Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale

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“The Assumption of Mary” Sano di Pietro (c. 1448-1452)

Holy is God Who has compassion on account of the Theotokos.  We give Thee thanks, O Son of God, that from eternity we did not see the light, and today through the Theotokos we have seen the light: and again they shouted with one voice, saying:  Hail, Theotokos, full-of-grace!  Hail, lamp of the inaccessible light!

Apocalypsis Mariae Virginae 23:1

The story of how Mary died, just like the story of how she was born, is not in the Bible. Christians generally rely on apocryphal legends for details about these things. The feast of Mary’s Dormition or “falling asleep” is a latecomer to Church history and Christians apparently did not really celebrate it until the 5th or 6th century. Like much of its dabbling in the apocrypha, the Church does not really admit which of many apocryphal sources ultimately influenced its liturgical commemorations, but we know that many of the traditions surrounding Mary’s death come from Jerusalem, although there are different local traditions. We also know that the Orthodox Church long credited Dionysius the Areopagite and Ignatius of Antioch with transmitting the tradition. 

Stephen Shoemaker, a professor from the University of Oregon who specializes in the study of early Christianity and particularly the role of Mary, once made available a number of these traditions in translation on his website which was linked through Wikipedia. However, he has updated since those translations have become a book, so I spent a lot of time yesterday, fruitlessly searching the internet for them. I may one day buy the expensive book, but in the mean time, while searching some classic (and free) sources, I found something even more interesting and surely unknown to many. Looking through volume 9 of the famed Ante Nicene Fathers collection I happened upon the “Apocalypse of the Virgin” translated by Andrew Rutherford from the text of M. R. James in Texts and Studies, ii., 3, (1893) from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

During these days of the Dormition Fast (Aug 1-14), it is customary to pray in alteration two supplicatory canons, or intercessory hymns to the Virgin Mary. These hymns are called the great and small Παρακλητικος κανων. Paraklētikos is an adjective coming from the word Παρακλητος or Paraklēte (“counselor” or “advocate”) which is usually an appellation of the Holy Spirit but is also applied to Christ (cf 1 Jn 2:1). These hymns of paraklēsis or fervent supplication are addressed to the Virgin Mary. Although I do not think she is usually called a Paraklēte, the Coptic Church does call Mary the Προστατης prostátēs which means “one who stands before.” (In case you are wondering: yes, that is where the English word “prostate” comes from). In Ezekiel 22:30 where Israel is likened to a furnace, God says “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.” Orthodox Christians who call the Mother of God “faithful advocate of the human race” believe that she is one of the pre-eminent ones who “stands in the gap” for us, as the Apocalypse of Mary will show. Continue reading Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale

The 3D-printed Coptic Prosphora Stamp Project

I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not Coptic. I’m not even Orthodox. I’m a salty misotheistic graduate student who teeter-totters on the verge of Christianity and unbelief. But I also have an obsession with the Christian mythos and logos. I look upon the vast treasures of the Christian past and see the potential to revitalize the sick and withering religion of the West. Like so many Christians (and Muslims, and Jews), I have come to face east if and when I pray.

I last blogged about my experiences with making prosphora (Greek: offering), the bread used by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians in their Eucharists on my other blog, here, here, here, and here. At the time, Fr. George Aquaro of prosphora.org ran a website and sold rare prosophora seals which he hand made in an amazing way. A couple years ago I bought one of his Coptic stamps and  had limited success with trying to bake hamal, or Coptic prosphora. At the time, noticed that Fr. George’s design could probably be improved (above all by being made bigger), but realized that it would be difficult to recast the mold he probably was using. (Plus – I’m not a priest, I know nothing of canonical breads, I’m just a grad student etc, etc, etc).

But I never did give up on the idea of improving the Coptic bread seal, not least because they are extremely rare in the United States (in that you can hardly find them online, let alone for sale). So a thought occurred to me as a godless millennial youth – why couldn’t you just 3D print one of these stamp things? You could make it however  you wanted. You wouldn’t have to carve any wood or pour any boiling resin into earthen molds etc. Why not? Indeed, why not?

I had been so preoccupied with my graduate studies, spiritual loneliness and calamity, I finally needed a break. When I returned home from school for vacation, my brother had bought a small 3D printer, and all my lust for the Christian past rushed to the forefront. I quickly set about designing a stamp image with the GIMP which you can see below.

Coptic Prosphora Seal Demo 2
A prototype seal – admittedly incomplete

I just wanted to see if it would work. I’m no artist. I just found a suitable Coptic cross resembling that on Fr. George’s seal (a cross crosslet) from Open Clipart and found a Coptic font for the lettering. My brother designed a simple cylindrical stamp prototype. We just wanted to see if it would work – i.e. if it would make any impression at all on a lump of bread dough. Below are some pictures of the process.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (2)
The first layers of the stamp (you can see the cutout crosses) being printed
Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (3)
More development as the layers continues
Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (4)
The final layers being added to the top

The final product is somewhat stunning for me – not because it is so great but because I know now that I was right and that something as strange as a prosphora seal could be 3D printed.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (9)
One immediate error to notice is that the lettering should be “backward.”

The stamp we printed is incredibly primitive – no handle, etc. But it just so happens to be the same size as Fr. George’s stamp.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (5)
The “original” prosphora.org stamp next to mine for size comparison
Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (10)
The two stamps side by side for comparison. Clearly, mine has a ways to go.

Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (6)

So anyway, does it work? Well, almost. I whipped up a batch of prosphora dough this morning (once again, I don’t know what I’m doing: I used a Greek recipe for a Coptic stamp, so sue me). One thing is obvious – the crosses are a lot more distinct. I can make them as big as I want. But the lettering needs to be a lot bigger so that it comes out, and it needs to fact the right direction – both of which should be easy to achieve on the next attempt.

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Some dough stamped with my seal
Coptic Prosphora project 7-11-17 (8)
A finished loaf. The letters barely came out at all. The crosses got kinda scrunched

As you will see from the pictures – not a miracle. But proof enough that the concept will work. All it needs is a bit more design and editing and I see no reason why Coptic bread stamps could not be made bigger, more elaborate, and extremely cheaply, using food-safe plastic.

Unfortunately, Fr. George no longer runs his shop. I suspect that means that a lot of eastern Christians for whom his project might have been the only access to their rare liturgical bread stamps in the West will suffer (even if that only means continuing to make use of their limited perhaps unique stamps). That’s unfortunate, but understandable. The clergy of Orthodoxy cannot be the only guardians or producers of the tradition. For this, other, awkward, even liminally unbelieving laypeople, with strange interests and questionable computer skills, need to contribute. I want to contribute, although I have no requirement to. I stand to gain no props, nor accolades. Not even the sacrament itself. But I simply noticed that there was a need, and it irritated me that it seemed so hard to fill.

The purpose of this blog post is to simply let the Orthodox, particularly the overlooked and under- and poorly-represented Oriental Orthodox, world, know that my previous idea from years ago – that one can successfully 3D print liturgical bread seals, is possible and potentially fruitful way to make them accessible in the West (who knows, maybe even the East). I intend to perfect the design of the stamp until it is an acceptable and usable stamp. I intend to release the design. And I also intend to make the printed stamps available if need be.

Therefore, for whatever it is worth, I am completely open to ideas, suggestions, corrections, and, perhaps most importantly of all, prayers.

Trapped in Translation

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Fresco of St. Basil in Ohrid

Βλέπε γὰρ ὅτι ἐν μέσῳ παγίδων διαβαίνεις καὶ ἐπάνω τείχους ὑψηλοῦ περιπατεῖς ὅθεν οὐκ ἀκίνδυνον τῷ καταπεσόντι τὸ πτῶμα.

For see that you are passing through the midst of a trap and are treading on top of a high wall from whence the fall is perilous to the faller.

– Basil, Letter 42, to Chilo

I’ve mentioned that I regularly start and then fail to finish John Anthony McGuckin’s Book of Mystical Chapters. When last I tried reading it, I would hunt down the passages for each day from the original sources and write them in my own journal. The Book of Mystical Chapters is not the first patristic “devoltion” I have attempted however. I have also tried (and failed to keep up with) a couple other devotional style books with patristic themes.

For one thing I’ve tried Mike Aquilina’s A Year with the Church Fathers (2012). In this attractively bound (imitation leather) devotional (stamped with an out of place medal of St. Benedict), Aquilina excerpts writings from the Church Fathers complete with a themed title, summary of the reading, things to consider, and a prayer at the end. I will say that actually, aside from the fact that I’m being forced to read short excerpts from patristic works I have not gotten around to reading, I am actually not very impressed with Aquilina’s book. I get the idea. Daily devotionals have been all the rage since – forever. And it is only all too important that, as long as we’re buying into the devotional industry, that we have representation from the early church. Another book I have had for somewhat longer (and STILL never finished completely) is called Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers (Hendrickson, 1999). I don’t even think this book is in print anymore! But I actually like this book more than Aquilina’s book for a couple reasons. 1) because as a Catholic, Aquilina’s book is sometimes a little pushy and assumes a Roman Catholic readership (whereas in fact lay Catholics in my experience are no better off than Protestants regarding patristic knowledge). 2) Day by Day With the Early Church Fathers, edited by J. Alan Sharrer, Christopher D. Hudson, and Lindsay Vanker, although ostensibly Protestant, manages to quote often quite a bit more patristic material per devotion than Aquinila’s and without Aquinila’s sometimes pedantic reflections.

As a side note, what is interesting about both books is that they are actually both drawn from the exact same sources! Both books are excerpted (and heavily edited) from the Ante- and Post- Nicene Early Christian Father’s Series. The entire collection is in the Public Domain and available for free from Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Most frequently, my citations of patristic writings come from that source.

I have made my (begrudging) peace with the fact that for the most part, we moderns are at the mercy of translators. I can (somewhat judgementally) understand why the Protestant editors of Day by Day would only be able to except a larger translation and try to edit the text for “readability.” This book was published in 1999, and while there has been quality scholarly translation work being done in patristics since the 19th century, I understand that this book was somewhat before the unexpected boom in Orthodox publishing about 10ish years later.

What is more surprising is that Mike Aquilina, a Roman Catholic and (to quote the “About the Author” section in the book) “author of more than 20 books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion, executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, having appeared on numerous shows on EWTN,” did exactly the same thing. You’d think that someone who wrote books called The Way of the Fathers, The Mass of the Early Christians, and Praying the Psalms with the Early Christians, would be somewhat more reticent about editing patristic works for lay people. According to Aquilina,

The meditations are taken from classic translations of the Fathers. I’ve modernized the language to make it more readable, referring back to the original languages when necessary. Because rhetorical styles have changed radically over the centuries, sometimes I’ve reduced very long complex sentences to two or more simple sentences. Likewise, some passages have been carefully abridged due to space limitations, but in no instance have words been added or changed. (pg xiv “How to Use this Book)

This is the kind of bullshit I’m talking about. The “classic translations” he’s referring to are from between 1867 and 1873 (Ante-Nicene Fathers) and 1886 and 1900 (Post-Nicene Fathers). Even the Wikipedia page has in it’s entry for the collection “translations are very faithful, but sometimes rather old-fashioned.” What is so old-fashioned about modern English?

I’m somewhat astounded that while high school students (even in Texas) are made to read Shakespeare which is now officially 400 years old, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant apparently, find 100 year old books incomprehensible enough to require severe editing for “readability.” On top of that, in a generation in which the King James Version of the Bible is still a best seller and there are still even some people who advocate a “King James Only” approach to biblical reading, that perhaps these same (or at least similar people) would need their Church Fathers “updated.” Ironically, in the margins of Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers, there are Bible verses from the KJV. Apparently the 400 year-old KJV doesn’t need updating, but the 100 year old translations of the Church Fathers do!

Anyway, I think it’s interesting that fundamentally opposed worldviews, the Catholic who is nominally bound to the words of the Fathers by dogma, and the Protestant who is somewhat pruriently perusing the Church Fathers for fun, have the same fundamental attitude toward the fathers, “Whoa! These old dead guys are really hard to read, isn’t there an ‘NIV’ version of them?” None of this addresses the actual problem. There are plenty of people who are ready to peddle their own ever-so-slightly but never-really-changed-so-as-to-preserve-purity version of the Church Fathers. There are even plenty of people willing to make devotionals of the Church Fathers’ writings. Where there are not so many willing participants is in translation work itself. Rather than recycle the Ante- and Post- Nicene Fathers Series, why not REDO it? Why not rather than update it, RETRANSLATE it? Or better yet, why not teach people Greek and instead of publishing “updated” English versions every couple of years as interest in the Fathers waxes and wanes, why not publish a large assortment of AFFORDABLE NON-ACADEMIC editions of ORIGINAL TEXTS? (Like a Loeb Classical Library of Patristics)?

You can buy an English translation of Athanasius’ De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) for under $5. But if you want an original text your best option is St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Greek/English text for $20.98. But De Incarnatione wasn’t supposed to stand alone. It is the second half of Contra Gentes, and you can’t even find a (recent) English translation of that. Your best bet (for both the Greek and English text) is Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione (Oxford Early Christian Texts) which is no longer in print and goes for at least $100 on Amazon! WTF?

Why would it be so hard to put together affordable editions of Patristic texts when literally ALL of Migne’s Patrologia Graeca and Latina are on Google Books, in the Public Domain, and easily accessible through Patristica.net often including searchable digitized PDFs? In the era of CreateSpace, why are so few actually trying to publish Creative Commins/GPL patristic texts? For the real problem is that the “classic” translations were often made by anti-Catholic protestants in England and America, but they are the only public domain and affordable translations available. In the case of texts like Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, they are the ONLY full translation. And even though there often are modern translations and critical editions of original texts (since Migne is often a bitch to read and navigate) these editions are prohibitively expensive.

Why? Well because the thankless business of Patristic scholarship is directed by, to, and for an extremely narrow audience, mainly at Louvaine and Oxford and therefore demand is not high, meaning supply is low, meaning prices rise. But shouldn’t this change? Shouldn’t we want this to change? It can totally change! But before I got sidetracked, I read from Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers. The entry was titled “End Well.” One sentence really stood out to me which the edited version in the book has as:

For you are passing through the midst of traps. You are walking on top of a high wall where a fell is much more dangerous. Therefore, don’t try to be extremely disciplined right away. Above everything beware of your own confidence, lest you fall from a height of discipline because of lack of training. (pg 6)

The citation from the back of the book (at least they cited their sources) has that this is from Basil’s Letter 42. I was prepared to go hunting through Migne’s columns, but luckily, Patristica.net has all Basil’s letters in OCR’d PDF already, so I just went there instead. I found the quote above:

Βλέπε γὰρ ὅτι ἐν μέσῳ παγίδων διαβαίνεις καὶ ἐπάνω τείχους ὑψηλοῦ περιπατεῖς ὅθεν οὐκ ἀκίνδυνον τῷ καταπεσόντι τὸ πτῶμα. Μὴ οὖν εὐθέως εἰς ἀκρότητα ἀσκήσεως ἐκτείνῃς σεαυτόν· μάλιστα μηδὲ θαρρήσῃς σεαυτῷ, ἵνα μὴ ἐξ ἀπειρίας ἀφ’ ὕψους τῆς ἀσκήσεως πέσῃς.

The translation in Post-Nicene Fathers is:

For, behold, you are passing through the midst of snares; you are treading on the top of a high wall whence a fall is perilous to the faller; wherefore do not straightway attempt extreme discipline; above all things beware of confidence in yourself, lest you fall from a height of discipline through want of training.

I really like the imagery here: You are walking into a trap. You are walking on a precipice. Let’s “update” the language here, using my barbarian grasp of Greek, for as you probably can see even the “classic” translation is in some deep sense flawed. This letter was written to Chilo, the disciple of Basil, who was asking Basil for advice on entering the monastic life. Therefore, Basil is talking not about “discipline” in general (although that is the literal translation) but about monastic asceticism. My translation:

For see, you are passing in the middle of snares and are walking atop a high wall from whence the fall is not without danger to him falling. Therefore, do not immediately stretch yourself forth to extreme acts of asceticism, above all, neither confide in yourself, lest you fall from the heights of asceticism from inexperience.

If I were to only rely on the “updated” version in my devotional, and even the “classic” translation on which it is based, I would misunderstand the entire context of St. Basil’s admonition. If you really want to “update” the real meaning of this text, he is telling a young would-be monk

Dude, you’re walking into a trap! Watch your step ’cause it’s really high up and if you fall you’ll get smashed. Don’t stretch yourself too far by being a dumb-ass show-off, or you’ll fail completely because you’ve never tried anything like this before.

Far more real. Basil is telling Chilo: “You’re a beginner: don’t try to read the whole Psalter every day. Don’t try going 40 days without food or water. Don’t try to live on top of a pillar or all by yourself in a cave or mountaintop.” He isn’t telling him (as the other translation might lead you to believe) not to try to be disciplined since discipline is just too hard. He’s telling him to be disciplined in a manner proportional to his entry into monastic life.

The reason he adds, “μάλιστα μηδὲ θαρρήσῃς σεαυτῷ” which is actually somewhat awkward to translate since the root of the verb he’s using is θαρσος which means “courage” or “boldness” and θαρσησις which means “confidence in a thing.” In English we don’t say “have courage in yourself” or “be courageous in yourself.” When we speak of confidence we say “confide” in oneself. But Confide also means trust. Basil is not (I don’t think) telling Chilo in general not to trust himself as if he were untrustworthy, and he’s not telling him not to have self-confidence in the sense we use that term today (in other word’s he’s not telling Chilo he’s unattractive and should go cut himself). Basil is using technical monastic language for not trusting in oneself as one’s own guide in the spiritual life. Becoming a monk presupposes that  you will be under the authority of an Abbot, and therefore, Basil is advising Chilo not to forget that he is to trust, confide in the judgement of his spiritual superiors rather than lean on his own strength. Which is incidentally why he is telling Chilo not to try huge feats of asceticism as these would be inappropriate for a novice.

If you’ve read anything else by Basil, you know that he has an over the top regard for asceticism. He is the founder of monasticism in the East just as Benedict was the founder of monasticism in the West. Modern Orthodox monks were once (incorrectly but understandably) called “Basilieans” to identify them with their spiritual master. So Basil is not just saying “don’t have discipline.” His advice has a very monastic context.

But his advice is still valid for everyone who wants to study the Church Fathers by reading only translations without even knowing the Greek alphabet. Unfortunately, unless religious education radically changes in the church, Patristic knowledge and scholarship will remain the expensive preserve of a handful of (mainly European and European-trained) scholars and will be too technical and expensive for teenagers and college students to benefit from. You can, because you have to, walk a fine line by using what you can get, but the answer depressing answer seems to strike me in the face as I continue to study: It’s a trap.

 

 

 

This post republishes work originally posted at my other blog at http://the-urban-wilderness.blogspot.com/2016/01/btw-its-trap.html?view=sidebar

Keys to the Kingdom – Paul Tillich, Martha, & Mary

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The Life of Mary of Egypt. 17th century Russian icon.

The following is based on an essay I wrote two years ago.

A few weeks ago on the 3rd of the Coptic month Paona (June 10) was the commemoration of one St. Martha of Egypt. According to the Coptic Orthodox Synaxarion (lives of the saints):

On this day also, the ascetic and fighter St. Martha, departed. She was born in the city of Mesr (Cairo) to wealthy Christian parents. She loved fornication and unchastity in her youth and her works became known. However, the mercy of God from above encompassed her, and moved her to go to the church. That was on the Nativity of Our Lord. When she came to its door and wished to go inside, the servant delegated to watch the door told her, “It is not meet for you to go into the holy church, for you know what you are?” A confrontation took place between them, and when the Bishop heard the clamor, he came to the door of the church to see what had happened. When he saw the girl, he said to her, “Do you not know that the house of God is holy, and only the pure enter it.” She wept and said, “Accept me O father, for I am repentant from this instant, and have decided not to go back to my sin.” The bishop replied, “If it is true what you have said, go and bring back here all your silk clothes and gold ornaments.”

She went quickly and brought back all of her clothes and ornaments and gave them to the Bishop. He ordered that they be burned immediately, then he shaved off the hair of her head. He put on her the monastic garb and sent her to one of the convents. She fought a great spiritual fight, and she frequently said in her prayers: “O Lord, if I could not bear the disgrace from the servant of Your house, so please do not put me to shame before Your angels and saints.” She continued the spiritual fight for twenty-five years, during which she did not go out of the door of the convent, then departed in peace.

I had the pleasure of having breakfast with a friend a couple days later and we talked (among sundry other things) about the irony that having been raised with relative freedom, we now are interested in Orthodoxy, a religion of many rules and injunctions, while other friends of ours who were raised in very strict Christian homes are currently living the wild life at college. The conversation reminded me of the story of St. Martha above and how I had wanted to write about it but hadn’t had the chance. So what does St. Martha have to do with going wild at college? Continue reading Keys to the Kingdom – Paul Tillich, Martha, & Mary

Flaming Snow – On Sanctification and Other Impossibilities

 

Ὡς οὐ τέξεται χιὼν φλόγα, ἢ ὕδωρ πῦρ γεννήσει, ἢ ῥάμνος σύκα · οὕτως οὐκ ἐλευθερωθήσεται παντὸς ἀνθρώπου καρδία δαιμονικῶν λογισμῶν, καὶ λόγων, καὶ ἔργων, μὴ καθάρασα τὰ ἔνδον, καὶ νῆψιν σὺν εὐχῇ Ἰησοῦ συνάψασα, καὶ ταπείνωσιν καὶ ψυχικὴν ἡσυχίαν κατορθοῦσα · καὶ ἐπειγομένη σὺν προθυμίᾳ πολλῇ καὶ ὁδεύουσα.

– Φιλοκαλια, Ησυχιος Πρεσβυτερος, Περι νηψεως § 122

Every year I try start the New Year by attempting yet again to read some book or other that I’ve owned for years but never quite gotten around to reading all the way through. One book I keep coming back to (and failing to finish) is Fr. John Anthony McGuckin’s The Book of Mystical Chapters which bears the promising subtitle: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and other Early Christian Contemplatives. This book was published in 2002 but I didn’t buy it at that time (not least because I was still in grade school!). Even after I learned about its existence through Amazon, it took me several years to actually decide to buy it. The book is published by Shambhala and if you’re a newbie to Orthodoxy who is used to getting everything from Ancient Faith Publishing you may not understand why that is in fact hilarious.  Continue reading Flaming Snow – On Sanctification and Other Impossibilities

The Ocean of Stillness – Hesychius on Mind Training

Ocean Sunset
“Ocean Sunset”

Much water makes up the sea. But extreme watchfulness and the Prayer of Jesus Christ, undistracted by thoughts, are the necessary basis for inner vigilance and unfathomable stillness of soul, for the deeps of secret and singular contemplation, for the humility that knows and assesses, for rectitude and love. This watchfulness and this Prayer must be intense, concentrated and unremitting.

Hesychius, On Watchfulness, § 10

The Philokalia as most English speaking Orthodox Christians know it (usually in the Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translation) is not the first book by that name. The Cappadocian Fathers compiled excerpts of Origen’s work into a book called the Philokalia (now usually called the Philokalia of Origen), and for many centuries if one used the name “Philokalia” it was that to which one was referring. Things have changed, and with the advent of the modern period and the printing press, St. Nicodemus of Mt. Athos and St. Macarius of Corinth compiled and edited the Philokalia that is now famous among Orthodox which was first published at Venice in 1782. That’s important. Since the venerable antiquity of Orthodoxy is one of the major marketing ploys of many Orthodox in the contemporary Anglo-sphere, it is easy to forget that actually, the Philokalia is a relatively modern product.

That’s not to say that the texts in the Philokalia are not ancient. Indeed the texts themselves range from the 4th to 15th century in composition. But the idea of a single book in which are anthologized works that are considered to be the most important in a given domain, an encyclopedia of sorts, is actually a very modern, very Renaissance, very humanist, and characteristically Western idea. I thought this was very important to point out because perhaps no book has shaped the spiritual lives, ethos, and ideals of contemporary Orthodox from the 19th century to the present than the Philokalia. And yet this means that most of the spiritual life and writings of many Orthodox (and an increasing number of Oriental Orthodox are being influenced by the Philokalia as well) is actually being influenced by something not uncontrovertially ancient and patristic, but something relatively modern: something less than 300 years old. Actually the Philokalia is about as old as the United States.

That puts a damper on the slogan “Ancient Faith” which so many Orthodox uncritically have recourse to. And while it’s true that the texts of the Philokalia are ancient in themselves and fairly diverse in origin and original context, it’s also true that we are not seeing these texts in their original context but in the very specific anthologized, 18th century, Athonite, context that St. Nicodemus and St. Macarius want us to see them in. We are presented the single volume Philokalia (the first two editions were in a single volume rather than the 5 volume set most English-speakers know and of which the 5th volume has unfortunately never been translated) as if there was perfect spiritual homogeneity among its writers, which of course there isn’t. Some of the authors would have been scandalized to know they were grouped with some of the others. We also have been bequeathed the biographical and introductory notes by the editors which are not always accurate but serve their hesychast agenda.

What’s my point? My point is not actually to berate the Philokalia. Rather than do what many Orthodox seekers do today and get seduced by the many chic books by (often amateur) modern Orthodox  writers or the hip podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, when I was just 17 years old (a long time ago), one of the first books I bought on Orthodoxy (before I even read Ware’s Orthodox Church or Orthodox Way) was the Philokalia. The Philokalia led me, albeit indirectly, to the deep waters of Christian Orthodoxy, and all without pandering to or seeking to rebound current trends in Protestant marketing. This means that it is possible for a book that is on some level fundamentally modern in its conception and presentation, to genuinely lead someone to the truly ancient Christian faith without even overusing the word “orthodox.”

The texts of the Philokalia arguably assume an “orthodox” readership and so do not belabour polemic points. And that is why I think that all Christians can (though not all necessarily will or should), strive to benefit from reading the Philokalia. To that end, I want to talk today about something very deep: The Ocean of the Jesus Prayer. The first treatise in the Philokalia to speak directly to the matter of praying the “Jesus Prayer” is Hesychius the Priest’s text On Watchfulness and Holiness which he wrote for his disciple Theodoulos. Outside of the Philokalia, the text can be found in J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca vol 93, cols 1479-1544. In fact the real name of this treatise is On Sobriety and Virtue. Continue reading The Ocean of Stillness – Hesychius on Mind Training

The Envy of Existence – Athanasius on Creation

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“Betrayal” – a depiction of jealousy

Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be.

– Plato, Timaeus, (ca 360 BC)

You probably remember that in the Republic, Socrates describes what he thinks the perfect city would be like. “Republic” is actually the Latin name for the work. Its Greek name is Politeia, meaning “pertaining to the city.”  This can be confusing because the perfect city in Plato’s Republic is not a democracy or republic at all, but ironically a monarchical dictatorship protected by philosopher vigilantes.  Within the work itself, the perfect city is called Kallipolis, literally “the beautiful city” or “the good city” (Greek philosophers treated beauty as goodness). The reason Socrates gives the constitution of Kallipolis is that his students ask him what “justice” really is. Justice must be more than simple revenge or the advantage that strong and cunning people have over weak and gullible ones. But if justice is different from mere fairness or getting what you deserve, what is it?

This turns out to be a difficult question to answer, so Socrates proposes that perhaps if people saw justice at work in a city full of people, we could then proceed to see what it is for a single person to be just. But in order to find out what justice is in a city, you need to design a city in which justice is theoretically possible. This is how the Republic gets its shape. It is the theoretical (not literal or practical) constitution of a just city in Plato-Socrates’ philosophy.

How would such a city get along with other cities? Long ago, according to Socrates, two such cities, Athens and the lost city of Atlantis went to war with each other… But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and that’s a story for another day. Before we can describe how cities even came to be, from theoretical Kallipolis to actual Athens or Atlantis, we need to know how anything came to exist. This is why the Timaeus (arguably Plato’s masterpiece) was written in about 360 BC. Timaeus is the character in this dialogue who gives the account of how the world came to be, and very much like in the Bible, it starts in the beginning. Continue reading The Envy of Existence – Athanasius on Creation