14 July 2008

Humour with the Desert Fathers in Cambridge

A view with a room: looking up towards my room (K5) in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

If anyone has doubts about the potential for humour among the Early Fathers, the wisdom of taking part in a summer school on Patristic studies or wonders where humour and relevance might be found in these subjects, then the opening day of the summer school on ‘The Ascent to Holiness’ at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, today (Monday, 14 July) would have dispelled all misgivings.

Dr George Bebabwi only barely managed to stick to his script as he delivered his paper on ‘Discernment’ with great style and humour. Dr Bebabwi is an Egyptian scholar now living in Indianapolis. He is a former director of the Institute for Christian Orthodox Studies, has lectured on Islam and Judaism in Cambridge, and was a tutor at Saint John’s College Nottingham while Bishop Richard Henderson was a student there.

At an early stage in his presentation he warned us against any “method” being applied to discernment and the search for holiness. “Christian life is not controlled by methods or guided by techniques. We have a fellowship with the persons of the divine and Holy Trinity,” he told us. So, to participate in the life of God denies for us a method or a technique. We cannot be part of the life of a person – any person – by learning a method or a technique.”

But he also warned against what he described as “learning wisdom.” He quoted from the Egyptian Desert Father, Abba Poemen, who said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drinks to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.”

He told us the story of a monk in Egypt who wanted to be martyr. His abbot warned him against false heroism and told him it was easy to be unusual. True heroism, the abbot said, is found in daily life, looking for reality and finding God’s will there. The monk persisted in his quest for martyrdom, however, and headed off to an area controlled by nomadic tribes, and demanded to become a martyr. But once they captured him, he was unable to resist, and rather than accept the pain of martyrdom he worshipped their idols. He returned to the monastery, where the abbot reminded him that true heroism often lies in dealing with daily realities rather than seeking to be dramatic or unusual. And he reminded us of an old priest who once told him: “You live the cross when you make the sign of the cross – accepting the harsh times when they come.”

Waiting for godly action

In another story he told, the Devil appeared to a rabbi saying he wanted to repent. The rabbi said this was too much to deal with on his own and he needed to call a minyan or quorum of rabbis to deal with it. The rabbis prayed, and eventually, when God appeared to them in a cloud, he asked them: “Why doesn’t he speak to me directly. Let him repent.”

The first rabbi returned, and reported to the Devil, who said “Yes, I’ll repent. But he has to accept me as I am.”

Once again, the rabbis went back and told God what the Devil had said. To this God replied: “He has to repent, and he has to accept me as I am.”

It was a serious treatment of discerning between good and evil, right and false doctrine, the intentions of the heart and its secret movements, and holy angels and evil ones, drawing on the writings of the Desert Fathers. But throughout the discussion, there were moments of great compassion and humour. But then, as he quoted Saint Anthony, the founder of monasticism, as saying: “Joy and not fear are the signs of the holy.”

At one stage, he told a story from the Abbot Sophronius of a desert monk who was called on for an exorcism. The monk slowly took out the scroll of the Book Genesis and started to read methodically and carefully at Chapter 1, Verse 1, not verse-by-verse, or even word-by-word, but letter-by-letter: “I-N T-H-E B-E-G-I-N-N-I-N-G, G-O- …” Before he got any further, the Devil interrupted the monk, demanding in an outraged voice: “This is an exorcism – aren’t you supposed to be reading the Psalms.” “I’ll get to them, in my own good time,” the monk replied nonchalantly. “I can’t wait that long,” was the impatient response. “I’m out of here now.”

Holiness in Scripture

In the first paper at the morning session, the Revd Dr Nikolai Sakharov looked at “Holiness in the Old and New Testaments.” He traced the movement from early ideas that saw holiness as the holiness of God, whose holiness was linked to being separate from the world, through later ideas about the physical dimensions of holiness, including the holiness of inanimate objects set aside for the worship of God, the holiness of people who were set aside for worship and who were expected to be ritually pure, or the holiness of soldiers, prophets and Israel as a nation, before moving on the concept of the holiness of people being found in spiritual holiness.

However, in the New Testament, holiness comes with living the word and following Christ in loving others. “For us Orthodox Christians, to love is not just to be nice,” he said. “To love is no longer an ethical or moral category, but an ontological category.”

And he added: “Christ is our living commandment. How otherwise can you teach people to love? There is no other way aside from example.”

The morning lectures were chaired by the Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Professor David Frost, who was a key contributor to the collects and the translations of the Psalms in the Alternative Prayer Book published by the Church of Ireland in 1984.

‘True and False Holiness’

In the afternoon, the Revd Dr Fraser Watts spoke about “True and False Holiness,” looking at holiness and the personal transformation of the person on the pathway to holiness. Dr Watts is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and the Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a post that owes its origins and inspiration to the author Susan Howatch. An Anglican priest, he is also vice-chaplain at the Church of Saint Edward the Martyr in Cambridge.

He said that theology, like philosophy, is better when it is done with another discipline. He spoke of the benefits of binocular vision, and said it is difficult with to estimate depth with just one eye.

He said it was clear to psychologists that spiritual practices have a transforming effect on people who are on the path to holiness, helping them emotionally, reducing their anxieties or freeing them from addictions, he said. But for Christians, the path to holiness cannot be advanced on pragmatic grounds, he said. It must be the right and proper response to God’s saving work in Christ and our life in the Church, and not about the benefits such as reducing anxiety and guilt.

Referring to the developments in forgiveness therapy in psychology in the past decade or so, he said psychology is now better at giving helpful advice about forgiveness. But forgiveness should not be just because of the benefits, but because it is right and proper, he said. “God has forgiven humanity, so we should forgive.”

Looking at key moments of personal transformation found in encounters with Jesus in the Gospels, he said they were marked by three characteristics: Promise, involving the promise of enormous, deep personal transformation; Cost, in which that promise was balanced by a warning of the Costliness of moving towards transformation, “which doesn’t come cheap”; and Reassurance – on this costly path, we will not be on our own, for the Spirit will be with us.

He said psychotherapy and counselling understand the needs for hope and expectation, but also understand the cost involved. If we find ourselves stuck in one limited way of relating to people, there is a promise of another, better way, but it comes at the cost of letting go of limited ways bin order to move onto something higher and bigger. That journey need not be faced alone, and the need accompaniment and support along the way is recognised by the counsellor or therapist.

We are all different people, he said, with different journeys, different starting points, so there is no identikit model of what it is to become a holy person. There is a variety of people, each on our own journey. But our similarities mean that there are points on the map that may help us all, even if we do not have identical journeys.

Later there was an interesting discussion about the psychology of grace and deep and superficial forms of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is not just forgetting, but is costly,” he said. “And it carries obligations.” And yet he recognised that there are times when forgiveness is not possible, “not just because people haven’t reached the point where possible, but also because of the enormity of what has happened.”

Holy men and wise women

The Revd Professor Andrew Louth is one of the leading patristic scholars in Britain today. He has been Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at University of Durham since 1996. He was received into the Orthodox Church in 1989 and was ordained in Durham in 2003. He spoke in the afternoon about “The Holy Man in Late Antiquity.”

In a very wise paper, he looked at the difference between the saint and the martyr, between the holy man and the saint, between the holy man and the wise woman, and the between holy man and the holy place.

Tomorrow we’re off to meet some modern holy men and wise women when we visit the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt, Essex, where Dr Sakharov is a monk.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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