Thursday, 16 November 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 12 — St John of Sinai

There are two psychologists in the Orthodox Church: Dostoevsky and St John of the Ladder. Everything else is a footnote to one of these two thinkers on the human condition.

Shakespeare holds ‘a mirror up to nature’. We are astonished at the accuracy of the image in the mirror of his blank verse.

Tolstoy is the better artist than his contemporary, Dostoevsky. What novel is more perfect than Anna Karenina?

But which of Shakespeare or Tolstoy has plumbed the depths of depravity, love and redemption?

Dostoevsky is a psychologist with a microscope analyzing the smallest chambers of depravity, the smallest inklings of love in the heart, the smallest touch of the divine love.

We know ourselves in Dostoevsky; we know others in Shakespeare. In Tolstoy we know Art.

When Tolstoy was dying an excommunicated Orthodox, he went around the walls of the Monastery of Optina without going in. He then went on to the train station and died.

One of the Startsy of Optina, we forget whether it was Ambrose or Makarios—both are now saints—after speaking with Dostoevsky said of him: ‘There is a man who repents’.

A very spiritual monk of our acquaintance said of King Lear: ‘Yes, there is much tenderness in that work, but not a trace of God.’

But who were they reading at Optina when Tolstoy was circumambulating the walls? When Dostoevsky the repentant sinner was visiting?

St Isaac the Syrian undoubtedly was being read by some of the Hesychasts. But the spiritual food of monks during Lent is St John of Sinai: the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Everyone who reads the Ladder is astonished. Who is this man who wields a scalpel to dissect the spirit of man? Where did this man get that ‘astonishing psychological insight’ that we have seen a Benedictine Abbess remark on?

St John of Sinai is the pre-eminent member of the School of Sinai, a scholarly designation for four authors, three of whom are represented in the first volume of the Philokalia, while the fourth, St John of Sinai, was far too popular for the compilers of the various editions of the Philokalia to bother to include him. Most editions of his work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, also contain his Life. His Life doesn’t tell us all that much about him. He spent forty years as a Hesychast and then became the Abbot of the Monastery of Sinai, the one we know as St Catherine’s. He writes in a very learned language, but in a sui generis aphoristic style: translating him would be difficult because of his many layers of meaning. He has a great sense of humour, very subtle, as befits a man of his native genius.

How do we become good psychologists? There is the first way: go to University and learn a school of psychology. Get a job and help people.

The second way is to ‘know thyself’. The best psychologists are people who understand themselves. This appears to be how Dostoevsky learned his psychology: he understood himself. No illusions. Brutal honesty with himself about who he was.

The third way is the most difficult: discernment. This is a charism of the Holy Spirit, and not for everyone. We don’t have it, although we have seen it in operation when we have ourselves approached charismatic Elders who have cut through the crust to the core and told us the truth. 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. The truth of the matter is that in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John of Sinai is merely recording what he had seen in other people with whom he had conversed or whom he had confessed. In our own day, Joseph the Hesychast (1959) manifests the same sort of discernment in his letters.

But something more is required: Many Elders even today have this gift of discernment, but few are capable of writing such a gem as St John of Sinai. St John was clearly educated, and probably before he came to the monastery. He was also gifted literarily. The Ladder is a well-crafted book.

Now let us look at what St John is teaching. It would help to know something about Evagrius before reading the Ladder. All of the School of Sinai is heavily dependent on the works of Evagrius although none of its members are ‘Origenists’ in the sense understood by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. But the basic structure of the passion, the temptation of the man by the demon to put the passion into practice—that was defined by Evagrius. St John of Sinai adopts this schema but is more subtle even than Evagrius in his psychological analysis of the temptation and how the monk responds to it. This is what astonishes us.

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.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 10 — Note on our Reply to Maggie Ross (Updated March 25, 2008)

(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.)

After we notified Miss Ross of our previous post, in her next post she included the following note:

"...his monastic life." See for example, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller, 1984: Boston, Holy Transfiguration Monastery. [NB update, Nov. 6, 2006. A western Orthodox monk has objected to this remark. Evidently Orthodox monks are no longer trained this way in the West; perhaps my source (an Orthodox Bishop) meant that it once obtained and perhaps still does in certain monasteries in the East. In any event, Isaac's text would suffice if it were the only one available.] [Emphasis added, but the remark in square brackets is Miss Ross' own.]

The ‘western Orthodox monk’ is evidently us: Miss Ross appears to be responding to our remark in the last post that St Isaac the Syrian’s writings play next to no role at all in the formation of the Orthodox monk.

We do not wish to argue with Miss Ross, but we were intrigued by the issue of whether St Isaac is the exclusive reading material of novices in any Orthodox monastery at all.

First of all let us clarify our terminology. Ordinary usage, as can easily be verified by searching the Web, makes ‘Eastern Orthodox’ refer to members of churches in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. These churches are often known by their national appellations: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and so on. Ordinary usage makes ‘western Orthodox’ refer to a person who belongs to an Eastern Orthodox church but who follows a western rite, whether Episcopalian or other. Nowadays, a phrase, ‘Oriental Orthodox,’ is sometimes used to refer to members of churches not in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, churches which the ‘Eastern Orthodox’ have traditionally referred to as Monophysite or Nestorian. These churches are often known by their national appellations: Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Chaldean Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East and so on.

We point this out because we are a little uncertain just how Miss Ross intends ‘western Orthodox’ and ‘Eastern’ in her remark quoted above.

For the record, ‘Orthodox Monk,’ the author of this blog, is a member in good standing of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is a canonically tonsured monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He belongs to a canonical Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction. He follows the traditional Orthodox rite of his jurisdiction, not a western rite. By preference he uses ‘Orthodox’ instead of ‘Eastern Orthodox;’ throughout this blog the two are synonyms.

Now to the issue that intrigued us. As far as we know, St Isaac the Syrian is not the exclusive reading of any novice in any monastery anywhere in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Since, however, we don’t know everything, and since the matter genuinely intrigued us, we went to the trouble of contacting a Greek monk on Mount Athos who has been there for about twenty years. This monk began his monastic career outside of Mount Athos, in Greece. We asked him if he knew of any Eastern Orthodox monastery where St Isaac the Syrian was the exclusive reading material of the novice. He replied, ‘No.’ He further remarked that in such a case the novice would leave the monastery. To our uncertainty why, he clarified that the novice would be impelled into the desert. The monastery would lose its novice to eremiticism. A self-defeating approach to the formation of your novice.

It seems to us that the only likely candidate in the Eastern Orthodox Church for a work given to the novice in a monastery as exclusive reading is the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John of Sinai. That work is indeed prescribed by the Eastern Orthodox liturgical typikon (liturgical rule) to be read in the monastery refectory throughout Great Lent. But in fact we do not know of any monastery in the Eastern Orthodox Church where even St John of Sinai is given to the novice as his exclusive reading material.

In fact, we do know that in the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos, the liturgical typikon prescribes a great number of readings during Orthros (matins) on a regular basis. These are taken from the ‘classics’ of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. At another monastery on Mount Athos, the liturgical typikon prescribes the regular reading of the catechisms of St Theodore Studite.

Now, given our uncertainty about Miss Ross’ terminology, it is possible that Miss Ross means that in some ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Churches, traditionally known by the Eastern Orthodox as Monophysite or Nestorian, the novice is given such a formation as she describes. We have no information.

In our next post, we will return to our series on the historical survey of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, where we will, as previously planned, discuss the School of Sinai, whose pre-eminent member is none other than St John of Sinai, author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Monday, 6 November 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 9 — Reply to Maggie Ross (Updated March 25, 2008)

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.