Category Archives: Monks and Monasticism

10 books, no. 3: The Philokalia

My third of ten books (sorry I fell behind on this) was The Philokalia, vol. 1:

The Philokalia is a five-volume anthology of Greek-language (plus a Greek translation of bits of John Cassian) ascetic/mystical texts focussed on the art of prayer, the prayer of the heart, pure prayer — viz., the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It was compiled in 1782 by Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (that is, Athos) and Makarios of Corinth, drawn from a selection of Athonite manuscripts of Greek-language spiritual masters that were themselves what the compilers thought of as “paterika” — anthologies of the “fathers”. In the Orthodox world, the “fathers” do not end in 749 with the death of John of Damascus (as in western assessments of “patristics”) but potentially extend until today. The “fathers” selected here run from the fourth through fourteenth century.

I call these “Greek-language” texts because simply saying “Greek” will give the wrong idea to a modern reader — the monks herein are from Egypt, Mt Sinai, Judaea-Palestine, and Syria as well as from the “Greek” Mount Athos. They do not provide a vision of the entire Christian life or all of Orthodox spirituality, but simply an approach to pure prayer and the union of the mind with the heart, focussing largely on the Jesus Prayer, as noted above.

A shorter anthology emerged around the same time, and it may not be a shortened Philokalia, according to recent research, but actually an independent text based on the same or similar manuscripts. It is often called the shorter or little Russian Philokalia, and it is the book in the popular anonymous novel The Way of a Pilgrim. Along with the Russian translation of Isaac the Syrian, it was influential on the Optina Fathers and nineteenth-century Russian spiritual masters such as Theophan the Recluse.

Volume 1 is all that I’ve read of The Philokalia. It is entirely ancient, mostly fourth- and fifth-century authors, going possibly up to the later seventh. Not all of the authors are securely dated. It includes: Isaiah the Solitary; Evagrius Ponticus; John Cassian; Mark the Ascetic (or the Monk); Hesychios the Priest; Nilos of Ancyra; Diadochos of Photiki; John of Karpathos, and a pseudonymous text of Antony the Great.

In the first volume, the prayer of the heart and the conditions for it are charted to the emergence of the name of Jesus and the Jesus Prayer in the fifth century. It is a powerful, challenging book of a more than historical interest.

Finally, this translation is a version of The Philokalia in the spirit of Nikodimos and Makarios rather than a translation of The Philokalia as printed in Venice in 1782. The translators translate the same selections from the authors, but they reattribute them where we know better who wrote a text, and they translate them from modern critical editions. Moreover, they also produce their own general introduction to the volume besides introductions to each author and an invaluable glossary at the back.

If you are interested in Eastern Orthodox spirituality or a certain tradition of the ancient Desert, this book is a difficult but worthy place to begin.

Was Late Antiquity an age of spirituality?

Before I launch into this post, I’d like to make it clear that I greatly admire the work of Kurt Weitzmann and have enormously profited from the book Age of Spirituality, which the Metropolitan Museum Art has available as a free download. Now, onto the show.

Sometimes, when I read titles of articles and books about Late Antiquity, and sometimes even the content, I get the impression that there are people out there who imagine Late Antiquity to have been uniquely religious, or particularly “spiritual” — that there was a spiritual ferment in the years 284-641 (or earlier, if you take on the timeline of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity).

I am not sure that this is true. (And I hope I’m not constructing a strawman. Hopefully my academic colleagues are aware of this. It’s mostly just an impression.)

When I say that, I am not saying that Late Antiquity is not an age of spirituality. I mean that the designation is misleading. When we talk about this as an age of spirituality, there is an unspoken assumption that “classical antiquity” was not. Allow me to articulate, first, why we might think this, and second, why I think “classical antiquity” was as “spiritual” as Late Antiquity.

Why might we think that Late Antiquity was more spiritual?

The nature of the evidence for religious activity in Late Antiquity leads us to think this way, I believe. One of main cultural events of Late Antiquity was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, and hot on its heels came the rise of Islam. Cultural historians have to deal with these two facts, and, since Islam and Christianity are both still lived religions, the evidence for each in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is still available.

I know Christianity a lot better than Islam, and its history in the period is better documented, anyway. Two things about evidence for late antique Christianity give it an edge over other ancient religious traditions. First, it neither went underground nor ceased existing. The traditional Roman priesthoods all died out in Late Antiquity. No more sacrifices were made. No new hymns were written. The monuments were no longer maintained. Christianity, on the other hand, kept going.

Second, in the Early Middle Ages, the gatekeepers of knowledge were monks. Now, as anyone who has read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, knows, monks loved them some Virgil and Ovid. They read and copied the “pagan classics.” But, by and large, given the expense involved in making a book, they read and copied Bibles, liturgical books, ascetic/mystical treatises, and the Church Fathers. As a result, we simply have more knowledge about the religious experience of Late Antiquity because people were copying it down.

Related to this is the fact that, although many things about Late Antiquity are foreign to us (very few people have any desire to live on a pillar in the Syrian desert, for example), because of Christianisation, the spiritual texts of Late Antiquity seem familiar to us. Their religious experience looks like what we expect religious experience to look like because, even if fewer and fewer of us in western academia are professing Christians, we frame our religious language and experience in these same terms — or in an explicit rejection of them.

Ancient pagans, on the other hand, don’t fare nearly as well. Most surviving ancient Latin texts are Late Antique in the first place. More Augustine survives than any other ancient Latin author. I believe St Jerome comes in second place. Late Antique Latin texts dwarf their classical predecessors for quantity. As a result, even if pagan religious experience were not foreign, we simply have less of it to deal with.

Another reason, however, has to do with our own prejudices, Christian on one hand and Enlightenment on the other. Neither position does justice to non-Christian religious experience in antiquity. The Christian prejudice, for example, explains the relatively rapid Christianisation in Late Antiquity because paganism was empty and dead, just a bunch of formal rituals and such. Now, not only is this untrue of late antique paganism (consider the Neo-Platonist experience), it is untrue of classical religion as well.

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, discounts the religious element of classical antiquity. My first-year philosophy professor completely disregarded the religious elements of Plato, downplaying them as having any real bearing upon his philosophy. We like talking about people who challenged traditional religion without acknowledging that perhaps they have their own distinct religious experience from which their challenge arises. Instead, we imagine the Greeks and Romans as a bunch of Enlightenment rationalists (E R Dodds has put this to rest in The Greeks and the Irrational).

It is my contention — and it certainly needs more research to be proven and publishable in an academic forum — that classical antiquity, and archaic antiquity, had its own meaningful, distinct religious experience. It was every bit as spiritual as Late Antiquity.

Post-Script

Another angle is: What about unspirituality in Late Antiquity? What do we say of authors who seem largely secular such as Ammianus? Or Christians like Sidonius who write verse populated by pagan deities?

Bodies beyond sex

I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.

Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.

I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)

Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)

At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:

  1. On eating
  2. On drinking
  3. On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
  4. How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
  5. On Laughter
  6. On Filthy Speaking
  7. Directions for Those Who Live Together
  8. On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
  9. On Sleep
  10. On the procreation of children
  11. On clothes
  12. On shoes
  13. Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments

These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.

The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.

If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.

Bibliography

Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).

Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and SocietyJournal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.

Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.

Oh, those Dark Ages again

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

I was out for coffee with a friend on Tuesday, and he mentioned that he’d read somewhere that the ‘Dark Ages’ were a creation of the Enlightenment. I can’t speak to the history of that term exactly, although ‘Middle Ages’ is a term created by the Renaissance. The question does arise as to the aptness or truth of such a name.

First, we have to say that it is by no means apt for the entire Middle Ages. If it is ever useful, it cannot be seen as holding meaning for the period of the later eleventh century and beyond. I find it hard to place Lanfranc and Anselm in a ‘dark age’, let alone Durham Cathedral. The twelve-century Renaissance, with its flowering of Latin poetry, developments in visual arts, the birth of Gothic architecture, the rise and organisation of the universities, the great Cistercian spiritual masters, the early scholastics.

So the Dark Ages must be before that, if they exist.

If any age is ‘dark’, the argument will have to be made about the decline in material comfort and cultural production attendant upon the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Long-distance Mediterranean trade ceased. Cattle got smaller. Pottery got worse. Western European cities grew smaller, as well. Fewer people were literate. There was a lot of small-scale, continual warfare in many places. If — I repeat the conjunction, if — we are looking for the Dark Ages, they will be here.

As soon as I say that, though, I don’t like it. What of Boethius, Venantius Fortunatus, Maximus the Confessor, and Bede for pity’s sake? What of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels? What of the early mediaeval churches still standing in various Italian cities? What of Sutton Hoo?

And what about the Carolingians? Sure, their cultural programme may not have reached as far or long as desired, but lay literacy seems to have increased, along with manuscript production and other artistic goods associated with the Carolingian Renaissance?

Of course, the Carolingians coincide with Viking raids from the North and Saracen (Arab?) raids from the South for western Europe. But even then, political instability and death by the sword are a mainstay for most of European history. The ninth century is a wonderful example of bleakness alongside vitality. Vikings raid Lindisfarne in 793. Alfred commissions the Old English translation of Boethius several decades later.

The realities of history as we know them, and even as they were experienced, should make us eschew such terms as ‘Dark Ages’, because as soon as we have enough knowledge to give life nuance, things aren’t always as dark and bleak as we thought, even if we have to admit that they were sometimes pretty bad.

The Interesting Times of Leo the Great’s pre-episcopal career

I wrote the following as I revise my Ph.D. dissertation into a book, but I have decided to excise it as extraneous. Nonetheless, I think it is material of interest, especially to the general reader (such as I assume reads this blog?), so I hope you enjoy it. This was a first draft, sort of stream-of-consciousness, and therefore It is a bit rough, and many more writers and events could have been added, but since I am cutting it out of the book, I’ve not taken the effort.

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The years of Leo’s life before his accession to the Roman episcopate saw the ongoing dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire as well as intermittent civil war between the empire’s generals. The Vandals had been in Spain since around 410, and when they were driven out, they crossed to Africa. From 429 to 439, they conquered Roman North Africa, taking Carthage in the final year and defeating various Roman armies on the way. In 440, the Vandals raided Sicily. They had been driven out of Spain by Visigoths and Suevi, working in alliance with the Romans. Both of these groups began taking control of Spain, the Visigoths also taking power in southern Gaul. In 436, the Visigoths besieged Narbo but did not take the city. In 439, the Suevi, in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain, expanded their power base, coming to control most of Spain by 441. In 446 was the last Roman campaign in Spain, now divided by Visigoths and Suevi. In Gaul, besides the land being appropriated by Visigoths, a group called the bagaudae rebelled in Armorica in 435. Saxon pirates raided the northern coast of Gaul. Britain was already lost for all intents and purposes by 410. Besides these losses and engagements with non-Roman military groups, western generals were themselves frequently at odds during the reign of Valentinian III. Valentinian’s reign itself began as an eastern campaign to supplant the usurper John.

This image of a troubled early fifth-century West in decline is a persistent one that is not untrue. To demonstrate the social impact of the economic and political hardship of the western Empire in these decades, the work of Salvian of Marseilles, written in the early years of Leo’s pontificate has frequently proven useful, discussing the oppression of the weak and poor by the rich and powerful. Some of Salvian’s observations can be borne out by the letters of Leo the Great, in fact. Alongside this, aristocratic culture in Gaul, Italy, and Spain continued despite the worsening political climate. Gaul is particularly rich in sources for this ongoing aristocratic culture of living in villas, writing letters to familiares; this life is portrayed in the Eucharisticon of Paulinus of Pella. The latter half of the century will see some notable collections of letters, especially that of Sidonius Apollinaris, but also Ruricius of Limoges and others. Therefore, when we want to consider the state of the Roman Empire in the age of Leo, we need to consider not only the important disaster narrative and sources such as Salvian, but also the works of the more comfortable classes, such as Paulinus and Sidonius. Neglecting either will create a distortion. Somehow, both must be kept in mind.

Salvian is not the only ecclesiastical writer in Latin of the first half of the century, and social, economic, and political crisis does not always equal cultural stagnation. Restricting ourselves to the reign of Valentinian III, we cannot miss the fact that the giant of ancient Latin Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, died in 430. In 426 he published his masterpiece De Civitate Dei contra paganos and added material to De Doctrina Christiana and De Trinitate—these three works comprise a sort of Augustinian trilogy. Augustine is not the only Latin Christian writer active in the first decade and a half of Valentinian’s reign. Before leaving Africa, the two immediately pre-Vandal bishops of Carthage, Aurelius and Quodvultdeus, should not be overlooked. Aurelius had been a main figure in the Pelagian Controversy and died around the same time as Augustine; various of his letters survive. Quodvultdeus was a more active writer, producing a particularly fine commentary on the creed. Quodvultdeus was deported by the Vandals in 439 and died in Italy.

In Gaul, the early years of Valentinian’s reign saw two major figures in early Latin monasticism, John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins. Both of them had some relationship against Nestorianism and thus with the story of Leo and theology. But they were both more focussed on the internal, spiritual life. Cassian’s work, for example, is an adaptation for a Latin audience of the spiritual theology of Evagrius of Pontus. Gaul at this period, in religious terms, is most famous for asceticism on the one hand and the predestinarian debate on the other. These two movements within Christian thought are related, for the question cannot escape the person dedicated to a life of askesis, discipline, whether that discipline is what saves him or her, and whether that discipline is itself a product of grace or the ascetic’s own will. To what degree, that is, are we responsible for our own morality and discipline, and to what degree is it the work of God? John Cassian, in Conf. 13, came down somewhere in the middle, seeking—perhaps unsuccessfully—to argue something that allows for both. Prosper of Aquitaine was also active in the predestinarian debate in Gaul as well as being a lay promoter of asceticism himself. Another notable Gallic writer whose career overlap with Leo’s pre-episcopal career include Faustus of Riez (abbot of Lérins, 433-459, bishop of Riez 459-495), who was yet another ascetic involved in the predestinarian debate.

Italy was not unproductive, either. Peter Chrysologus was bishop of Ravenna from 433 to 450. He has left a significant corpus of sermons, and his name alone tells us the esteem he held as a rhetorician, a conscious adaptation of the famous Antiochene preacher, John Chrysostom, who was always well regarded in the Latin West.

Leo’s predecessors in the Roman see dealt with Pelagianism and Nestorianism, both of which figure in Leo’s correspondence. The Pelagian controversy had involved Innocent I and Zosimus, and Celestine I (422-32) obtained a condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Celestine’s involvement in the Nestorian controversy has recently been argued to have been more independent than previously thought. The standard narrative most of us know is that Cyril began his anti-Nestorian campaign and enlisted Celestine to join him. Celestine supported Cyril at Ephesus and obtained an ecumenical council’s condemnation of Pelagianism in turn. However, George Bevan has recently demonstrated, through a close analysis of the documents associated with the Nestorian controversy, that early in 430, Celestine had already called a local Roman synod and condemned Nestorius before Cyril contacted him. Why was Celestine anti-Nestorian? There is a possibility that it was simply a matter of the dossier being sent to him being quite condemnatory, providing all of the scandalising statements that make Nestorius seem to teach that Christ is two persons. It is also possible that Nestorius was perceived as being himself tainted by Pelagianism. Not only is this a connection that John Cassian makes in De Incarnatione contra Nestorium, but Nestorius’ friendliness with Theodore of Mopsuestia was known in Rome, and Theodore was himself tainted by Pelagianism because of his own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius years previously. When both factors are taken into play, it comes as no surprise that Celestine acted independently of Cyril. It also turns him into an agent in Mediterranean geo-ecclesiology and not a passive observer and responder to the agency of others.

Xystus III (432-440) was Leo’s immediate predecessor. He witnessed the ongoing progress of the Nestorian debate after Ephesus, and letters he sent to Cyril and other eastern bishops after the reunion of Cyril with John of Antioch in 433 show us that the bishop of Rome was still taking an interest in these faraway events. Moreover, his rededication of the Liberian Basilica as Santa Maria Maggiore in a prominent location on the Esquiline Hill also demonstrates his commitment to anti-Nestorian, Ephesine Christology, for the rallying cry of anti-Nestorian polemic was the term Theotokos, God-bearer, usually Latinised as genetrix dei.

This is the context when, in 440, Xystus III died while Leo was on a diplomatic mission to Gaul to reconcile the general Aëtius and Albinus, Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls.

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

My latest post at the Durham Priory Recreated Project blog is about the various different Late Antique texts found in the priory library. In many ways, medieval Christianity is just a 1000-year reception of ancient Christianity. Enjoy!

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

Patristic homilies for a medieval Christmas

My latest post on the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog looks at Durham Cathedral Library B.II.2, a copy of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary of patristic sermons arranged by feast:

Christmas in the Codices

Anselm’s human face

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

In his Life of St Anselm, Eadmer tells of a time when they were staying in a church in Italy, outside of which was a cistern with a hole in the top:

One night, when we were sleeping in this church, Anselm happened to get up with a gentle step, as his manner was, lest he should disturb us. But when he had got outside, he forgot the hole, and, making his way towards it in the darkness, he fell in, crying with a loud voice as he fell, ‘Holy Mary.’ At this noise, we and our companions who were sleeping in the tents, leaped up from our beds in a panic and ran to him. When we saw him at the bottom, we were almost beside ourselves with fear and anguish of spirit. Seeing this, he at once raised his head and with a courteous air and cheerful look told us that he had come to no harm. Some of us therefore climbed down on the side opposite to the sheer drop where there was a way of descent, and brought him out of the place altogether safe and sound. -Book 1.32, Trans. R. W. Southern p. 110

It’s the cry, ‘Sancta Maria!’ that gets me.

Everything a monk needs: My latest post on the Durham Priory Project blog

I have just posted a wee discussion of the book donation list of William of St Calais and how it includes precisely the sort of books monks need to live by the Rule of St Benedict. It’s linked below. Enjoy!

The Book Donation List Of William Of St Calais: Everything A Monk Needs?