Tuesday, 16 July 2013

‘O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee’

An angel in a window in the Round Church on Bridge Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Although Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia was on the programme this morning for talking about “Demonic Temptation: the Teaching of Saint Mark the Monk (5th century),” we all knew that we were going to hear about a lot more.

Metropolitan Kallistos, who was introduced by Professor David Frost as an eminent and “paramount educator,” is also the new president of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, which is holding its summer school this week in Sidney Sussex College Cambridge.

He told us there is evidence in Scripture supernatural beings, but said he was also speaking about angels and demons from personal experience. Yet he warned us not to expect that angels should always appear to us as they are shown on icons. “Do not expect to see a winged figure in Byzantine court dress. An angel might well appear in a mackintosh and a trilby hat.”

The whole world around us is full of angels and full of demonic powers, he said, but it is not wise to think too much about the demonic powers.

To illustrate the ever-present reality of angels, he quoted from the ‘The Kingdom of God’ by the 19th century English poet Francis Thompson:

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air –
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! –
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places –
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry – and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry – clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!


Jacob’s Ladder on the west end of Bath Abbey, illustrating Oliver King’s dream that inspired him to restore the building at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

He recalled how as a child he had been moved by the sight of Jacob’s Ladder on the facade of Bath Abbey.

He referred to Evagrius, who said that as we pray we know the angels are beside us, interceding on our behalf. He turned then to the story of Saint Anthony, the founder of monasticism, as recalled by Saint Athanasius, who places great stress on the demons.

At the beginning of his temptations, Saint Anthony sees the devil in the form of a small black boy, representing those who are on the margins of society and the city. Anthony moves out to a tomb on the margins of the community, where the struggle with the demons continues intensifies, often in the shape of wild animals, perhaps because Egyptian deities were depicted with the heads of animals, such as the head of a dog or a cat.

When they attack him physically and beat him up, Saint Anthony asks Christ where he was. The reply he heard was: “I was here all the time Anthony, but I wanted to see you fight.” It is an illustration of the relationship between grace and free will.

Saint Anthony then moves out to the deep, uninhabited Desert. There he hears the demons shouting: “Depart from what belongs to us.”

Ladybird poppies in Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Saint Anthony’s move was not a flight from the world but to a place of combat with evil. So, he asked us, where is the desert today, what is the place for demons in our own society?

Is the city a place where you feel safe and protected, and the countryside wild and a place where you feel threatened? Today, we have different perceptions of the city and the countryside than those in the ancient world.

Saint Athanasius includes a long discourse put in the mouth of Saint Anthony describing the demons, showing how the spirits of evil were understood in the early Church.

We should not be afraid of the demons, he said, for they are weak and they deserve not our respect but our contempt.

He recalled how on one occasion he had written about the devil, with a capital D. A critic responded: “You should not give the devil a capital ... that is a sign of courtesy and respect. The devil is not a gentleman.”

Yet, said Metropolitan Kallistos, God made nothing bad, so the demons were originally good. The demons are envious of us, this is what inspires them. They will try to deceive the heart, frighten us, and pretend to prophesy and to predict, even though they have no real knowledge of the future. “The devil is the father of lies, so don’t believe what he tells you.”

If initial temptations do not work, then they pretend to be behaving in a holy way, and try to tempt us through what is apparently good, pretending to chant sacred songs and quoting Scripture. Again, he said, take no notice. Demons cannot make the sign of the cross. They may pretend to be holy, but you have to challenge them.

“The demons lack the power to do anything. Essentially they are presenting us with illusions. Fear God alone, holding the demons in contempt.”

How do we distinguish between demons who are foul and evil, and the good angels? If the apparition is of a good angel, it produces a sense of calm and joy. If an appearance is demonic, even if it appears to be good, we feel troubled and disturbed.

Satan appears to Saint Anthony, and complains: Why do you censure me without a cause, why do you keep cursing me?” Then he says of troubled Christians: “I am not the one who torments them, but they disturb themselves.”

On the early fifth century, Saint Mark the Monk (Saint Mark the Hermit, or Saint Mark the Ascetic) provides an account of temptation that is also found in the first part of the Philokalia. In his system, which was taken up by John Klimakos and Maximos the Confessor in the seventh century, he identifies six forms of temptation: provocation, momentary disturbance of the intellect, coupling, assent, prepossession, and passion.

Metropolitan Kallistos lecturing in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We had what Dr Marcus Plested described as “a double bill” with Metropolitan Kallistos, when he spoke in a second lecture later this afternoon on ‘The Theology of Dreams, Angelic and Demonic.’

Do we understand our own intellects? Do we understand our own hearts?

He spoke of the ambivalence about dreams in the Bible. “Dreams give wings to fools,” he said, quoting Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 34: 1-8. Jacob’s Ladder, Joseph’s dreams, Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and Joseph’s dreams in Matthew, the dreams of the Wise Men on their journey, where the Angel of the Lord speaks, the dream of Herod’s wife, and Saint Paul’s dream of the people of Macedonia, are examples of dreams with an important place.

The Talmud says dreams are constitute one-sixtieth of prophecy.

Why do good people often have very bad dreams? Why do we do things in our dreams that we would never contemplate when we are awake? Psychoanalysts would say: “Compensation.” But the Patristic writers would refer to the demons.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa says dreams are full of fantastic nonsense, and he excludes the notion that dreams might predict the future; instead they are a confused replay of what has already happened.

Gregory downplays the numinous possibility of dreams. Yet God may speak to us through dreams.

But there are important, positive examples of dreams in Patristic writings, including The Martyrdom of Saint Perpetua. Saint Augustine’s life was influenced by a dream his mother Monica had. And he knows of three monks in the Monastery of Saint John on Patmos who became monks in response to dreams.

Evagrius of Pontus attended the Second Council of Constantinople, where he had an affair with a married woman. Amid this temptation, he is said to have had a dream in which he was imprisoned by soldiers at the behest of the woman’s husband. This dream, and the warning of an attendant angel, made him flee from the city for Jerusalem.

For a short time, he stayed with Melania the Elder and Tyrannius Rufinus in a monastery near Jerusalem. But even there he could not forsake his pride, fell gravely ill and only after he resolved to become a monk was he restored to health.

Evagrius is the Patristic writer to write most extensively about dreams, and distinguishes three types of dreams: they may come from demons; they may come from angels; and they may be neutral, without demonic or angelic intervention. He concentrates on the first two, and says it is often difficult to distinguish whether a dream is from a demonic or angelic source.

Angels may send us terrifying dreams for our own sake.

Dreams of pride, where we have achievements or earn praise, and erotic dreams may come from demons. Demons may even appear in our dreams as angels (II Corinthians 11: 14).

Examining our dreams can help us towards spiritual self-knowledge, knowing what passions lie deep in our souls. Through dreams, the unconscious be brought to the surface and analysed, revealing hidden passions, pride and what we have been suppressing.

Angels without wings ... Harry Anderson’s reworked painting of the Second Coming

Earlier in the afternoon, after lunch, Father Ian Graham of Holy Trinity Church, Oxford, lectured on ‘Angels in Scripture.’ He began by asking: “Who is the opposite of the Devil. A large number of Christians answer God. No. The answer is the Archangel Michael, and that should put him in perspective.”

Father Ian, who grew up as a Seventh Day Adventist, recalled the story of how the Mormons rejected a commissioned painting of the Second Coming by the artist Harry Anderson, who was a Seventh Day Adventist. The painting was rejected because the angels had wings, and had to be reworked. In Mormon mythology, there are no different orders of beings, and angels and humans are merely at different stages on the same path, so that the Archangel Michael and Adam are one and the same.

In Islamic tradition, the Archangel Gabriel is winged and in human form. Angels are a different order of being in Islam, but they have no free will and carry out the will of God in perfect submission. There are no fallen angels, but there is a third order of djinn, who may be good or bad, so that Satan is a fallen djinn who refused to bow down to Adam.

And so he challenged us to think about what exactly is said in Scripture about angels.

The first appearance of angels in the Bible is in Genesis 3, where a pair of cherubim or winged beasts – rather than putti – are placed to prevent Adam and Eve returning to Eden. Is the talking serpent that tempts Eve the Devil in disguise? The text does not say so, and even in IV Maccabees 18: 6, which gives a sexual interpretation of the Fall, the snake remains a snake.

The word angel means messenger or envoy, both inside and outside Scripture.

Angel is not the name but the job description. If we translated angel as messenger or envoy, would it bring a new immediacy ad meaning to Biblical passages?

But what about the Angel of the Lord? At times, the Angel of the Lord is even allowed to pronounce the name of the Lord. He reminded that casual use of the name was punishable and its casual use by many Christians today continues to cause offence to Jews.

Why should God speak through an envoy? Could he not express himself directly?

He took us on a tour of the Biblical passages that speak of angels, from Abraham’s visitors at Mamre and the angels in Daniel and Ezekiel, to the heralds of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and the angels in Acts, including those in the stories of Philip and Cornelius. Acts 23: 8 says the Sadducees rejected angels, spirits and the Resurrection. But as the Sadducees accepted the Pentateuch it may mean they rejected the magical manipulation of angels.

South Court, overlooking the Mong Hall in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Thinking about the unthinkable, or
being rational about the impossible

An angel in a window in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Can we be sure what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch what it seems to be?

This is not abstract philosophical thinking. We became very conscious of this dilemma in recent months with the crisis in these islands when what people thought was beef turned out to be horsemeat.

But it is a question that is raised every day. The female figure on fashion magazine belongs to no body and nobody, is nobody and is no body, because of advanced photoshop-like technology.

Most of us smile when we learn the singer is not singing but is miming, as when we realise that BeyoncĂ© was not singing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at the inauguration of Barack Obama last January.

But if the singer is not singing, should we ask whether we know Barack Obama is indeed Barack Obama? Is he the same person who took office in 2009?

Is the unthinkable the same as the irrational or the impossible?

These were opening questions posed this morning by Dr Christoph Schneider in his lecture at the IOCS Summer School in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge – “Jacob’s Ladder: Angels and ‘the Between’ (metaxu).”

Christoph is Lecturer and Bursar of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and has contributed to the IOCS distance learning programme as a tutor. His research interests include Orthodox Theology and he is also interested in the dialogue between Orthodoxy and 20th century Protestant theology.

The title of his lecture came from Sergius Bulgakov’s book, Jacob’s Ladder.

Bulgakov (1871-1944) was the 20th century’s leading Orthodox theologian. He was the dean and professor of dogmatic theology at Saint Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, and his major works include The Burning Bush, The Friend of the Bridegroom, Jacob’s Ladder, The Lamb of God, The Philosophy of Economy, The Unfading Light, and The Comforter.

Bulgakov wrote Jacob’s Ladder after a near-death experience and an encounter with his guardian angel, who led him back to life. This book, with a mystical intensity, draws on scriptural, liturgical, iconographic and personal experiences, which Bulgakov uses to develop his theological understanding of angels, and he does it with lyrical beauty and profound speculative reflections.

Jacob’s Ladder, originally published in 1929, completes the word picture of divinised and Sophianic creation begun in The Burning Bush and The Friend of the Bridegroom, which constitute what has been called Bulgakov’s “major” or first trilogy.

He begins with words of love – “God-Love created human beings for love” – and culminates in joy: “How great is the joy bestowed on humankind knowing this!”

He frames his work with meditations on the meaning of love, not as a sentimental indulgence, but as a way of understanding the deep, tender, self-sacrificing, personal knowledge that is both at the heart of a Trinitarian God and in the midst of relationships between human beings and their guardian angels. His discussions on the creation, function, nature, appearances and incorporeality of angels lead also to reflections on the incarnation and human nature, especially the role of the sexes, death, and the Christian hope of resurrection, meditating on the Wisdom of God in the creation.

Christoph drew on Bulgakov, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as he looked at the real and the unreal, the face, the countenance, and the mask, and angels.

In today’s society, the layers of deception become thinner and thinner. And behind the veil, are we to find the naked will for power? Can we access to the world as it is in itself, or do we construct our interpretation of it? Is it possible to judge our interpretation of the world against the world itself?

As he reflected on appearance and truth, he asked how do we know what is the mask? And what is the face? What can we know? And what is unthinkable?

He concluded with the Canon to the Guardian Angel:

O Wisdom of the Most High Personified,
for the sake of the Theotokos,
fill with wisdom and divine strength all that faithfully cry:
O God of our fathers, blessed art Thou.


New Master of Sidney Sussex
continues in a long tradition

Morning sunshine on the Master’s Garden and the Master’s Lodge in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning this week, I am strolling past the Master’s Garden and the Master’s Lodge in Sidney Sussex College on my way from my rooms in Blundell Court out to the Morning Eucharist on Saint Bene’t’s before breakfast, or between my rooms and the Mong Hall, where the IOCS Summer School lectures are taking place.

Earlier this month [July 2013], a new Master took off office in Sidney Sussex College and moved into the Master’s Lodge. Professor Richard Penty, who was elected as the 27th Master of Sidney Sussex earlier this year, succeeds Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill.

Professor Penty is a distinguished electrical and electronic engineer, and before becoming Master he was a Fellow and Vice-Master of Sidney Sussex College. He read engineering and electrical sciences as an undergraduate and was a post-graduate student at Sidney. He was then was elected a Junior Research Fellow in Pembroke College, Cambridge.

He later became a Lecturer in Bath University and Bristol University, and then Professor of Photonics in Bristol, before returning to Cambridge where he has been Professor of Photonics since 2002.

His current research interests include optical data communications, MMF systems (digital and analogue), high-speed optical communications systems, optical amplifiers, and optical switching. He was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering last year.

After his election as Master, Professor Penty said: “It is a great honour to be elected as Sidney’s next Master, and I look forward to serving the Fellows, Students and Staff of the College to the best of my ability.”

Inside a house in Pompeii … Andrew Wallace-Hadrill says we are “wreaking a damage far greater than Vesuvius” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The outgoing Master, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, is a distinguished classical scholar with a particular interest in both Pompeii and Herculaneum – I visited both sites about ten days ago. He is standing down as Master of Sidney Sussex to give more attention to the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

So he can concentrate on this major opportunity, Professor Wallace-Hadrill is becoming Director of Research in the Faculty of Classics in the University of Cambridge from 1 October. But he is keeping his links with Sidney Sussex College, where he has become a Fellow.

Some years ago, in an interview on an Australian television programme 60 Minutes, he was caustic in expressing his views about the neglect of the archaeological site at Pompeii. He was described as an “angry archaeologist” when he argued that the conservation issues that need to be acted upon urgently at Pompeii are being neglected and that the site is suffering from a “second death.”

Commenting on the deterioration of Pompeii, he said: “Man is wreaking a damage far greater than Vesuvius. The moment of Pompeii’s destruction was also the moment of its preservation. The public needs to understand that unless constant efforts are taken to arrest the decay, the site will, within decades crumble to nothing.”

The Knox-Shaw Room in Cloister Court is named after another former Master of Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I was also interested to learn that another master of Sidney Sussex College, Thomas Knox-Shaw (1895-1972), who was Master from 1945 to 1957, was associated with some of the mission agencies whose work is continued by Us – the new name for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Knox-Shaw was a trustee of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi and an active member on the committee of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), which amalgamated with SPG to form USPG. He is credited with doing much to beautify the chapel in Sidney Sussex and to increase its importance in the life of the college.

The son of a Harley Street doctor and homeopath, Knox-Shaw went to school at Blundell’s School, whose founder is also remembered in the name of Blundell Court, where I am staying this year, and where I stayed in 2011.

Knox-Shaw’s name is commemorated in Cloister Court in the Knox-Shaw Room, which is one of the principal meeting rooms in the college. He also gave his name to Tomminox, one of the Sidney Sussex Boat Club’s racing shells. His gifts to the college include the picture of Oliver Cromwell which hangs in the Hall, under which I have dined for the last two evenings.