Friday, 1 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 13 — The Teaching of St John of Sinai

In English translation, the only work of St John of Sinai, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, is over 200 pages long. That is 200 pages of aphoristic observation on the monastic state as seen by a Saint. It is impossible to summarize such a dense work. We will begin with a detailed analysis of one chapter—one paragraph, really—so that our esteemed readers can see just how the Ladder is written, but first let us mention editions.

As we have already pointed out, there is no critical edition, and a plethora of manuscripts, of the Ladder. That means that there is no reliable text. There is a text in Patrologia Migne Volume 88. There is also a text, based on more than one manuscript, by Archimandrite Ignatios of the Monastery of Parakletou in Oropos, Attica, Greece (Ninth Edition, 2002), together with a translation into modern Greek. There is one English translation by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, USA. There is another English translation, not as good, published by the Paulist Fathers in the series ‘Classics of Western Spirituality’; that translation has a good introduction by the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos (Ware).

Let us look at the chapter. In Archimandrite Ignatios edition it is Step 3, 23. In Archimandrite Lazarus Moore’s translation it is Step 3, 17. The first thing we note is that because there is no critical edition, the numbering of the chapters varies from edition to edition. There is nothing to do. The next thing to note is that the structure of the Ladder is that of a ladder with 30 rungs: each rung is a stage on the journey of the monk from life in the world to the goal of the monk: dispassion, or, in the case of the coenobite, deep humility.

So we are in rung or step 3 of the Ladder, which is ‘Concerning being a Stranger’. The word used by St John is the word used to describe Abraham’s state when he went out from his people in Chaldea into the land of Canaan. Abraham was a ‘stranger in a strange land’. St John thinks that that is the proper condition of the monk who is journeying from impassionedness to dispassion. The issue in Step 3 is therefore not being attached to what we left behind in Chaldea. What does St John say in Chapter 17?

3, 17 Look! Look! lest everything appears to have been filled with water to you who love the attachment of your family, and you depart together with the flood of love for the world. Have no pity on the tears of parents or friends; otherwise, you will be crying eternally.

What is St John saying? The whole chapter is a play on tears, your own for your loved ones that you have left behind in Chaldea to come to a strange land, the monastery; the tears of your loved ones who try to persuade you to leave the monastery; and the tears you will shed in the next life if you listen.

To understand how subtle St John is, we have to consider what he means when he says that everything might appear to you to be filled with water. When does that happen? When does everything around us appear to be covered with water? When we are crying and we look out at the world through eyes covered in tears. St John has that kind of very precise knowledge of the human person. He starts from the deep psychological self-knowledge of what it means both perceptually and emotionally to be a stranger in Canaan crying for our loved ones in Chaldea, and he proceeds to weave his admonition to resist the tears and—primarily—the attachment into an elaborate play on tears and on the flood of love for the world that will sweep us out of the monastery. There are 200 pages of this sort of thing.

Let us look at a few key points in St John’s system. First of all, there are God, angels, men and demons. All of them objectively exist. If you don’t believe that, St John is not going to be your favourite book.

Next, among men there are both sinners and righteous. There are also both laymen and monks. St John doesn’t think that all laymen are sinners and all monks saints. That would be rather naïve. There are also priests of various ranks, but St John takes them for granted and does not discuss them. One of the key points that St John makes is that the angel is the light (model or beacon) for the monk, and the monk is the light (model or beacon) for the layman. The next point he makes is that a monk is a monk, and a layman, a layman. There is no sense in St John—who says explicitly that the monastic state is so difficult that unless God hid from laymen its difficulty no one would become a monk—that you can or should be a monk in practice even when you are married. His advice to laymen is this:

1, 38 I heard some men who were settled in a negligent state in the world asking me: ‘How can we, living together with spouses and surrounded by public cares, follow the monastic state?’ I replied to them: ‘All things good that you can do, do. Revile no one. Steal from no one. Lie to no one. Be arrogant with no one. Hate no one. Do not separate yourselves from the services of the Church. Be sympathetic towards those in need. Cause scandal to no one. Do not approach the portion of another and be satisfied with the wages that your wives can give you. If you do thus, you are not far from the Kingdom of the Heavens.’

His definition of the Christian is appropriate here:

1, 7 A Christian is the imitation of Christ, as much as is possible for man, in words and works and thought, believing in the Holy Trinity rightly and faultlessly.

There is no sense in St John that dogma doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary.

What is a monk?

1, 10 A monk is the order and condition of the bodiless powers accomplished in a material and sordid body. A monk is he who has only the commandments and words of God in every time place and thing. A monk is continual violence to nature and a faultless guard of the senses. A monk is a purified body, a cleansed mouth and an enlightened mind. A monk is a soul full of pain that is occupied in the uninterrupted memory of death both awake and asleep.

We can see why St John thinks that laymen are laymen and monks, monks: the monastic vocation is so high that most monks cannot accomplish it, much less laymen. What St John does point out is that the layman who is unmarried is able with relative ease to leave the world and become a monk, all other things being equal, but that the married layman is bound. Later Orthodox tradition allows the marriage to be dissolved so that one or both of the partners can enter the monastic state. Obviously, the number of such cases is not great.

What kind of monks are there?

1, 47 The whole monastic state is contained in three most general types of foundation: the one in athletic anchoretism and solitude; to practise Hesychia with one, at the most two, others; to remain in the coenobium with patient endurance. ‘Do not deviate,’ says the Ecclesiast, to the right or to the left: travel by the royal road.’ For the middle of the aforesaid ways has turned out to be appropriate for many. Woe to he who is alone, if he falls into accidie or sleep or negligence or despair, for there is no one among men to raise him up; wherever there are gathered two or three in my name, there am I in the midst of them, said the Lord.

We should note St John’s use of biblical quotation: here and elsewhere he quite freely adapts biblical passages to his own use, changing their words by way of explaining their application to the case at hand.

Since St John was a Hesychast for forty years, it might be thought that he prefers the Hesychast life over the coenobitical life, but in fact he gives the honours to the coenobitical life. Moreover, it might be thought that he is merely skewing things for his coenobitical readers—the Ladder is mostly aimed to the coenobite—but in fact what he says agrees with what St Athanasios of Athos had to say about his foundation of the Great Lavra many years later: St Athanasios bore witness before the Holy Trinity that the wages of the coenobite were the same as those of the Hesychast. George tells us that he once discussed this with an Athonite Elder. The Elder remarked: ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t think that St Athanasios was merely trying to pull the leg of his coenobitical disciples.’

The next topic is to look at the concepts of passion and dispassion in St John of Sinai. This takes us into his dependence on Evagrius Ponticus, and in the next post we will draw on The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, which discusses this sort of thing. The work was written by an Orthodox monk, Fr Theophanes (Constantine). The concepts of passion and dispassion are necessary to be understood in order for us to be able to enter into the essence of St John of Sinai’s teaching.

1 comment:

  1. We have deleted our reader's comment above so as to protect his identity and privacy. Here is the full text of his comment without his name:

    "This is what St John of Sinai had: a very strong charism of discernment in its highest degree, which he himself describes as the light of the Holy Spirit illuminating the dark parts of the soul of the other."

    I'm having a bit of difficulty comprehending this notion of the "light of the Holy Spirit." My novice discernment constantly leads me into making a complacent judgement of excessive abstraction. How is St John of Sinai so inspirationally guided by the inner acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit?
    Furthermore, I would like to complement you for posting the most intellectually stirring material on the net. Unfortunately, although born a Christian Orthodox, I have not practiced the faith properly throughout my adoloscent years. Recently I have become increasingly intrested in my faith and its potential role within my life. What reading should I do to not only become aware of the rudimentary concepts of Orthodoxy but to also gain further knowledge on the monastic life?

    We have replied to this comment in the next three posts.

    Orthodox Monk