This summer, as regular readers of this blog likely know, I took a spirituality class this summer. The reading was extensive and there were no papers or written work to submit during the class. As a final effort however, we have been asked to produce a short paper (which is below the fold) listing some short quotes from the readings that had personal relevance along with short remarks about that included quote. And so we begin.

  1. A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
  2. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
  3. Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
  4. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.  [… continues]

This from the Odes of Solomon (#19) which contains imagery which was both striking, and when it was pointed out consonant with Old Testament poetic imagery actually big and little “o” orthodox was an indication that spiritual imagery from the very start made the heresy/non-heresy line a hard one always locate. What is and what is not orthodox, especially regarding poetic allusions, is something which should not be judged by examining one’s surface or casual reactions.

So much of patristic spirituality is about rejecting the eight passions. Yet, it might good to begin with a contrary point, that in fact the passions we reject are not in and of themselves evil, just misplaced, or more precisely twisted.

Ambition, also, is the natural state of the intellect for without ambition there is no progress toward God, as it is written in the epistle, be ambitious for the higher gifts! However, our godly ambition has been turned into an ambition that is contrary to nature, so we are jealous, envious, and deceitful toward each other.
Anger, too, is the natural state of the intellect for -without anger we cannot even attain purity unless we are angry toward all that -which is sown in us by the enemy. Just as Finees, the son of Eleazar, became angry and slaughtered the man and woman, the Lord’s temper against his people was shattered. Yet this anger within us was turned against our neighbor in regard to such senseless and useless matters.
Likewise, hatred is the natural state of the intellect. When Elijah discovered this, he killed the prophets of shame, and Samuel acted similarly against Agag, the king of the Amalechites,10 for without hatred against the enemy, no honor is bestowed on the soul. This hatred of ours has been twisted, however, into a state that is contrary to nature, so that we hate and loathe our neighbor, and this hatred chases away all the virtues.

Reading Abba Isaiah of Scetis we found that while some passions thought bad, are not all bad. This idea returns in St. John Climacus advices for the Shepherd, in which anger of a sort is needed for pedagogical purposes.

Origen in the Philokalia (of Basil?) notes:

If the use of the Law had been everywhere made perfectly clear, and strict historical sequence had been preserved, we should not have believed that the Scriptures could be understood in any other than the obvious sense. The Word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine. And this we ought to know, that the chief purpose being to show the spiritual connection both in past occurrences and in things to be done, wherever the Word found historical events capable of adaptation to these mystic truths, He made use of them, but concealed the deeper sense from the many; but where in setting forth the sequence of things spiritual there was no actual event related for the sake of the more mystic meaning, Scripture interweaves the imaginative with the historical, sometimes introducing what is utterly impossible, sometimes what is possible but never occurred. Sometimes it is only a few words, not literally true, which have been inserted; sometimes the insertions are of greater length. And we must this way understand even the giving of the Law, for therein we may frequently discover the immediate use, adapted to the times when the Law was given; sometimes, however, no good reason appears.

In today’s age, where there are some Christians (and non-Christian atheists) who take a fundamentalist/literalist hermeneutic to heart, it is important to remember this is not necessarily the right (or best) way to read Scripture. Origen certainly states this case concisely. Also from Origen, comes the theme repeated by many later (perhaps earlier) fathers, that the Christians are the “spiritual Israel”. Israel in Scripture (and Egypt or the Canaanite people/nations) are seen as the devil or evil. This is not mean in a modern racial way, but in an allegorical meaning. His commentary on John makes this clear. St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses is, perhaps, the canonical example of the allegorical hermeneutic in practice. Where the events of Moses life are all read in this fashion, e.g.,

For who does not know that the Egyptian army — those horses, chariots, and their drivers, archers, slingers, heavily armed soldiers, and the rest of the crowd in the enemies line of battle — are the various passions of the soul by which man is enslaved.  […] So all such things rush into the water with the Israelite who leads the way in the baleful passage. Then as the staff of faith leads on and the cloud provides light, the water gives life to those who find refuge in it but destroys their pursuers. […] If anyone wishes to clarify the figure, this lays it bare: Those who pass through the mystical water in baptism must put to death in the water the whole phalanx of evil — such as covetousness, unbridled desire, rapacious thinking, the passion of conceit and arrogance, wild impulse, wrath, anger, malice, envy, and all such things. Since the passions naturally pursue our nature, we must put to death in the water both the base movements of the mind and the acts which issue from them.

[The CWS text footnotes I have indicates that Philo, Tertulian and others had identified the crossing of the Red Sea and the escape from sin=Egypt as being identified with baptism. Here Gregory then connects that army which is denied as the passions]. Our next class is on the Old Testament. I think this method of reading Scripture, via typology/analogy is one like mathematics which is really learned by doing and not just reading about the work of others. I am really looking forward to putting this exercise in practice in a more extended visit with Old Testament narrative.

From St. John Cassian on gluttony:

How our first struggle must be against the spirit of gluttony, i.e. the pleasures of the palate.


AND so on the manner of fasting a uniform rule cannot easily be observed, because everybody has not the same strength; nor is it like the rest of the virtues, acquired by steadfastness of mind alone. And therefore, because it does not depend only on mental firmness, since it has to do with the possibilities of the body, we have received this explanation concerning it which has been handed down to us, viz.: that there is a difference of time, manner, and quality of the refreshment in proportion to the difference of condition of the body, the age, and sex: but that there is one and the same rule of restraint to everybody as regards continence of mind, and the virtue of the spirit.


THE belly when filled with all kinds of food gives birth to seeds of wantonness, nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts. For not only is drunkenness with wine wont to intoxicate the mind, but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation


AND so it is a very true and most excellent saying of the Fathers that the right method of fasting and abstinence lies in the measure of moderation and bodily chastening; and that this is the aim of perfect virtue for all alike, viz.: that though we are still forced to desire it, yet we should exercise self-restraint in the matter of the food, which we are obliged to take owing to the necessity of supporting the body.

St. John Cassian and his Institutes and Conferences were influential in my seeking out Orthodoxy in my own journey as a Christian, his clarity and conviction as well as his message were the key factors. Another important patristic writer was Evagrius.

From the Gnostikos:

2. The ascetic is one who is concerned solely with the achievement of perfect freedom in the portion of the soul subject to compulsions.
38. The practised ascetic is the one who piously and justly lives as as a monk in the world that consists (?) according to reason.
54. A worm in the wood is a remembering-past-wrongs though in the soul.

St. Maximus, of which we read much from the Philokalia (vol 2), since it was in the monastic short chapter style of writing, with which I still struggle was less memorable for me. His Mystagogy was hypnotic and arresting and more importantly far more accessible for me. Passages like:

The mind, he used to say, arrives at contemplation when it is moved by wisdom, by contemplation to knowledge, by knowledge to enduring knowledge, by enduring knowledge to truth. It is here that the mind finds the term of its movement, for in it are included essence, potency, habit and act. Now he used to say that wisdom is a potency of the mind and that the mind is wisdom in potency, that contemplation is a habit, that knowledge is act, that enduring knowledge (of wisdom, contemplation, and knowledge, i.e., potency, habit, and act) is the perpetual and unceasing movement toward the knowable which transcends knowledge whose term is truth, the ultimate knowable.

I’m not sure what good such phrases ultimately are taken by themselves outside of the text, but for me I find them pure poetry. It should be noted that the “old man” and the subject of “he used to say” is the liturgy itself. In other reading about St. Maximus (specifically Met. John Zizioulas) I had read about the cosmic nature of his theology, that he relates man as a image or reflection of the cosmos as a whole. Man is image and archetype of God and the world, in him these two meet, the holy and the earthly.

As a married man with children, the question/answer in St. John Climacus the Ladder of Divine Ascent is crucial.

“How can we how are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?”
I answered: “Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what you own wives can provide you. If you do this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.”

And again on gluttony (to echo St. John Cassian):

Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach. Filled, it moans about scarcity, stuffed, and crammed, it wails about its hunger. Gluttony thinks up seasonings, creates sweet recipes. Stop up one urge and another bursts out; stop that one and you unleash yet another. Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time. As stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity. The man who pets lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous.


if a visitor calls, then the slave of gluttony engages in chariable acts — but for the reasons associated with this love for food. He think that by allowing relaxations for himself, he is bringing consolation to his brother.


.. but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Pascha [that is, the breaking of the fast].

(ooooh. I’ve never done that have I? Oh, wait, I’ve done it every time, well, we’ll see about next year.) and

To fast is to do violence to nature. It is to do away what whatever pleases the palate. Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened soul, a watchful mind, a deliverance from blindness. Fasting is the door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, and end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.

If the stomach, gluttony is the first step … and so many of these early monastics insist it is. I need to be more attentive to this.

St. John Climacus, as well, in the fragment/letter To the Shepherd, writes primarily pastoral advice for those leading a congregation. But in reading this it became quite clear that this in fact can also be read as advice for the parent, for the pastor and parent have similar roles, to shepherd their flock/children to maturity.

2. A shepherd is pre-eminently he that is able to seek out and set aright his lost, rational sheep by means of guilelessness, zeal, and prayer.

19. The physician should completely strip himself of the passions, so that when the occasion arises, he can feign them, especially anger. If he has not entirely expelled the passions, he will not be able to dispassionately don them again.

40. I have seen a superior, because of his extreme humility, take counsel with his children concerning certain matters; and I have seen another, because of self-esteem, desire to demonstrate to his children his own unwise wisdom, and acted ironically

47. It is not right for a lion to pasture sheep, and it is not safe for a man still subject to the passions to rule over passionate men.

On that last … something of a difficulty for me, a by no means consistently dispassionate parent.

Regarding St. Ephrem the Syrian … I’d prefer just to recall what I wrote after we had that class, which was inspired by St. Ephrem’s typological poetry reflecting on properties of oil.

I’ll close with a sentence from the 6th letter of St. Antony.

Therefore, let us raise up God in ourselves by spurring one another, “and deliver ourselves to death for our [own] souls and for one another, and doing this we shall reveal the essence of our own mercy.”

Which in my words, I think, means that we should look not to our own salvation before our brother’s, indeed we will find our own salvation if our goal might be of guiding and inspiring our neighbor.

Filed under: ChristianityMark O.OrthodoxReligion

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