I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)

One of the things that I have been aware of for some time is the concern that one sometimes hears that people will become involved in the Church for the wrong motives. Particularly in a society like ours with its rampant poverty, there is a fear that people will come to Church for what they can get out of it. And this can be more subtle than simply a desire for material gain – as Thomas Scarborough expressed it in a recent post:

if all is working as it should, people may find many privileges they do not find elsewhere: status where they have had none, forgiveness where they have been stained by sin, a voice where they have been ignored — and so on. This applies to people high and low.

Now I do think that there is a point to these concerns. I have heard horror stories of missionary activities that effectively sought to buy people’s conversion. And I agree with Thomas that there needs to be a true discernment of motivations.

However, sometimes when I hear such concerns raised, or when I raise them myself, I become uncomfortable at what seems to be a clear-cut distinction between right and wrong motivation, and, indeed, between “us” and “them” – as if the motivation of those of us expressing these concerns is necessarily one hundred percent pure. The more we grow in self-knowledge, the more we discover that our motivation is all too often mixed. It is relatively easy to spot the tainted motivation of those seeking material gain, or even some forms of affirmation. It is considerably more difficult to discern the many more subtle ways that our egos are built up and our passions are fed by things that can appear most “holy.”

With this in mind, I was pleased to come across this response of Abba Poemen recently which also reminds me of the parable of the wheat and the tares. Instead of worrying too much about how mixed all of our motivations are, we should perhaps rather accept them for what they are and pray and work for their purification.

A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts saying it was only done to please men.’ The old man said to him, ‘Even if it is to please men, we must give the brother what he needs.’ He told him the following parable, ‘Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?’ The brother replied, ‘The one who reaped the small poor crop.’ The old man said to him, ‘So it is for us; we sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984])  173.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Pietermaritzburg to see my mother, travelling by bus instead of flying as I had done on recent trips. And, while driving through the Karoo, I realised that, while I had travelled through it by bus shortly after coming back to South Africa, that had been at night. I realised with something of a shock that it must have been at least fifteen years since I had travelled through it by day.


I have always loved the Karoo, that vast expanse of emptiness and semi-desert at the heart of South Africa. I remember driving through it as a child and, long before I had heard of the Desert Fathers or learnt the language of monasticism, longing to wander off into it, plunging myself into its arid emptiness. This was not an obviously religious longing, at least not in terms of the religious vocabulary that I knew at the time. And yet I somehow think that it may account for quite a lot. Later on I used to fantasize about a monastery in the Karoo, although I have learnt in the meantime that fantasies are not a good basis for monasteries.

Driving through the Karoo I became aware of how air travel has distorted our sense of time and space, although I suppose that our ancestors could have said similar things about any automated travel. It is so easy to hop between cities without realizing what is between them, and to rarely experience the endlessness of a road that stretches on and on. And it is so easy to assume that the concerns of the “city” – and of instant communication that now encroaches even into the “desert” – are indeed the real and only ones.

I have been reflecting a bit in recent months on the need for a thorough consideration on how the patristic teaching on the passions relates to the various “issues” that are thrown at me through the daily news. From rape and violence, to greed and corruption, to the way we are programmed to become consumers, to the various discussions around sexuality, to what often seems like a mindless cultivation of anger and aggression … the list could continue and I suspect that many of them are intertwined. And yet all too often the response of religious leaders is mere platitudes and moralism, whether of the “right” or of the “left.”

Driving through the Karoo and thinking about these thoughts that had been going through my mind, I was reminded that the systematization of Christian thinking around the passions and the virtues originated in the desert. It was in the starkness of the Egyptian desert that the early monks came to insight into what it means to be human, the forces that shape and control us, and how we can engage them at their roots and be transformed by actively cooperating with God.

The proper locus of theology, in an Orthodox understanding, is in the desert. This is not just the emptiness or the endless permutations of postmodern thought. The desert has a history and a clearly dogmatic content. But it is a content that leads to transformation. And somehow, if we are to speak of transforming society, we surely need to pay attention to this content.

Owen the Ochlophobist has a really good post on Plastic memories that is definitely worth reading. He writes:

So often the discussion of the drastic changes in the human psyche and human social order seen in late modernity are framed in language of the supposed culture wars, etc., but I think much of this misses the point – as if “correcting” divorce, abortion, homosexuality, etc., can happen or is fundamentally meaningful in a culture which throws everything away. …

I was intending to post my own thoughts on related matters as a prelude to recommending his post, but have just deleted them, and really need to stop. And in any case, Owen expresses these things far better than I do and what I did want to say was still half-formed.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Christ’s confronting the reality of human sin and suffering in the first chapter of The Compassion of the Father by showing that, for the Fathers and particularly John of Damascus, Jesus took on the blameless or natural passions, banishing sin from them

through the very brazier of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in Jesus. This fire stigmatizes and consumes all temptations, every evil power, and any external evil suggestion. These can never become embedded in the citadel of the human heart of Jesus, the preeminent trinitarian dwelling. (58)

However, this passable condition was not a source of sin for Jesus, for he suffered freely and remained open.

The Incarnation of the Son of God recalls the glorious, even paschal, aspect of His entire life. The light and joy of the Resurrection rebound on His earthly life from the time of the Nativity, even when His divine glory is hidden. He is filled with the power of the Spirit: healings and signs follow one another, compassion is poured out, and demons are chased away. “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Jn 10:18). The Orthodox Liturgy exalts all the moments of Jesus earthly life from His birth, the advent of salvation itself. Even there, the cross and kenōsis are not forgotten or bracketed, but the kenōsis of Jesus, from stage to stage, is never a victory of darkness over light. (59)

When he reaches adulthood, Jesus is sent forth by the Spirit to accomplish the will of the Father, taking the sins of humanity onto Himself.

“He made Him to be sin”: this terse Semitic formulary unhampered by scholastic theological distinctions expresses the mystery of the descent of the Just One into sin, into suffering – the one whom no one could convict of sin (Jn 18:23).

Jesus takes upon Himself the transgressions of the multitude and thereby diverts the anger of God. The Adamic temptations are redone, and Satan unloads them with all his power onto Jesus, who is permeated by the Spirit and the bearer of a divine identity that remains an impenetrable mystery to the spirit of darkness. The temptations in the desert are spectacular, visible moments of the unceasing and permanent combat Jesus wages in our name against the darkness that ebbs and flows, sometimes with forceful outbursts that seem to defy life.” (60-61)

Death is both the consequence and the antidote of sin but we should not isolate any of the images that Scripture uses about redemption. Christ has consumed the infernal roots of sin “and extracted its sting. The seed of justice sprouts in our humanity, which Christ bears…” (61)

Let us not be afraid to speak of the death of Jesus – and of His resurrection – as a sacrifice because the sacrifice is an essential aspect of the love of the Father and the Son. The Father required no sacrifice to appease His wrath – this image of the Father’s wrath is secondary in the Bible. Rather, this is a sacrifice of offering, of descent and then of ascent, in search of the lost sheep. It is a sacrifice of consecration, of the exorcising of human nature corrupted by sin, of the healing of humanity sick through sin, and of the consolation of humanity bewildered in loneliness, far from the sources of living water. Jesus reaches and heals the intimate depths of humanity. This is a sacrifice of reintegration by which all of creation is brought back to the Father. (62)

This work of mercy, healing, compassion and forgiveness is continued in the Church. The Church perpetuates the kenōsis of the Risen One. In the Eucharist we become contemporary to the events of salvation. Our sins tear the garments of the Saviour, but our sufferings always ascend to the throne of God. Sin and suffering retain a residue of “non-sense” and of scandal that we are invited to enter into:

The saints have imitated the unblemished, defenceless Lamb and, like Him, have become vulnerable to love, violent in love, stronger than death. The countless suffering of the living and deceased members of the Church witness to the Lamb. It is in Jesus alone that our suffering also becomes a sacrament; it becomes this to the extent that our hearts and bodies are slowly and painfully purified of the germs of passions – sins that dwell in us and render us resistant to love. (64)

We should, however, be wary of speaking of beneficial suffering or of objectifying the sufferings of others. The challenge is rather to learn to look with compassion which we learn through the apprenticeship of prayer and the apprenticeship of love.

When we follow the path of Jesus, we learn how to offer our own hearts to God. It is then that the heart opens and fortifies itself in the spirit of compassion. The human being is able to be filled with the misery of the world, to carry it on his or her shoulders, and to lay it down before the throne of God. But our hearts are weak and inconstant. Given up to ourselves, we tend to close up, to protect ourselves from suffering – which is always too great – to ignore or forget it. Nonetheless, this same heart is called to love, to compassion, to mercy. It can only respond to this call by merging into the heart of Jesus. That requires, as a precondition, a purification, an exorcising of the evil that is in us, in all forms. The evil in the world can be exorcised and burned only to the extent that the roots of evil which lie in our own hearts are exorcised, banished, and burned, consumed in the face-to-face with Jesus, with His Name, His Cross, and His Spirit. “This type of spirit can be driven out only by praying and by fasting” (Mt 17:22). (66)

No man can conquer the passions except by the palpable virtues; and no one can conquer the wandering of the intellect except by the study of spiritual knowledge. Our intellect is volatile, and if it is not tied down by some reflection, it never stops wandering. Without attaining perfection in the aforesaid virtues, a man cannot acquire this safeguard. For unless a man does not vanquish his enemies, he cannot be at peace. And if peace does not reign, how can a man find those things that are stored up within peace? The passions are a wall impeding the hidden virtues of the soul. If the passions are not first cast down by means of externally manifest virtues, that which lies within cannot be seen; for a man who is outside a wall cannot keep company with what is inside. No man sees the sun in a cloud, nor the natural virtue of the soul in the constant turbulence of the passions.

Entreat God to give you to feel spiritual aspiration and yearning. For whenever this yearning of spirit comes upon you, you will stand aloof from the world and the world will stand aloof from you. It is, however, impossible to experience this without stillness, ascetic endeavor, and the converse of reading devoted to the same. Without the latter, do not seek the former; for if you seek after it, it will gradually be altered and become corporeal. Let him who has understanding understand. It was the wise Lord’s good pleasure that we should eat this bread with the sweat of our brow. He did not ordain this spitefully, but lest it should oblige us to vomit and we die. For every virtue is the mother of a second. If, then, you abandon the mother which gives birth to the virtues and go out to seek the daughters before you have acquired their mother, those virtues will be vipers to your soul, and if you do not hurl them away from you, speedily you will die.

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 34), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 157

Thinking Faith, the online journal of the English Jesuits, has published an extract from Abbot Christopher Jamison’s new book Finding Happiness, in which he discusses the “seven deadly sins” or Saint John Cassian’s teaching on the thoughts, the relationship between thoughts and actions, and in particular on the neglect of acedia in contemporary culture. Abbot Jamison is the Benedictine abbot of Worth Abbey in England who shot to media prominence as a result of the BBC television series The Monastery. Despite my general hesitance about monastic media stars (or media stars generally) he says some worthwhile stuff and I was, despite my initial hesitations, rather impressed with how he handled The Monastery.

Spiritual carelessness seems to me to underlie much contemporary unhappiness in Western culture. The word is no longer used not because the reality is obsolete but because we have stopped noticing it. We are too busy to be spiritually self-aware and our children grow up in a culture that suffers from collective acedia. Acedia has so established itself that it is now part of modernity.

A parallel can be drawn with the world of medicine. Before the discovery of germs, hygiene was not considered essential so many deaths were caused by infections that nobody could see. Once the existence of germs had been identified, physical hygiene became rigorous and lives were saved. Similarly, the cause of much unhappiness lies hidden from view but is truly present. Our demons are unseen thoughts that make us unhappy and spiritual hygiene is as necessary as medical hygiene if these diseases of the soul are to be healed. But we are a spiritually unhygienic society. While we know that we must find time to brush our teeth, to visit the doctor and to take exercise, we have no such shared conviction about the need for spiritual exercises.

Even monks and nuns can experience the temptation to forget about the spiritual life. In one ancient collection of stories about the desert fathers and mothers, the very first story begins with a surprising statement about the most famous monk of all. ‘When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by acedia.’ Towards the end of that same collection Amma Syncletica offers the insight that ‘acedia is full of mockery.’ Our society is ‘full of mockery’ towards those who insist on the reality of the soul and its essential disciplines, disciplines which have been preserved almost uniquely by the best of the world’s religious traditions but which are scorned by increasingly strident atheist commentators. 

Our culture implies that indulging the Seven Deadly Sins is the way to happiness; more food, more things and more sex combined with personal aggression and vanity are the way to happiness. This is the message hitting us day by day. The good news is that most people in their heart of hearts know this message is a lie but many lack the means to live out an alternative. This spiritually careless culture does not have to run our lives, however, and helping people to overcome our culture’s endemic acedia is one of the key tasks of the Church today.

Go and read the whole article here.

But the strictly religious aspect of the movement must not be ignored. In a period of intense religious consciousness it was normal that the political and social complexes should express themselves and unfold in religious terms. There developed a doctrinal atmosphere and a spirituality characteristic of Donatism, the pathological features of which may be deplored by theologian and psychologist alike. The schismatic Church considered itself a ‘Church of Saints’, making no sort of compromise with the century in which it lived, either with the Emperor who persecuted its members or the body of the universal Church which was compromised with the traditores.

Their consciences were clear and, like all sects, they felt convinced that they were in the right, and everyone else in the wrong. They believed they were soldiers of Christ fighting for a good cause: their Church was also the Church of the martyrs.

Jean Daniélou & Henri Marrou. The First Six Hundred Years. London, DLT, 1964. 247.

Reading Henri Marrou’s words on the Donatists made me realise that some things never change, irrespective of the doctrinal issues – or even the religions – involved. It also reminded me of the words of Abbot Jonah Paffhausen that I read recently (thanks to a reference from Father Gregory Jensen) in which he spoke about zeal that is rooted in the passions. I don’t want to get involved in the discussion on the idealisation of monasticism in certain Orthodox circles (although it probably has parallels in some Catholic circles), but I found the following comment important:

Zeal for Christ and the Church are great and wonderful things; but authentic zeal is very different from a zeal that comes from one’s passions. Carnal zeal always has some element of self-gratification or self-centeredness, by which one justifies oneself as truly Orthodox, truly pious, and “in the know.” Authentic zeal is not directed towards anything but union in Christ, or against anything but one’s own fallenness. With true zeal, there is no hypocrisy. False zeal, the delusion of spiritual pride and conceit, is always hypocritical.

And that reminded me once more of the teaching of the Desert Fathers that humility and compassion are the only aspects of the ascetical life that the demons are incapable of imitating.