Friday, 27 March 2009

Commentary on Diadochos 65 -67

Update March 1, 2012: Please see this post.

Once we have come to know the road of piety it is most appropriate, and beneficial in every respect, immediately to sell all our goods and to distribute the proceeds from them in accordance with the commandment of the Lord, and not to disobey the salvific order with the excuse that we want always to keep the commandments.[1] For from this there will be for us first that good freedom from care and, further on account of that, an uncrafty poverty minded above every injustice and every law-suit, since we no longer have the fire kindled of those that covet matter. Then, more than the other virtues, humility warms us round and gives us repose in its bosom because we are naked, like a mother who takes up and completely warms her own child in her arms when in its childish simplicity it has taken off and thrown somewhere far away its own clothing, on account of great guilelessness enjoying nakedness rather than the diverse colours of the clothing. For he says: ‘The Lord guards the infants; I humbled myself and he saved me.’
The underlying meaning of this chapter is quite straightforward. When we have elected to become monks or nuns, then we should give all our goods to the poor, not keeping anything back. Not only are we keeping the Gospel commandment in so doing but we have a freedom from care and no further excuse to get mixed up with lawsuits.
The result of course is that we are now poor. Who is going to take care of us? Here, St Diadochos follows a point of view that is usually associated with Syrian monasticism: God will take care of us. He does not spend any time talking about how the monk or nun will have a money-making activity such as weaving mats or baskets.
It must be said that this advice was easier to apply in the 5th Century than in the 21st Century. The way people live today is completely different. Then, people lived a much simpler life that was much closer to nature, so that giving everything up did not induce such a great difference with the way people nearby lived. Today however in the United States? Often the only way to go anywhere is by freeway. But that demands an automobile. And that demands gasoline and oil. We live in a much more technological society that requires much more money to subsist in than was the case in a 5th Century economy.
If we live in a part of the world that has severe winters—or even severe summers—then we are going to need heating or air-conditioning. But again that means that we need money. It’s just not practical for us to live in an igloo. Is it practical for us to live in an adobe house in the desert?
It should be understood that while it technically might be feasible for us to live in an adobe house in the desert, we do not have infinite psychological plasticity. Just as St Arsenios the Great needed a bit of relaxation from the austerity of the Egyptian desert because of his background in the Royal Palace, we might not find it psychologically easy to adapt to the adobe house in the desert having grown up in a middle-class suburb in Maryland. Perhaps that was one of the reasons the ’60’s communes failed: the attempt was quixotic from the point of view of the ability of the hippies to make a permanent psychological adaptation to a way of life so radically different from what they knew when they were growing up. Of course there were other reasons the communes failed, some of them very important; we are merely pointing out this aspect of the matter to help the reader understand what the issue is in making a radical break with the way one grew up: in the beginning it might seem a good thing to do romantically but over the long term it might turn out to be very difficult psychologically.
Nowadays, it is assumed that the postulant entering a cœnobion will give his property to the cœnobion. However, this requires discernment on the part of the abbot, for as St Benedict remarks in his Rule the matter often ends up in court: what happens if the postulant gets tired of things and leaves the monastery, demanding his property back?
The Lord will at all events demand of us an account of our almsgiving according to what we have, not according to what we have not. If therefore because of fear of the Lord I scatter in a little time in a goodly way whatever I had to give over many years, concerning what will I who have nothing still be arraigned? But someone will say: ‘Whence then will those poor be shown mercy who were customarily managed bit by bit from our own mediocre means?’ Let such a person learn not to upbraid God in the pretext of his own love of money. For God will not lack the means to manage his own creature as from the beginning. For neither before this or that person rose up in charity did the poor lack for food or clothing. It is good, therefore, in accordance with this very knowledge[2] to cast off with a good ministry the irrational boast that arises from wealth, hating our own desires, (which very thing is to hate one’s own soul), so that we no longer hold our soul in great contempt as working nothing of the good things because we rejoice over the scattering of money. For as long as we are somewhat well-provided with goods, we rejoice greatly over their scattering (if indeed there is in us an activity of the good), as cheerfully ministering to the divine commandment; but when we have exhausted our goods, then limitless sorrow and lowliness secretly enter in to us as practising nothing worthy of righteousness. Whence thereafter the soul returns to itself in great humility so that what it is not able to acquire every day by means of almsgiving it take a care to in itself with the assiduous prayer[3] and the patient endurance and the humility. For he says: ‘The poor and the indigent will praise your name, Lord.’ For the charism of theology[4] is not made ready by God for someone if he does not prepare himself, divesting himself of all the things that belong to him for the sake of the glory of the Gospel of God, so that he preach the wealth of the Kingdom of God in a God-loving indigence. For he who said, ‘You have prepared for the poor man in your goodness, O Lord;’ and added, ‘God will give speech in great power to those who preach the Gospel;’ clearly means this very thing.
Again the basic meaning of this chapter is clear. The author evidently foresees prosperous postulants, arguing that we should not argue that we need to keep our wealth so as to have something to give to the poor whom we previously helped. The author thinks this argument is specious.
The author makes the important point that God judges our fulfilment of the Gospel commandment to give alms—note that in the Antique Age almsgiving was taken quite seriously by Christians—according to what we have and not according to what we have not. God judges the almsgiving of the poor man differently from the almsgiving of the wealthy man, not demanding of the poor man what he does not have. It is out of our abundance that we give alms. In any event, the author makes the point that God took care of the poor man before the particular Christian who wishes to give alms arose and will take care of him after that alms-giving Christian is gone—so the Christian should not worry about what is going to happen to the poor man if he gives all this goods away to become a monk, not keeping anything to provide for the poor man.
The author then proceeds with a very shrewd analysis of the psychology of wealth and almsgiving. When we are wealthy, almsgiving makes us rejoice; when we become poor having given our goods away, then we get depressed that we are not doing anything pious. Although the author does not really address the issue, it seems clear that the joy when we give alms and the depression when we have nothing more to give is not entirely holy: it is to a certain extent egotistical. This is a self-aggrandizing almsgiving.
The author goes on that when the soul has become depressed over its inability to give alms then it must turn to the practices of monasticism: ‘the assiduous prayer and the patient endurance and the humility’. This is monasticism that has ceased to be a game: The poor monk must start to pray. He must exercise patient endurance, especially in regard to his deprivation. He must learn humility. This can be quite difficult. The monk might get discouraged at the trial.
The author then goes on to discuss the charism of theology, which he understands to be the charism of being able to discuss theological issues with the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Here, he says, it must be understood that theology is prepared for the poor man, so that he preaches with the charism of the Holy Spirit, not with the prosperity that he once had.
Monastic poverty properly addressed centres the monk or nun in God. That is what the author is trying to convey. When you have to depend on the providence of God for your next meal, you have to be centred in God.
The author then turns in the next chapter to discuss the charism of theology.
On the one hand all the charisms of our God are exceedingly good[5] and provide every goodness, but on the other hand nothing kindles and moves our heart to the love of his goodness so much as theology. For being the early offspring of the Grace of God it even grants to the soul gifts that are in every way first. First it prepares us to despise with joy all the friendships of this life since we have instead of corruptible desires the unspeakable wealth of the sayings of God. Next it illuminates our mind with the fire of change[6], whence it even makes the mind a companion of the ministering spirits.[7] Therefore, beloved, let us who have been prepared for it genuinely desire this virtue, this comely virtue, this virtue which sees all, this virtue which provides every freedom from care, this virtue which nourishes the mind in the words of God in a dawn of light and, not to go on at length, this virtue which harmonizes the rational soul by means of the holy Prophets towards an inseparable communion with the Word of God, so that even among men—Oh the wonder!—the divine leader of the bride[8] harmonize the godly[9] voices singing clearly the mighty deeds of God.[10]
This chapter is quite clear. The final image is a little difficult. What the author seems to have in mind is an image of the soul of the ascetic joining, while still on earth, into the celestial choir of angels and saints in the praise of the mighty deeds of God. The way the ascetic comes to this is through reading Scripture—particularly the Prophets—so as to enter into a communion with the Word of God. We have taken this to refer to Christ, but the author might just as easily be referring to the word of God in Scripture. The saint treats the Holy Spirit as leading the bride, the soul, to marriage with God in the way that a certain functionary led the bride in an ancient wedding. What the author means with this metaphor is that the Holy Spirit integrates the soul into spiritual participation in the celestial choir of angels and saints while it is still on earth.
The author goes on in the next chapter to discuss the difference between theology and the lived experience of Hesychast prayer.

[1] I.e. the author is counselling us to sell our goods and give the money away immediately, not to keep the money ‘for a rainy day’ with the excuse that we want to be able always to fulfil the commandment to help the poor.
[2] Cf. the beginning of Chapter 63.
[3] I.e. through the assiduous practice of the Jesus Prayer.
[4] In this chapter the charism of theology seems to be the preaching of the Gospel.
[5] Greek: kala lian, in an allusion to the Genesis account of Creation (Septuagint).
[6] Greek: allage. The use of this word might seem a little imprecise for someone of St Diadochos’ literary stature, but there is probably a reference here to a phrase from the Psalms in the Septuagint: ‘This change is of the right hand of the Most High.’
[7] I.e. the angels.
[8] I.e. the soul is here treated as the bride of God being led to marriage with God.
[9] Greek: theodous.
[10] The text is a little ambiguous. The author seems to mean that the Holy Spirit, as the leader to God of the soul as bride, harmonizes here on earth the spiritual voice of the soul with that of the angels and Prophets singing the praises of God in Heaven.

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