‘St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Paul the First Hermit’ – Diego Velazquez, 1635 – WikiArt
“The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.”
~ John of Damascus
The birth of a religion is always a time of effervescence. This was the case with Christianity, when appeared many monks, hermits, writers and theologians who contributed to build what would become the foundations of this religion. They were later called the Church Fathers, for they were the first Christians, who cleared the grounds. They took the teaching of Jesus and put it to the test, to the fire of experimentation. They explored it in Greek, in Latin, in Syriac, in silence, in poverty, in the desert, in knowledge. They were the first commentators, the first bishops, popes, exegetes, monks, martyrs of a religion that was still under construction. They came to it with fresh minds. They popped up from Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, Italy, Spain, France, some of them still hungry to find out in their body and mind the traces of truth. They bore the evocative names of a distant time: Anthony the great, Moses the Black, Augustine of hippo, Papias of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna, Isaac of Nineveh, Maximus the confessor, and many more. Some of the oldest ones had been the direct students of the apostles. Others went to the desert where they lived in reclusion, as was the case with Anthony the Great.
Anthony the Great was born in 251 in Egypt. He was one of these Desert Fathers, and amongst the very first ones to live the hardships of a solitary life in the wilderness. For decades, he remained a strict ascetic. His purpose for doing so was clear enough: “The person who abides in solitude and quiet is delivered from fighting three battles: hearing, speech, and sight. Then there remains one battle to fight — the battle of the heart.” Towards the end of his life, he organised the many people who had finally gathered around him into the first body of monks in history, which is why he was later known as the ‘Father of All Monks’. He died in 356, leaving to his companions this very touching message: “Be earnest to keep your strong purpose, as though you were but now beginning. You know the demons who plot against you, you know how savage they are and how powerless; therefore, fear them not. Let Christ be as the breath you breathe; in Him put your trust. Live as dying daily, heeding yourselves and remembering the counsels you have heard from me. […] And now God save you, children, for Anthony departs and is with you no more.”
“To one whose mind is sound, letters are needless.”
“To say that God turns away from the sinful
is like saying that the sun hides from the blind.”
‘St. Anthony Abbot’ – Diego Velazquez, 1638 – WikiArt
Moses the Black is another of these ascetic monks who lived in the Egyptian desert at that time. Born in Ethiopia, he was famous for having led the life of a robber and a criminal, before dedicating his life to a monastic community which he had encountered in the desert. To a local pilgrim who came to him to be taught some of his wisdom, he answered plainly: “Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all.” A beautiful reminder of the supreme importance of resting and abiding in our self, where the true and only teaching resides in final analysis.
This injunction from Moses was certainly applied to the letter by one later saint and ascetic called Isaac of Nineveh. Isaac was born in Eastern Arabia in 613. When still a young man, he entered a monastery to practice asceticism. He also studied in the library, becoming an authoritative theologian, and was ordained a bishop in present-day Northern Irak. But he so badly longed to be an ascetic, that he left his position to become a hermit, living many years in the solitude of wilderness. As a lettered man, he could transcribe his thoughts and inner life in a consequent body of writing, where his talent both as a writer and a seeker of truth was recognised. Most of the following quotes are excerpted from his book ‘Mystic Treatises’:
“God is greater!
Greater than your illness whatever it may be.
Greater than your deepest disappointment.
Greater than your greatest worry.
Greater than your worst enemy.
Greater than your most difficult problem.
Greater than life. Greater than death.
God is greater! Believe it! Live by it! Affirm it!
Claim it by faith and use it as a pillow to rest your weary soul.
God is greater!”
Isaac of Nineveh, or Isaac the Syrian, as he was also called, was well aware that man’s redemption is not to be found in objective experience, or in believing to share the limits of the body, but hid right at the heart of our innermost sense of self or being. This is the way of repentance, so often advocated in Christianity:
“Why do you trouble yourself in a house that is not your own?
Let the sight of a dead man be a teacher for you concerning your departure from hence.”
“Why do you increase your bonds? […]
This life has been given to you for repentance;
do not waste it in vain pursuits.”
Isaac had a proper understanding of prayer, which lies not in asking or begging, but in revealing what is already here at the core of our being. Prayer is as much a giving than a receiving. To pray is to turn our attention to our self, and in doing so receive the gift of love:
“The flower of spiritual knowledge is divine love. […] Love is the fruit of prayer […] Patiently abiding in prayer signifies a man’s renunciation of himself. Therefore the self-denial of the soul turns into love for God.”
“Prayer without distraction is that prayer
which produces in the soul the constant thought of God.
For also this is God’s incarnation, that He dwells in us
by our constant recollection of Him.”
“Prayer accords strictly with behaviour. No man desires heavenly things as long as he is bound with ties [impeding] his will, on account of the body. And no man asks divine things while he is occupied with earthly things. The desire of every man is known from his works; and that which he cares for, he will be anxious to seek in prayer. And he will be zealous in showing by his outward deeds that which he asks for in his prayer.”
“Let thy prayers be followed by works of excellence,
that thy soul may see the flower of the light of truth.
In consequence of the heart’s freedom from external recollections,
the mind will receive [the gift] of ecstatic understanding of things.”
“When the spirit takes its dwelling place in a man, he does not cease to pray, because the spirit will constantly pray in him. Then, neither when he sleeps, nor when he is awake, will prayer be cut off from his soul; but when he eats and when he drinks, when he lies down or when he does any work, even when he is immersed in sleep, the perfumes of prayer will breathe in his soul spontaneously. And henceforth he will not possess prayer at limited times, but always; and when he has outward rest, even then prayer is ministered unto him secretly. For the silence of the serene is prayer, says a man clad with Christ. For their deliberations are divine impulses. The motions of the pure mind are quiet voices with which they secretly chant psalms to the Invisible One.”
‘Isaac of Nineveh’ – Unknown – Wikimedia
As all monks are, Isaac of Nineveh was a lover of silence, which he has practiced enough to know that it is not just the absence of noise. Silence is the very clothing of awareness, and is therefore the likeness of god’s presence:
“If you love truth, be a lover of silence.
Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God
and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance.
Silence will unite your soul to God.”
“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that the tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then from our very silence is born something that draws us into deeper silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence. If you practice this, inexpressible light will dawn upon you.”
Isaac made sure that we understand the true meaning of love, whose nature is inexhaustible, unconditional, and therefore objectless. Love is the ever-present nature of our being. It is in truth the very kingdom promised by god:
“There is love like a small lamp,
which goes out when the oil is consumed;
or like a stream which dries up when it doesn’t rain.
But there is a love that is like a mighty spring gushing up out of the earth;
it keeps flowing forever, and is inexhaustible.”
“Do not demand love from your neighbor, because you will suffer if you don’t receive it; but better still, you indicate your love toward your neighbor and you will settle down. In this way, you will lead your neighbor toward love.”
“Don’t exchange your love toward your neighbor for some type of object, because in having love toward your neighbor, you acquire within yourself Him, Who is most precious in the whole world. Forsake the petty so as to acquire the great; spurn the excessive and everything meaningless so as to acquire the valuable.”
“Love is the kingdom of which our Lord spoke when He symbolically promised the disciples that, they would eat in His kingdom: ‘you shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom’. What should they eat, if not love? Love is sufficient to feed man in stead of food and drink. This is the wine that gladdens the heart of man. Blessed is he who has drunk from this wine. This is the wine from which the lascivious have drunk and they became chaste, the sinners and they forgot the ways of offence, the drunkards and they became fasters, the rich and they became desirous of poverty, the poor and they became rich in hope, the sick and they became valiant, the fools and they became wise.”
Isaac the Syrian stresses here the importance of abiding repeatedly in the self, a practice which alone has the power to break our deeply ingrained habit of seeing ourself as a body separate, and at a distance from the world which is out there:
“If the heart is not occupied with study,
it cannot endure the turbulence of the body’s assault.”
“A small but always persistent discipline is a great force;
for a soft drop falling persistently, hollows out hard rock.”
‘Athanasius von Alexandria’ – Unknown – Wikimedia
The ways of grace were well known to Isaac. They lied in a resting, a natural state in which no effort or movement are required, and where god’s will coincides with our own personal will:
“To whatever extent a person draws close to God with his intentions,
is to what extent God draws close to him with His gifts.”
“The natural that precedes faith is the path toward faith and toward God.”
“The mouth which is continuously giving thanks receives blessing from God.
In the heart that always shows gratitude, grace abides.”
Here, Isaac of Nineveh explains how the belief in separation is the main cause of our psychological suffering, and how the dissolution of this belief melts away our sense of being a ‘sufferer’, and reveals our essential nature of beauty, creativity, and happiness:
“When, on account of a long abode in thy cell and troublesome labours and secret observance and restraint of the senses from all contact, the power of solitude gets hold of thee, thou wilt find first that joy which from time to time, without a cause, dominates thy soul. Then thy eyes are opened to see God’s creative power and the beauty of the creatures, in accordance with the degree of thy purity. And when the mind by this sight has been snatched up in ecstasy, night and day become one to it in its admiration of the glorious works of God. And then the apperception of the affections is taken away from the soul by the delight of this sight.”
At the end of his life, Isaac of Nineveh became blind and settled in a monastery. He is said to have died around 700, at age 87, and has remained an important voice of truth in and beyond the Christian Orthodox tradition to which he belonged. In these last quotes, he speaks wisely of suffering, humility, and the greatness of god:
“The cross is the gate of mysteries ;
here takes place the entrance of the mind
unto the knowledge of the heavenly mysteries.
The knowledge of the cross is hidden
within the sufferings of the cross.”
“Humility collects the soul into a single point by the power of silence. A truly humble man has no desire to be known or admired by others, but wishes to plunge from himself into himself, to become nothing, as if he had never been born. When he is completely hidden to himself in himself, he is completely with God.”
“As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean,
so are the sins of all flesh as compared with God’s mind.
As a fountain that flows abundantly is not dammed by a handful of earth
so the mercy of the Creator is not vanquished by the wickedness of the creatures.”
One of the most important Church Fathers is the famous Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) who lived between 354 and 430. He was born in present day Algeria, in a Latin speaking family. He studied, traveled, lived in Carthage, Roma, and Milan, where he became a professor of rhetoric. After his conversion to Christianity, he became a priest and a splendid orator. He wrote eminent pieces of work like ‘The City of God’, or ‘Confessions’. He excelled in theology, philosophy, sociology, developing spiritual and philosophical topics such as the nature of time, causality, and free will. He was made bishop of Hippo, a city of his native country Algeria, where he died. Augustine deserves a page of his own, but I will only share here a few quotes from ‘Confessions’, where he describe how consciousness — the ‘Life of my life’ as he calls it — and grace, interpenetrates the world:
“I thought about thee, O Life of my life, as stretched out through infinite space, interpenetrating the whole mass of the world, reaching out beyond in all directions, to immensity without end; so that the earth should have thee, the heaven have thee, all things have thee, and all of them be limited in thee, while thou art placed nowhere at all.”
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
“I viewed all the other things that are beneath thee, and I realized that they are neither wholly real nor wholly unreal. They are real in so far as they come from thee; but they are unreal in so far as they are not what thou art. For that is truly real which remains immutable. It is good, then, for me to hold fast to God, for if I do not remain in him, neither shall I abide in myself; but he, remaining in himself, renews all things.”
“Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider.”
‘Maximus the Confessor’ – Unknown Author – Wikimedia
Many other Church Fathers are worthy of attention. Maximus the Confessor was born in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 580. Maximus was a lettered man who had studied the works of the great Greek philosophers. After being a secretary of the Byzantine emperor in place, he resigned and entered the monastic life. At the very end of his life, he was wrongly accused of heresy and was mutilated and exiled in present-day Georgia as a punishment. He died there in 662. Maximus wrote extensively on many mystical, ascetical, and theological topics. He had a genuine understanding that god’s presence is never experienced at a distance, but within our own heart and presence, away from everything objective. “Love is a good disposition of the soul by which one prefers no being to the knowledge of God. It is impossible to reach the habit of this love if one has any attachment to earthly things.” This profound and intimate knowledge of our innermost being is verily god’s knowledge. He was well aware that this experience of pure consciousness, or god, cannot be described through words: “Only wonder can comprehend His incomprehensible power”.
“Those who seek the Lord should not look for Him outside themselves; on the contrary, they must seek Him within themselves through faith made manifest in action. For He is near you: ‘The word is… in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith’ (Rom. 10:8) – Christ being Himself the word that is sought.”
“In all of our deeds God looks at the intention,
whether we do it for His sake,
or for the sake of some other intention.”
“Nothing in theosis is the product of human nature, for nature cannot comprehend God. It is only the mercy of God that has the capacity to endow theosis unto the existing… In theosis, man (the image of God) becomes likened to God, he rejoices in all the plenitude that does not belong to him by nature, because the grace of the Spirit triumphs within him, and because God acts in him.”
“The person who loves God values knowledge of God
more than anything created by God,
and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly.”
As this journey with a few of the Church and Desert Fathers comes to an end, I will retain this quote by Abba Alonas, found in the book ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’:
“Unless a person says in his heart,
‘I alone and God are in the world’,
he will not have repose.”
…Or this other one by Clement of Alexandria (153–217), a philosopher born in Athens who studied Plato and the Stoics and travelled in Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, and Egypt. This quote of his gives us this sense of wonder that Maximus evoked before:
“O mystic marvel!
The universal Father is one, and one the universal Word;
and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere…”
…But it is with Macarius of Egypt, a Coptic Christian monk and hermit, that I would like to end this journey. Born in Egypt in 300, Macarius retired in the desert and was called the ‘old young man’ in reference to his great wisdom that attracted many followers. At mid-life, he became a priest and founded his own community in the desert. He died in 391. Listen with what genuine beauty and intimate knowledge he describes the wonder that is the experience of god’s presence and reality:
“If then thou art become a throne of God, and the heavenly Charioteer has mounted thee, and thy whole soul has become a spiritual eye, and thy whole soul light; and if thou hast been nourished with that nourishment of the Spirit, and if thou hast been made to drink of the Living Water, and if thou hast put on the garments of the ineffable light; if thine inward man is established in the experience and full assurance of all these things, behold, thou livest, thou livest the eternal life indeed, and thy soul from henceforth is at rest with the Lord.”
Quotes by Isaac of Nineveh (613-700)
and other Church Fathers (2nd to 7th Century)
The first two paintings are by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
Accompanying text by Alain Joly
Read this remarkable text by Fred Bahnson in Emergence Magazine: ‘Keeping the World in Being’, that brings in the work of the Desert Fathers…
Most of the quotes presented here are excerpted from the following works:
– ‘Isaac of Nineveh, Mystic Treatises’ – by Isaac of Nineveh (trans. by Arent Jan Wensinck) – (Published in Amsterdam in 1923)
– ‘Life of St Anthony’ – by Athanasius of Alexandria
– ‘The Philokalia’ – by Nicodemus the Hagiorite and Macarius of Corinth
– ‘400 Chapters on Love’ – by Maximus the Confessor
– ‘Confessions’ – by Augustine of Hippo
– ‘The Instructor’ – by Clement of Alexandria
– ‘Fifty Spiritual Homilies’ – by Macarius of Egypt
– ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’
– ‘The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian’ – by Saint Isaac the Syrian (Trans. Sebastian Brock) – (SLG Press)
– ‘Mystic Treatises’ – by St. Isaac of Nineveh (Trans. Arent Jan Wensinck) – (Kindle)
– ‘The Confessions’ by Saint Augustine (Trans. Henry Chadwick) – (OUP Oxford)
– ‘Athanasius: The Life of Anthony’ – Translated by Robert C. Gregg – (Paulist Press International)
– ‘Philokalia : The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts’ – Edited by Allyne Smith – (Skylight Paths Publishing)
– ‘The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks’ – Edited by Benedicta Ward – (Penguin)
– Church Fathers (Wikipedia)
– Desert Fathers (Wikipedia)
– Isaac of Nineveh (Wikipedia)
– Augustine of Hippo (Wikipedia)
– Anthony the Great (Wikipedia)
– Maximus the Confessor (Wikipedia)
– Macarius of Egypt (Wikipedia)
– Clement of Alexandria (Wikipedia)
– Diego Velazquez (Wikipedia)
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