Tag Archive: virtue


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

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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

Doctrine Walks

Now, one day, when [Maccuil-maccu-Greccae] was sitting at this place, he saw St. Patrick radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory; he saw him, I say, walking, with unshaken confidence of doctrine, on a road agreeable thereto.

~ Muirchu’s Life of Patrick 23

In effort to continue my Lenten journey with St. Patrick, I came across this little passage. Besides having the most unpronouncable name of any human being in all of history, Maccuil-maccu-Greccae, Muirchu tells us, was “a very ungodly, savage tyrant,” who was “depraved in his thoughts, violent in his words, malicious in his deeds, bitter in spirit, wrathful in disposition, villainous in body, cruel in mind, heathenish in life, monstrous in conscience, [and] inclining to … a depth of ungodliness.” Yet Maccuil sees St. Patrick for who he truly is: “radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory.” This does not stop him from plotting to deceive and murder St. Patrick, but if I may cut to the chase, all ends well for both of them. My concern is not so much with Maccuil here, however, but with St. Patrick, who walked “with unshaken confidence of doctrine, on a road agreeable thereto.” Continue reading

Virginity Sells

Let no one think however that herein we depreciate marriage as an institution. We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing. But since the common instincts of mankind can plead sufficiently on its behalf, instincts which prompt by a spontaneous bias to take the high road of marriage for the procreation of children, whereas Virginity in a way thwarts this natural impulse, it is a superfluous task to compose formally an Exhortation to marriage.

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 8

As it turns out, my most recent post, “Virginity: Not Just For the Single,” has by far already been my most viewed. I wrote it after a friend cynically recommended that I write about sex if I want my blog to get more views. So I wrote about virginity instead. As it turns out, it appears that virginity sells. Continue reading

An old man said: “I never wanted a work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother: for I have this hope, that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.24

According to Abba Isaac, intercession is the third of four forms of prayer, after supplications and vows and before thanksgiving. Intercession corresponds to the affective state of longing, which differs, in ancient Christian terminology, from desire (epithemia) in its ends. Longing is a wish for what is holy and virtuous. Intercession, similarly, is a request on behalf of another for his/her good. While Christians do not seek the good of others purely out of self-interest well understood, nevertheless the saying of this old man is true that “what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.” Continue reading

The True Theologian

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

~ Evagrios the Solitary (of Pontus), 153 Texts on Prayer 61

Abba Evagrios (=”Evagrius”) gives a different definition of “theologian” than what is often the popular one. I have studied theology and even received a degree or two, but I do not accept the title of theologian. A theologian, according to Evagrios, is not primarily one who has read many books, but one who can truly pray. And that I struggle to do, and what I manage hardly matches up to his description. Continue reading

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

The Fruit in the Seed

And this tenant of [St. Antony’s] was also truly wonderful, that neither the way of virtue nor the separation from the world for its sake ought to be measured in terms of time spent, but by the aspirant’s desire and purposefulness.

~ Life of Antony 7

It is easy, I think, to presume that time equals experience. However, as the old man from my previous post put it, age must give way to conduct. The same is true of time. How many composers, I wonder, were utterly humbled by Mozart, composing already at five years old? Nevertheless, St. Antony’s rule is especially helpful. Not only does he not measure the way of virtue or worldly detachment “in terms of time spent,” but he also does not mention accomplishments, either. Rather, he gives a much more comforting standard: “the aspirant’s desire and purposefulness.” Continue reading