Category Archives: Patristics

Two Ways in Irenaeus

“For the way of all those who see is single and upward, illumined by the heavenly light, but the ways of those who do not see are many, dark and divergent; the one leads to the Kingdom of Heaven, uniting man to God, while the others lead down to death, separating man from God. Thus it is necessary for you and for all who are concerned about their salvation to make [your] way by faith, without deviation, surely and resolutely, lest, in slacking, you remain in gross desires, or, erring, wander far from the right [path]” (On the Apostolic Preaching, 1; translation by John Behr).

Note what seems to be a reference here in St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s work On the Apostolic Preaching to the teaching concerning the Two Ways, as found in Barnabas and Didache. As this is a “summary memorandum” (λαιωδης υπομνημα, 1), in Irenaeus’ words, of the Apostolic Preaching, the related expansions of each, the Way of Life versus the Way of Death, are curtailed, and the connection with the Two Ways material as we know it more fully from Barnabas and Didache is implicit rather than explicit. But it is striking that this is the beginning of Irenaeus’ work on the Apostolic Preaching, being preceded solely by the address to the recipient. Surely the two draw from the same source, and indicate that this was the initial instruction for catechumens. As both Barnabas and Didache indicate, the Two Ways was considered to be a part of the traditional instruction, the “Apostolic Preaching,” originating with the Apostles themselves. This, another of the earliest works preserved to us in our literary inheritance of sub-Apostolic Christianity, clearly shows its reliance upon that Apostolic body of Tradition, taking for granted that a reader will recognize the reference to the “ways” as related also in Barnabas and Didache.

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St John of The Ladder

Like that lofty ladder which Jacob saw reaching to the heavens, even so, by thy godly words, thou hast raised a ladder that bringeth all the faithful unto the heights of virtue, O blessed Father John
Megalynarion for St John Climacus

On March 30th and on the Fourth Sunday of Lent the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates St John of Sinai, Author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. He reposed in 603, at eighty years of age. There is also this story about recognizing a predecessor:

And actually on the day that John become our abbot, about six hundred pilgrims came to us. When all were sitting and taking food, John saw a man with short hair, dressed like a Jew in a white tunic, going round and authoritatively giving orders to the cooks, cellarers, stewards and other servants. And when the people had dispersed and the servants were sitting at the table, they looked everywhere for that man who had been going round and giving orders, but they did not find him. Then the servant of God, our holy Father John, said to us: ‘Leave him be! Our lord Moses has done nothing strange by serving in this place which belongs to him.’
Saint John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Revised Edition. (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991) Pages xxxix-xl.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work of thirty parts, and was written specifically for a monastic audience, particularly those of Sinai, whose monastery was only a very few decades old when the Ladder was written. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is read to the monks at their common refectory meals throughout the course of Lent. The rungs of this Ladder are various subjects, the mastery of which are part of the monastic life. From the first step, “On renunciation of the world,” to the last, “Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues,” the reader/listener is confronted with much intense practical and spiritual advice coming from experience as well as inspiration, all for the sake of the monastic’s soul. It’s an intense work, not really geared for reading, and certainly not for application wholesale, by a layperson. However, with that in mind, and one’s own limitations as a layperson, held to a different standard than a monastic, it is certainly possible to derive great benefit from this remarkable book.

The particular Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition (see the price list and order form for ordering) I quote from above is a beautiful example of bookmaking. The printing is two colored, black text, with some red page headings, titling, and such. The paper is fine and thick. There are several small drawings in traditional Byzantine style, one full color reproduction of a Ladder of Divine Ascent icon (this one), and one of a truly remarkable pen and ink icon of Saint John by the late Photi Kontoglu, a modern master of iconography. It’s a beautiful hardback edition, most fitting for such a work.

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On the Fathers

Each person beholds in the Fathers, as in a clear mirror, his or herself; each discerns their own weakness, is judged and saved with their revelation of the real image of humanity and divinity. This is because the Fathers of the Church, through their strict discipline and intense struggle, shedding their dispassion, were transferred by divine grace and transformed by divine energy to the supernatural freedom of the future age. Undergoing divinisation in experience and not just in concept, they are borne by the Holy Spirit where it wills and not where they so wish. They no longer belong to themselves, but to him who died and was risen for us all, as well as to their brothers and sisters, for whom their merciful heart constantly burns.

They are not simply Greek Fathers, but universal teachers. They bring comfort to people of every race, language and culture, offering them the possibility of passing through death to life, the opportunity of growth in love, of enrichment through strength that is perfected in weakness, of quenching through the inexhaustible living water, and of fulfilment through the bread that is broken yet never divided, communed yet never consumed.

This initiates the potential of human divinisation, of increase of the small, of revelation of greatness through humility, the reconciliation of the divided and the constitution of familiarity, the divine indwelling among us, which has an ecumenical dimension and a homely warmth.

So in the end, the great Fathers are not intellectual giants of human theories, but inspirational mystagogues of us all into the Kingdom of God which is at hand and remains with us to the ages.

+Archimandrite Vasileios, Abbot, Iviron Monastery, Mount Athos, in the Foreword to Father John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers (Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1998)

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Contemplating God in Creation

To look upon God at all times and to be inseparable from Him, in the manner which you envisage, is impossible for a man still in the flesh and enslaved to weakness. In another way, however, it is possible to look upon God, for the manner of contemplating God may be conceived and understood in many ways. God is not only to be known in His blessed and incomprehensible being, for this is something which is reserved for His saints in the age to come. He is also to be known from the grandeur and beauty of His creatures, from His providence which governs the world day by day, from His righteousness and from the wonders which He shows to His saints in each generation. When we reflect on the measurelessness of His power and His unsleeping eye which looks upon the hidden things of the heart and which nothing can escape, we are filled with the deepest awe, marvelling at Him and adoring Him. When we consider that He numbers the raindrops, the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven, we are amazed at the grandeur of His nature and His wisdom.

Abba Moses of Sketis, ca. 385. Excerpt of St. John Cassian in Philokalia, volume 1, pp 96-97.

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Prayer is…

…the refuge of help, a source of salvation, a treasury of assurance, a haven that rescues from the tempest, a light to those who are in darkness, a staff of the infirm, a shelter in time of temptations, a medicine at the height of sickness, a shield of deliverance in war, an arrow sharpened against the face of the enemies, to speak simply: the entire multitude of these good things is found to have its entrance through prayer.

St. Isaac the Syrian. Ascetical Treatise 8 (68), as quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Publications, 2000), p. 144

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St. Neilos the Ascetic on True Maturity

Let us leave behind worldly things and raise ourselves towards the soul’s true good. How long shall we continue with trivial playthings? Will we never assume a manly spirit? We are more feeble than tiny children, and unlike them we make no progress towards greater things. When they grow up, they abandon their games, readily relinquishing their attachment to the things they played with — nuts, knucklebones, balls and so on. They are attached to these and prize them so long as their understanding is immature; but when they grow up and become men, they drop such things and devote their full attention to the affairs of adult life. We, however, have remained children, enchanted by what really deserves mockery and derision. Abandoning all effort to attain higher things and to develop an adult intelligence, we are seduced by worldly amusements, making ourselves a laughing-stock to those who judge things at their true value. It is disgraceful for a grown man to be seen sitting and drawing pictures in the dust to amuse children; and it is equally disgraceful — indeed much more so — for those whose professed aim is the enjoyment of eternal blessings to be seen grovelling in the dust of worldly things, shaming their vocation by incongruous behavior.

Probably the reason why we act like this is because we never think about anything superior to the visible objects around us. We do not appreciate how much better the blessings of the spiritual world are than the tawdry attractions of this present world, which dazzle us with their specious glory and draw all our desire to them. In the absence of what is better, what is worse will take its place and be held in honor. If only we had a deeper understanding of the realities of the divine world, we would not be taken in by the attractions of this world.

Let us begin, then, to withdraw from the things of this world. Let us despise possessions and money and all that swamps and drowns our intelligence. Let us cast overboard our cargo, so that our ship may float more buoyantly. Hard-pressed by the storm, let us jettison the greater part of our equipment; then our helmsman — the intellect, together with its thoughts — will be saved. Those who travel by sea, when overtaken by a storm, do not worry about their merchandise but throw it into the waters with their own hands, considering their property less important than their life. Why, then, do we not follow their example, and for the sake of the higher life despise whatever drags our soul down to the depths? Why is fear of God less powerful than fear of the sea? In their desire not to be deprived of this transitory life, they judge the loss of their goods no great disaster; but we, who claim to be seeking eternal life, do not look with detachment on even the most insignificant object, but prefer to perish with the cargo rather than be saved without it.

From the Philokalia, vol 1, pp 242-3

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St. Ephrem the Syrian on Psalm 1

Psalm 1: Beatitudes

Blessed is he who has in the Lord become completely free of all earthly things in this troublesome life, and who has loved the one good and merciful God.

Blessed is he who has become a doer of good works and, like a fruitful field, brings forth a great abundance of the fruits of life in the Lord.

Blessed is he who stands at prayer in service to God and, like the heavenly angels, at all times has pure thoughts and does not allow the evil one to approach him, that he may not enslave his soul and lead it away from God the Savior.

Blessed is he who loves sanctity (purity) like light, and has not defiled his body before the Lord with the shameful acts of the evil one.

Blessed is he who always retains in himself remembrance of God, for such a person on earth is like a heavenly angel, constantly celebrating the Lord with fear and love.

Blessed is he who loves repentance, which saves all sinners, and does not delight in sin, that he might not appear ungrateful before God our Savior.

Blessed is he who, like a courageous warrior defending heavenly treasures, preserves his soul and body without reproach in the Lord.

Blessed is he who, like the heavenly angels, has pure thoughts, and who with his lips sings praises to the One who has authority over all that breathes.

Blessed is he who has become like unto the seraphim and the cherubim and is never slothful in spiritual service, who ceaselessly glorifies the Lord.

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