Archive for the ‘Great Teachers of the Ancient Church’ Category


Tertullian — Benedict XVI

March 5, 2014
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born in c. 160 into a pagan Roman family in Carthage, Africa (modern day Tunisia). After being trained in rhetoric and law, Tertullian become a Christian sometime before the year 197. The first important Christian to write in Latin, he is commonly called the “father of Latin (or Western) theology.” His books were so wonderfully crafted that pagans would read them for the sheer enjoyment of his prose. As a fifth century writer put it, “Almost every word he uttered was an epigram and every sentence was a victory.”

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born in c. 160 into a pagan Roman family in Carthage, Africa (modern day Tunisia). After being trained in rhetoric and law, Tertullian become a Christian sometime before the year 197. The first important Christian to write in Latin, he is commonly called the “father of Latin (or Western) theology.” His books were so wonderfully crafted that pagans would read them for the sheer enjoyment of his prose. As a fifth century writer put it, “Almost every word he uttered was an epigram and every sentence was a victory.”

You can never go wrong with a book that deals with Tertullian. So many wonderful quotes:

“The usual complaint is, ‘I have no other way of earning a living.’ The harsh reply can be, ‘Do you have to live?’”


I wish to discuss now an African, Tertullian, who from the end of the second and beginning of the third century inaugurated Christian literature in the Latin language. He started the use of theology in Latin. His work brought decisive benefits that it would be unforgivable to underestimate. His influence covered different areas: linguistically, from the use of language and the recovery of classical culture, to singling out a common “Christian soul” in the world and in the formulation of new proposals of human coexistence.

We do not know the exact dates of Tertullian’s birth and death. Instead, we know that at Carthage, toward the end of the second century, he received a solid education in rhetoric, philosophy, history, and law from his pagan parents and tutors. He then converted to Christianity, attracted, so it seems, by the example of the Christian martyrs.

He began to publish his most famous writings in 197. But a too-individualistic search for the truth, together with his intransigent character — he was a rigorous man — gradually led him away from communion with the Church to belong to the Montanist sect.

[Montanism was an early Christian movement of the late 2nd century, later referred to by the name of its founder, Montanus, but originally known by its adherents as the New Prophecy. It originated in Phrygia, a province of Asia Minor, and flourished throughout the region, leading to the movement being referred to elsewhere as "Cataphrygian" (meaning it was "from Phrygia") or simply as "Phrygian".

It spread rapidly to other regions in the Roman Empire at a time before Christianity was generally tolerated or legal. It persisted in some isolated places into the 6th century. Although it came to be labeled a heresy, the movement held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church. It was a prophetic movement that called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic. Parallels have been drawn between Montanism and modern-day movements such as Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and the New Apostolic Reformation.]

The originality of his thought, however, together with an incisive efficacy of language, assured him a high position in ancient Christian literature.

Tertullian’s apologetic writings are above all the most famous. They manifest two key intentions: to refute the grave accusations that pagans directed against the new religion; and, more proactive and missionary, to proclaim the gospel message in dialogue with the culture of the time.

His most famous work, Apologeticus, denounces the unjust behavior of political authorities toward the Church; explains and defends the teachings and customs of Christians; spells out differences between the new religion and the main philosophical currents of the time; and manifests the triumph of the Spirit that counters its persecutors with the blood, suffering, and patience of the martyrs: “Refined as it is,” the African writes, “your cruelty serves no purpose. On the contrary, for our community, it is an invitation. We multiply every time one of us is mowed down. The blood of Christians is effective seed” (semen est sanguis christianorum! Apologeticus 50, 13).

Martyrdom, suffering for the truth, is in the end victorious and more efficient than the cruelty and violence of totalitarian regimes.

But Tertullian, as every good apologist, at the same time sensed the need to communicate the essence of Christianity positively. This is why he adopted the speculative method to illustrate the rational foundations of Christian dogma. He developed it in a systematic way, beginning with the description of “the God of the Christians”: “He whom we adore,” the Apologist wrote, “is the one, only God.” And he continued, using antitheses and paradoxes characteristic of his language: “He is invisible even if you see him; difficult to grasp even if he is present through grace; inconceivable even if the human senses can perceive him; therefore, he is true and great!” (cf. ibid., 17, 1-2).

Furthermore, Tertullian takes an enormous step in the development of Trinitarian dogma. He has given us an appropriate way to express this great mystery in Latin by introducing the terms “one substance” and “Three persons.” In a similar way, he also greatly developed the correct language to express the mystery of Christ, Son of God and true Man.

The Holy Spirit is also considered in the African’s writings, demonstrating his personal and divine character: “We believe that, according to his promise, Jesus Christ sent, by means of his Father, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of all those who believe in the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit” (ibid., 2, 1).

Again, there are in Tertullian’s writings numerous texts on the Church, whom he always recognizes as “mother.” Even after his acceptance of Montanism, he did not forget that the Church is the mother of our faith and Christian life.

He even considers the moral conduct of Christians and the future life. His writings are important, as they also show the practical trends in the Christian community regarding Mary most holy, the sacraments of the Eucharist, matrimony, and reconciliation, Petrine primacy, prayer… In a special way, in those times of persecution when Christians seemed to be a lost minority, the Apologist exhorted them to hope, which in his his treatises is not simply a virtue in itself but something that involves every aspect of Christian existence.

We have the hope that the future is ours because the future is God’s. Therefore, the Lord’s Resurrection is presented as the foundation of our future resurrection and represents the main object of the Christian’s confidence: “And so the flesh shall rise again,” the African categorically affirms, “wholly in every man, in its own identity, in its absolute integrity. Wherever it may be, it is in safe keeping in God’s presence, through that most faithful Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, who shall reconcile both God to man and man to God” (Concerning the Resurrection of the Flesh, 63, 1).

From the human viewpoint, one can undoubtedly speak of Tertullian’s own drama. With the passing of years he became increasingly exigent [vocab: pressing; demanding. "the exigent demands of the music took a toll on her voice"] in regard to the Christians. He demanded heroic behavior from them in every circumstance, above all under persecution. Rigid in his positions, he did not withhold blunt criticism, and he inevitably ended by finding himself isolated.

Many questions still remain open today, not only on Tertullian’s theological and philosophical thought, but also on his attitude in regard to political institutions and pagan society. This great moral and intellectual personality, this man who made such a great contribution to Christian thought, makes me think deeply. One sees that in the end he lacked the simplicity, the humility to integrate himself with the Church, to accept his weaknesses, to be forbearing with others and himself.

When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness.

Finally, the African remains an interesting witness of the early times of the Church, when Christians found they were the authentic protagonists of a “new culture” in the critical confrontation between the classical heritage and the gospel message.

In his famous affirmation according to which our soul “is naturally Christian” (Apologeticus 17, 6), Tertullian evokes the perennial continuity between authentic human values and Christian ones. Also in his other reflection borrowed directly from the gospel, according to which “the Christian cannot hate, not even his enemies” (cf. Apologeticus 37), is found the unavoidable moral resolve, the choice of faith which proposes “nonviolence” as the rule of life. Indeed, no one can escape the dramatic aptness of this teaching, also in light of the heated debate on religions.

In summary, the treatises of this African trace many themes that we are still called to face today. They involve us in a fruitful interior examination to which I exhort all the faithful, so that they may know how to express in an always more convincing manner the rule of faith, which — again, referring to Tertullian — “prescribes the belief that there is only one God and that he is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through his own Word, generated before all things” (cf. Concerning the Prescription of Heretics 13, 1).


The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks On Lust 39-42

August 15, 2012

And the final four. How many of us demonstrate the depths of contrition that we find in #42?


39.  A brother was assailed by lust. By chance he came to a village in Egypt, and saw the daughter of the pagan priest there, and he fell in love with her. He said to her father, `Give her to me to be my wife.’ He answered, `I cannot give her to you until I have consulted my gods.’ He went to the demon whom he served and said, `Here is a monk wanting to marry my daughter. Shall I give her to him?’ The demon replied, `Ask him if he denies his God, his baptism, and his monastic vows.’ The priest came and said to the monk, `If you deny your God, and your baptism, and your monastic vows I will give you my daughter.’

The monk agreed. At once he saw something like a dove fly out of his mouth and up into the sky. Then the priest went to the demon and said, `He has promised to do the three things you said.’ Then the devil answered, `Do not give your daughter to be his wife, for his God has not left him, but will still help him.’ So the priest went back and said to the monk, `I cannot give her to you, because your God is still helping you, and has not left you.’

When the monk heard his, he said in himself, `If God has shown me such kindness, though like a wretch I have denied him, and my baptism and my monastic vows, if God is so good that he still helps me though I am wicked, why am I running away from him?’ He came to his senses and went into the desert to a great hermit, and told him what had happened. The hermit said, `Stay with me in this cave, and fast for three weeks, and I will pray to God for you.’

The hermit worked hard on behalf of the brother and said to God, `I beg you, O Lord, grant me this soul, and accept its penitence.’ God heard his prayer. At the end of the first week, the hermit came to the brother and asked him, `Have you seen anything?’ The brother replied, `Yes, I saw a dove in the sky over my head.’ The hermit said, `Look into your heart, and pray to God earnestly.’

After the second week the hermit came again to the brother, and asked him, `Have you seen anything?’ He replied, `I have seen a dove coming down towards my head.’ Then the hermit urged him, `Pray, and pray seriously.’ At the end of the third week, the hermit came again and asked him, `Have you seen anything else?’ He replied, `I saw a dove and it came and sat on my head, and I stretched out my hand to catch it, and it entered my mouth.’ The hermit thanked God and said to the brother, `See, God has accepted your penitence. In future be careful, and on your guard.’ The brother answered, `I will stay with you now, until I die.’

40.   One of the hermits in the Thebaid used to say that he was the son of a pagan priest, and as a little boy he had often seen his father go into the temple and sacrifice to the idol. Once, when he had crept in secretly, he had seen Satan on his throne, with his host standing round him, and one of his chief captains came and bowed before him. The devil said, `Where have you come from?’ He answered, `I was in such and such a province, and there I stirred up wars and riots, and much blood was spilt, and I have come to tell you.’

The devil asked him, `How long did it take you?’ He answered, `A month.’ Then the devil said, `Why on earth did you take so long over it?’ and ordered him to be beaten. Then a second came to bow before him and the devil said to him, ‘Where. have you been?’ The demon replied, `I was in the sea, and I raised storms, and sank ships, and drowned many, and have come to tell you.’ The devil said, `How long did that take you?’ He answered, `Twenty days.’ The devil said, `Why ever did you take so long over this one task?’ and ordered him also to be flogged. Then a third came and bowed to him and the devil said to him, `What have you been up to?’ He answered, `I was in such and such a city: and during a wedding I stirred up quarrelling until the parties came to bloody blows, and in the end even the husband was killed, and I have come to let you know.’ The devil said, `How long did it take you?’ He answered, `Ten days.’ The devil commanded him also to be flogged because he had been idle.

Another came to adore him, and he said: `Where have you been?’ He answered, `I was in the desert: and for forty years I have been attacking one monk. At last in the night I prevailed, and made him lust.’ When the devil heard this, he got up and kissed him. Taking off his own crown, he put it on his head, and made him sit with him on a throne, and said, `You have been brave, and done a great deed.’ When I heard and saw this, I said to myself, `Great indeed is the discipline of the monks.’ So it pleased God to grant me salvation: and I went out, and became a monk.

41.  They said of one monk that he had lived in the world and had turned to God, but was still goaded by desire for his wife; and he told this to the monks. When they saw him to be a man of prayer and one who did more than his duty, they laid on him a course of discipline which so weakened his body that he could not even stand up. By God’s providence another monk came to visit Scetis. When he came to this man’s cell he saw it open, and he passed on, surprised that no one came to meet him.

But then he thought that perhaps the brother inside was ill, and returned, and knocked on the door. After knocking, he went in, and found the monk gravely ill. He said, `What’s the matter, abba?’ He explained, `I used to live in the world, and the enemy still troubles me because of my wife. I told the monks, and they laid on me various burdens to discipline my life. In trying to carry them out obediently, I have fallen ill and yet the temptation is worse.’

When the visiting hermit heard this, he was vexed, and said, `These monks are powerful men, and meant well in laying these burdens upon you. But if you will listen to me who am but a child in these matters, stop all this discipline, take a little food at the proper times, recover your strength, join in the worship of God for a little, and turn your mind to the Lord.

This desire is something you- can’t conquer by your own efforts. The human body is like a coat. If you treat it carefully, it will last a long time. If you neglect it, it will fall to pieces.’ The sick man did as he was told, and in a few days the incitement to lust vanished.

42  A very old hermit, of saintly life, lived on a mountain near Antinoe, and helped many people towards sanctity by his teaching and example, or so I have been told by well-known monks. Because he was saintly, the devil was stirred to envy him, as he envies all men of true goodness. So the devil sent into his heart the thought that if he was really the man he wanted to be, he ought not to .let others minister to his needs, but ought to be ministering to theirs or at least, if he could not minister to the needs of others, he ought to minister to his own needs. So the devil said, `Go to the town and sell the basket you are making, and buy what you need, and come back to your cell, and so be a burden to no one.’

Now the devil suggested this because he envied his stillness and his opportunity of leisure to hear God, and the good which he did to so many people. All round him the enemy was scurrying, hurling darts at him, trying to capture him. He assented to what he believed to be a good thought, and came down from his hermitage. Everyone admired him and recognized him when they saw him, but did not know that he was entangled in the devil’s net.

After a long time he saw a woman. Because he was being careless, he was overthrown, and lay with her. Then he went into a desert place, with the devil at his heels, and fell down by a river. He thought that the enemy rejoiced at his ruin, and he wanted to despair, because he had sorely grieved the Spirit of God, and the holy angels, and the venerable fathers, many of whom had overcome the devil though they lived in towns. Because he could not become like them, he was utterly downcast; and he forgot that God is a God who gives strength to them who devoutly turn to him. Blinded, and seeing no way to cure his sin, he wanted to throw himself in the river which would have filled the enemy’s cup to overflowing.

In the agony of his soul, his body began to sicken. Unless God in his mercy had helped him, he would have died impenitent, to the perfect satisfaction of the enemy. But at the last moment he came to his senses again. He resolved to inflict a severe penance upon himself, and pray to God in sorrow and grief and in this resolve he went back to his cell. He marked the door of his cell in the usual way which showed that the man inside was dead, and so he wept and prayed to God. He fasted, and watched, and became thin with his austerity and still he did not think he had made fit penance or satisfaction.

When the brothers came to him to be taught, and knocked at the door, he said that he could not open it, `I am bound by an oath to do penance for a whole year. Pray for me.’ When they heard this, they were shocked, because they believed him to be truly honorable and great: but he found no means of explaining himself to them. For a whole year he fasted rigidly, and did penance. On Easter Eve, he took a new lamp and put it in a new pot, and covered it with a lid. At evening he stood up to pray, and said, `Merciful, pitying Lord, who desires that barbarians be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, I flee to you, the Savior of the faithful. Have mercy upon me because I moved you to anger, and pleased the enemy: I am dead, but obedient to you. Lord, you have mercy even on the wicked, even the pitiless; you commanded us to show mercy to our neighbors; therefore have mercy upon me, humbled here before you. With you nothing is impossible, for at the mouth of hell my soul was scattered like dust.

Have pity on what you have made because you are good and merciful; on the day of the resurrection you will raise up even the bodies of those who are not. Hear me, O Lord, for my spirit has failed, and my soul is wretched. I have polluted my body, and now I cannot live, because I had no faith. Look at my penitence and forgive my sin, a sin that was double because I despaired. Send life into me, for I am contrite and light this lamp with your fire. So I may be able to have confidence in your mercy and forgiveness, and so keep your commandments, remain in awe of you, and serve you more faithfully than before, for the rest of the life which you have given me.’

On the night of Easter Eve he prayed like this and wept. He went to see if the lamp were lit. When he took off the lid, he saw that it was not. Again he fell on his face and besought God, `I know, O God, that when I lived a life of austerity for reward, I was not able to withstand, but rather chose the pleasures of the body and so I deserve the punishment of the wicked. But spare me, Lord. Here am I and again I confess my disgrace to you who are all-goodness, and in the presence of your angels, and of all just men; I would confess to all mankind, if I would not cause them thereby to stumble. Lord, have mercy upon me, and I will teach others. Lord, send life into me.’

When he had prayed three times, God heard his prayer. He looked and found the lamp burning brightly. His heart leapt with hope and happiness, and he worshipped God who had forgiven his sins, and answered his soul’s prayer. He said, `Thank you, O Lord, for having mercy on one who is not worthy to live in this world, and for giving me confidence by this great new sign of your power. You are merciful and spare the souls which you created.’ He was still praying like this when the dawn came and forgetting his need for food, he rejoiced in the Lord. All his life he kept that lamp alight, pouring in oil from the top to prevent it going out. So, once again, God’s Spirit dwelt within him, and he was famous among all the monks, and showed humility and joy in his praise and thanksgiving to God. A few days before his death it was revealed to him that he should pass over into life.


The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks On Lust 20-38

August 14, 2012

Surprised by so many references to lust by the desert fathers? Don’t be.

The Bible is absolutely clear: we should surrender our body to the Lord and Glorify God in our daily life. Ephesians 3:16: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” With the Spirit indwelling you, every word, every thought, and every deed is in His view. The Holy Spirit knows you.  He knows your strengths and your weaknesses. He knows your sinful acts and your holy deeds. He knows you better than you do. The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to build you up in the body of Christ to the glory of God.

He regenerates (Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. John 3:3-5).

He indwells (If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. Romans 8:11).

He anoints (As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him. 1 John 2:27).

He baptizes (‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne.

Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. Acts 2:17-41).

He empowers (But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. Micah 3:8).

He sanctifies (to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans. 15:16).

He comforts (And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. John 14:16-26).

He gives joy (For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:17).

He gives discernment (these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Cor. 2:10-16).

He bears fruit (By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. Galatians 5:22-23).

He gives gifts (Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 1 Corinthians 12:3-11).


20.  Once the disciple of a great hermit was tempted by lust. When the hermit saw him struggling, he said, `Shall I ask the Lord to release you from your trouble?’ But he said, ‘Abba, I see that although it is a painful struggle I am profiting from having to carry this burden. But ask God in your prayers, that he will give me enough patience to endure it.’ Then his abba said to him, `Now I know that you are far advanced, my son, and beyond me.’

21  They said of one of the hermits that he had initially gone to Scetis taking his infant son with him. The boy was brought up among the monks and did not know what women were. When he became a man, the demons showed him visions of women at night. He told his father, and wondered what they were. Once they both went into Egypt and saw women. The son said, `Father, there are the people who came to me during the night in Scetis.’ His father said, `These are monks of the world, my son. They wear one kind of dress, and monks of the desert another.’ The hermit was amazed that the demons had shown him visions of women in Scetis, and they both went straight back to their cell.

22.  A brother was tested by temptation in Scetis. The enemy brought into his mind the memory of a beautiful woman which troubled him deeply. By God’s providence it chanced that a visitor came from Egypt and arrived in Scetis. When they met to talk, he told the brother that his wife was dead (she was the woman about whom the monk was tempted). When he heard the news, he put on his cloak at night and went to the place where he had heard she was buried. He dug in the place, and wiped blood from her corpse on his cloak and when he returned he kept it in his cell. When it smelt too bad, he put it in front of him and said to his temptation, `Look, this is what you desire. You have it now, be content.’ So he punished himself with the smell until his passions died down.

23.  A man once came to Scetis wanting to be a monk. He brought with him his infant son, who had just been weaned. When the child grew to be a young man, the demons began to attack him and trouble him. He said to his father, `I am going back to the world, because I cannot bear these bodily passions.’ His father helped him but the young man said, `I cannot bear it any longer, father. Let me go back to the world.’

His father said to him, `Listen to me, son. Take forty loaves, and enough palm leaves for forty days’ work, and go to the inner desert; stay there forty days and God’s will be done.’ He obeyed his father and went into the desert and remained there, making plaits from the dry palm leaves and eating dry bread. After he had been there twenty days he saw a demon coming to attack him. The devil came to him like a black woman, evil-smelling and ugly. He could not bear her smell and thrust her from him.

She said to him: `I am she who seems sweet in the hearts of men. But because of your obedience and travail, God has not let me seduce you, but has shown you my ugliness.’ He got up and thanked God, and came to his father, and said, `Now I do not want to go to the world, father. I have seen the devil’s work, and his foulness.’ But his father knew what had happened, and said, `If you had stayed there forty days, and done all that I told you, you would have seen still greater things.’

25.  A hermit was once living far out in the desert. A woman of his family wanted to see him after many years; she found out where he was and took the road to the desert. She joined some camel-drivers and went with them into the desert, for she was being drawn there by the devil. When she reached the hermit’s door, she knocked, saying who she was. `I am your kin,’ and she stayed with him. But another monk was living nearer to Egypt. He was filling his jug with water at supper time.

Suddenly the jug was upset, and the water spilt. By God’s inspiration he said to himself, `I will go to the desert, and tell the others what happened to this water.’ He got up and went. At evening he slept in a pagan temple by the roadside, and during the night he heard demons saying, `Tonight we have driven that monk to lust.’ When he heard this, he was grieved and he went to the hermit, and found him sad, and said to him, `What am I to do, abba? I filled my jug with water and at supper time it was spilt.’ The hermit said to him, `You have come to ask me why your jug was upset. But what am I to do? Last night I fell into lusting.’ He replied, `I knew that.’ The hermit said, `How did you know?’

He replied, `I was sleeping in a temple, and I heard demons talking about you.’ The hermit said, `Look here, I am going back to the world.’ But he begged him not to saying, `Don’t go, abba, stay here in your cell but send that woman away. This has happened because the enemy attacked you.’ When the hermit heard this, he made his way of life more penitential and sorrowful, until he returned to his earlier state.

26.  A hermit said, `Chastity is born of tranquillity, and silence, and inner prayer.’

27  A brother asked a hermit, `If a man happens to fall into temptation, what becomes of those who are caused to stumble by it?’ The hermit told him this story. `In a monastery in Egypt there was a deacon. An official, persecuted by a judge, came there with all his family. By the devil’s instigation, that deacon lay with the official’s wife and all the brothers were shocked. But he went to a hermit, and told him what had happened. Now the hermit had a secret inner room to his cell. When the deacon saw this, he said, “Bury me alive here, and do not let anyone know.”

He hid in that inner room, and there did true penance. A long time after, it happened that the Nile failed to flood. When they were all saying litanies, it was revealed to one of those holy men that unless the deacon who had hidden with such and such a monk, should return, the water would not rise. When they heard this, they marveled, and came and hurriedly brought him out of his hiding place. He prayed, and the water rose. The men who had before been shocked by him, were now edified by his penitence and glorified God.’

28  Two brothers went to a town to sell what they had made. In the town they separated, and one of them fell into fornication. Afterwards the other brother said, `Let us go back to our cell, brother.’ But he replied, `I’m not coming.’ The other asked him, `Why, brother?’ He replied, `Because when you left me, I was tempted, and was guilty of fornication.’ The other, wanting to help him, said, `The same thing happened to me; after I left you, I also fell into fornication. Let us go together, and do penance with all our might, and God will pardon us sinners.’

When they returned to their cell, they told the brothers what had happened to them, and were told what penance they should do. But the one did penance not for himself, but for the other, as though he himself had sinned. God, seeing his earnestness and his charity, revealed to one of the elders, a few days later, that he had forgiven the fornicator because of the charity of the brother who had not sinned. Truly, this was to lay down his soul for his brother.

29.  Once a brother came to a hermit and said, `My brother keeps leaving me, and goes travelling everywhere: and I am upset about it.’ The hermit said, `Bear it calmly, brother. God will see your earnestness and endurance and will bring him back to you. It is not possible for a man to be recalled from his purpose by harshness and severity; demon cannot drive out demon. You will bring him back to you better by kindness. That is how God acts for, our good, and draws us to himself.’

He told him this story: In the Thebaid were two brothers. When one of them began to suffer lust, he said to the other: `I am going back to the world.’ The other wept and said, `I won’t let you go away, my brother, to lose your toil and your chastity.’ But he refused to listen and said, `I am not staying here: I am going. Either come with me, and I will return with you, or let me go, and I will remain in the world.’ The brother came and told this to a great hermit.

The hermit said to him, `Go with him, and because of your effort, God will not let him perish.’ So he went with him to the world. When they came to a village, God looked on the efforts of him who followed his brother out of love and took away the other brother’s passion. He said to his brother, `Let us go back to the desert, my brother. Look, I imagine that I have already sinned with a woman and what have I got out of it?’ So they returned to their cell unharmed.

30.  A brother, being tempted by a demon, went to a hermit and said, `Those two monks over there who live together live sinfully.’ But the hermit knew that a demon was deceiving him. So he called the brothers to him. In the evening he put out a mat for them, and covered them with a single blanket, and said, `They are sons of God, and holy persons.’ But he said to his disciple, `Shut this slandering brother up in a cell by himself; he is suffering from the passion of which he accuses them.

31.  A brother said to a hermit, `What am I to do, for these foul. thoughts are killing me?’ The hermit said to him, `When a mother wants to wean her baby, she smears something bitter on her breasts: and when the infant comes as usual to suckle, he tastes the bitterness and is repelled. So you ought to put bitterness into your thought.’ The brother said to him, `What bitterness is this?’ The hermit said to him, `The thought of death and torment, which-is prepared in the next world for sinners.’

32.  A brother asked a hermit about thoughts of this kind. The hermit said, `I have never been tempted by that.’ The brother was scandalized by him, and went to a second hermit and said, `Look here, that hermit said this to me and I am shocked, because it is unnatural.’ He said to him, `The meaning of the words of that man of God isn’t on the surface. Go and apologize to him and he will show you the power in his words.’ So the brother went to the hermit, and apologized to him.

He said, `Forgive me, abba, I was a fool, and did not say goodbye to you when I left. I beg you, explain to me how it is that you are not troubled by lust.’ He said to him, `The reason is this: ever since I became a monk, I have never taken my fill of bread, or water, or sleep, and because I am tormented by desire for food, I cannot feel the pricks of lust.’ So the brother went away, having profited by the words of the hermit.

33.  A brother asked a hermit, `What can I do? My mind is always thinking about fornication; and does not let me rest even for an hour, and my heart is suffering.’ So the hermit said to him, `When the demons sow thoughts in your heart, and you feel this, don’t listen to your heart, for that is the demons’ suggestion. Though the demons are careful to send thoughts to you, they do not force you to accept them. It is up to you to receive or reject them.

Do you know what the Midianites did? They decked their daughters, and set them where the Israelites could see them: but they did not force them to intermingle; it was as each one wished. Others were wrathful and uttered threats, and avenged the act of whoredom with the death of those who had dared do it. This is what should be done with the lust that rises in us.’

But the brother replied, `What am I to do, if I am weak, and this passion masters me?’ The hermit said, `This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say “Son of God, have mercy upon me.” But the brother said, `Look here, abba, I meditate on such words, but they do not help me to be penitent, for I do not know the meaning of the words on which I am meditating.’

The hermit said, `Well, go on meditating. I have heard that Poemen and other monks said that a snake-charmer does not know the meaning of his words: but the snake hears them, and knows their meaning, and obeys the charmer and lies down. So though we do not know the meaning of the words, the demons hear, and are afraid and flee.’

34.  A hermit used to say, `A lustful thought is brittle like papyrus. When it is thrust at us, if we do not accept it but throw it away it breaks easily. If it allures us and we keep playing with it, it becomes as difficult to break as iron. We need discernment to know that those who consent lose hope of salvation and for those who do not consent, a crown is made ready.’

35.  Two brothers who were attacked by lust went away and married wives. Afterwards they said to each other, `What have we done? We have ceased to live like angels and have lost purity, and later on we will come to fire and torment. Let us go back to the desert, and do penance for our fault.’

They went to the desert, and asked the fathers to accept them, and confessed what they had done. The monks shut them up for a whole year, and gave them each an equal amount of bread and water. Now they were alike in appearance and at the end of the year’s penance, they came out. The fathers saw that one looked pale and melancholy, the other strong and bright. They were astonished, for they had been given the same quantity of food and drink.

They said to the man who was sad and troubled, `What did you think about while you were in that cell?’ He said, `I was thinking about the punishment I shall incur for the evil I have done; I was so afraid that my bones cleaved to my flesh.’ Then they asked the other, `What were you thinking while you were in the cell?’

He said, `I was thanking God that he has saved me from pollution in this world and punishment in the next, and has called me back to live here like the angels and I thought continually on my God and was glad.’ The monks said, `The penitence of both men is equal before God.’

36.  In Scetis there was a hermit who became gravely ill, and was nursed by the brothers. When the hermit saw how much they did for him, he said, `I’d better go to Egypt, and then I shan’t be a trouble to these brothers.’ Moses said to him, `Don’t go; you will fall into lust.’

Now the hermit was vexed by this and said, `My body is dead. How can you say that to me?’ So he got up and went to Egypt. When the inhabitants in Egypt heard that he had arrived, they brought him many gifts. A pious maiden came to him, wishing to minister to him because he was ill. After a short time he recovered somewhat from the illness which had gripped him, and he lay with her, and she conceived.

When her neighbours asked her who the father was, she said, `This hermit,’ but they did not believe her. Then the hermit said, `Yes, I am the father. Keep the baby for me when it is born.’

When the baby had been weaned, the hermit carried it on his shoulders, and arrived at Scetis on a feast day; he went into church in front of all the brothers. When they saw him, they wept. He said to them, `Do you see this baby? He is the child of disobedience. Beware, my brothers, remember what I have done though I am old, and pray for me.’ Going to his cell, he returned to his earlier way of life.

37.  A brother was sorely tempted by the demon of fornication. Four demons appeared before him like beautiful women, and attacked him continuously for forty days. He fought like a man, and was not overcome. Seeing how good a fight he put up, God gave him grace not to suffer the sting of bodily passion ever again.

38.  In lower Egypt there was a very famous hermit, who lived alone in his cell. It happened that by Satan’s wiles a harlot heard of him, and said to the young men, `What will you give me, if I seduce that hermit?’ They agreed to give her a present. In the evening she came to his cell pretending she had lost her way. When she knocked at his door, he came out and seeing her, he was troubled, and said, `What have you come here for?’ She pretended to weep, and said, `I’ve lost my way.’

He felt truly sorry for her, and led her into the little courtyard, and went himself to the inner room of his cell and shut the door. She cried aloud, `Abba, the beasts will eat me here.’ Again he was anxious, and afraid of the judgment of God and he said to himself, `Why has God’s wrath come on me like this?’ He opened his door and brought her inside. Then the devil began to goad his heart to desire her. He knew that it was the devil’s goading, and said silently, `The ways of the enemy are darkness, but the Son of God is light.’

He got up and lit the lamp. When he began to burn with desire, he said, `People who do things like this go into torment. Test yourself, and see whether you can bear a fire which is everlasting.’ Then he put his finger in the flame of the lamp and he burnt it, but he did not notice the pain because of the fire of passion within him. So, until the dawn came, he burnt his fingers one after the other.

The wretched woman saw what he was doing, and in terror she lay as still as a stone. At dawn the young men came to the monk and said, `Did a woman come here yesterday evening?’ He said: `Yes, she is asleep over there.’ They went in, and found her dead. They said, `Abba, she is dead.’ Then he turned back the cloak that he was wearing, and showed them his hands, and said, `Look what that child of the devil has done to me. She has cost me every finger I possess.’ He told them what had happened, and said, `It is written, “Render not evil for evil” (1 Peter 3:9).’ He prayed, and restored her to life. She was converted and lived chastely for the rest of her days.


The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks On Lust 1-19

August 13, 2012

With the exception of the homosexualists in our midst who insist that their lusts be recognized as wholly natural, sin-free and forgiven – perhaps even celebrated in the Church as marriage, if you will, most of us who understand Paul’s  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body,” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We realize on some level that the struggle with lust is critical to our living the Christian life.

In John 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” and it is here that we realize that our body is the temple of God. It almost naturally follows: Pay attention where it goes. Be careful what it does. Pay attention what it ponders. Be careful how it reacts. All of these vignettes and one-liners draw our attention to the consequences of dealing with lust. As they repeat and expand, unfold and seep within our spirits, so does our hope and our realization that the Holy Spirit is within us helping us every step of the way, making a home within us.


  1. Antony said, `I think that the body has a natural movement within itself, which obeys the orders of the mind, a kind of inclination of which the body’s actions are only symptoms. There is a second movement in the body, caused by eating and drinking, by which the blood is heated and excited. That is why St Paul said, `Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess’ (Ephesisans 5:18), and again the Lord commanded his disciples in the Gospel, `See that your hearts be not overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness’ (Luke 21:34). There is a third movement which comes from the deceit and envy of demons against those who are trying to live a good life. It is a help to know that there are three bodily inclinations — from nature, from too much food, and from the demons.
  2. Gerontius of Petra said, `Many people who are tempted by pleasures of the flesh do not sin with the body but lust with the mind; they keep their bodily virginity but lust in their heart. It is better then, beloved, to do what is written, “Let everyone keep a close guard upon his heart” (Proverbs 4:2.3).’
  3. Cassian said, `Moses the Hermit told us, “It is good not to hide our thoughts; we ought to disclose them to discreet and devout elders; but not to those who are old merely in years, for many have found final despair instead of comfort by confessing to those whom they saw to be old, but who were in fact inexperienced.”
  4. There was once a brother who was very eager to seek goodness. Being very disturbed by the demon of lust, he came to a hermit and told him about his thoughts. The hermit was inexperienced and when he heard all this, he was shocked, and said he was a wicked brother, unworthy of his monk’s habit because he had thoughts like that.When the brother heard this, he despaired, left his cell and started on his way back to the world. But by God’s providence, Apollo met him. Seeing he was so upset and sad, he said to him, `Son, why are you so unhappy?’ The brother was very embarrassed, and at first said nothing. But when Apollo pressed him to say what was happening to him, he admitted everything and said, `It is because lustful thoughts trouble me. I confessed them to that hermit, and he says I now have no hope of salvation. So I have despaired, and am on my way back to the world.’When Apollo heard this, he went on asking questions like a wise doctor, and gave him this counsel, `Do not be cast down, son, nor despair of yourself. Even at my age and with my experience of the spiritual life, I am still troubled by thoughts like yours. Do not fail now; this trouble cannot be cured by our efforts, but only by God’s mercy. Do as I say and go back to your cell.’ The brother did so.Then Apollo went to the cell of the hermit who had made the brother despair. He stood outside the cell, and prayed to the Lord with tears, saying, `Lord, you permit men to be tempted for their good; transfer the war that brother is suffering to this hermit: let him learn by experience in his old age what many years have not taught him, and so let him find out how to sympathize with people undergoing this kind of temptation.

    As soon as he ended his prayer he saw a black man standing by the cell firing arrows at the hermit. As though he had been wounded, the hermit began to totter and lurch like a drunken man. When he could bear it no longer, he came out of his cell, and set out on the same road by which the young man started to return to the world. Apollo understood what had happened, and went to meet him. He came up to him and said, `Where are you going? Why are you so upset?’ When the hermit saw that the holy Apollo understood what had happened, he was ashamed and said nothing.

    Apollo said to him, `Go back to your cell and see in others your own weakness and keep your own heart in order. For either you were ignorant of the devil in spite of your age, or you were contemptuous, and did not deserve to gain strength by struggling with the devil as all other men must.

    But struggle is not the right word, when you could not stand up to his attack for one day. This has happened to you because of the young monk. He came to you because he was being attacked by the common enemy of us all. You ought to have given him words of consolation to help him against the devil’s attack but instead you drove him to despair.

    You did not remember the wise man’s saying, which orders us to deliver the men who are drawn towards death, and not to cease to redeem men ready to be killed. You did not remember our Saviour’s parable, “You should not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax” (Matthew 12:20). No one can endure the enemy’s clever attacks, nor quench, nor control the leaping fire natural to the body, unless God’s grace preserves us in our weakness.

    In all our prayers we should ask for his mercy to save us, so that he may turn aside this scourge which is aimed even at you. For he makes a man to grieve, and then lifts him up to salvation; he strikes, and his hand heals; he humbles and exalts; he gives death and then life; he leads to hell and brings back from hell (1 Samuel 2:6).

    So Apollo prayed again, and at once the hermit was set free from his inner war. Apollo urged him to ask God to give him a wise heart, in order to know how best to speak.

  5. When Cyrus of Alexandria was asked about the temptation of lust, he said, `If you are not tempted, you have no hope; if you are not tempted, it is because you are sinning. The man who does not fight sin at the stage of temptation is sinning already in his body. The man who is sinning in his flesh has no trouble from temptation.’
  6. A hermit asked a brother, `Do you often talk with women?’ The brother said, `No.’ He went on, `My temptations come from paintings old and new, memories of mine which trouble me through pictures of women.’ But the hermit said to him, `Do not fear the dead, but flee the living; flee from consenting to sin or committing sin, and take a longer time over your prayers.’
  7. Mathois used to say that a brother came and told him that the slanderer was worse than the fornicator. He replied, `This is a hard saying.’ Then the brother said to him, `What do you think about the matter?’ Mathois said, `Slander is bad, but it can be cured quickly; the slanderer can do penance and say “I have spoken wrongly,” and it is over. But lust is certain death.’
  8. Poemen said, `As a bodyguard is always standing by to protect the Emperor, so the soul should always be ready to fight the demon of lust.’
  9. A brother once came to Poemen and said to him, `What am I to do, abba? I am wretched with lust. I went to Hybistion, and he told me: “You must not let this passion live in you any longer.” Poemen said to him, `Hybistion lives like the angels in heaven, and he does not know about these things. But you and I are full of lust. If the monk controls his stomach and his tongue, and stays in solitude, he can trust that he is not yet lost.’
  10. 10.    They said of Sarah that for thirteen years she was fiercely attacked by the demon of lust. She never prayed that the battle should leave her, but she used to say only, `Lord, give me strength.’
  11. They also said of her that the same demon of lust was once attacking her threateningly, tempting her with vain thoughts of the world. She continued in the fear of God and maintained the rigor of her fasting. Once when she climbed up on the roof to pray, the spirit of lust appeared to her in bodily form and said to her, `You have overcome me, Sarah.’ But she replied, `It is not I who have overcome you, but my Lord Christ.’
  12. A brother was obsessed by lust and it was like a fire burning day and night in his heart. But he struggled on, not examining the temptation nor consenting to it. After a long time, the fire left him, extinguished by his perseverance.
  13. Another brother was obsessed by lust. He got up in the night and went to tell a hermit about his temptations and the hermit consoled him. So he returned, strengthened, to his cell. But again the spirit of lust tempted him and a second time he went to the hermit. This happened several times. The hermit did not reproach him, but said these words to his profit, `Do not give in to the devil, and Pay attention about your soul. Whenever the demon troubles you, come to me, and this will rebuke him, and so he will go away.Nothing troubles the demon of lust more than laying bare his urgings. Nothing pleases him more than the concealment of the temptation.’ Eleven times the brother went to the hermit, and blamed himself for his imaginings. Then the brother said to him, `Of your charity, abba, say something encouraging.’ The hermit said to him, `Believe me, my son, if God allowed ‘the imaginings which attack me to be passed to you, you would not be able to bear them but would be utterly destroyed.’
    So by the words and deep humility of the hermit the brother found rest from the temptation to lust.
  14. Another brother was attacked by lust. He began to struggle and to fast more, and for fourteen years he guarded himself against this temptation and did not give in to it. After that he went to the community and told to them all what he was suffering. A decree was made, and for a week they all fasted on his behalf, praying to God continually; and so his temptation ceased.
  15. A hermit said about the temptation to lust, `Do you want to be saved? Go, and discipline yourself, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). In the world there are boxers who are hit hard and yet stand firm and receive crowns. Sometimes one is set upon by two at once, and their blows give him strength so that he overcomes them. Have you not seen what strength exercise brings? So stand and be strong and the Lord will defeat your enemy for you.’
  16. On this same temptation, another hermit said, `You should be like a man walking along the street past an inn, and sniffing the smell of meat frying or roasting. Anyone who likes goes in and eats. People who do not want it, pass by and only sniff the smell. So you ought to put the smell away from you; get up and pray “Lord, Son of God, help me.” Do this against other temptations. We cannot make temptations vanish, but we can struggle against them.’ At once a light appeared in his heart.
  17. Another hermit said, `We suffer temptation because we are careless. If we always remember that God dwells in us, we shall never bring into ourselves anything that is not his. The Lord Christ is in us and with us, and watches our life. Because we have Him within us and contemplate Him, we ought not to be idle; we should make ourselves holy as He is holy. If we stand upon a rock, the power of the wicked one will be broken. Do not be afraid of him, and he can do nothing against you. Pray with courage this psalm, “They that trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; they that dwell in Jerusalem shall stand fast forever” (Psalms 125:1).’
  18. A brother said to a hermit, `If a monk falls to sin, he is punished like a person who has fallen from a higher state to a lower, and must work hard until he rises again. But he who comes from the world, is like a beginner advancing to a higher state.’ The hermit replied, `A monk falling into temptation is like a ruined house. If he is a serious, sober person, he can rebuild this ruin. He will find the right materials for building, and he will lay foundations, collect stone and sand, and everything else he needs, and so his building will grow rapidly higher.But the builder who did not dig or lay foundations, and has none of the right materials, will go away just hoping that some day the house will be built. If the monk falls into temptation, and turns to the Lord, he has the best materials, that is, meditation on the law of God, psalmody, work with his hands, prayer, and silence, which are the foundations of his building. A newcomer will find himself low down on the ladder of religion until he has learnt all these.’
  19. A brother who was obsessed by lust went to a famous hermit and said to him, `Of your charity, pray for me, for I am beset by lust.’ The hermit prayed for him to the Lord. He came a second time to the hermit and said the same words, and again the hermit was careful to beseech the Lord on his behalf, and said, `Lord, show me why the devil is doing this work in that brother; I prayed to you, but he has not yet found peace.’The Lord showed him what was happening to that brother. He saw the brother sitting down, and the spirit of lust near him playing with him. An angel was standing near to help him and was frowning at that brother because he did not throw himself upon God, but took pleasure in playing with his thoughts, turning towards them.The hermit realized that the chief trouble was in the brother himself. So he said to him, `You are toying with these thoughts.’ Then he taught him how to reject thoughts like these. The brother’s soul revived under the hermit’s teaching and prayer, and he found rest from his temptation.

Balthazar’s ‘Clerical Styles’: Irenaeus – Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P.

July 25, 2012

St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. Balthazar thought Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics was his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

Balthazar begins with ‘clerical styles’, and first of all with St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. As we shall see, Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics is, for Balthazar, his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

But there is more to say than this. While admitting that Irenaeus’ thinking may have been stimulated on various particular points by the challenge of gnosis, Balthazar considers that Maritain could well have taken him as his first ‘anti-modern’ — the first Christian thinker who consciously opted to present the faith not in terms of its congruence with contemporary religious and intellectual aspiration, or even with ‘perennial modernity’, but inasmuch as its ‘internal obviousness’ is irrefutable, irresistible. [J. Maritain, Anti-moderne (Paris 1922).] Irenaean thought circles freely in the space defined by the mysteries, exhibiting the beauty of their harmonious reciprocity as it does so.

Balthazar notes the predominance of visual metaphors in Irenaeus’ writings: revelation and its human appropriation is ostensio, manifestatio, visio. What Christ appeared to be, that he was [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III (Paris 1952)]: the manifestation of the Father through the Word takes place in the self-showing of the incarnate One in his life, death and resurrection, as pointed to by the Scriptures. In seeing these saving mysteries we begin upon the eschatological vision of God. Here ‘seeing’ is nothing pejoratively theoretical, but is ‘identical with life-giving, nourishing, purifying and bliss-giving communication …’ in the Holy Spirit.[Glory of the Lord II, p. 47]

Moreover, such seeing is through our own eyes, though healed and transfigured: it is the ‘Father’s ancient creation’, as Irenaeus puts it, which through Son and Spirit gains access to the Father’s Glory. Here, in his affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the world, Irenaeus’ critique of the Gnostics agrees (though Balthazar does not say this) with that of such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus.

The beauty of Irenaean salvation lies in its wonderfully integrated quality. As the fulfiller — the ‘recapitulator’ — of what humanity was meant to be at its origin, and of all the chief determining aspects of its subsequent experience, the Word made flesh has the power to ‘give every emergent thing scope for perfection’;[Glory of the Lord II, p. 52] precisely by drawing it actively to himself, assimilating it to his own fullness.’

The ground of the advance of the inchoate is thus found in the fulfilling return of the definitive, by whose integrating power everything is decided.” .[Glory of the Lord II, p. 53]  And yet this is no mere miraculous incursion of divine power, essentially unconnected to the pre-existing pattern of the human creation. For the created pattern already knew in Adam an integrating focus — which is why the interrelation of the two heads of humanity, Adam and Christ, is so important to Irenaeus, and why he considers it a theological necessity that the first Adam should, thanks to the second, be redeemed.

But if the recapitulation concept lies at the heart of Irenaeus’ theological aesthetics, that heart itself possesses a center. The ‘still center‘ as Balthazar terms it, of all Irenaean thought is the notion of the humanity which, borne as it is by God, is capable of sustaining the weight of the divine — a concept, incidentally, which will be crucial to the second volume of his theological logic, his ‘Christo-logic’. Owing not only to the Creator’s gift to man of his image and likeness but also to the supernatural gift of the Spirit, it is possible to think of ‘man bearing and receiving and containing the Son of God’.”

From this midpoint of the incarnation — the God-enabled God-bearing which resumes and brings to perfection the origin, structure and history of humanity — Irenaeus’ camera-work pans out in three directions. On Balthazar’s analysis, three themes display the ‘organizing power and the blazing heat of the recapitulative movement [Glory of the Lord II, p. 58.]: the triune God, hidden and revealed; the Creator’s relation to the human creature; and the salvific; dispensation which binds together Israel, the gospel and the Church. Let us glance at each in turn.

Consider first the Holy Trinity. For Irenaeus, Father, Son and Spirit’ are joined in an eternal open trialogue: unlike the divine powers of Gnosticism, constantly seeking or finding, and hence enmeshed in ignorance, the Trinitarian persons conduct their exchange in the everlasting light and freedom. Without prejudice to his unknowability which is a function of his transcendence, the Father makes himself known — not in his greatness, which is immeasurable, but in his love — through the office of the Word by which we learn, if we are responsive, more and more how great God is and that it is he who through himself establishes and chooses everything and makes it beautiful and contains it’ [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, pp. 212-213.] To be’ sure, the Word for Irenaeus does not exercise this office without the collaboration of the Father’s other ‘hand’, the Spirit.

Consider next the relation between Creator and creature. This same triune Lord is the creature’s absolute Source in whom inheres what Irenaeus terms: ‘the substance of creatures and the pattern of his artefacts and the beauty of the individual life-form’. [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, p.213.] The humanity he has made to his and likeness he calls to communion with himself, as his perfect artwork, remade through the visible Image, Jesus Christ, in which the invisible Archetype is seen on earth. Since the ‘true man is soul in body and grace in both’, [Glory of the Lord, II, p.64] the eschatologically whole man is not the..!. disembodied post-mortem soul but the risen flesh, where the Holy Spirit` is victorious over man’s mortal wounds: sin and death.

The Creator’s work is only properly seen at its mid-point, the God-man, in his crucified and risen glory. That God can do all things is clear, writes Balthazar by way of interpretation of Irenaeus, but that ‘man together with God can also do all things had to be proved’ [Glory of the Lord, II, ibid] As, in Balthazar’s favorite metaphor, the ‘fruit’ both of the world and of the hither, Christ united the Spirit with man, in his affinity with both leading them back — and here the language is once more that of Irenaeus himself --in ‘mutual love and harmony’ [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III] Anticipating his own theology of the atonement, both in Herrlichkeit, and in his extended meditation on the Easter triduum, Mysterium Paschale, Balthazar summarizes Irenaeus’ message of agony and glory:

The same person must be glorified and abased, must penetrate heights and depths, in order to make up by his humiliation for Adam’s arrogance, must live through all the ages of man in order to heal all. Salvation lies in the human life and fate of Jesus, and this includes his real death; really dying, however, means going down to the realm of the dead, to Hades, and not just leaving the cross to return to the Father. And if everything in the fate of Jesus is the revelation of his Father, so too is his Passion. It is the real suffering and dying man who, by what he completely and utterly is, glorifies the Father, and this man who suffers and is humiliated even to death is much more magnificant than all the bloodless patterns of the Gnostics…. Through the suffering flesh of Christ the Father’s light reaches us; that is the essence of the mysterion.
[Hans urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, pp. 68-69, 70]

And consider too the salvific dispensation that binds together Israel, the Gospel and the Church. In the first place, the order of salvation in the Old Testament is a praeadaptio, praeformatio, praemeditatio (in this context a preliminary training) for the coming of Christ. The child Adam is to learn wisdom through injury; his Fall, though not inevitable, had a kind of necessity about it. Had all goodness been man’s inalienable possession from the outset he would not have valued the society of God as a prize worth great effort: ‘Sight would not be so desirable to us if we had not learned how awful it is not to see.. .’.[W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses]

The mutual accustoming of God and man — an idea already important to Balthazar in the first volume of Herrlichkeit — explains to perfection why the Redeemer came so ‘late’, after multiple generations of Israel’s educative spiritual experience. And in any case, since for Irenaeus Son and Spirit are the manifestness of the Father, all the Old Testament theophanies (as Balthazar puts it) are the Son, just as all inspiration is the Spirit. Thus in the words of the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, the Son ‘was with our humanity from eternity, announcing beforehand the things that were to happen later and instructing men in the things of God’ [L. M. Froidevaux (ed.), Irenee de Lyons, Demonstration de la Predication apostolique]

Any attempt to prise apart the two covenants, especially, in the horrendous example offered by Marcion, to ascribe them to different deities, means to ‘undo all God’s art’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p82] Originating in Abraham’s free obedience, the ancient covenant helped men and women to find, through law, the way to love, and by the prophets, avoiding legalism, to seek the essence of the God-man relationship in the inwardness of hearts.

Irenaeus had to face, accordingly, the question of what, in such a context of ripe development, could constitute the ‘novelty value’ of the gospel. Though everything in the New Covenant might have been announced beforehand in the form of teaching, now, with the Gospel, it becomes a person – and therefore is fulfillment. Balthazar writes:

In addition to the correspondence and the intensification there is Christ’s divine quality and his efforts to transpose everything and symbolic into living existence and so to recapitulate it by it concrete form in such a way that its reality is enhanced.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p85-86]

The moment of the incarnation is the moment of unsurpassable:

With this creative event in view the Father gave this ‘hot character of the fullness of time. In this fullness not only the Old Covenant but also all human and physical nature is fulfilled, because now the Word is present within the flesh.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

And so, lastly, the Church steps into view, with her ‘timeless newness’ which Balthazar connects with Irenaeus’ statement that, the incarnation is a ripening into fullness it is also a return to a now un-threatened childhood, since the Word became a child like us. Balthazar captures Irenaeus’ ecclesiology quite brilliantly in a few lines:

In Irenaeus the Church…stands historically at the end of the early Christian era, the splendor of which still surrounds it, and at the beginning of the Catholic form of the world, the features of which it has already assumed. It is the esoteric mystery of the world Christ and yet the most public and anti-sectarian body known to history. It is fully the pneumatic and charismatic Church as in Tertullian; but Irenaeus avoids the dangers and disasters which befell Tertullian, because at the same time in his view the Church remains resolutely in the spirit of the apostolic kerygma and paradosis. [vocab: paradosis: a handing down or over of a tradition or divine revelation]
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

Nor could this be for Irenaeus a privileged originating moment whose plenary freshness may not always be with us. The Spirit perpetually rejuvenates the Church, giving her ‘eternally young beauty.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p88] By the continual refreshment which comes from abiding in the person of the fulfiller the Church’s existence lies wide open to eternal life.

Balthazar emphasizes then the way in which the Christian aesthetic of Irenaeus excels its Gnostic rival by its capacity to display the ‘temporal art’ of God, his beautifully proportioned ordering of time. For Irenaeus, the beauty of the cosmos, of cosmic order, can never be sundered from the artistic intention of its Creator, which is disclosed only in the recapitulation in time, in the temporal order. God creates by his ‘artistic Logos’, for everything was created in accord with the divine Word who alone has the measure of the Father’s mind.

Creative power, wisdom and goodness were disclosed from the beginning, but it takes that expression of the ‘symphony of being and history’ which is Holy Scripture, interpreted by the rule of faith, for us to hear the chords and cadences aright [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p73] The supreme artwork of God is the human being – and here Balthazar locates the origin of that vital Irenaean concept, the mutual ‘glorification’ of God and man. ‘Man, who preserves God’s art in himself and obediently opens himself to its disposing, glorifies the artist and the artist glorifies himself in his work.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p74] The natural world, as found in the first moment of Adam’s creation, is a promise of the supernatural order to come, yet each stage in the unfolding of God’s, plan must follow at its proper time, the aptum tempus – Irenaeus’ version of the New Testament’s kairos, or appointed hour.

The ‘times’ and their ‘fulfillment’ are ‘appointed’ according to the Father’s ‘pleasure’ so that ‘his art might not be in vain’, but this pleasure is always translated into the order of time by the Son and Spirit: ‘and so, through this disposition and by such rhythms and with such guides, man, who has been produced and shaped, is led towards the image and likeness of the ungenerate God. In all this the Father approves and prescribes, the Son executes and forms, the Spirit nourishes and increases, while man gently advances and moves towards perfection, in order, that is, to approach the Uncreated.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.77]

Although Balthazar criticizes Irenaeus for an excessively homogenizing view of the relation between the two Testaments (which in reality should be treated as highly dramatic, dialectical – Theodramatik will bring this out in full measure), he regards his weak sense of historical context, almost inevitable in his period, as a venial offence:

The elimination of this defect by modern historical exegesis is the removal of a defect which is accidental in Irenaeus; it is the true continuation and liberation of his basic purpose across the centuries
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.91]

Balthazar is also minded to look mercifully on Irenaeus’ millenarianism [vocab: millenarianism the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed, based on a one-thousand-year cycle]. Though his insertion of a transfigured earth into an apocalyptic space between general resurrection and general judgment was unfortunate (and the result of too literal a tendency to see the Church as re-entry on the inheritance — the land — promised to Abraham, recapitulation with a vengeance!), much may be forgiven the ‘anti-spiritualizing tendency’ in his eschatology’. [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.93] Balthazar will return to the theme of the resurrection of the flesh, highly significant as this is for a theological aesthetics, in his account of Bonaventure, the last of his ‘clerical’ stylists in Herrlichkeit. It is, as he points out here, important for the dialogue with Judaism he attempted in his study of Buber — and for the debate with modern cosmology, as well as with the cosmic religiosity of a Teilhard de Chardin.

Irenaeus occurs first in the ‘symphony of sources’ of Herrlichkeit, not simply because of the accident that he is the first in historical time of Balthazar’s Christian witnesses. The appearance of the concept of salvation history, centered on Christ, as the ‘art of God’ in Irenaeus’ thought, and the general structure and temper of Irenaean theology Balthazar captures it in these pages brings these two ‘fathers of the Church’(Bonaventure and Irenaeus) together across the gap of centuries.


Christianity’s Transformative Preservation Of Paganism – Derek Jeter

July 13, 2012

As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, `Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Luke 19:37-40


A story generating a modicum of buzz in the blogosphere is the radical Islamist’s destruction of the heritage of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, razing tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque, despite growing international outcry.

The International Criminal Court has described the destruction of the city’s patrimony as a possible war crime, while Unesco’s committee on world heritage was holding a special session this week to address the pillaging of the site, one of the few cultural sites in sub-Saharan Africa that is listed by the agency. The militants claim the shrines represent an affront to their conservative interpretation of Islam.
Associated Press

The local al-Qaida rep in Mali had this response:

Reached by telephone in an undisclosed location in northern Mali, a spokesman for the Islamic faction said they don’t recognize either the United Nations or the world court. “The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah,” said one of Ansar Dine’s spokesmen, Oumar Ould Hamaha.

“The destruction is a divine order,” he said. “It’s our Prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don’t get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God.”

When confronted about the losses in tourism to the region:

Mr. Hamaha said he didn’t care about the impact that their actions will have on tourism. “We are against tourism. They foster debauchery,” he said.

Many atheists would be quick to point out that this is nothing new nor anything that would be confined to radical Islam as the West has had numerous incidents of sovereign and Christian attacks on cultures throughout its history. Yet the story of Christianity is less about conquest and subjugation of pagan populations as much as it is about the beneficence the orthodox, catholic Christian faith has bestowed upon human culture in its attempts to preserve what it perceives to be best within it.

I’ve been reading The Logic Of Christian Humanism, an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Communio by Peter M. Candler, Jr. which notes the following opinions:

Of course, one could cite instances where the arrival of Christianity was less hospitable to the ancient cultures, where it destroyed rather than saved, leveled rather than elevated. But I think that art historians and anthropologists would be hard pressed to deny that these were more the exception than the rule. And yet, the popular imagination tends simultaneously to hold two contradictory opinions: on the one hand, that Christianity simply co-opted pagan culture for its own purposes, in an act of unparalleled marketing savvy and opportunism; on the other, that Christianity, in a sustained act of ressentiment, obliterated every vestige of human culture which, in obedience to the first commandment, it perceived as idolatry.

We are all familiar with the story of how Christmas replaced the pagan festivals of Rome and the missionaries conquest of the Indian tribes of Mexico and Central America. Candler proffers a third way of considering Christianity’s relation to the pagan, one that takes hints from how pagan structures were consecrated as Christian religious structures:

The Venerable Bede records that Gregory, writing in 601 AD to Abbot Melitus about to depart for Britain, says that “we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God.

In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.” [Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo SherleyPrice and rev. R.E. Latham (London: Penguin, 1990) I, 30, 92.]

In this same spirit, the rites of consecration which developed in the seventh century and following sometimes involved “a kind of baptism of the stone structure that enclosed the living Church,” using a special mixture of water, ashes and wine known as “Gregorian water,” owing to the Pope’s alleged authorship of the “Gregorian Sacramentary.” [Cf. Migne, Patrologia Latina 77, 153E Cf. also Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, S J., Liturgical Studies 7 (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1963), 187-78; Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: A. & C. Black, 1945), 570-73]

Now it may be possible to detect a whiff of opportunism in Gregory’s exhortation, but, according to Josef Jungmann, “[t]here is something to be learned from the fact that in the consecration ceremony … church and altar are `baptized’ and `confirmed’ almost like human beings; they are sprinkled on all sides with holy water and are anointed with holy oil.” [Josef A. Jungmann, S J., The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 1, trans. Francis A. Brunner (Allen, Tx.: Christian Classics, 1986), 254.]
Peter M. Candler, Jr., The Logic Of Christian Humanism

We’re seeing in the above a more basic theological impetus for how the Church approached the pagan:

The Christians are, each one, to be living stones, each one distinct but comprising together the great building whose foundation is Christ.”] That much at least should be obvious, but this sense that an intimation of the glory of God still somehow subsists in the stones is a function of an exclusively Christian dogma, to wit, that in Jesus of Nazareth God himself assumed human flesh and redemptively consummated it.
Janet Soskice, Resurrection and the New Jerusalem

The transformation of the pagan flows from an understanding of the logic of a well conceived Christian humanism. Pope Gregory, the great 7th century monastic prelate and Church father, related this all to the mystery of the incarnation and rooted his thought in opposition to the Apollinarian heresies of his time according to which God assumed a human body but not a human mind. Instead, the theory goes, the human mind was replaced by the divine logos. That is, in the human Jesus, the divine logos acts as the rational element in place of an ordinary human mind. This contained two unacceptable factors for Gregory: It denied the full humanity of Christ; and it also denied the human nature of human beings.

Another Gregory, (of Nazianzus) summed  it up here:

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity. For if His Manhood is without soul, even the Arians admit this, that they may attribute His Passion to the Godhead, as that which gives motion to the body is also that which suffers.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter (101) to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius.

The divine Word was not changed into a human nature, nor was a human nature absorbed by the Word’ (Denzinger 219 [428]); cf. also Third Council of Constantinople: “For just as His most holy and immaculate human nature, though deified, was not destroyed (theotheisa ouk anerethe), but rather remained in its proper state and mode of being” (Denzinger 291 [556]); cf. Council of Chalcedon: “to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, change, division, or separation” (Denzinger 148 [302]).

This may be somewhat familiar stuff to those who understand the Creed and the phrases (I believe) in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, born of the father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made. This is the basis of Thomas’s famous maxim, that “grace does not destroy but perfects nature,” and is a reiteration of the principle Gregory of Nazianzus articulates to Cledonius above. As far as the human person is concerned, theosis is also anthroposis, deification also hominization. As Benedict XVI says, “Only Christ can humanize humanity and lead it to its `divinization. “‘ [Benedict XVI, Message to the Young People of the World on the Occasion of the 23`d World Youth Day, 2008.] And so it is that the Church embraces the pagan, sees the pagan impetus towards the divine and recognizes it in Christ. Grace does not destroy but perfects nature. It’s a lovely thought and stands in dignified opposition to the barbarism of radical Islam.


Melito of Sardis

May 29, 2012


Melito of Sardis (died c. 180) was the bishop of Sardis near Smyrna in western Anatolia, and a great authority in Early Christianity: Jerome, speaking of the Old Testament canon established by Melito, quotes Tertullian to the effect that he was esteemed a prophet by many of the faithful. His feast is celebrated on April 1.

Last week I joined a Communio Study Group in Boston. Communio, in case you’ve been missing out on it, is a leading journal of Catholic intellectual writing that “strives to provide long-term resources for reflection, renewal, and mission in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council as interpreted by the Pontificate of John Paul II.” Along with First Things it forms my Catholic magazine/journal readings.

Each month a member of the Communio group chooses an article from the journal and leads a discussion concerning it. It sounded like fun and turned out to be the same. It will help me get the journals off my shelves and into my head.

In May we discussed an article by an Orthodox priest, by Fr. John Behr that was about the eschatological dimensions of the liturgy. It’s a topic that falls into my interest in liturgical theology which is one of my categories in

 I took a course not long ago titled “Spiritual Liturgy” which turned out to be an eye-opener as I was constantly challenged to track my reactions to the Eucharist. Reading the following reminded me of a level of awareness that I constantly need to promote within myself.

If you live in the Boston area and would like to join us, give me a holler through the comment mechanism and I will help set it up for you.


 Melito of Sardis

Now, everything that we have been talking about — the encounter with the risen Christ, the coming eschatological Lord in the opening of scripture and the breaking of bread — is exemplified in an early Christian text, On Pascha, by Melito of Sardis — only published in 1940. Since then there has been a debate about what kind of text it is.

It was first classified as a “Good Friday Homily,” although it does not really fit into a homelitic genre. It is now recognized as a kind of Haggadahan exposition of the Passover reading from Exodus, which would accompany the Jewish table rite known as the Seder, which developed in diaspora Judaism, when the Passover sacrifice was no longer possible at the temple. This makes it, in fact, the earliest liturgical text that we have, and, for that matter, the earliest representative of a Haggadah that we have.

One must recall that the reading of the Exodus scripture was never understood as the recalling of a (merely) past event, but as a way of inscribing oneself in the same unchanging reality of God. As when Joshua urged the Israelites gathered at Shechem to devote themselves to the Covenant which God had made with their fathers, they speak of this as having happened to themselves (Josh 24).

Melito begins immediately following on from the reading of the scripture of the Exodus, and takes it to be speaking of Christ (i.e., directly, without the intermediary of a gospel text)

1   The Scripture of the Exodus of the Hebrews has been read,
and the words of the mystery have been declared,
how the sheep was sacrificed
and how the people was saved,
and how Pharaoh was flogged by the mystery.

2   Therefore, well-beloved, understand, how the mystery of the Pascha
is both new and old
eternal and provisional,
perishable and imperishable
mortal and immortal.

3   It is old with respect to the law
new with respect to the word.
Provisional with respect to the type
yet everlasting through grace.
It is perishable because of the slaughter of the sheep,
imperishable because of the life of the Lord.
It is mortal because of the burial in the ground,
immortal because of the resurrection from the dead.

4.   For the law is old
but the Word is new.
The type is provisional,
but the grace everlasting.
The sheep is perishable,
but the Lord,
not broken as a lamb but raised up as God,
is imperishable.
For though led to the slaughter like a sheep,
he was no sheep.
Though speechless as a lamb,
neither yet was he a lamb.
For there was once a type, but now the reality has appeared.

5.  For instead of the lamb there was a son,
and instead of the sheep a man;
in the man was Christ encompassing all things.

6.  So the slaughter of the sheep
and the sacrificial procession of the blood,
and the writing of the law encompass Christ,
on whose account everything in the previous law took place,
though better in the new dispensation.

7.  For the law was a word,
and the old was new, going out from Sion and Jerusalem,
and the commandment was grace,
and the type was a reality,
and the lamb was a son,
and the sheep was a man,
and the man was God.

8.  For he was born as a son,
and led as a lamb,
and slaughtered as a sheep,
and buried as a man,
and rose from the dead as God,
being God by his nature and a man.

9.  He is all things.
He is law, in that he judges.
He is word, in that he teaches.
He is grace, in that he saves.
He is father, in that he begets.

He is son, in that he is begotten.
He is sheep, in that he suffers.
He is human, in that he is buried.
He is God, in that he is raised up.

10.  This is Jesus the Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

This is a wonderful preface in praise of Christ, understanding him in terms of the scriptural account of the Exodus.

Melito then begins again by saying that he will re-narrate the account:

11.  This is the mystery of the Pascha,
just as it is written in the law, which was read a little while ago. I shall narrate the scriptural story,
how he gave command to Moses in Egypt,
when wanting to flog Pharaoh
and to free Israel from flogging
through the hand of Moses.

It continues with a fuller exposition of the scriptural story, seeing in all its details the reality of Christ. It is, for instance, because of Christ’s blood that the angel turns away from the dwellings with lamb’s blood smeared across the lintels: it is not that the angel does not like the smell of lamb’s blood, but rather that he sees in the blood of the lamb the reality of the blood of Christ.

This is then followed by a more universal depiction of salvation history, beginning with humanity in Eden and the continuation of the way in which humanity continued in sin, but also the way in which Christ was also present, already working, in types, our salvation.

59   If you wish to see the mystery of the Lord
Look at Abel, who is likewise slain,
at Isaac, who is likewise tied up,
at Joseph, who is likewise traded,
at Moses, who is likewise exposed,
at David, who is likewise hunted down,
At the prophets who likewise suffer for the sake of Christ.

And then the first half of the oration comes to an end:

65.. Many other things were proclaimed by many prophets
concerning the mystery of the Pascha, who is Christ,
to whom be the glory forever.

The second half of the oration begins with the words:

66.. This is the one who comes from heaven onto the earth for
the suffering one,
and wraps himself in the suffering one through a virgin womb,
and comes as a a man.
He accepted the suffering of the suffering one,
through suffering in a body which could suffer,
and set free the flesh from suffering.

Recent scholars have seen in these words, “This is the one who comes (aphikoinenos) from heaven,” an allusion to the aphikomen, the piece of bread broken off from the main loaf at the Passover Seder of Judaism, hidden, and brought in towards the end. This aphikomen — “coining one” — is taken as a messianic symbol. Melito clearly identifies the Paschal Lamb with Jesus.

Now the oration continues with a cry against Israel for not having recognized him, but having instead crucified him. This seems to us to be anti-Semitic (the Jewish community in Sardis would have just finished their Passover meal when the Christians gathered to celebrate their Pascha). But the invective against Israel is always in the second person: Melito is saying to his community: you did not recognize him — you stand convicted. It is only as convicted that they are then able finally to recognize him as their Savior. And so, the oration concludes with Melito speaking in the person of Christ:

100.. The Lord clothed himself with humanity,
and with suffering on behalf of the suffering one,
and bound on behalf of the one constrained,
and judged on behalf of the one convicted,
and buried on behalf of the one entombed,
rose from the dead and cried out aloud:

101.. “Who takes issue with me? Let him stand before me.
I set free the condemned.
I gave life to the dead.
I raise up the entombed.
Who will contradict me?”

102.. “It is I,” says the Christ,
“I am he who destroys death,
and triumphs over the enemy,
and crushes Hades,
and binds the strong man,
and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.” “It is I,” says the Christ.

103.. “So come all families of people,
adulterated with sin,
and receive forgiveness of sins.
For I am your freedom.
I am the Passover of salvation,
I am the lamb slaughtered for you,
I am your ransom,
I am your life,
I am your light,
I am your salvation,
I am your resurrection,
I am your King.
I shall raise you up by my right hand,
I will lead you to the heights of heaven,
There shall I show you the everlasting Father.”

104.. He it is who made the heaven and the earth, and formed humanity in the beginning,
who was proclaimed through the law and the prophets,
who took flesh from a virgin,
who was hung on a tree,
who was buried in earth,
who was raised from the dead,
and ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has the power to save all things,
through whom the Father acted from the beginning and forever.

105.. This is the alpha and omega, this is the beginning and the end,
the ineffable beginning and the incomprehensible end.
This is the Christ,
this is the King,
this is Jesus,
this is the commander,
this is the Lord,
this is he who rose from the dead,
this is he who sits at the right hand of the Father,
he bears the Father and is borne by him.
To him be the glory and the might for ever. Amen.

This is a wonderful text, exemplary of what happens in liturgy, and especially the eschatological dimensions of liturgy. We began by standing to celebrate the Passion, the Exodus of Christ, understood in the light of the books of Old Testament being opened in the light of Christ. This then moves seamlessly into the celebration of the Paschal Lamb, the coming one — identified with the aphikomen — the part of the loaf hidden at the beginning of the meal and brought out towards the end. And then, in and through all of this, Christ, the coming one, is now present, speaking in the person of Melito himself. This is realized eschatology in action, even now when it is read as a text almost two thousand years later.


Theologian of Life in the Spirit: St. Gregory Of Nyssa

February 23, 2012
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) (also known as Gregory Nyssen) was bishop of Nyssa from 372 to 376, and from 378 until his death. He is venerated as a saint in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism and Anglicanism. Gregory, his brother Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers. 
Each of these lives seems to contain a life experience that Benedict XVI makes jump off the page for me.

In the last chapters, I spoke of two great fourth-century Doctors of the Church, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, a bishop in Cappadocia, in present-day Turkey. Today, we are adding a third, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother, who showed himself to be a man disposed to meditation with a great capacity for reflection and a lively intelligence open to the culture of his time. He has thus proved to be an original and profound thinker in the history of Christianity.

Gregory was born in about 335. His Christian education was supervised with special care by his brother Basil, whom he called “father and teacher” (Epistle 13, 4: SC 363, 198), and by his sister Macrina. He completed his studies, appreciating in particular philosophy and rhetoric.

Initially, he devoted himself to teaching and was married. Later, like his brother and sister, he too dedicated himself entirely to the ascetic life. He was subsequently elected bishop of Nyssa and showed himself to be a zealous pastor, thereby earning the community’s esteem. When he was accused of embezzlement by heretical adversaries, he was obliged for a brief period to abandon his episcopal see but later returned to it triumphant and continued to be involved in the fight to defend the true faith.

Especially after Basil’s death, by more or less gathering his spiritual legacy, Gregory cooperated in the triumph of orthodoxy. He took part in various synods; he attempted to settle disputes between churches; he had an active part in the reorganization of the Church and, as a “pillar of orthodoxy,” played a leading role at the Council of Constantinople in 381, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Various difficult official tasks were entrusted to him by the Emperor Theodosius, he delivered important homilies and funeral discourses, and he devoted himself to writing various theological works. In addition, in 394, he took part in another synod, held in Constantinople. The date of his death is not known.

Gregory expressed clearly the purpose of his studies, the supreme goal to which all his work as a theologian was directed: not to engage his life in things but to find the light that would enable him to discern what is my worthwhile. He found this supreme good in Christianity, thanks to which “the imitation of the divine nature” is possible (De Professione Christiana: PG 46, 244c).

With his acute intelligence and vast philosophical and theological knowledge, Gregory defended the Christian faith against heretics who denied the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (such as Eunomius and the Macedonians) or compromised the perfect humanity of Christ (such as Apollinaris).

He commented on Sacred Scripture, reflecting on the creation of man. This was one of his central topics: creation. He saw in the creature the reflection of the Creator and found here the way that leads to God. But he also wrote an important book on the life of Moses, whom he presents as a man journeying toward God: this climb to Mount Sinai became for him an image of our ascent in human life toward true life, toward the encounter with God.

He also interpreted the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, as well as the Beatitudes. In his Great Catechetical Discourse (Oratio Catechetica Magna), he developed theology’s fundamental directions, not for an academic theology closed in on itself but in order to offer catechists a reference system to keep before them in their instructions, almost as a framework for a pedagogical interpretation of the faith.

Furthermore, Gregory is distinguished for his spiritual doctrine. None of his theology was academic reflection; rather, it was an expression of the spiritual life, of a life of faith lived. As a great “father of mysticism,” he pointed out in various treatises — such as his De Professione Christiana and De Perfectione Christiana — the path Christians must take if they are to reach true life, perfection. He exalted consecrated virginity (De Virginitate) and proposed the life of his sister Macrina, who was always a guide and example for him (cf. Vita Macrinae), as an outstanding model of it.

Gregory gave various discourses and homilies and wrote numerous letters. In commenting on human creation, he highlighted the fact that God, “the best artist, forges our nature so as to make it suitable for the exercise of royalty. Through the superiority given by the soul and through the very makeup of the body, he arranges things in such a way that malt is truly fit for regal power” (De Hominis Opificio 4: PG 44, 136b).

Yet we see that man, caught in the net of sin, often abuses creation and does not exercise true kingship. For this reason, in fact, that is, to act with true responsibility for creatures, he must be penetrated by God and live in his light.

Indeed, man is a reflection of that original beauty which is God: “Everything God created was very good,” the holy bishop wrote. And he added: “The story of creation [cf. Genesis 1:31) witnesses to it. Man was also listed among those very good things, adorned with a beauty far superior to all of the good things. What else, in fact, could be good, on par with one who was similar to pure and incorruptible beauty? ... The reflection and image of eternal life, he was truly good; no, he was very good, with the radiant sign of life on his face" (Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1020c). Human being was honored by God and placed above every other creature:

The sky was not made in God's image, not the moon, not the sun, not the beauty of the stars, no other things which appear in creation. Only you (human soul) were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect, likeness of incorruptible beauty, mark of true divinity, vessel of blessed life, image of true light, that when you look upon it you become what he is, because through the reflected ray coming from your purity you imitate he who shines within you. Nothing that exists can measure up to your greatness.
(Homilia in Canticum 2: PG 44, 805d)

Let us meditate on this praise of the human being. Let us also see how man was degraded by sin. And let us try to return to that original greatness: only if God is present does man attain his true greatness. Man therefore recognizes in himself the reflection of the divine light: by purifying his heart he is once more, as he was in the beginning, a clear image of God, exemplary Beauty (cf. Oratio Catechetica 6: SC 453, 174). Thus, by purifying himself, man can see God, as do the pure of heart (cf. Matthew 5:8): "If, with a diligent and attentive standard of living, you wash away the bad things that have deposited upon your heart, the divine beauty will shine in you.... Contemplating yourself, you will see within you he who is the desire of your heart, and you will be blessed" (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272ab). We should therefore wash away the ugliness stored within our hearts and rediscover God's light within us. The Human goal is therefore the contemplation of God. In God alone can one find one's fulfillment.

To somehow anticipate this goal in this life, one must work ceaselessly toward a spiritual life, a life in dialogue with God. In other words -- and this is the most important lesson that St. Gregory of Nyssa its bequeathed to us -- total human fulfillment consists in holiness, in a life lived in the encounter with God, which thus becomes luminous also  others and to the world.

A Theologian of Human Dignity
I present to you certain further aspects of the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

First of all, Gregory of Nyssa had a very lofty concept of human dignity. The human goal, the holy bishop said, is to liken oneself to God, and one reaches this goal first of all through the love, knowledge, and practice of the virtues, "bright beams that shine from the divine nature" (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c), in a perpetual movement of adherence to the good like a corridor outstretched before oneself.

In this regard, Gregory uses an effective image already present in Paul's Letter to the Philippians: epekteinomenos (3:13), that is, "I press on" toward what is greater, toward truth and love. This vivid expression portrays a profound reality: the perfection we desire to attain is not acquired once and for all; perfection means journeying on; it is continuous readiness to move ahead because we never attain a perfect likeness to God; we are always on our way (cf. Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1025d).

The history of every soul is that of a love that fills every time and at the same time is open to new horizons, for God continually stretches the soul's possibilities to make it capable of ever greater goods. God himself, who has sown the seeds of good in us and from whom every initiative of holiness stems, "sculpts the block ... , and polishing and cleansing our spirit, forms Christ within us" (In Psalmos 2, 11: PG 44, 544b).

Gregory was anxious to explain: "In fact, this likeness to the divine is not our work at all; it is not the achievement of any faculty of man; it is the great gift of God bestowed upon our nature at the very moment of our birth" (De Virginitate 12, 2: SC 119, 408-10). For the soul, therefore, "it is not a question of knowing something about God but of having God within" (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1269c). Moreover, as Gregory perceptively observes, "Divinity is purity, it is liberation from the passions and the removal of every evil: if all these things are in you, God is truly in you" (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c).

When we have God in us, when one loves God, through that reciprocity which belongs to the law of love one wants what God himself wants (cf. Homilia in Canticum 9: PG 44, 956ac); hence, one cooperates with God in fashioning the divine image in oneself, so that "our spiritual birth is the result of a free choice, and we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we ourselves wish to be, and through our will forming ourselves in accordance with the model that we choose" (Vita Moysis 2, 3: SC 1ff., 108). To ascend to God, one must be purified:

The way that leads human nature to heaven is none other than detachment from the evils of this world.... Becoming like God means becoming righteous, holy and good.... If, therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), "God is in heaven'," and if, as the Prophet says, "You have made God your refuge' (Psalm 73[72]:28), it necessarily follows that you must be where God is found, since you are united with him. Since he commanded you to call God “Father” when you pray, he tells you definitely to be likened to your Heavenly Father and to lead a life worthy of God, as the Lord orders us more clearly elsewhere, saying, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
(De Oratione Dominica 2: PG 44, 1145ac)

In this journey of spiritual ascesis, Christ is the model and teacher; he shows us the beautiful image of God (cf. De Perfectione Christiana: PG 46, 272a). Each of us, looking at him, finds ourselves “the painter of our own life,” who has the will to compose the work and the virtues as his colors (De Perfectione Christiana.: PG 46, 272b). So, if man is deemed worthy of Christ’s name, how should he behave? This is Gregory’s answer: “[He must] always examine his own thoughts, his own words, and his own actions in his innermost depths to see whether they are oriented to Christ or are drifting away from him” (De Perfectione Christiana.: PG 46, 284c). And this point is important because of the value it gives to the word Christian. A Christian is someone who bears Christ’s name, who must therefore also liken his life to Christ. We Christians assume a great responsibility with baptism.

But Christ, Gregory says, is also present in the poor, which is why they must never be offended: “Do not despise them, those who lie idle, as if for this reason they were worth nothing. Consider who they are and you will discover wherein lies their dignity: they represent the person of the Savior. And this is how it is: for in his goodness, the Lord gives them his own person so that through it, those who are hard of heart and enemies of the poor may be moved to compassion” (De Pauperibus Amanidis: PG 46, 460bc). Gregory, as we said, speaks of rising: rising to God in prayer through purity of heart, but also rising to God through love of neighbor. Love is the ladder that leads to God. Consequently, Gregory of Nyssa strongly recommends to all his listeners: “Be generous with these brothers and sisters, victims of misfortune. Give to the hungry from what you deprive your own stomach” (De Pauperibus Amanidis.: PG 46, 457c).

Gregory recalls with great clarity that we all depend on God and therefore exclaims: “Do not think that everything belongs to you! There must also be a share for the poor, God’s friends. In fact, the truth is that everything comes from God, the universal Father, and that we are brothers and sisters and belong to the same lineage” (De Pauperibus Amanidis.: PG, 465b). The Christian should then examine oneself, Gregory insists further: “But what use is it to fast and abstain from eating meat if with your wicked puss all you do is to gnaw at your brother? What do you gain in God’s eyes from not eating your own food if later, acting unfairly, you snatch from their hands the food of the poor?”

Let us end our catechesis on the three great Cappadocian Fathers by recalling that important aspect of Gregory of Nyssa’s spiritual doctrine, which is prayer. To progress on the journey to perfection and to welcome God within him, to bear the Spirit of God within him, the love of God, man must turn to God trustingly in prayer: “Through prayer we succeed in being with God. But anyone who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is a support and protection of charity, a brake on anger, an appeasement and the control of pride. Prayer is the custody of virginity, the protection of fidelity in marriage, the hope for those who are watching, an abundant harvest for farmers, certainty for sailors” (De Oratione Dominica 1: PG 44, 1124ab).

The Christian always prays by drawing inspiration from the Lord’s Prayer: “So if we want to pray for the kingdom of God to come, we must ask him for this with the power of the Word: that I may be distanced from corruption, delivered from death, freed from the chains of error; that death may never reign over me, that the tyranny of evil may never have power over us, that the adversary may never dominate me nor make me his prisoner through sin but that your kingdom may come to me so that the passions by which I am now ruled and governed may be distanced, or better still, blotted out” (De Oratione Dominica., 3: PG 44, 1156d-57a).

Having ended his earthly life, the Christian will thus be able to turn to God serenely. In speaking of this, St. Gregory remembered the death of his sister Macrina and wrote that she was praying this prayer to God while she lay dying: “You who on earth have the power to take away sins, `forgive me, so that I may find refreshment’ [cf. Psalm 38:14], and so that may be found without blemish in your sight at the time when I am emptied from my body [cf. Colossians 2:11], so that my spirit, holy and immaculate [cf. Ephesians 5:27], may be accepted into your hands `like incense before you” (Psalm 141:[140]:2) (Vita Macrinae 24: SC 178, 224). This teaching of St. Gregory is always relevant: not only speaking of God but also carrying God within oneself. Let us do this by commitment to prayer and living in a spirit of love for all our brethren.


Origen Of Alexandria

February 22, 2012

Origen (Ōrigénēs), or Origen Adamantius, 184/5–253/4 was an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church.

Another reading from Benedict XVI on a figure from early Church history and why his thought remains important to us today. See if you don’t agree.

His Life and Work
In our meditations on the great figures of the early Church, we now become acquainted with one of the most remarkable. Origen of Alexandria truly was a figure crucial to the whole development of Christian thought. He gathered up the legacy of Clement of Alexandria, on whom we meditated in the last chapter, and launched it for the future in a way so innovative that he impressed an irreversible turning point on the development of Christian thought.

He was a true “maestro,” and so it was that his pupils remembered him with nostalgia and emotion: he was not only a brilliant theologian but also an exemplary witness of the doctrine he passed on. Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, said, “His manner of life was as his doctrine, and his doctrine as his life. Therefore, by the divine power working with him he aroused a great many to his own zeal” (cf. Church History 6, 3, 7).

His whole life was pervaded by a ceaseless longing for martyrdom. He was seventeen years old when, in the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, the persecution against Christians was unleashed in Alexandria. Clement, his teacher, fled the city, and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son longed ardently for martyrdom but was unable to realize his desire. So he wrote to his father, urging him not to shrink from the supreme witness of faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, the young Origen felt bound to welcome the example of his father’s life.

Forty years later, while preaching in Caesarea, he confessed: “It is of no use to me to have a martyr father if I do not behave well and honor the nobility of my ancestors, that is, the martyrdom of my father and the witness that made him illustrious in Christ” (Hom. Ez. 4, 8). In a later homily — when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of the emperor Philip the Arab, the possibility of bearing witness by shedding one’s blood seemed no longer to exist — Origen exclaims: “If God were to grant me to be washed in my blood so as to receive the second baptism after accepting death for Christ, I would depart this world with assurance…. But those who deserve such things are blessed” (Hom. Iud. 7, 12). These words reveal the full force of Origen’s longing for baptism with blood.

And finally, this irresistible yearning was granted to him, at least in part. In the year 250, during Decius’s persecution, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Weakened by the suffering to which he had been subjected, he died a few years later. He was not yet seventy.

We have mentioned the “irreversible turning point” that Origen impressed upon the history of theology and Christian thought. But of what did this turning point, this innovation so pregnant with consequences, consist? It corresponds in substance to theology’s foundation in the explanation of the Scriptures.

Theology to him was essentially explaining, understanding Scripture; or we might also say that his theology was a perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In fact, the proper hallmark of Origen’s doctrine seems to lie precisely in the constant invitation to move from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in knowledge of God. Furthermore, this so-called allegorism, as von Balthasar wrote, coincides exactly “with the development of Christian dogma, effected by the teaching of the Church Doctors,” who in one way or another accepted Origen’s “lessons.”

Thus, Tradition and the magisterium, the foundation and guarantee of theological research, come to take the form of “Scripture in action” (cf. Origene: II mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa [Milan, 19721, 43). We can therefore say that the central nucleus of Origen's immense literary opus consists in his "threefold interpretation" of the Bible.

But before describing this "interpretation," it would be right to take an overall look at the Alexandrian's literary production. Saint Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately, most of these works have been lost, but even the few that remain make him the most prolific author of Christianity's first three centuries. His field of interest extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, apologetics, ascetical theology, and mystical theology. It was a fundamental and global vision of Christian life.

The inspiring nucleus of this work, as we have said, was the "threefold interpretation" of the Scriptures that Origen developed in his lifetime. By this phrase, we wish to allude to the three most important ways in which Origen devoted himself to studying the Scriptures: they are not in sequence; on the contrary, more often than not they overlap.

First of all, he read the Bible, determined to do his utmost to ascertain the biblical text and offer the most reliable version of it. This, for example, was the first step: to know truly what is written and what specific scriptural passage intentionally and principally meant.

He studied extensively for this purpose and drafted an edition of thy• Bible with six parallel columns, from left to right, with the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters -- he was even in touch with rabbis to make sure he properly understood the Bible's original Hebrew text -- then the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek characters, and then four different translations in Greek that enabled him to compare the different possibilities lot its translation. Hence comes the title of Hexapla ("six columns"), attributed to this enormous synopsis. This is the first point: to know exactly what was written, the text as such.

Second, Origen read the Bible systematically with his famous Commentaries. They reproduced faithfully the explanations that the teacher offered during his lessons at Alexandria and Caesarea. Origen proceeded verse by verse with a detailed, broad, and analytical approach, with philological and doctrinal notes. He worked with great precision in order to know completely what the sacred authors meant.

Last, even before his ordination to the priesthood, Origen was deeply dedicated to preaching the Bible and adapted himself to a varied public. In any case, the teacher can also be perceived in his Homilies, wholly dedicated as he was to the systematic interpretation of the passage under examination, which he analyzed step by step in the sequence of the verses.

Also in his Homilies, Origen took every opportunity to recall the different dimensions of the sense of Sacred Scripture that encourage or express a process of growth in the faith: there is the "literal" sense, but this conceals depths that are not immediately apparent. The second dimension is the "moral" sense: what we must do in living the Word; and finally, the "spiritual" sense, the unity of Scripture which throughout its development speaks of Christ.

It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to understand the Christological content, hence, the unity in diversity of Scripture. It would be interesting to demonstrate this. I have made a humble attempt in my book Jesus of Nazareth to show in today's context these multiple dimensions of the Word, of Sacred Scripture, whose historical meaning must in the first place be respected.

But this sense transcends us, moving us toward God in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, shows us how to live. Mention of it is found, for example, in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen likens Scripture to [fresh] walnuts: “The doctrine of the Law and the Prophets at the school of Christ is like this,” the homilist says; “the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin; second, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; third, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future” (Homily on Number 9, 7).

It was especially on this route that Origen succeeded in effectively promoting the “Christian interpretation” of the Old Testament, brilliantly countering the challenge of the heretics, especially the Gnostics and Marcionites, who made the two Testaments disagree to the extent that they rejected the Old Testament.

In this regard, in the same Homily on Numbers, the Alexandrian says, “I do not call the law an `Old Testament’ if I understand it in the Spirit. The law becomes an `Old Testament’ only for those who wish to understand it carnally,” that is, for those who stop at the literal meaning of the text. But “for us, who understand it and apply it in the Spirit and in the gospel sense, the law is ever new, and the two Testaments are a new Testament for us, not because of their date in time but because of the newness of the meaning…. Instead, for the sinner and those who do not respect the covenant of love, even the gospels age” (cf. Homily on Numbers 9, 4).

I invite you — and so I conclude — to welcome into your hearts the teaching of this great master of faith. Origen reminds us with deep delight that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in consistent commitment to life, the Church is ever renewed and rejuvenated. The Word of God, which never ages and is never exhausted, is a privileged means to this end. Indeed, it is the Word of God, through the action of the Holy Spirit, which always guides us to the whole truth. And let us pray to the Lord that he will give us thinkers, Theologians, and exegetes who discover this multifaceted dimension, this ongoing timeliness of Sacred Scripture, its newness for today. Let us pray that the Lord will help us to read Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way, to be truly nourished with the true Bread of Life, with his Word.

The Thought of Origen of Alexandria
We have examined the life and literary opus of the great Alexandrian teacher, identifying his threefold interpretation of the Bible as the life-giving nucleus of all his work. Now we take up two aspects of Origenian doctrine that I consider among the most important and timely: his teachings on prayer and the Church.

In fact, Origen — author of the important and ever timely treatise On Prayer — constantly interweaves his exegetical and theological writings with experiences and suggestions connected with prayer. Notwithstanding all the theological richness of his thought, his is never a purely academic approach; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, of contact with God. Indeed, to his mind, knowledge of the Scriptures requires prayer and intimacy with Christ even more than study. He was convinced that the best way to become acquainted with God is through love and that there is no authentic scientia Christi without falling in love with him.

In his Letter to Gregory, Origen recommends:

Study first of all the lectio of the divine Scriptures. Study them, I say. For we need to study the divine writings deeply … and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them and it shall be opened to you by the porter, of whom Jesus says, “To him the gatekeeper opens.”

While you attend to this lectio divina, seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures. And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is absolutely necessary for understanding divine things is oratio, and in urging us to this the Savior says not only “knock and it will be opened to you,” and “seek and you will find,” but also “ask and it will be given you.”
(Epistle on Gregory 4)

The “primordial role” played by Origen in the history of lectio divina instantly flashes before one’s eyes. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who learned from Origen’s works to interpret the Scriptures, later introduced them into the West to hand them on to Augustine and to the monastic tradition that followed.

As we have already said, according to Origen the highest degree of knowledge of God stems from love. Therefore, this also applies for Human beings: only if there is love, if hearts are opened, can one person truly know the other. Origen based his demonstration of this on a meaning that is sometimes attributed to the Hebrew verb to know, that is, when it is used to express the human act of love: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Gen 4:1). This suggests that union in love Mrcures the most authentic knowledge. Just as the man and the woman are “two in one flesh,” so God and the believer become “two in one spirit.”

The prayer of the Alexandrian thus attained the loftiest levels of mysticism, as is attested to by his Homilies on the Song of Songs. A passage is presented in which Origen confessed: “I have often felt — God is my witmess — that the Bridegroom came to me in the most exalted way. Then he suddenly left, and I was unable to find what I was seeking. Once again, ,I am taken by the desire for his coming and sometimes he returns, and when he has appeared to me, when I hold him with my hands, once again he flees from me, and when he has vanished I start again to seek him” (Homily in Cant. 1, 7).

I remember what my venerable predecessor wrote as an authentic witness in Novo Millennio Ineunte, where he showed the faithful “how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.” “It is,” John Paul II continues, “a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications…. But it leads, in various possible ways to the ineffable joy experienced by mystics as “nuptial union”

Finally, we come to one of Origen’s teachings on the Church, and precisely — within it — on the common priesthood of the faithful. In fact, as the Alexandrian affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, “This discourse concerns us all” (Homily on Leviticus 9, 1). In the same Homily, Origen, referring to Aaron’s prohibition, after the death of his two sons, from entering the Sancta sanctorum “at all times” (Leviticus 16:2), thus warned the faithful:

This shows that if anyone were to enter the sanctuary at any time without being properly prepared and wearing priestly attire, without bringing the prescribed offerings and making himself favorable to God, he would die…

This discourse concerns us all. It requires us, in fact, to know how to accede to God’s altar. Oh, do you not know that the priesthood has been conferred upon you too, that is, upon the entire Church of God and believing people? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: “Chosen race,” he says, “royal, priestly, holy nation, people whom God has ransomed.”

You therefore possess the priesthood because you are “a priestly race” and must thus offer the sacrifice to God…. But to offer it with dignity, you need garments that are pure and different from the common clothes of other men, and you need the divine fire.
(Homily on Leviticus)

Thus, on the one hand, “girded” and in “priestly attire” mean purity and honesty of life, and on the other, with the “lamp ever alight,” that is, faith and knowledge of the Scriptures, we have the indispensable conditions for the exercise of the universal priesthood, which demands purity and an honest life, faith, and knowledge of the Scriptures.

For the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, there is of course all the more reason why such conditions should be indispensable.

These conditions — a pure and virtuous life, but above all the acceptance and study of the Word — establish a true and proper “hierarchy of holiness” in the common priesthood of Christians. At the peak of this ascent of perfection, Origen places martyrdom. Again, in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, he alludes to the “fire for the holocaust,” that is, to faith and knowledge of the Scriptures which must never be extinguished on the altar of the person who exercises the priesthood. He then adds: `But each one of us has within him” not only the fire; but he “also has the holocaust and from his holocaust lights the altar so that it may burn forever. If I renounce all my possessions, take up my cross, and follow Christ, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God; and if I give up my body to be burned with love and achieve the glory of martyrdom, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God”
(Homily on Leviticus 9, 9).

This tireless journey to perfection “concerns us all,” in order that “the gaze of our hearts” may turn to contemplate Wisdom and Truth, which are Jesus Christ. Preaching on Jesus’ discourse in Nazareth — when “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (cf. Luke 4:16-30) Origen seems to be addressing us:

Today, too, if you so wished, in this assembly your eyes can be fixed on the Savior.

In fact, it is when you turn the deepest gaze of your heart to the contemplation of Wisdom, Truth, and the only Son of God that your eyes will see God. Happy the assembly of which Scripture attests that the eyes of all were fixed upon him!

How I would like this assembly here to receive a similar testimony, and the eyes of all — the non-baptized and the faithful, women, men, and children — to look at Jesus, not the eyes of the body but those of the soul! .. .

Impress upon us the light of your face, O Lord, to whom be the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen!
(Homily. in Luke 32: 6)


Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite

February 21, 2012

Pseudo-Dionysius was an Armenian monk whose writings were highly recommended by many of the Medieval popes. His works, including Celestial Hierarchies, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Ten Letters and The Divine Names were collectively referred to in the Middle Ages as the Corpus Areopagiticum . In these written works he called himself Dionysius the Areopagite, i.e., the famous first century A.D., Athenian member of the Areopagus (law court) that the Apostle Paul converted per Acts 17:34 of the Bible. Today, he is usually referred to as "Pseudo" Dionysius because it was conclusively shown, as early as the 15th century, that this man actually lived no earlier than the sixth century A.D. The Florentine humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) was the first academic to provide evidence that the author of the Corpus Areopagiticum could not have been St. Paul's convert. In 1895, two important Roman Catholic scholars, Hugo Koch and Joseph Stiglmayr both working independently of each other, published research papers that showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Dionysius' claim to be the Areopagite was false.

Pope Benedict has written numerous short biographies of saints and theologians and are found in his books titled Great Christian Thinkers, The Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church, etc. They offer wonderful little synopsis of various church figures. This is one I have come across here and there in my readings: Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite. As Derek Jeter, I have chosen on this blog to write under a pseudonym, much like this sixth century theologian – perhaps in his honor I should rename myself Pseudo-Derek, The Yankee SS, but I digress…


In the course of my catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, I speak next of a rather mysterious figure: a sixth-century theologian whose name is unknown and who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite. With this pseudonym, he was alluding to the passage of Scripture, the event recounted by St. Luke in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, where he tells how Paul preached in Athens at the Areopagus to an elite group of the important Greek intellectual world. In the end, the majority of his listeners proved not to be interested and went away jeering at him. Yet some, St. Luke says a few, approached Paul and opened themselves to the faith. The evangelist gives us two names: Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris.

If five centuries later the author of these books chose the pseudonym “Dionysius the Areopagite,” it means that his intention was to put Greek wisdom at the service of the Gospel, to foster the encounter of Greek culture and intelligence with the proclamation of Christ; he wanted to do what this Dionysius had intended, that is, to make Greek thought converge with St. Paul’s proclamation; being a Greek, he wanted to become a disciple of St. Paul, hence a disciple of Christ.

Why did he hide his name and choose this pseudonym? One part of the answer I have already given: he wanted, precisely, to express this fundamental intention of his thought. But there are two hypotheses concerning this anonymity and pseudonym. The first hypothesis says that it was a deliberate falsification by which, in dating his works back to the first century, to the time of St. Paul, he wished to give his literary opus a quasi-apostolic authority.

But there is another, better hypothesis than this, which seems to me barely credible: namely, that he himself desired to make an act of humility; he did not want to glorify his own name; he did not want to build a monument to himself with his work but rather truly to serve the gospel, to create an ecclesial theology, neither individual nor based on himself. Actually, he succeeded in elaborating a theology which, of course, we can date to the sixth century but cannot attribute to any of the figures of that period: it is a somewhat “de-individualized” theology, that is, a theology that expresses a common thought and language.

It was a period of fierce polemics following the Council of Chalcedon; indeed, he said in his Seventh Epistle: “I do not wish to spark polemics; simply speak of the truth; I seek the truth.” And the light of truth by itself causes errors to fall away and makes what is good shine forth. And with it this principle, he purified Greek thought and related it to the gospel. This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, is also the expression (if a true spirit of dialogue: it is not about seeking the things that separate but seeking the truth in Truth itself. This then radiates and causes errors to fade away.

Therefore, although this author’s theology is, so to speak, “supra-personal,” truly ecclesial, we can place it in the sixth century. Why? The Greek spirit, which he placed at the service of the gospel, he encountered in the books of Proclus, who died in Athens in 485. Proclus belonged to late Platonism, a current of thought that had transformed Plato’s philosophy into a sort of religion, whose ultimate purpose was to create a great apologetic for Greek polytheism and return, following Christianity’s success, to the ancient Greek religion. He wanted to demonstrate that in reality, the divinities were the active forces in the cosmos.

The consequence to be drawn from this was that polytheism must be considered truer than monotheism, with its single Creator God. What Proclus was demonstrating was a great cosmic system of divinity, of mysterious forces, through which, in this deified cosmos, one could find access to the divinity. However, he made a distinction between paths for the simple, who were incapable of rising to the heights of truth — certain rites could suffice for them — and paths for the wise, who were to purify themselves to arrive at the pure light.

As can be seen, this thought is profoundly anti-Christian. It is a late reaction to the triumph of Christianity, an anti-Christian use of Plato, whereas a Christian interpretation of the great philosopher was already in course. It is interesting that this Pseudo-Dionysius dared to avail himself of this very thought to demonstrate the truth of Christ; to transform this polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God, into the harmony of God’s cosmos, where every force is praise of God, and to show this great harmony, this symphony of the cosmos that goes from the seraphim to the angels and archangels, to humans and to all the creatures which, together, reflect God’s beauty and are praise of God. He thus transformed the polytheistic image into a praise of the Creator and his creature.

In this way, we can discover the essential characteristics of his thought: first and foremost, it is cosmic praise. All creation speaks of God and in praise of God. Since the creature is praise of God, Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology became a liturgical theology: God is found above all in praising him, not only in reflection; and the liturgy is not something made by us, something invented in order to have a religious experience for a certain period of time; it is singing with the choir of creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself.

And in this very way, the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes expansive and great; it becomes our union with the language of all creatures. He says: God cannot be spoken of in abstract way; speaking of God is always, he says using a Greek word, a hymnein, singing for God with the great hymn of the creatures, which reflected and made concrete in liturgical praise. Yet, although his thelogy is cosmic, ecclesial, and liturgical, it is also profoundly personal. He created the first great mystical theology. Indeed, with him the word “mystic” acquires a new meaning. Until then for Christians such a word was equivalent to the word “sacramental,” that is, what pertains to the mysterion, to the sacrament. With him the word mystic becomes more personal, more intimate: it expresses the soul’s journey toward God.

And how can God be found? Here we note once again an important element in his dialogue between Greek philosophy and Christianity, and in particular biblical faith. Apparently what Plato says and what the great philosophy on God says is far loftier, far truer; the Bible appears somewhat “barbaric,” simple or pre-critical one might say today; but he remarks that precisely this is necessary, so that in this way we can understand that the loftiest concepts on God never reach his true grandeur: they always fall short of it. In fact, these images enable us to understand that God is above every concept; in the simplicity of the images, we find more truth than in great concepts.

The face of God is our inability to express truly what he is. In this way, one speaks, and Pseudo-Dionysius himself speaks, of a “negative theology.” It is easier for us to say what God is not rather than to say what he truly is. Only through these images can we intuit his true face; moreover, this face of God is very concrete: it is Jesus Christ.

Although Dionysius shows us, following Proclus, the harmony of the heavenly choirs in such a way that it seems that they all depend on one another, it is true that on our journey toward God we are still very far from him. Pseudo-Dionysius shows that in the end the journey to God is God himself, who makes himself close to us in Jesus Christ. Thus, a great and mysterious theology also becomes very concrete, both in the interpretation of the liturgy and in the discourse on Jesus Christ: with all this, Dionysius the Areopagite exerted a strong influence on all medieval theology and on all mystical theology, both in the East and in the West.

He was virtually rediscovered in the thirteenth century, especially by St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who in this mystical theology found the conceptual instrument for reinterpreting the heritage, so simple and profound, of St. Francis. Together with Dionysius, the “Poverello” tells us that in the end love sees more than reason. Where the light of love shines, the shadows of reason are dispelled; love sees, love is all eye, and experience gives us more than reflection. Bonaventure saw in St. Francis what this experience is: it is the experience of a very humble, very realistic journey, day by day; it is walking with Christ, accepting his cross. In this poverty and in this humility, in the humility that is also lived in ecclesiality, is an experience of God that is loftier than that attained by reflection. In it we really touch God’s heart.

Today Dionysius the Areopagite has a new relevance: he appears as a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, whose characteristic feature is the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that only indirect things can be said about him; that God can only be spoken of with the “not,” and that it is only possible to reach him by entering into this indirect experience of “not.” And here a similarity can be seen between the thought of the Areopagite and that of Asian religions; he can be a mediator today as he was between the Greek spirit and the gospel.

In this context, it can be seen that dialogue does not accept superficiality. It is precisely when one enters into the depths of the encounter with Christ that an ample space for dialogue also opens. When one encounters the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for everyone; polemics disappear, and it is possible to understand one another, or at least to speak to one another, to come closer.

The path of dialogue consists precisely in being close to God in Christ, in a deep encounter with him, in the experience of the truth which opens us to the light and helps us reach out to others with the light of truth, the light of love. And in the end, he tells us: take the path of experience, the humble experience of faith, every day. Then the heart is enlarged and can see and also illumine reason so that it perceives God’s beauty. Let us pray to the Lord to help us today too to place the wisdom of our day at the service of the gospel, discovering ever anew the beauty of faith, the encounter with God in Christ.


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