On Nebuchadnezzar

For first, in the vision of the statue, he was compared to gold, which is better than everything that is administered in the world.

In the vision of the beasts he was compared to a lion which is superior in its might to all other beasts.

He was compared again to an eagle which is more glorious than all other birds.

Whatever is written about him has been fulfilled in him. For the Lord said about him, “I have put a yoke of iron upon the neck of all the nations, and they will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. I have even given him the beasts of the field and the birds of heaven to serve him” (Jer 28.14; 25.11).

For when the king was like the head of gold, men served him like a king, and when he went out to the desert, the beasts served him as a lion.

When his hair was like that of an eagle, birds of heaven served him like an eagle.

When his heart was raised and he did not know that the power had been given to him from heaven, the yoke of iron was broken from the neck of the sons of men and he went out with the beasts, and instead of the heart of the kind, the heart of a lion was given to him.

When he became exalted over the beasts, the heart of a lion was removed from him and the heart of a bird was given to him.

When wings emerged from him like those of an eagle, he exalted himself over the birds, and then the wings were also pulled out and lowly heart was given to him.

When he recognized that the Most High had power in the kingdom of man to give ti to whom He wishes, then he sang praise as a man.

St Aphrahat. Demonstration V (On Wars), § 16

Simon Magus

Since his mind was deranged and deluded by the devilish deceit in magic, and he was always ready to display the barbarous deeds of his own wickedness and demon’s wickedness through his magic arts, he came out in the open and, under the appearance of Christ’s name, induced death in his converts by slipping a poison into the dignity of Christ’s name—as though he were mixing hellebore with honey—for those whom he had trapped in his baneful error.

Since the tramp was naturally lecherous, and was encouraged by the respect that had been shown to his professions, he trumped up a phony allegory for his dupes. He had gotten hold of a female vagabond from Tyre named Helen, and he took her without letting his relationship with her be known. And while privately having an unnatural relationship with his paramour, the charlatan was teaching his disciples stories for their amusement and calling himself the supreme power of God, if you please! And he had the nerve to call the whore who was his partner the Holy Spirit, and said that he had come down on her account. He said, “I was transformed in each heaven in accordance with the appearance of the inhabitants of each, so as to pass my angelic powers by unnoticed and descend to Ennoia—to this woman, likewise called Prunicus and Holy Spirit, through whom I created the angels. But the angels created the world and men. But this woman is the ancient Helen on whose account the Trojans and Greeks went to war.”

St Epiphanius, Panarion, 2.2,2-4. Charles Williams’ translation.

Are we there yet?

Abba Anthony said that the time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will rise up against him, saying that you are mad, because you are not like them.

Apophthegmata Patrum. Anthony, saying 25. My translation.

Sebastian the Serendipitous

I recommend to my readers (particularly those who are of a mind with me regarding the thoughts in my last post) the immediate purchase and attentive reading of Sebastian Brock’s The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (revised edition, Cistercian Publications, 1992). If nothing else, one will gain from this little volume a full appreciation of the absolute, shocking, brilliance of the theologian Saint Ephrem the Syrian. The following notes came from my last night’s reading of this little book, full of excerpts of the Saint’s theologically rich hymns, translated elegantly by Professor Brock.

~+~

One thing: faith is necessary in reading the Scriptures. Not just religious faith, but the kind of faith in one’s fellow human that grants the writer, a prophet, an honorable and truthful intention, a thing otherwise covered by the banal phrase, “the benefit of the doubt.” These our Scriptures are not solely the works of men, for as the Apostle calls them, they are “God-breathed.” They are inspired. A rejection of their base truthfulness is also a rejection of the Divine inspiration, and a rejection, thereby, of God. Even though, perhaps, the rejector things otherwise, he has rejected the inspired invitation of God to accept His mystery—”mystery” here in the sense of revelation without explanation, which is what the mysteries of the Church are. We are not privy to the exact mechanism of how these things actually work on the earthly and cosmic levels. They are givens. The questioning, suspicion of, and rejection of Scripture as historical is not a benefit resultant from proper application of the historical-critical (or any other) method, but is rather a rejection of faith in the ancient author, one based in the imposition of, frankly, demonically-inspired methods spawned in the minds of self-important people imposing upon the Scriptures readings and interpretations which are foreign to a faithful approach.

Theology, like any other intellectual pursuit, can take on three different forms, depending on the attitude of mind present in the person setting out on the path of enquiry. (Brock, 43)

The first form (Brock, 43):

[T]he mind may seek to dominate and subjugate the object of its enquiry. Sucha an attitude has characterized much scientific and other enquiry from the time of Francis Bacon onwards.

This is “intellectual pride,” as abhorrent to St Ephrem as it is to any right-thinking soul. This, however, is precisely the attitude and approach that suffuses Biblical Studies. The need for an individual name, for one’s own long-lasting footnote, has overtaken all else in that field. Yes, the Scriptures are inexhaustible, for wrong interpretation as for right.

The second form (Brock, 43):

[T]he mind sets out to study the object of its enquiry in as dispassionate and “scientific” a way as possible.

This, of course, is the serendipitously described option, in view of my last post. I am not too surprised that St Ephrem himself tried this approach and found it wanting:

Turn me back to Your teaching:
       I wanted to stand back,
but I saw that I became the poorer.
       For the soul does not get any benefit
except through converse with You.
(Hymns on Faith 32:1)

The third form:

The third approach, which is Ephrem’s, is that of engagement, an engagement above all of love and wonder. Whereas the second approach involves only a one-way movement, from the mind to the object of enquiry, this third approach is a two-way affair, involving a continual interaction. Only by means of such an interaction of love can human knowledge of divine truth grow. Ephrem continues in the same hymn:

Whenever I have meditated upon You
I have acquired a veritable treasure from You;
Whatever aspect of You I have contemplated,
a stream has flowed from You.
There is no way in which I can contain it:

Your fountain, Lord, is hidden
from the person who does not thirst for You;
Your treasury seems empty
to the person who rejects You.
Love is the treasurer
of Your heavenly treasure trove.
(Hymns of Faith 32:2-3)

There it is. The Scriptures are locked to those without love, who are also those without faith. For it is certainly the case that one who lacks faith in another likewise truly lacks love for the other. The loving, the faithful, are under no obligation to accept the fulminations of the unloving and unfaithful regarding the Scriptures. These will always be blindly groping. But the faithful, the loving, have another, richer path open to them, which St Ephrem too followed, and which trail through the thorny wilderness was blazed by our Lord and His apostles, and the holy Fathers of the Church.

On wonder (Brock, 44):

An essential concomitant of this initial attitude of engagement and participation is a sense of wonder and awe. Such a sense of wonder is all pervasive in Ephrem’s writings: ‘Blessed is He who has astounded our thought by the simple things of life,’ he exclaims (Hymns on Faith 43, refrain). But it is wonder above all at the supreme manifestation of God’s love for humanity when He Himself ‘put on humanity’ (Hymns on the Fast 3:6; Hymns on Heresies 35:7): ‘It is a matter of wonder that God has bent down to dust’ (Hymns on Faith 46:11).

Wow. How much more serendipitous could my choice of reading have been, after what I posted? This little book is like a guidemap that I found while wandering lost somewhere.

There is much more. I could easily cause an international copyright incident by quoting every single word in this volume, it is simply entirely that good. Every page bears forth some kind of delight, and refreshes joy and wonder and awe. Perfect timing.

Forcing the Scriptures

These instances have been just touched upon by me (the limits of a letter forbid a more discursive treatment of them) to convince you that in the Holy Scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to show you the way. I say nothing of the knowledge of grammarians, rhetoricians, philosophers, geometricians, logicians, musicians, astronomers, astrologers, physicians, whose several kinds of skills are most useful to manking, and may be ranged under the three heads of teaching, method, and proficiency. I will pass to the less important crafts which require manual dexterity more than mental ability. Husbandmen, masons, carpenters, workers in wood and metal, wood dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons. As Horace says:

Doctors alone profess the healing art
And none but joiners ever try to join.
Ep 2.1.115-16

The art of interpreting the Scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be masters. To quote Horace again:

Taught or untaught we all write poetry.
Ep 2.1.117

The chatty old woman, the doting old man, and the wordy sophist, one and all take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them. Some with brows knit and bombastic words balanced one against the other, philosophize concerning the sacred writings among weak women. Others—I blush to say it—learn of women what they are to teach men; and as if even this were not enough, they boldly explain to others what they themselves by no means understand. I say nothing of persons who, like myself, have been familiar with secular literature before they have come to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Such men when they charm the popular ear by the finish of their style suppose every word they say to be a law of God. They do not deign to notice what prophets and apostles have intended but they adapt conflicting passages to suit their own meaning, as if it were a grand way of teaching—and not rather the faultiest of all—to misrepresent a writer’s views and to force the Scriptures reluctantly to do their will. They forget that we have read centos from Homer and Vergil; but we never think of calling the Christless Vergil a Christian because of his lines:

Now comes the Virgin back and Saturn’s reign,
Now from high heaven comes a Child newborn.
Eclogue 4.6-7

Another line might be addressed by the Father to the Son:

Hail, only Son, my Might and Majesty.
Aeneid 1.664

And yet another might follow the Savior’s words on the cross:

Such words he spoke and there transfixed remained.
Aeneid 2.650

But all this is puerile, and resembles the sleight-of-hand of a mountebank. It is idle to try to teach what you do not know, and—if I may speak with some warmth—it is worse to be ignorant of your ignorance.

St Jerome, excerpt from Epistle 53 to St Paulinus of Nola. As presented in F. Sadowski, The Church Fathers On The Bible: Selected Readings (Alba House, 1987).

Two Syrian Pearls

On 28 January in the Eastern Orthodox calendar we commemorate those two luminaries of the Syrian church, Saint Ephrem and Saint Isaac. There is so much to say about these two Fathers that I am at a loss for words. I would much rather let their writings speak for themselves.

To begin, I have posted some selections of St Ephrem’s writings here before: St. Ephrem the Syrian on Psalm 1, Perhaps…, Halfway Between Awe and Love, Dreading the Apocalypse, and A Drop of Thanksgiving in a Sea of Glory. Even just those excerpts, short as they are, will win the noetic heart over to a greater love of this Saint of the Church. I would recommend also these several books: A Spiritual Psalter, Saint Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer.

I have likewise excerpted from St Isaac’s works in the past: Prayer is…, Inebriated by the mysteries, The Sea of Scriptures, Scripture, Prayer, and Life, St Isaac the Syrian on the Three Degrees of Knowledge, Gehenna is the fruit of sin, Intermonastic rumble!, A prayer of repentance, and A Pearl of a Prayer. Since the state of preservation of this Saint’s writings is somewhat complicated, I have posted a detailed description of the editions available, which include some books of excerpts. The future assuredly will bring forth more of this Saint’s God-inspired wisdom out of Syriac treasuries for the noetic delight of the Anglolinguic. What is available now is already a great spiritual feast.

St Ephrem was born in Nisibis, near the volatile border between the Roman and Persian Empires, in the very early fourth century, most likely to a Christian family, though the Syriac Life of St Ephrem describes his father as a pagan priest. He lived in Nisibis and wrote much of his work there until 363 AD, after the death of Julian the Apostate, when, at the capitulation of Julian’s successor Jovian, the border shifted, and Nisibis was incorporated into the Persian Empire. The citizenry of Nisibis was forced to abandon their city, so they moved westward in Syria, to within the Roman areas that were not under contention. St Ephrem and likely very may others from Nisibis settled in Edessa, the mother-city of Syriac Christianity. St Ephrem continued his literary work here, founding a school for Scriptural and theological studies. He likewise trained choirs of women to sing his many hymns. St Ephrem was ordained a deacon after his arrival in Edessa. On 9 June 373, he fell asleep in the Lord, while in the midst of ministering to those suffering in an outbreak of the plague. From at least the tenth century, St Ephrem has been icongraphically depicted as a monastic, though there is no indication that he was ever a monastic. It is, however, certain that the spiritual light with which his work shines has always been appreciated especially in monastic circles. The monks, in love, have thus claimed him as one of their own. Yet St Ephrem’s writings enrich all of us who are attentive to them:

Who, being a mortal, can tell about the Reviver of all,
Who left the height of His majesty and came down to smallness?
You, Who magnify all by being born, magnify my weak mind
that I may tell about Your birth, not to investigate Your majesty,
but to proclaim Your grace. Blessed is He Who is both hidden and revealed in His actions!
It is a great wonder that the Son, Who dwelt entirely in a body,
inhabited it entirely, and it suffered for Him. Although limitless, He dwelt in it.
His will was entirely in Him; His totality was not in Him.
Who is sufficient to say that although He dwelt entirely in the body,
still He dwelt entirely in the universe? Blessed is the Unlimited Who was limited!
Your majesty is hidden from us; Your grace is revealed before us.
I will be silent, my Lord, about your majesty, but I will speak about Your grace.
Your grace seized hold of You and inclined You toward our evil.
Your grace made You a Babe; Your grace make You a human being.
Your majesty contracted and stretched out. Blessed is the power that became small and became great!
Glory to Him Who became earthly although heavenly by His nature!
From Hymn on the Nativity, 23. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, translated by Kathleen McVey, pp 187-188.

The date of St Isaac’s birth and of his falling asleep in the Lord are both unknown. It has, however, been determined that he wrote his Ascetical Homilies somewhere around 680 AD. The following excerpt from a West Syrian Life of Saint Isaac (unfortunately, the date and author are unknown) contains just about all we know of him:

Further we record the history (or indeed the triumph) of the blessed Father Mar Ishaq (Isaac), which declares his homeland, his way of life, and how he was bishop of Nineveh, but afterward forsook this and went to a monastery and composed five volumes of instruction for monks. This Mar Isaac of Nineveh was born in the region of Beit Qatraye [=Qatar] beneath India. When he had become versed in the writings of the Church and the commentaries, he became a monk and a teacher in his own region. But when Mar Giwargis (George) the Katholikos came to his region [in 676 AD], he took him to Beit Aramaya [=the central lands of the Persian Church, in the area around the Tigris River] because one of his relatives was Mar Gabriel the scriptural interpreter of the Church. Mar Isaac was ordained bishop of Nineveh in the Monastery of Beit ‘Abe. But because of the acuteness of his intellect and his zeal, he could only endure the pastoral care of his city for five months; then he retuned to his stillness. He persuaded the Papa [=the Katholikos] to dismiss him, and the Papa gave him the command to depart. Then he left and dwelt in stillness in the mountain of Beit Huzaye [=Huzistan, in modern southern Iran] together with the monks who lived thereabouts. Finally he became blind and the brethren wrote down his teaching. They called him the second Didymos, for indeed, he was quiet, kind, and humble, and his word was gentle. He ate only three loaves a week with some vegetables, and he did not taste any food that was cooked. He composed five volumes, that are known even until this day, filled with sweet teaching…. Thereafter, when he had grown old and advanced in years, he departed unto our Lord, and he was placed in the monastery of Mar Shabur. May the prayer of the Theotokos Mary and his prayer and that of all the saints be with us! Amen. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), pp lxv-lxvii.

From the words of Saint Isaac himself, gain edification:

As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures. As a man who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest, so is he who remembers wrongs and prays. As the flame of fire cannot be checked from rising upward, so the prayers of the merciful are not hindered from ascending to Heaven. The current of a stream runs swiftly in a narrow place, and likewise the force of anger whenever it finds a place in our mind. The man who has acquired humility in his heart is dead to this world. He who is dead to the world had died to the passions. For to the man who has died in his heart to his kinsmen, the devil is dead. He who has found malice, with it has found him who originally found it.
Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, from Homily 51, HTM edition, page 244.

Here we conclude with the kontakia of these two Saints, particularly beloved to monastics, in English translations from The Great Horologion (another publication of Holy Transfiguration Monastery):

Kontakion of Saint Ephraim
Second Tone. Thou soughtest the heights

At all times didst thou
foresee the hour of reckoning
and pricked in thy heart
thou ever didst lament with tears;
and, O righteous Ephraim, thou was a mighty teacher in works and deeds.
Hence, O Father for all the world,
thou didst rouse the slothful unto change of heart.

Kontakion of Saint Isaac.
Plagal of Fourth Tone. To thee, the Champion Leader

As an ascetic and God-bearer great in righteousness
and an instructor of monastics do we honour thee
thou revealer of things sacred, and our protector.
But, O Isaac, since thou has great boldness with the Lord,
intercede with Him for all of us who sing thy praise
and who cry to thee:
Rejoice, O Father most wise in God.

May you sleep well and dream of Saints tonight!

Popular Patristics Series

I’ve briefly mentioned the Popular Patristics Series published by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press before. My appreciation of the volumes has only grown since then, as I’ve managed to pick up the entire series. In this post, I provide a list of the works included in each volume, and the texts utilized in their translations, and other stuff that I think useful to know. The list follows the publication order, with each volume given its number in the series. It is not hard to miss some big names among those contributing to this series, though it is somewhat surprising in a series of translations designed for the general reading public. Among the contributors is a shared love for the Church Fathers and a noble desire to spread knowledge of these treasures of Christianity which we find in their writings. I hope others will find this list as useful as I do.

1. Saint John Chrysostom — Six Books on the Priesthood
Translation and Introduction: Graham Neville
Work: On the Priesthood (complete).
Text: J. A. Nairn. De Sacerdotio of Saint John Chrysostom. Cambridge Patristic Texts. 1906.

2. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem — Lectures on the Christian Sacraments
Introduction and Greek Text: F. L. Cross
English Translation: R. W. Church
Works: Procatechesis; Mystagogical Catecheses I-V
Text: F. L. Cross, in this volume.
Note: This volume is unusual in the series in that it includes both a Greek text and an English translation. Most of the other volumes lack presentations in the original language.

3. Saint John of Damascus — On the Divine Images
Introduction and Translation: David Anderson
Work: Three Treatises on the Holy Images
Text: Migne PG 94.1231-1420
Note: This volume is unusual in that a later number in the series is a new edition of the same work, by a different translator. See number 24.

4. Saint Athanasius — On the Incarnation
Introduction: C. S. Lewis
Translation: A Religious of C.S.M.V.
Works: 1.) On the Incarnation; 2.) Letter to Marcellinus
Texts: 1.) F. L. Cross, Athanasius De Incarnatione: An Edition of the Greek Text, SPCK, 1939; 2.) Benedictine edition of 1698; Migne PG 27

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