Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 11 — The School of Sinai: Preliminary Remarks

In our historical survey of Orthodox monasticism, by the time we arrive at the School of Sinai we must make a transition from considering Orthodox monasticism geographically to considering it literarily. We can no longer, as we could with the influence, say, of early Syrian monasticism on early Egyptian monasticism, consider the matter as the movement of persons, and ideas by means of persons. We must begin to look at the movement of manuscripts and ideas by means of manuscripts. The methodological issues become completely different.

Let us take the example of St Diadochos of Photike (5th Century), the author of the Gnostic Chapters found in the first volume of the Philokalia. St Diadochos was the bishop of Photike, a major town in a valley of the Pindus Mountains north of Nikopolis, itself an important town where St Paul the Apostle spent a winter. Now here we have a bishop in a town in a provincial part of Greece which nonetheless is attested as having had movements of persons to and from Hippo, the see of St Augustine. It is not completely out of the question that St Diadochos met St Augustine—although we hasten to add that there is absolutely no evidence that he ever did.

We know nothing about St Diadochos’ background, where he was educated, where he became a monk and so on. But here he is in a provincial town of Greece, writing in a very learned style a spiritual classic, the first work to contain a clear and deep discussion of the Jesus Prayer. Moreover, St Diadochos is said to be of the school of Evagrius Ponticus, himself a learned Greek whose movements from Pontus to Constantinople to Jerusalem to Egypt are well known. (This Evagrian influence is particularly evident in other works of St Diadochos not included by St Makarios of Corinth in his compilation of the Philokalia.) When we look at St Diadochos in and of himself, however, we are still able to consider the matter as the movement of persons and ideas through persons. But let us look at what happens later, when other writers start to use St Diadochos.

St Diadochos is a big influence on the School of Sinai.

Later, St Nikitas Stethatos attests in his Life of St Symeon the New Theologian (11th Century) that the book that St Symeon was given by his Elder, also called St Symeon, to read when he was a novice contained the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos.

Hence, it is no longer possible to consider the matter geographically. We have no way of knowing which person brought the manuscript of the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos to Sinai. Indeed, since we know nothing about the backgrounds of the two major figures of the School of Sinai, St John of Sinai and St Hesychios, we have no way of knowing when and where they first came into contact with the thought of St Diadochos.

Moreover, when we reach St Symeon the New Theologian in Constantinople in the 11th Century, asking who brought the first copy of the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos to the monastery of the Studion where St Symeon was a novice is like asking where Elder Sophrony (1993) bought his first copy of Heidegger. Impossible to answer and completely irrelevant to any serious discussion of either Symeon the New Theologian’s or Elder Sophrony’s thought.

The issues that now arise in the discussion of Orthodox monasticism are literary: we need to find the original form of the literary work that interests us, and also the form of that work as it was used by an author who was influenced by it.

This is a matter of people slogging it out with digital photographs of manuscripts found in museums around the world and analyzing the handwriting in the manuscript to assess when and where the copy in the photograph must have been made. It is a matter of working out chains of manuscript transmission and placing the author we are interested in who used the work somewhere in that chain. It is a matter of variant readings and judgement what the most probable reading of the original manuscript was. Now there are people who enjoy this sort of thing and make a lifetime’s career out of it. We wish that they would find the time to do this work for both St John of Sinai and St Hesychios, since we do not have critical editions of their works. The most likely reason, especially in the case of St John of Sinai, is that there is a plethora of manuscripts: doing a critical edition of the Ladder of Divine Ascent would be a life’s work. It’s not much different with St Hesychios.

Incidentally, the fact that there is such a plethora of manuscripts of St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent is a testimony to the central role it plays in Orthodox monasticism. We already mentioned, in the last post, that the work is appointed by the Orthodox liturgical typikon to be read in the monastery refectory throughout Great Lent.

Since we now take a more literary approach, we will see that the study of Orthodox monasticism takes on the character of studying the available Lives of saints, the available foundation documents written by saints, the available ascetical works written by saints. There are certainly great gaps: the Lives, foundation documents and ascetical works written by saints are the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, we often have very serious lacunae even in the literary transmission of the surviving literary documents that underlie our study. For example, while St Hesychios has been dated to around the middle of the 8th Century, some authors date him to as late as the 13th Century. That’s a big spread. Some questions are just plain unanswerable. Where was St John of Sinai born? Who knows? His biographer didn’t say. There’s no possible way to find out.

Finally, as a professor once said to us: where there’s a lack of facts, there’s a lot of room for theory.

Let us take an example from the liturgical realm. As those who have studied Orthodox liturgy must know, the monastic services begin: ‘Bless’d is our God always, now and ever and unto the Ages of Ages.’ But the Divine Liturgy begins: Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the Ages of Ages.’ So does the service of baptism. Fr Alexander Schmeman in his work on baptism draws theological conclusions about the nature of baptism given this identity between the beginning words of the Mystery of Baptism and the Divine Liturgy. However, later research has indicated that the reason that the two services start the same way is that all the services in the cathedral rite of Constantinople started that way, whereas all the services in the monastic rite started the other way. The only significance to the common beginning of the Mystery of Baptism and the Divine Liturgy is that they both derived from the cathedral rite. The theology must be found otherwise.

It is the same with various literary data relevant to the study of Orthodox monasticism and relevant to the assessment of the thought of one saint or movement or another. There’s a lot of room for interpretation. For fashions in the history of ideas. For group think among scholars, reinforced by the sociological dimensions of the granting of PhD’s. For the agendas of one church denomination or movement or another. This problem even applies to the translations of the primary documents. They often show a systematic bias. Caveat lector.

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