have been reflecting on a common motif of the Christian spiritual life and how perfectly it describes Christian asceticism: dying and rising with Christ. Continue reading

Rays of the Sun of Righteousness

Abba Hilarion once came from Palestine to Abba Antony on the mountain: and Abba Antony said to him: “Welcome, morning star, for you rise at break of day.” And Abba Hilarion said: “Peace to you, pillar of light, for you prop up the earth.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.4

This exchange between Abba Hilarion and Abba Antony comes, in my collection, under the category “Of Charity,” i.e. “On Love.” Thus, key to understanding this imagery is that this is a lesson about love: Abba Antony praises Abba Hilarion for his discipline (“you rise at break of day”), but Abba Hilarion praises Abba Antony for his self-giving, universal love (“you prop up the earth”). In both instances, however, the metaphor is one of light (“morning star”/”pillar of light”), indicating only a difference of degree in yet the same blessedness: communion with the divine. Continue reading