Category: Watchfulness


Sacred Skepticism

With his searching right hand, Thomas did probe Your life-bestowing side, O Christ God; for when You did enter while the doors were shut, he cried out unto You with the rest of the Apostles: You are my Lord and my God.

~ Kontakion of the Sunday of St. Thomas

The story of “doubting” St. Thomas is read both at the Agape Vespers the morning of Pascha and during the Sunday after Pascha, St. Thomas Sunday. It is interesting to me that the Orthodox tradition does not seem to criticize St. Thomas for his doubt but rather, as does the hymn above, praises his confession and even, perhaps, “his searching right hand,” i.e. his skepticism.

The biblical story comes from the Gospel of John:

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

So he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

And after eight days his disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

(John 20:24-29) Continue reading

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A Soul on Fire

[L]et us acquire the pure and guileless tears that come with the remembrance that we must die. There is nothing false in these, no sop to self-esteem. Rather do they purify us, lead us on in love of God, wash away our sins and drain away our passions.

~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7

Given the morbid nature of the practice, it is refreshing to see St. John Climacus connect tears and sadness with meditation on one’s mortality. To assert that we ought not grieve for death, pace the Stoics, would be inhuman indeed.

Continue reading

Face to Face

Said Abba Elias: “I fear three things: the first, the time just before my soul goes out from my body: the second, the time just before I meet God face to face: the third, the time just before he pronounces his sentence upon me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.4

For a long, but relevant, read with regards to the subject at hand, see Richard John Neuhaus’s “Born Toward Dying,” which I just read today with the thought of death especially on my mind. Continue reading

The Deluder

There is a demon, known as the deluder, who visits the brethren especially at dawn, and leads the intellect about from city to city, from village to village, from house to house, pretending that no passions are aroused through such visits; but then the intellect goes on to meet and talk with old acquaintances at greater length, and so allows its own state to be corrupted by those it encounters. Little by little it falls away from the knowledge of God and holiness, and forgets its calling. Therefore the solitary must watch this demon, noting where he comes from and where he ends up; for this demon does not make this long circuit without purpose and at random, but because he wishes to corrupt the state of the solitary, so that his intellect, over-excited by all this wandering, and intoxicated by its many meetings, may immediately fall prey to the demons of unchastity, anger or dejection—the demons that above all others destroy its inherent brightness.

~ Evagrios the Solitary, Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thoughts 8

This passage is a bit long, but the insight is a remarkable one. I remember when I first read this thinking to myself, “Now, how does Evagrios know what goes through my head every morning?” Metaphysical questions regarding the nature of demons aside, in my case at least this ailment of the soul (and its cure) have proved to be quite true. Indeed, I never cease to be astounded by the insights of fourth century hermits in a “pre-scientific” age about the wonders of human psychology. 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

Sober

Another time a vessel of wine was brought [to Scete] from the first fruits of the vintage, so that a cup of it could be given to each of the brothers. And a brother saw that they were drinking wine, and fled up on a roof, and the roof fell in. And when they heard the noise, they ran and found the brother lying half-dead. And they began to abuse him, saying: “It has served you right, for you were guilty of vainglory.” But an abba embraced him, and said: “Leave my son alone, he has done a good work. By the living Lord, this roof shall not be rebuilt in my time, as a reminder to the world that a roof fell in Scete because of a cup of wine.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.54

I am somewhat surprised that it has taken me this long to write a reflection about sobriety. The fathers commend its value often. Sometimes they are a little extreme in their rejection of alcohol, but I think it would be a misreading to say that they opposed it in principle. Even the most vehement condemnation is more a prudential matter. As another saying goes:

They told Abba Poemen that a certain monk did not drink wine. And he said to them: “Wine is not for monks at all.” (4.31) Continue reading

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

Christ in the Boat

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

Praying[Abba Isaac said:] Whether the prayer is expressing repentance, or is pledging the heart in the confident trust of a pure conscience, or is expressing the intercessions which spring from a charitable heart, or is rendering thanks in the sight of the great and loving gifts of God—we have known prayers dart up like sparks from a fire. It is therefore clear that all men need to use all four kinds. The same person according to his diversity of affective states will use prayers of repentance or offering or intercession or thanksgiving.

The first kind seems particularly suitable to beginners, who are still smarting under the recollection of their sins. The second kind seems particularly suitable to people who have already attained a certain progress towards goodness. Intercession seems particularly suitable to people who are fulfilling the pledges of self-offering which they made, see the frailty of others, and are moved by charity to intercede for them. 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

I have written in the past about the destructive cycle of passions that so often leads to tragedy in our lives here. And I have reflected on this particular passage with regards to thanksgiving here. However, I would like to focus a little more closely on this passage and see the connection that Abba Isaac draws between different forms of prayer and virtuous passions that typically follow a particular order—how the way out of the vicious cycle of death is a virtuous progression of life. Continue reading