Miss Maggie Ross is an Anglican solitary who publishes a blog called A Voice in the Wilderness. (Update, March 25, 2008: As we discuss in this post, ‘Maggie Ross’ is the pen name of Sister Martha Reeves, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Anglican and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Tulsa.) We came across a passing reference in a very recent post of Miss Ross to the Orthodox monk and his spiritual formation, all in the context of the recent uncovering of Syriac texts which purportedly show a Semitic Christianity, ‘that shows little Hellenizing influence, texts that reveal a Christianity much closer to the Gospel of Jesus than what has evolved inside institutions, East or West.’ Miss Ross continues, after a reference to the efforts of Dr Sebastian Brock to translate Syriac texts into English, and after an unattributed quotation, apparently from such a Syriac text, as follows:
Why, the inevitable question arises, have these texts remained so long hidden from us, especially when they open scripture and pierce the heart, leading us to the silence of the divine exchange? The Orthodox monk may nod wisely, having had a Greek, somewhat altered, version of [St] Isaac [the Syrian] as his sole guide in the early years of his monastic life. But monasticism is legendary for its role in ecclesiastical power politics, and the churches of Eastern Christianity play the same power games as the churches in the West on a different board. [Emphasis added.]
(We recommend that the reader read the whole post given in the above link; it would be too time-consuming for us to put it here in toto. Moreover, the post itself is part of a numbered series in a large blog, so the reader might want to browse around Miss Ross’ blog to get a better idea of what ‘it’s all about’.)
We would like to address the issue of the Orthodox monk’s formation in the context of Miss Ross’ reference to St Isaac, in the context of the general issue of an unhellenized Christianity closer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than the Christianity of the Orthodox Church, and in the context of the relation of the monk to his bishop (‘the same power games’).
We came across Miss Ross by accident and we are by no means au courant with her writings and thought. We looked at a couple of posts on her blog to get an idea of what she was all about, but she is obviously an accomplished and prolific writer and it would be very difficult to get a handle on all her thought so as to attack it. We do not intend to do that, not having the knowledge, time or inclination to attack anyone, especially Miss Ross. However, the Orthodox monk’s formation is fair game, and indeed fits into our present historical survey of Orthodox monasticism.
First of all, what is the role of St Isaac the Syrian in the Orthodox monk’s formation? For the most part, none at all. Why should that be? It’s simple. St Isaac is for Hesychasts. Very few monks are Hesychasts. Hesychasts live alone, often in a cave—even today—concentrating on the Jesus Prayer as taught by the Philokalia. The monk in the coenobium would ordinarily not read St Isaac. He might read him as a novice, say, out of curiosity and enthusiasm, but St Isaac does not speak to the concerns of coenobites and the serious coenobite will turn to other authors.
We discussed this matter with our friend George who has visited Mt Athos much more than we have. George tells us the following: The great Elder, Paisios of Mt Athos (†1994), who was a Hesychast, was very much given to reading St Isaac, in the Greek translation done at St Sava’s Monastery near Jerusalem around the 10th Century, the translation that Miss Ross seems to remark was ‘somewhat altered’. Elder Paisios was once asked on what page of St Isaac he was. He gave a very early page number, saying that he had not got very far because he insisted on putting what he had read into practice before he continued any further. So he was on the early pages. Elder Paisios did miracles, but he had not got very far in St Isaac.
George tells us that he once spoke with an English-speaking Athonite monk who had in his hands Dr Dana Miller’s English translation of St Isaac, the one published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston, the one that is largely from the Greek edition of St Sava’s but also from the Syriac. George says that the monk asked his Elder, gifted with very, very strong gifts of charismatic spiritual discernment, about the English translation. The Elder simply remarked: ‘With the Greek translation, you are safe.’ This was not to suggest that Dr Miller’s translation was in any way faulty, but to point out that the translation done in the 10th Century was done with an Orthodox phronema (habit of thought) by monks who were strongly gifted with spiritual discernment.
George also tells us that he heard that Elder Ephraim (†1998) of Katounakia on Mt Athos, who was a disciple of Elder Joseph the Hesychast of Mt Athos (†1959) and whom George had met, was himself very given to reading St Isaac, even over the Philokalia. Elder Ephraim was a very important Hesychast and, George was assured, had read the Philokalia, even though his spiritual formation was largely through his immediate personal contact with Joseph the Hesychast. Elder Ephraim was endowed with gifts of prophecy.
Before we turn to St Ephraim the Syrian, we would like to make one further remark on St Isaac. St Isaac has an endearing spiritual texture in his writing that makes him beloved of all, but it must be understood that much of the ascetical content of his homilies derives from Evagrius Ponticus. But Evagrius is as Greek as they get.
Next, any Orthodox who goes to Church during Holy Week has a taste of St Ephraim the Syrian. Certain of his homilies are prescribed to be read during Orthros (matins) of Holy Week, especially on Holy Wednesday: the limpid purity of St Ephraim’s devotion comes through even in the Greek as St Ephraim talks about the fallen woman who goes to the city to buy nard to anoint the Lord.
Indicative of the status of St Ephraim in the Orthodox Church is that he is said to have travelled to Caesarea to meet St Basil the Great, and to have had—through an instance of the gift of tongues—a conversation with St Basil.
Coenobites will read St Ephraim.
One text that is very popular in Orthodox spiritual circles is the Spiritual Homilies of St Macarius, now thought to have been written in Mesopotamia. The Orthodox receive these writings, although they avoid a certain opinion in them. They have never accepted modern scholarly arguments that the writings are Messalian.
One very important Syrian monastic saint is St Symeon Stylites. Orthodox monks read his life as recorded by Theodoretos of Cyr, who also wrote the lives of other Syrian monastic saints.
Finally, it should be remarked that most of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, being Copts, were not Greek but related to the Semite peoples. While the texts that the Orthodox Church received were written in Greek, it cannot be ignored that most of the Desert Fathers were not Greek. It is very clear that Athonite monasticism derives from the Egyptian monasticism of the Desert Fathers. This includes Hesychasm, which has its roots in the desert of Egypt.
But why might the Syriac texts to which Miss Ross has referred have ‘remained so long hidden from us’, as Miss Ross puts it? Well, one of the obvious reasons is that the Orthodox Church was not in communion with the Syrian Churches after the disputes over the relation between the human and divine natures of Christ that gave rise to the terms Monophysite and Nestorian. The Syriac Churches were one or the other. There was no particular conspiracy.
After this very quick treatment of the Orthodox monk’s formation in the context of Syriac Christianity, and having ignored here what we wrote in an earlier post on the influence of Syrian monasticism on Orthodox monasticism, let us turn to the broader issue of an unhellenized Christianity ‘much closer to the Gospel of Jesus than what has evolved inside institutions, East or West’.
Let us hope that Miss Ross does not take what she is saying seriously. She would be in great danger of her salvation. We poor monks have seen from experience that Westerners who get enamoured of Syrian Christianity to the exclusion of hellenized Jews like St Paul get into deep spiritual trouble. We do not know what it is, but there is something about Semitic/Syriac Christian texts that spiritually disorients fellows (and gals) who go that road. We could name names, but we do not. They are casualties.
Add to that prayer in solitude and you have all the presuppositions of spiritual catastrophe.
We would like to expand on the remark of the Elder that George referred to: in the Orthodox Church you have certainty, you have safety. St Silouan the Athonite, a sinner who became a saint, put it roughly this way: He did not pass judgement on other Churches, but he emphasized that in the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox have the Holy Spirit given to us by God. And it is the existential experience of the grace of God that leads the Orthodox ‘into all truth.’
That brings us to our final remarks.
As must be known to anyone with any knowledge of the Orthodox Church, despite its emphasis on the existential experience of the grace of God in the Holy Spirit—and above we mentioned some attainments of Athonite elders to indicate that this is not mere words—the Orthodox Church has a very strong emphasis on the dogmatic unity in faith of all believers. Indeed, Elder Sophrony, St Silouan’s disciple, discusses the attainment of ‘dogmatic consciousness’ as a stage of the spiritual journey of the Hesychast, an advanced stage.
Moreover, Orthodox ecclesiology is such that the monk ideally stands in relation to his bishop as a son to a father. Moreover, this ecclesiology is also an existential spiritual discernment given by the Holy Spirit. There is not a monk in the Orthodox Church if he does not have a father. And that is his bishop. And the true monk encounters his bishop in the Holy Spirit in an organic unity of faith, in the spontaneous obedience of a child to his father. And this harmony of spirit is given in the Holy Spirit. Was it not St Ignatios, the one said to be the child of the gospel whom Christ held in his arms and blessed, who said: ‘Where the bishop is, there is the Church.’?
May God rest his mercy on her [i.e. Sr Martha Reeves'] brow. Amen.