What is this?

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28)

I’ve always thought that sounds like something else:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Take your pick.

Another Review of Ancient Christian Wisdom

Archbishop Chrysostomos of The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies (publishers of, inter alia, a valuable new English translation of The Evergetinos) has written a review of Fr Alexis Trader’s book Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy.

The review is published in the journal Orthodox Tradition (volume 28, number 2: June 2011), and is also available online here, at the Orthodox Christian Information Center.

I’m still looking forward to reading the book whenever I am finally able to obtain a copy. They sold out faster than pancakes on Cheesefare Sunday. I’ve mentioned Fr Alexis before (here and here on this blog) and hope that others will also follow along and read his various books. They’re all of great value.

A Pilgrimage to Jerusalem the Golden

I am a wanderer : I remember well
How once the city I desired to reach Lay hid,
When suddenly its spires afar
flashed through the circling clouds,
Soon tbe vapours closed again,
But I had seen the city, and one such glance
No darkness could obscure.

WHOEVER has wished to go has already started on the pilgrimage. And once you have started, every step upon the road is a step toward Jerusalem. Even steps which seem to have no meaning are taking you by byways and lanes to the high-road. For the heart guides the steps, and has intentions too deep for the mind to grasp at once. The true Christian is necessarily he who has the wishing heart. Therein is the Christian discerned, that he seeks a city. Once we have consciously known ourselves as pilgrims on the way, then all the people and the scenes about us have a new significance. They are seen in their right perspective. Upon the pilgrim’s road our imperfect eyes come into focus for all earthly phenomena.

It is a long time since I wished to go. It is indeed difficult to say when I did actually begin to wish. It seems as if I had been predestined from my birth to go. For I remember a time when I wished, but did not understand what it was I wished. I look back to those tender emotions awakened by a child’s hymns–only now I know what hymns really are, songs which the pilgrims sing upon the road as they are marching to Jerusalem. I understand now why at church I looked wistfully at the procession, and why more readily than to all other melodies in the world the heart responded to march music.

In my heart was a little compass-box where an arrow always pointed steadily to Jerusalem. My mind did not know, but it knows now, for it has learned to look inward at last.

Yes, long ago I wished to go, and even long ago, to use the sweet Russian word, I promised. Often have I despaired since then, and given up, and yet always renewed the promises.

The pilgrim’s discovery is when he looks into his own heart and finds a picture of a city there. The pilgrim’s life is a journeying along the roads of the world seeking to find the city which corresponds to that picture. Often indeed he forgets the vision. and yet ever and again comes the encouraging picture, like the Comforter which, on leaving this world, our Saviour promised to His disciples.

I promised, I journeyed, and now to-day I am at Jerusalem, Jerusalem the earthly, and it seems that my pilgrimage is over. The peasants feel that when they have been to Jerusalem the serious occupations of their life are all ended. They take their death-shrouds to Jordan, and wearing them, bathe in the sacred river. All in white, on the banks where John baptized, they look like the awakened dead on the final Resurrection morning. They spend a night in the sepulchre of Christ, and receiving the Sacred Fire, extinguish it with caps that they will wear in their coffins. They mostly hope to die in the Holy Land, preferably near the Dead Sea where the Last Judgment will take place. If indeed they must return to their native villages in Russia, it will be to put their affairs in order and await death. It is seldom that a young pilgrim is seen in Jerusalem. But I am young and have accomplished my pilgrimage, yet do not think of dying. What then?

The fact is that in the material earthly journey we do not actually attain to the Jerusalem not built by hands : the ancient Eastern city above Jaffa, wonderful and sacred as it is, is for many of the faithful and for all the spiritually short-sighted a great disappointment. Jerusalem the earthly is a pleasure-ground for wealthy sightseers, a place where every stone has been commercialised either by tourist agencies or greedy monks, where the very candles lit by the pious before the pictures and the shrines are put out the moment they are lit, and sold in sheaves to the Jews. The first thought of the the pilgrim on looking at Jerusalem was expressed by a peasant who said to me as we were listening to the shrieking populace at the grave on Palm Sunday, “This is not Jerusalem.” “Of a truth,” I thought, “he is right; Jerusalem is not here.”

Yet in a sense Jerusalem was there all the time even among the disgraceful scenes at the Holy of holies. As a priest delicately forewarned the pilgrims going down to the muddy little Jordan river, “Do not expect anything like the Volga or the Dwina or the Dnieper. The Jordan is not grand. Much in the Holy Land wears an ordinary appearance. Remember that Jesus Himself came, not clothed in purple, remember that His life seemed very squalid and ignominious.”

Jerusalem, then, has an existence independent of material appearance. That at least is the refutation of one error. Similarly, I remember the ship’s carpenter on the boat which brought us was a revolutionary propagandist, and he pointed out to all and sundry how foolish it was to go pilgrimgging, told us how the monks would pick our pockets as we slept at night in the hostelry,–as indeed they did,–how the monks lived openly with women, how they had upon occasion taken possession of poor Russian peasant girls and sold them into the households of the East, how the monks invented innumerable fictions about the sacred things and the objects of our piety in order to get more money from the pilgrims. Yet most of us understood that our pilgrimaging was independent of all monkish ways; that we, the peasants pilgrimaging, were all right. The holiness of Jerusalem did not take its rise from the priests and the officials, but from the actual first peasant pilgrim, Christ Himself, who was victimised by them.

I have not therefore missed my way; I have actually attained unto Jerusalem. But the point still remains–I am young. I do not think of dying on Calvary myself, I am not exactly satisfied. What then?

Youth or age signify little in the city not made by hands; for there, there is no beginning and no end. The procession to the altar is a rite in the church; the pilgrimage is a rite in the larger church of the world; life itself, the pilgrimage of pilgrimages, is a rite in the larger church of the universe–we complete in a symbolic act an eternal journey. In the mystery of the rite I shall attain unto Calvary and die there, just as at Communion I partake of the Body of Christ–or else I have not made the pilgrimage and have not entered into Communion. As the words of the mystic remind me:–

The Cross of Golgotha thou lookest to in vain
Unless within thy heart it be set up again.

If the question be asked, “Why do you live in the rites but not in the realities of life?” it is because the rites are more real. They are earthly patterns of heavenly things. Our life itself we confidently understand to be a rite. By virtue of our mystery we cannot lift a hand to do the most ordinary thing, but we make thereby mysterious signs and enter into symbolic relationship with the universe of the unseen.


THE pilgrims all call one another brother (brat), father (atets), uncle (dyadya), or grandfather (dyed)–according to the relative ages of the one addressing and the one addressed. There was a dear old dyadya from Tver province who talked with me. He had been within earshot of the propagandism of the ship’s carpenter, so I comforted him –God saw the peasant and understood. “Ah, yes,” he rejoined with affection, though he had never seen me in his life before, and even then we were speaking in the dark, “it cannot but mean much to us that we journey to the land where God died. He will certainly soften towards us when we come before Him, and He remembers that we journeyed to the grave…. And think what He suffered. What are our sufferings beside His! They point out to us the hardships of the journey, but our suffering is little. It is good for us to suffer. I wouldn’t take advantage of comforts. I wouldn’t give up my share of suffering….”

On that little boat, the Lazarus, scarcely bigger than a Thames steamer, having accommodation for only twenty-one first-class passengers, twenty-seven second, and sixty third, there were, beyond the usual swarm of Turks, Arabs, and Syrians making short journeys in the Levant, 560 peasant pilglims. Four hundred of them slept in the dark and filthy recesses of the ship’s hold, and the remainder on the open deck. Fulfilling its commercial obligations, the vessel took ftfteen days to make the voyage from the Black Sea to Jaffa. The peasants were mostly in sheepskins, and nearly all the time the sun blazed down upon them. We had two sharp storms, and the peasants, most of whom had never seen the sea before, were terribly unwell. In one stonn, when the masts were broken, the hold where the peasants rolled over one another like corpses, or grasped at one another like madmen, was worse than any imagined pit, the stench there worse than any fire. For 560 pilgrims there were three lavatories with doors without holts. Fitly was the boat named the Lazarus. I heard a priest refer to us as the Lazarus communion; his words were apt. Yet my dear old dyadya whispered to me on the morning before our arrival in Jaffa, “We must not complain.”

After all that we went through, when we arrived at Jerusalem, I heard not a murmur but of the words,”Slava Tebye Gospody! Slava Tebye!” (Glory be to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee!) With eyes all wet the mouzhiks crowded into the monastery for the thanksgiving service, and the great Bible rested on the heads of the close-pressed throng–a human lectern, and more than that. And with what eagerness we pressed in to kiss in turn the cross in the abbot’s hand! As we stood afterwards, a dozen of us, about the door, a woman all in laughing tears knelt down and kissed our feet in turn and asked our forgiveness, seeing that she, a sinful woman, had reached Jerusalem.

Not only had the pilgrims lived that terrible voyage, but many of them had walked a thousand miles and more in Russia before reaching a port of embarkation. Many who were not there in body perished by the way.

Though there are many beggars who have no choice of way it is not usually through lack of means that the pilgrims have to rough it. The peasants brought with them rather more money, man for man, than the tourists in the hotels. To have twenty or thirty pounds in spare cash was quite common, to have fifty or sixty pounds not uncommon. You would never dream it to see the pilgrim’s clothes, but the money is there, deep under the rags, to be used for God’s purposes. It is only the degenerate peasant who pays to have himself conveyed to Jordan, to Nazareth, to Bethlehem. “Oh, what good is it to come,” I heard a peasant say in the Dead Sea wilderness, “if we take no trouble over it?” He was trudging in birch-bark plaited boots which he had made in the far North and kept new to the day when he landed at Jaffa. A simple, patriarchal figure he was, with long, dense hair cut round his head by sheep-shears, and long beard and whiskers encroaching on the sanguine colour of his high cheek-bones and well-scored temples. He was white from head to foot with the dust of the desert, even his hair was caked white, and he walked forward step by step, slowly, equably, pensively. It was at the well of Guerassim he uttered these words, a mysterious little oasis, a warm saltish spring, and over it a loving bush heavy with rhododendron blossoms.

Thus the peasant pilgrimages. On the road to Nazareth, whilst the great caravan is on the road in the third and fourth weeks of Lent, many fall down dead in the dust. They just go on and on, all white from the dust of the road, and at a turn throw up their arms and fall over dead. There is never a complaint.

I have walked many times down the steep, dark way from the Praetorium to Golgotha, where the stumblings of Christ are commemorated, and where, no matter how steady, the wayfarer is bound to stumble; and I have seen thousands of peasants come down. For want of space the Turks do not permit the actual rite, but the seeing eye needs not that to see that the back of the long-suffering Slav is bowed beneath a heavy cross of wood which he is carrying down the treacherous and narrow way to the grave.


THAT it should be with the Russian peasants that I came to Jerusalem is also symbolically true. In the larger pilgrimage of life it is with these simple people that I have been journeying. It was the wish of the heart, the genius of seeking, that taught me to seek Jerusalem through Russia, that brought me to her simple people living in the great open spaces, lighting their candles in the little cotages and temples. At Jerusalem were hundreds of Englishmen and Americans, and the English language was as frequent in my ears as Turkish. I stood next to rich tourists from my own land; they hadn’t the remotest idea that I was other than a Russian peasant, and I thought, “What luck that I didn’t come with these!” But really it was not luck, but destiny.

It is hard for any one to realise himself and the appalling mystery of his steps upon the world. No matter how truly one describes the others who are journeying to Jerusalem, it is always, nevertheless, only one person who is journeying. All that he sees, however strange and separate, is but a furnishing of his soul. I remember how, when night came down upon the steamer, the ship’s lanterns were lit up, and the electric lights twinkled high up on the dark masts. Over the pitch-black wallowing sea the loamy billows leapt like white wolves, and all unheedingly the boat ground forward on its straight line passage to the port wnich it should reach on the morrow. The first and second class passengers would be settling down for the night, the Turks in the third class spreading bright mattresses and quilts on the deck, and improvising curtains round about their black-vdied ladies; but up in the stern would be two hundred Russian men and women with gleaming candles. In the midst of them a peasant would be reading, his deep voice resonant in a general silence, “Glory to Thee, God-chosen Mother, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and earth, glory to Thee!” two hundred voices responding “Glory to Thee!” Then the reader again, and after him the chorus, “Alleiuia, alleluia, alleluia!” going through the akathisti. The akathisti ended, there would follow the singing of sacred hymns and psalms till long after midnight, all sitting on the deck, all peaceful, all intensely happy. At last the singing dies away, the band disperses, and there is silence; nought is heard but the pounding of the engines and the wind in the cordage. It may be at four o’clock in the morning you get up to take a look at the sea once more; in the east the stars are turning pale, the silent boat goes forward with the regularity of a beating heart, and you feel that every one is asleep. Yet look down into the mysterious hold, go down the ladder, and step over the sleepers; away in the dark corners among the sacks embroidered with crosses you see little pictures of Jesus are hung up and candles burn before them, and the unsleeping pilgrim kneels with his bare white brow on the dark floor. In a sense it is Russia that is kneeling; in a sense it is you and I and every one.

There went a whisper round the decks one morning, “We have a mysterious passenger on board.” Whether it was because of the man who said he had been in heaven for twenty-four hours, or because of some mysterious action of the exalted fanatic who slept by the carpenter’s bench, or of the old man who had taken the oath of silence, I know not. It was a typical peasant rumour with no explanation but in the words–“They say … there is a mysterious passenger on board.” It even came to the captain’s cars, for I heard him say, “There are no Russians without passports; of that at any rate I’m quite sure!” as if mystery could be explained away by a passport.

Often I thought of that rumour after we had reached Jerusalem. When the man who had been in heaven began to preach; when the aged beggar Abraham, twenty times in Jerusalem, came and sanctified our wooden beds every morning before dawn in Holy Week, burning incense in an old tin can on a stick, and making the sign of the cross over us with the dense fragrant smoke; when I saw the man all in white by the Golden Gate carrying in all weathers his lighted lamp, I always thought. “There is a mysterious pilgrim in Jerusalem.” When I knelt at the Life-giving Tomb I thought once more, “There is a mysterious pilgrim in Jerusalem, there is myself….”


IN the press of all the nations in Jerusalem at Easter it was perhaps difficult to find Jesus. Perhaps few people really tried to see Him. There was so much memorial of the sad past, so little evidence of the living present.

On Easter morning the old monk, Yevgeny, saluted me with these sad words, “Christ is risen, yes, and it is Easter, but not like the Easter when He rose! How the sun blazes! All Jerusalem is dry and will remain dry, but then it was fresh, and there was rain, such rain. You know there came a fruitful year after His death. No one had known such a summer. Everything seemed to yield double or treble increase, and there was a freshness that seemed to promise impossible things”–the monk’s eye filmed; he went on, “And now it is dry … dry … it has all dried up.” These were sad words, and perhaps true for the man who said them. Every man has a first Easter, and the succeeding ones are anniversaries. What was for him an anniversary was for me perhaps a first Easter or a premonition. I for my part was aware that even at Pilate’s house were fruit trees laden with blossom.

Yes, Jesus was abroad in the land on Easter day, but what is more, He was actually walking the thronged Jerusalem streets in the season of Lent when I myself was there.

These were certainly aids. Did not the peasants nurse in their hearts the rumour–There is a mysterious pilgrim in jerusalem ? There was that man all in white by Herod’s wall, he had that use in the symbology of Jerusalem, by him it was easier to imagine THE MAN IN THE CROWD. Jesus in His day was the man in the crowd; the man whom people clustered round, whom they pressed in to hear, the man of whom strange words or actions were expected. Thus stood Jesus silent on the feast day, the inquisitive flocking about Him and scanning His face, wondering if He would say anything or not, when all of a sudden His lips opened, and there came forth the word of God as from the lips of the oracle … “He stood and cried, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.'”

I suppose the Russian pilgrims read the gospel every day in Lent. Those who could read, read aloud; and those who could not read, listened. They lived with the evangel. It was possible to buy Russian guide-books to Jerusalem in the shops, but very few pilgrims bought t hem. They used their Bibles, and they found the sacred places by asking one another. It was marvellous how they found their way through the labyrinth of dark tunnel-like streets and alleys. And they never missed any shrine as they went, never passed a sacred stone without kissing it. With such clear minds as they have, they will easily reconstruct Jerusalem when they get back to their villages, and their countrymen, counting them half-holy, pour in to ask them what it was like.

Jerusalem is bewildering. Tourists are tired out in three days. Indeed, it is scarcely worth while going there to be a looker-on. Unless one lives the life, Jerusalem can mean little or nothing. And even living the life, it is necessary to have the placid, receptive soul–the open house of the soul wishing to be furnished.

We find Jesus really when we cease looking at Jerusalem and allow the gospel to look into us; when we cease gazing questioningly at Jerusalem the earthly, and realise in ourselves Jerusalem the golden; when in the pure mirror of the soul is reflected the living story of Christ. Then at Bethlehem the babe is born, and over Him the bright star shining, the shepherds hear the angels sing, the old kings come travelling through the night with gifts. The child goes to Nazareth and to Jerusalem. At Jordan, the strange Greek priest baptizing by the flowing stream is veritably John. To him comes the mysterious Pilgrim: did not the heaven in one’s soul bear witness! Jerusalem holds a Prophet. In indignation He whips the hawkers from the Temple; He says a final No to commercial Jerusalem and lives thereafter in the purged city, the city independent of material appearance. He moves among the souls of men; He gives forth oracularly the living word of God. At Bethany, Lazarus once more steps out of the grave and sits at Martha’s board, and when the pilgrims come on Palm Sunday, strewing wild flowers as they walk, and bearing on their shoulders olive branches and palms, there is truly in the midst of them the mysterious Pilgrim sitting upon an ass, and they hymn Him to Jerusalem.

The whole heart is a world, and that world is a temple. Every step and every movement is mysterious, every procession is a rite, a word, or a letter in a word, of the great poem which God reads, which is man’s life.

Alas! there are strange doings in the Temple; the dark figures that mingle with the white move forward to dark ends. The Pilgrim sits at supper with eleven white ones and a dark one; the dark one goes out. The Pilgrim goes into a cypress-veiled garden and prays; the dark one comes back and kisses Him. A dark crowd with staves presses in and the Pilgrim is taken away by them. There is a choice made between Him and a robber; there is a foolish trial. Then comes a symbolism within the symbolism, like a dream within a dream, for they put upon the Pilgrim’s head a crown of thorns, and on His shoulders a purple robe. They lead Him forth unto death. He carries the heavy cross down the steep dark way, and stumbles as He walks. To the same cross He is nailed, and the cross is set up. It is rooted in the lowest depths, and it rises into the highest heaven. Upon it hangs the mysterious One all glistering white, yet shedding drops of blood…. Then all is lost in a darkness that not till Easter morning will disperse.


A RITE scarcely lives as long as it is merely ecclesiastical, but when it is personal, it is altogether lovely. The swinging of the censer in church one allows to pass almost unnoticed, but old Abraham burning incense over us in his old tin can melts one to tears. On Holy Thursday one looks upon the washing of the disciples’ feet by the white-handed, delicate old Patriarch, but it is only a church pageant and a spectacle–the richly carpeted platform in the square of the Sepulchre, the monks each named after an apostle, the table on which stand the twelve candles, the gentle greybeard with a silk-towel at his girdle washing the spotless feet with rose-scented water from a silver basin, the pageantry of the church, its gold crosses and banners, the crush of sightseers all about. It is a different matter when an inspired peasant washes his fellow-pilgrims’ feet from an old tin pail at the back of the monastery wall. It is not artistic; the feet are very dirty; it looks coarse and uninspiring, but it is real, and if you can see beyond material appearance it is lovely. It has the beauty of summer which is hidden in the rich black earth.

Surely the priests have erred by making it into a dead pageant and letting out the roof of the Sepulchre in seats for a price. They are not near to the behest, “Wash ye one another’s feet.” The office of humility has little in common with gold crosses and carpets. Even as a picture the rough peasant’s rite was more like the original. As a reality there was no comparison, for the peasant washing the feet was the mysterious Pilgrim.

In the days of old
Cross of wood and bishop of gold,
But now they have altered that law so good
To cross of gold and bishop of wood.

Then also at the temple of Golgotha on Good Friday, and at the Sepulchre on Easter night, there were great pageants, and the accomplishment of rites ecclesiastical and no more, and though it is expressly to those places and for those time’s that the peasant makes his pilgrimage, he is quite content to realise the meaning of the time in his own Russian cathedral in the Russian settlement. The grave would have to be fifteen times as large as it is to accommodate the Russians materially: those whose bodies are not jammed and fixed in that terrible death-dealing crowd are at least there hy faith. Obviously it is possible to be there in the body and yet not be there at all–speaking in the language of the heart. Indeed, for some it is not necessary to travel to Jerusalem the earthly at all; they find the Holy City in the village church on Easter night.

The peasant is saved hy his personal realisation of holy things, by the cross which is not only in his priest’s hands, but hanging from his own neck, by the ikon not only in the church but in the home, by his hospitable house and heart, by his hard-tramped pilgrimage, by his own visions and inspirations.

Thus a pilgrim who made friends with me when I arrived at Jerusalem asked at once my name, meaning by that my Ch1istian name, and took me to the place where my “angel” was stoned. “Here he stood when they took up stones; you see the stones all about, the same stones … and here on this rock stood the Mother of God on tip-toe looking on whilst they stoned him.” Following him, I knelt down and kissed the places in turn.

I suppose every man whose life is a going forth upon divine adventures feels somewhere at the back of him the supporting faith of a woman. Hilda looking on, the Master-Builder climbs the scaffold and does the impossible a second time. Mary looking on, the first martyr faces his persecutors with a face catching a radiance from a hidden light. A man and a woman make one man–he is the outward limbs battling in the world; she is his steady beating heart.

The rough unshorn peasant in his old sheepskin had not learned to read, and knew nothing of my mind or its furnishings, but he brought me there like a child.


As I was tramping through the Crimea and along the Black Sea coast toward the Turkish frontier it often occurred to me that I was with the wise men, or one of them, following a star to Bethlehem. When I reached the Holy Land, Bethlehem was one of the first places that I visited; and as if Providence had smiled on me, it turned out that the day which saw me there was my own birthday.

I shall always remember the day. The March wind blew freshly over the trimly rounded stone hills outside Jerusalem, and seemed to turn over Bible pages. Every scene was like a living representation of some picture in a religious book at home. The palm started up into the sky on the horizon, the dark cypress gloomed beside grey ancient walls, brown-faced girls came carrying pots on their heads, Arabs overtook me with trains of mules. All that was new were the bent peasant women, trudging down the road with bundles cross-marked on their backs.

As I looked at the budding spring and the little children gathering wild flowers, I knew myself in a place which does not alter, the place where people are always young, and the world is always fresh and full of promise. I had indeed reached Bethlehem on my own birthday.

Some weeks later, on Easter day, as soon as the sun had risen, I came to the Sepulchre, that second birthplace of Christ, and I measured the way from Bethlehem.

The old monk Yevgeny was with me, and we read together the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of St. John. My friend always carried about with him a great family Bible wrapped up in newspaper, and every day he found some one with whom to read and talk. It was with him that I measured the life from Bethlehem, the birthplace of the loving human child bound to be rejected by the world, to the Sepulchre, birthplace of the celestial child above us, no longer subject to our powers.

When the sun went down in majesty on Easter eve, as if answering the behest, “Father, glorify Thy Name,” there came a whisper to my ears, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Easter eve is a sunset, but Easter morning is a celestial sunrise.

“The story was fresh, fresh,” said Yevgeny, turning over the leaves of St. John dreamily, “but now it is dry, dry as a mummy. Once it was very real; we must not forget that.”

For me, however, it was fresh and real now, for in myself the first pilgrim had just reached tLe City.

Stephen Graham, With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem (1913), from the Prologue

A fruitless quest and a fruitful one

“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus declares to his disciples in the Upper Room. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…. He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16.12-15).

The crucial matter, then, is not the historical question: Which words did Jesus actually speak prior to his crucifixion? The crucial matter is rather the canonical authority invested in the entire biblical witness by God himself. For even among the ipsissima verba Jesu, the words Jesus actually spoke during his earthly ministry, the biblical authors were selective, guided in their choice by both the needs of local communities and the living memory of the Church. And we take it as an article of faith that the process of selecting and recasting those teachings, to provide the basis for the apostolic writings, was an inspired process, one guided precisely by the risen Lord acting through the Spirit of Truth.

A quest for the ipsissima verba Jesu, as we should have learned with the original “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” is ultimately fruitless. It may be of interest from a strictly historical point of view, but it has no bearing on the matter of salvation. Whether spoken before his crucifixion or after his resurrection and exaltation, the words of Jesus are authoritative—they are words of eternal life—only because they are invested with saving power by God himself. In other words, neither their authority nor their saving power depends on their historicity—i.e., whether Jesus actually pronounced them prior to his crucifixion. They depend, rather, on their canonicity, their divinely established normative character.

Fr John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, pp 20-21

Note further that “canonicity” is not connoting here the idea of list of books of the Bible, but rather divinely established rule of faith. This is the rule of faith, the divinely established body of belief and way of life that enables us to properly give glory to God: precisely orthodoxia or Orthodoxy. Within that system, those beliefs and practices which are known guarantors of purification, illumination, and deification are those which are recognized as canonical, as pertaining to the rule of faith. Scripture is only one of such things. This recognition is characteristic particularly for those who have experienced theoria, the ineffable “divine vision” which is a grace of God, for they have been purified of their passions (though they are still sinners), have been illumined (though still fighting the darkness), and are living in theosis (though still human). But even those along the way are able to glimpse at least some small portion of the great interlocking wonder, the holistic beauty of a system of ethical, physical, psychological therapies, but especially and primarily spiritual therapies for the true healing of the soul, the most precious part of any of us. The Church, it is often said, is a hospital for the healing of souls. It is true. Healthy roots raise up a healthy and mighty tree, even if a poaching woodsman comes along to lob off branches for firewood and mar the tree’s beauty. But the tree will grow stronger and taller, and eventually the woodsman will no longer find branches to hack off as they’ll have grown out of his reach. So it can be with us, with the proper Physician, the Lover of Mankind.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this book by Fr Breck. Nearly every page bears a thought-provoking passage.

Future Plans

I have been accepted for admission to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where I intend, if I am deemed worthy, to enter the seminary program.

More from Fr Alexis Trader

I think everyone who is interested in the subject matter of my previous post, particularly those with any kind of responsibility for the salvation of souls other than their own, will find the very interesting conversation between Fr Alexis and Mark Downham to be enlightening, at just the right time of year.

Relatedly, it seems that Fr Alexis’s guest posts on various blogs have resulted in what was hoped for. New copies of Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds have been exhausted at most online retailers (and perhaps are available only directly from Peter Lang Publishing Group at this point), with the price of used copies rising. So, it seems realistic to hope for a paperback edition, and hopefully in the very near future. It was the dialogue between Fr Alexis and Mark Downham that decided me: I want to read the whole book.

But this post is really about some other work of Fr Alexis, two books in particular, one with which I knew he was the author, and the other of which I did not know he was the translator. Despite slackness in posting (and in updating my “Now Reading” link!), yet have I been prolifically and pleasantly plowing through publications, pre- and post-Pascha.

The first of these books by Fr Alexis is one that I mentioned in my last post: In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit, published by Frank Schaeffer’s Regina Orthodox Press, but seemingly out of print. This is unfortunate, because the book is a stunner. Prior to reading this volume, I didn’t know much about Pentecostalism and its various expressions, aside from some widely shared misconceptions and even stereotypes. Fr Alexis places the development of Pentecostalism within the history of the development of Western Christianity. But let us be clear. Pentecostalism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. It is entirely alien to the Orthodox Christianity, which is also to say that it is alien to the early Church and the Patristic Church. Support for its peculiar doctrines arises from mistranslations and misreadings of those mistranslations. The Patristic understanding of “tongues” is that this gift is that of hesychastic, noetic prayer, of prayer of the heart, and not of vocal babbling or extemporaneous prayer or preaching. I have with my own eyes read some ridiculous Pentecostal interpretations of the phrase στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις (Rom 8.26), “with unspoken groans,” as referring not to wordless prayer of the heart, but to statements in incomprehensible languages, along with the additional claim (and this from someone well-respected as a scholar!) that there is no other interpretation of this phrase but his own in the history of Christianity. Such a person only shows himself completely divorced from and ignorant of the ascetic and hesychastic traditions exemplified in such writings as the Apophthegmata Patērōn, among others. Fr Alexis’s explication is, however, entirely in keeping with Orthodox Christian theology, drawing on numerous Fathers from early to later dates, and showing a consistency of interpretation and approach to such matters throughout the ages. Enthusiasm, ecstasy, and emotionalism are alien to Christianity properly lived, period. However, such are an almost guaranteed result of participation (philosophically and theologically) in any of the various groups with Western Christian roots. Hopefully the book will return to print sometime soon. I was lucky to have a copy.

The second book, of which Fr Alexis is the translator and annotator of the English edition (and which fact I only noticed once I was quite some way into the book!) is Fr John Romanides’s Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr. John Romanides (Uncut Mountain Press, 2008). This book and Fr Romanides’s The Ancestral Sin are the best books I’ve read in years. Reading them back-to-back left my head whirling a bit, in all honesty, and I am about to read both again. Both are so full of information, that while clearly and accurately presented, the reader must be attentive and savour the book rather than simply read it. There is a very nearly overwhelming abundance in the case of Patristic Theology, presented in rather obscure organization as the selections are excerpts from lectures. But throughout, Fr Alexis has provided clarifying and informative footnotes which extend the value of Fr John’s own writings. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and insist upon its being accompanied by The Ancestral Sin. At the core of both lies a similar proposition, one which is shared by Fr Alexis’s In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: the West has a knockoff brand (a streetware counterfeit of sorts!) of Christianity that is based at root in the work of Augustine, who apparently never gained any understanding of purification, illumination, and glorification as understood by the Church Fathers, Greek and Latin, who went before him. I’ll say it again: Augustine should’ve learned Greek, and should’ve had better schooling; one of the sharper knives in the drawer would then have been truly keen. With his almost complete ignorance of Patristic Tradition, however (there was so very little available natively in Latin), Augustine had to rely upon his own rationalizations—a risky endeavour at the best of time. The result is that his errors were bad enough, but having his work taken up as the basis for all of subsequent Western Christianity is an unmitigated disaster. The evaluation of Augustine by various Western Christians as some kind of Patristic Pinnacle reveals nothing about Augustine, but rather the complete lack of proper understanding of Patristic (that is, Christian) theology in the West, shocking as that may seem. This is made clear throughout the two works of Fr John, though in a more organized presentation in The Ancestral Sin. Beginning with the title of that book, we already see the vast difference between East and West, between Patristic Christianity and something else: “the ancestral sin” was the very sin of Adam, one single sin, not “original sin” as some kind of nebulous miasma of guilt, of uncertain definition and even more uncertain nature in both existence and transmission, as introduced by Augustine. Fr John during his life and even now that he has fallen asleep in the Lord, has always taken flack for these positions, most especially from supporters of Augustine and his errors. But Fr John pulled no punches, and has done a service to those who are interested in the Truth, wherever it may lead them. Can you tell I’m a fan?

I can tell you I am also a new fan of Fr Alexis. I’ll be tracking down more of his writings. Thank you for your service, public and private, to the Church, Fr Alexis. Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Guest post by Fr Alexis Trader

The following is the fourth in a series of four guest posts from Fr. Alexis Trader, a priestmonk and spiritual father of Karakallou Monastery on the Holy Mountain, and author of In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit. Fr. Alexis has recently released a new book, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, and it is about his new book that he now writes. (The first, second, and third posts have been posted elsewhere, for which see below.)

Practical Value? Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

When I select books that I am going to read, I am usually looking for more than novel discoveries and interesting facts. As a monk and as an American, I want something that works, something that I can apply to my own life, or that I can use to offer consolation for the lives of those around me. I am often searching for practical wisdom such as what you find at the end of Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies, in the correspondence of Saints Barsanuphius and John, or in talks by Elder Paisios. While the first half of Ancient Christian Wisdom deals with theory, the remainder has to do with practice. The choice is deliberate: an Orthodox approach to any issue should involve a unity of theoria and praxis. Interestingly enough, clinical handbooks on cognitive therapy deal with the subject of treatment in the same way.

So, in the last half of the book, I look first at the spiritual father and the cognitive therapist and then turn to behavioral and cognitive techniques used by therapists and the Church Fathers to bring about a positive change in a person’s psychological or spiritual state. I should add that it’s necessary to talk about the people who apply particular techniques or methods, in order to bring the discussion back down to the level of day-to-day life. So, in Chapter Six I take the reader down a rather unlikely portrait gallery containing representations of spiritual fathers and cognitive therapists. On one hand, I look at the spiritual father in his liturgical office as a priest, in his charismatic role as a prophet, and in his pastoral capacity as a person trying to help another human being. Simultaneously, I consider the cognitive therapist in the context of a therapy session as a diagnostician, consultant, and educator with certain therapeutic skills. Then to fill out the picture, I contrast the people seeking help: the sinner in need of confession and the client in need of help with psychological difficulties. The many differences and occasional similarities are important for determining when it is appropriate for a therapist or a pastor to use material from the other field and which material can be of service.

In Chapter Seven, I consider the behavioral techniques used in cognitive therapy and ascetic practice associated with the spiritual life. I first situate these issues within the general context of solving problems, setting goals, and running experiments. Although ascetic practices such as vigil and behavioral techniques such as activity monitoring do occupy quite different universes, the general context of problems, goals, and the value of experience is really framed in strikingly similar ways by Church Fathers and cognitive therapists. The interesting question is whether techniques or practices from one universe are transplantable in another. Chapter Seven grapples with that problem and offers some patristic suggestions.

In Chapter Eight, I look at the ways in which the Fathers advise the faithful to deal with thoughts that are bad and how cognitive therapists counsel their clients to cope with thoughts that are maladaptive. Again, the contexts are very different. The Fathers speak of the inter-relationship among watchfulness, praxis, and divine vision. Cognitive therapists talk about the value of charts, scales, and diagrams. Nevertheless, leaving aside the use of prayer to overcome bad thoughts, many specifics line up. That is, both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists speak about the value of exposing, rebutting, disdaining, and analyzing the thoughts. The meaning of these similar practices, however, is vastly different.

In Chapter Nine, I turn to how the Church Fathers and cognitive therapists handle those deeper tendencies and habits of the mind that so strongly influence how people react to situations and difficulties. Here, we get closer to the core of the human person. The parallels are fewer and the care required, lest damage be done, is greater. Nevertheless, there are similarities such as the reading of appropriate books (bibliotherapy), the cultivation of the right kind of thoughts, and a healthy review of one’s life (a life confession or autobiographical journaling).

Was this exploration of the Fathers and cognitive therapy useful? In the concluding chapter, I note, “While both patristic and cognitive approaches have great value in their own right and their own domain, knowledge about ‘the other side’ is always helpful, and in the case of patristic thought, salvific. In other words, knowledge of cognitive therapy can help the spiritual father communicate with those who approach human problems with the psychological mindset that is prevalent in contemporary culture. Knowledge of patristic teachings can infuse the work of the cognitive therapists with spiritual meaning, purpose, and moral direction, especially when treating Orthodox Christian patients.” It has been a worthwhile journey and I am grateful to those who have encouraged me to make it.

The book is available through Amazon.

(For those unfamiliar with academic presses that produce a limited number of monographs for university libraries, the book will unfortunately seem rather expensive. I would encourage those who wish to read the book, but find it outside their budget, to approach their local college or public library about the possibility of purchasing it. Perhaps, groups of five could purchase it as a donation for their parish library or the pastor’s library. If the hard copies sell well, a less expensive paperback may be on the way).

If you would like to read more, please read the the first three sections of this series of blog posts:
Post #1 – March 22nd: John Sanidopoulos’s Mystagogy
Post #2 – March 25th: Fr Jonathan’s Second Terrace
Post #3 – March 28th: Esteban Vázquez’s The Voice of Stefan

Two sample chapters of the book are available online:
Read the book’s Introduction here.

Read Chapter 9 here.

You are an unfinished book

Life in the world is like a manuscript of writings that is still in rough draft. When a man wishes or desires to do so, he can add something or subtract from it, and make changes in the writings. But the life in the world to come is like documents written on clean scrolls and sealed with the royal seal, where no addition or deletion is possible. Therefore, so long as we are found in the midst of change, let us pay heed to ourselves; and while we have power over the manuscript of our life, which we have written by our own hand, let us strive earnestly to add to it by leading a good manner of life, and let us erase from it the failings of our former life. We have power to erase our debts from it as long as we are here. And God will take into account every change we make in it, so that we may be deemed worthy of eternal life before we go before the King and He sets His seal upon it. For so long as we are in this world, God does not affix His seal either to what is good or to what is evil, even up to the moment of our departure when the service of our fatherland is completed and we set out upon our journey. And as Saint Ephraim says, we should make our soul like a ready ship that does not know when a wind will come upon it, or like an army that does not know when the trumpet of battle will sound. And if, he says, merchants are so well prepared for the sake of a little gain, though they will perhaps soon return from their voyage, how much more should we make ourselves ready, and in advance prepare ourselves before the coming of that decisive day, that bridge and door into the new age? May Christ, the mediator of our life, grant us to arrive at that decisive judgment in full preparation, He that has glory, worship, and thanksgiving unto the ages. Amen.

St Isaac the Syrian, from Homily Sixty-Two

The Vision of Theophilus

Following is a translation by Alphonse Mingana of the Third Book of an apocryphal history of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. This book is typically referred to (somewhat imprecisely) as The Vision of Theophilus, for the discourse of the Virgin to Theophilus comprises the majority of this book. The translation and original Syriac text are found in Mingana’s Woodbrooke Studies, volume 3, a pdf of which is available here, for those interested in further introductory materials, annotations, and the Syriac text. (The same volume, as a bonus, includes the text and translation of the Syriac Apocalypse of Peter.) Of chief interest in the Vision is the description of the troubled journey of the Holy Family into Egypt, escaping King Herod.

This book is obviously in its origins closely connected with the most important shrine associated with the travels of the Holy Family in Egypt, the Monastery of the Holy Virgin at al-Muharraq, near the mountains of Qusqam, near the town of al-Qusiya in Upper Egypt, 48 km north of Assyut. The church there is (so the narrative and Coptic tradition uphold) the first church in the world, consecrated by the risen Lord, where the first Divine Liturgy in the world was celebrated by the miraculously transported Peter and the Apostles, with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome (Mary’s cousin who accompanied the Holy Family into Egypt) also present. The Vision is actually something of a foundation story for the church and monastery there, rather than strictly an account of the Holy Family’s travels throughout Egypt. The church is built upon the ruins of an ancient house that the Holy Family is said to have stayed in for six months, the longest duration of any of their traditional stops, and traditionally the southernmost (although there is also the Monastery of the Holy Virgin further south at Durunka, the position of which is harmonized through its being the place where the Holy Family waited in a cave to embark on a boat sailing down the Nile on their way back to the Holy Land.).

The narrative is complicated. The Theophilus of the title is Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria (+412). The account is a first-person account of some event of Theophilus’ tenure, including a visit to the monastery during which he is granted a vision of the Virgin Mary, who then relates (in first person) her and her Son’s connection with the monastery. The entire narrative is then said to have been actually written down by Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444) himself! But there is no doubt that while the narrative demonstrates traditions of definite antiquity it does not date so far back as St Cyril! Mingana would attribute the work to Kyriakos, Bishop of Bahnasa (Oxyrrhynchus), who wrote in the early fifteenth century.

While there are many aspects of the Vision of Theophilus which do not align with Eastern Orthodox tradition regarding the Holy Family (and which will certainly be all the more entirely bizarre to western Christians) the work itself is still a rather beautiful expression of piety. For more information on the traditions related to the Holy Family in Egypt, see this post in which I give short descriptions of a number of excellent books on the subject. Enjoy a seasonally apropos reading originating from a land closer to the sunrise!

Again the third Book (containing) the flight (according to) the vision shown to Theophilus, Patriarch of the great city of Alexandria, concerning the arrival of our Lady Mary, Mother of God, in the land of Egypt, and concerning the house which she and her beloved Son Jesus Christ inhabited in the holy mountain of Ḳusḳam, on account of their great fear of King Herod.

Continue reading “The Vision of Theophilus”