Much of my spare time until the month of August is done will be devoted to trying to make a dent in the large reading assignments handed out in a spirituality class I’m taking. We are getting pretty unrealistic (for the employed) reading loads with the caveat to “get familiar” and not read in depth each piece. So I’m doing a lot of skimming. We’ve been reading a lot of early patristic writings moving forward slowly through the historical documents from the church on this matter. We started with very early texts and some were partially gnostic … the line between gnostic and non-gnostic is not as sharp is pretended. An interesting tidbit from that week was that the conventional wisdom regarding gnostic texts is that they were suppressed by the church. This is a hard accusation to make seeing that most of these documents we have today have been preserved in monasteries.

The next week we read and discussed works of Origen, Evagrius and St. Gregory of Nyssa (his Life of Moses an allegorical reading of the history of Moses). St. Gregory remains overall probably the most prominent non-celibate church father. Even though married and not celibate he penned a famous defence of virginity, in praise of the celibate life. He was happily married, this was not a document motivated by any misogynistic strains. However, his wife and child (children?), died relatively young … this was an age where the average age for women was substantially lower than men because of the risks of childbirth … and children frequently died in their early years. We didn’t read this defence, it would be off topic, but it was mentioned in passing. We also read the St. John Cassian books/chapters from the Institutes on the eight passions. I do really like reading St. John’s writings, which I find refreshingly straightforward and practical.

For next time the large part of what we are reading comes from the pseudo-Macarian homilies, Isaac of Sketis (which I haven’t printed for reading yet), some letters of St. Antony, and Evagrius “on tempting thoughts”. I thought I’d finish tonight with a few observations on what I’ve garnered on monasticism in the early church (3rd century and going forward a few centuries).

What were these men and women doing going into the desert in small cenobitic communities and even solitary isolation? One analogy might be to today’s large scientific projects like the Manhattan or Genome project. This was a project to discover what regimen, what practices and what methods might be used to shape the human self to the ideal they and their community envisioned. It was a radical (or “extreme” in today’s reality TV vernacular) project in which these people, using themselves as both the subject and experimenters. You find a common element in their writing, the urge to observe others and “take the best examples” from each and try to emulate that quality. It seems obvious that we could learn more than a little from their centuries of experimentation.

Filed under: ChristianityEducationMark O.Religion

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