09 February 2015

Patristics (2015): 6, The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

‘The Cambridge Triumvirate’ ... Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort are commemorated side-by-side in the Ante-Chapel in Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Introduction to Patristics,

Brown Room,

Mondays, 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

Outline of Module:

10.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: Introducing Patristics

2, 11.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: The Apostolic Fathers

3, 10.30 a.m., 2 February 2015: The Greek Fathers

4, 11.30 a.m., 2 February 2015: The Latin Fathers

5, 10.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Desert Fathers

6, 11.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

Monday, 9 February 2015:

6, 11.30 a.m.: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

Traditional Anglican theology and Patristics:

Fenton Hort … the Dublin-born member of the ‘Cambridge Triumvirate’

There was a time when a course in Patristics would have been one of the core First Year modules for ordinands in Anglican theological colleges. Scholars like Bishop Joseph Lightfoot (1828-1899), Bishop Brooke Westcott (1825-1901) and Professor Fenton Hort (1828-1892) – known as the ‘Cambridge Triumvirate’ – placed Patristics at the heart of Anglican theology from the late 19th century on, for many generations.

Anglican theology has traditionally sought to be rooted in the writings of the Early Fathers and the Early Church.

But how did the Patristic writers and writings comes to play an important part in the development of Anglican theology?

Patristics, Byzantines and the Renaissance

Saint Catherine’s Church, Iraklion ... at the centre of the Cretan School of Iconography (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The discovery or rediscovery of Patristic writings is a contributing factor in the Renaissance and the Reformation. The renaissance ushered in an urge to rediscover the writers of antiquity, including Patristic writings. The monastic libraries of Italy, Germany, France and England, were combed in the search for works by once-known but long-forgotten writers.

A group of scholars, known as the Florentine humanists, including Niccolò Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini are key figures in this development in the 15th century. Another key factor in the rediscovery of Patristic texts at that time is the Council of Constance (1414-1418).

In 1416, Poggio visited the monastery of St Gall with Bartholomeus Montepolitianus and Cencius Romanus, and Poggio returned in 1417 to look for more manuscripts, and his discoveries included a volume of Tertullian. Later, he found more works by Tertullian in Cluny, while others found collected works by Tertullian in other monastic houses, and Niccolò Nicholi copied many of these manuscripts in Florence.

Within a few decades, the migration of waves of Byzantine scholars and émigrés following the Ottoman sack of Constantinople and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, contributed to the revival of Greek and Roman studies that led to the development of the Renaissance humanism and science. These émigrés included grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians.

They brought to Western Europe the preserved and accumulated knowledge of Greek civilisation, they taught Greek in universities or privately, and they helped to spread ancient texts.

The island of Crete remained a Byzantine outpost and a stronghold of Byzantine scholarship. Crete was under Venetian rule, and so Crete was a source of another outpouring of Byzantine learning into Northern Europe, especially notable through the Cretan School of icon-painting.

After 1453, this became the most important centre of scholarship in the Greek world, and its students who moved to northern and western Europe included Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco. By 1500, there was a Greek-speaking community of about 5,000 in Venice.

Patristics and the Reformers

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer … draws extensively on Saint Ambrose of Milan and introduces the Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom

The discovery or rediscovery of Patristic writings in the decades that came after this Byzantine exodus must be considered in any effort to understand the intellectual factors that contributed to the Reformation.

Martin Luther is heavily indebted to the writings of Augustine. Alister McGrath argues that the distinctiveness of John Calvin’s theology may lie in his rediscovery and close reading of Augustine’s writings. For the young Calvin, reform entailed a rediscovery of the Scriptures – and a rediscovery of the theology of the patristic writings from the first five centuries, so that he believed Saint John Chrysostom’s sermons should be available in the vernacular French.

Thomas Cranmer draws extensively on Patristic sources and uses them confidently for his liturgical reforms. Although he downplays realist language in his translations and interpretations of Justin Martyr and Hilary, he appropriates Saint Ambrose of Milan in articulating his understanding of the ‘real presence’ in the Eucharist. In relying on Ambrose, he uses the newly-published four-volume collection of his works prepared by Erasmus in 1527.

Throughout his writings, Cranmer refers consistently to the Early Fathers and their texts, not as Patristic sources but as “the authors” and “the authorities.” He draws not only on Ambrose of Milan, but also on Cyprian and John Chrysostom, introducing the “Prayer of Saint Chrysostom” into Anglican liturgy.

The Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer appeals to the “ancient Fathers,” and the 1552 Act of Parliament speaks of The Book of Common Prayer appeals to the “Word of God and the Primitive Church.”

Archbishop Matthew Parker at the entrance to the chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge … devoted himself to Scriptural and Patristic studies (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

The Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, devoted himself to Scriptural and Patristic study, going through all the orthodox fathers and decrees of all the councils.

Later, in the late 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII, who gives his name to the Gregorian Calendar, founded the College of Saint Athanasius (San Athanasio) in Rome in 1577 for Greek scholars and refugees.

By then, the Fathers of the Church and the Doctors of the Church were shaping Anglican theological understanding.

When Queen Elizabeth I addressed the Spanish Ambassador through Lord Cecil as an intermediary in 1561, she informed him that the English would attend the Council of Trent if the Christian princes decided the place of meeting, the Pope presided as head of the Council but not as “universal Bishop”, and that any dogmatic definitions should be drawn from Scripture, the consensus of doctors and the rulings of the ancient councils. She also demanded that all the English bishops be granted an equal voice and vote with the other bishops in the proceedings.

It is Elizabeth who said: “We and our people – thanks be to God – follow no novel and strange religion, but that very religion which is ordained by Christ, sanctioned by the primitive and Catholic Church and approved by the consistent mind and voice of the most early Fathers.”

John Jewel (1522-1571) ... the first Anglican apologist and the ‘worthiest divine Christendom hath bred’

John Jewel (1522-1571), who is known as the first Anglican Apologist, acted as notary for Thomas Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley at their trials in Oxford, and later became Bishop of Salisbury (1560-1571). Throughout his sermons and writings, Jewel appealed regularly to the following sources of authority:

● old Catholic Doctors;

● the Fathers;

● the General Councils;

● the Holy Scriptures of God;

● the example of the Primitive Church.

John Jewel wrote in his Apology: “What, have Christ and his Apostles, and so many Fathers all erred? What, are Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Gelasius and Theodoret Apostates from the Catholick Faith? Was the Consent of so many Bishops and Learned men, nothing but a Conspiracy of Hereticks? or that which was commendable in them, is it now blameable in us?”

His implied answer is obvious – he clearly thinks that this would be self-evidently false.

In the Apology, Jewel claims the Church of England is in the true line of succession from the early Church Fathers, and claims that the Catholicity of the Church of England is provided by its doctrinal succession from the Apostles. Evidence for this claim of Catholicity is gathered through comparing the Church of England’s doctrine with that of the Church of the first six centuries.

In the year Jewel died, the Elizabethan Canons of the Church of England (1571) stated of the clergy: “But chiefly they shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe, and believe, but that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the old Testament, and the new, and that which the catholic fathers, and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that doctrine … He that doth otherwise, or troubleth the people with contrary doctrine, shall be excommunicated.”

This Elizabethan canon of 1571 has since been regarded as having the highest importance. It is quoted by Richard Bancroft (1544-1610), Archbishop of Canterbury (1604-1610), who ordered Jewel’s Apology to be placed in all parish churches throughout England in 1609.

In his preface, Bancroft quoted the Elizabethan canon to show that “this is and hath been the open profession of the Church of England, to defend and mainteine no other Church, Faith, and Religion, than that which is truly Catholike and Apostolike, and for such warranted, not only by the written word of God, but also by the testimonie and consent of the ancient and godly Fathers.”

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes by the high altar in the Church of Saint Mary Overie, then in the Diocese of Winchester but now Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who had oversight of the translation of the Authorised Version or King James Version of the Bible, summarised the sources of Anglican theology, saying: “One Canon of Scripture which we refer to God, two Testaments, three Creeds, the first four Councils, five centuries and the succession of the Fathers in these centuries, three centuries before Constantine, two centuries after Constantine, draw the rule of our religion.”

Later, the Caroline Divine, John Cosin (1594-1672), Bishop of Durham (1660-1672) and the principal reviser of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, wrote: “We are no more followers of Luther or Calvin than of the Pope, where either they or he fall away from Holy Scripture, or cease to walk in the footsteps of the old Fathers who consent in the Catholic Faith.”

John Bramhall (1594-1663), Archbishop of Armagh ... portrait in the Old Library in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His contemporary and another Caroline Divine, John Bramhall (1594-1663), Bishop of Derry (1634-1661) and Archbishop of Armagh (1661-1663), wrote in 1654:

“We do not only admit oral traditions in general, as an excellent introduction to the doctrine of saving truth, and a singular help to expound the holy Scriptures, but also particular unwritten traditions, derived from the Apostles, and delivered unto us by the manifest testimony of the primitive Church, being agreeable to the holy Scriptures. The Apostles did speak by inspiration, as well as write; and their tradition, whether by word or writing, indifferently, was the Word of God, into which Faith was resolved ... St. Augustine setteth us down a certain rule, how to know a true genuine Apostolical tradition: ‘Whatsoever,’ saith he, ‘the universal Church doth hold, which has not been instituted by Councils, but [nevertheless] always received, is most rightly believed to have been delivered by Apostolical authority’.”

And again, in his Answer to Théophile Brachet de la Milletière, he wrote: “We receive not your upstart suppositious traditions, nor unwritten fundamentals: but we admit genuine, universal, Apostolical traditions; as, the Apostles’ Creed, the perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God, the anniversary Festivals of the Church, the Lenten Fast … We believe Episcopacy to an ingenious person may be proved out of Scripture without Tradition; but to such as are froward, the perpetual practice and tradition of the Church renders the interpretation of the text more authentic, and the proof more convincing.”

Bramhall also wrote: “No, sir, we cannot pin our Faith upon the sleeve of any particular man: as one used to say, We love no isms, neither Calvinism, nor Lutheranism, nor Jansenianism, but only one that we derive from Antioch, that is, Christianism.”

As he lay dying, Thomas Ken (1637-1711), the most eminent of the Non-Juring bishops, declared: “I am dying in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West; and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation, and adheres to the Doctrine of the Cross.”

In the 20th century, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury said: “The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practise, creed, or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.”

The Four Councils

The “Four Councils” are:

● 1, Nicaea I (325): the Defeat of Arianism
● 2, Constantinople I (381): definitive teaching on the Holy Spirit
● 3, Ephesus (431): the defeat of Nestorianism
● 4, Chalcedon (451): the triumph of orthodox Christology

What about three later ecumenical councils?

● 5, Constantinople II (553): the victory over Monthelitism
● 6, Constantinople III (680-681): boycotted by the Pope, but forced to accept it
● 7, Nicaea II (787): ends the Iconclastic controversy, ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’

Anglican writers usually affirm these three later councils as orthodox to the degree that they are consistent with, while adding nothing to, the substance of dogma defined by the first four councils.

The Elizabethan Act of Supremacy of 1559 makes the first four Ecumenical Councils the standards for judging heresy, while the Homilies, which were authorised at a secondary level, and a consensus of the later divines reaffirm the universal acceptance of the first six councils.

The rejection of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), was initially based on a Latin translation that actually misrepresented a key teaching of the Council and supported λατρεία (latreía) being given to icons or images, rather than dulia (Greek δουλεία). Did the council mean honour, veneration or worship?

At the seventh session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, on 13 October 787, the Church decisively affirmed the pace of icons within worship. Icons were recognised as an integral part of liturgical worship and of the historic Christian Faith.

Indeed, iconoclasm was never the official Anglican policy, either in theory or in practice. The Elizabethan Injunctions of 1559 only demand the removal from houses of “abused images, tables, pictures, paintings, and other monuments to feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition” (emphasis added).

We know many images in the Church of England were not destroyed, and certainly every church still had a table – the Lord’s Table. The condemnation in 1571 of the “Worshipping and Adoration” of images is a very strong phrase that corresponds with the very latreia that Nicaea II also condemns if directed towards images.

In the early 1600s, James I specifically denied being an iconomachus, and said: “I quarrel not with the making of images, either for public decoration or for men’s private uses.” In same decade, the Dean of Gloucester, Richard Field (1561-1616), stated that “there are but Seven General Councils that the whole Church acknowledgeth called to determine faith and morals.”

Various Caroline Divines used better translations of the Council to defend it as legitimate in itself, although they still decried the way its teaching had been applied or even ignored in the West. Andrewes, Cosin, Laud and others upset the Puritans with their increased use of images, crucifixes, candles and incense and imagery never disappeared from the Church of England, especially in stained glass windows. So, Archbishop Bramhall could say succinctly of the decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils: “I know of none we need to fear.”

What about later councils and Anglican acceptance of them? Dean Field in his early 17th century defence of the Anglican position, Of the Church (1606, 1610), said of the Catholic Church that “we hold it never falleth into any heresy.” He also noted that later Western Councils were not ecumenical because they lacked participation by Eastern bishops.

These Anglican divines of the 17th century held the Fathers of the Church in special Esteem. Archbishop Michael Ramsey points out:

Whereas the Edwardian and Elizabethan divines had been interested in the Fathers chiefly as a means of proving what had or had not been the primitive doctrine and practice, the Caroline divines went farther in using the thought and piety of the Fathers within the structure of their own theological exposition. Their use of the Fathers had these two noteworthy characteristics. (1) Not having, as did the Continental Reformers, a preoccupation with the doctrines of justification or predestination they followed the Fathers of the Nicene age in treating the Incarnation as the central doctrine of the faith. Indeed a feeling of the centrality of the Incarnation became a recurring feature of Anglican divinity, albeit the Incarnation was seen as S. Athanasius saw it in its deeply redemptive aspect. (2) Finding amongst the Fathers the contrast of Greek and Latin divinity, the Anglican divines could be saved from western narrowness, and were conscious that just as the ancient undivided Church embraced both East and West so too the contemporary Catholic Church was incomplete without the little known Orthodox Church of the East as well as the Church in the West, Latin, Anglican and Reformed. The study of the Fathers created the desire to reach out to Eastern Christendom. Thus did Anglican theology find in the study of the Fathers first a gateway to the knowledge of what was scriptural and primitive, subsequently a living tradition which guided the interpretation of Scripture, and finally a clue to the Catholic Church of the past and the future: in the words of Lancelot Andrewes, ‘the whole Church Catholic, Eastern, Western, our own.’ [AM Ramsey, ‘The Ancient Fathers and Modern Anglican Theology,’ Sobornost, Series 4:6 Winter-Spring 1962.]

Later Anglican developments

Bishop John Jebb of Limerick … extolled adherence to the Catholic Faith as received in the primitive and purest ages of Christianity

The liturgies of the Patristic period were of interest to a small group of Anglican theologians in the 18th century, including Hamon L’Estrange and Edward Stephens, and the Nonjuror Thomas Brett, who studied the Jerusalem Liturgy of Saint James and the Syrian Liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions, Book VIII.

The influence of the Nonjurors’ understanding of Patristic liturgical texts passed through the Scottish Episcopal Church to the Episcopal Church in the US, and informed many 20th century Anglican liturgical reforms.

Although there was a decline in Patristic studies among 18th century Latitudinarian theologians, there was a new appeal to Patristic sources by Anglican theologians. In 1833, Dean Burgon spoke of the “residuum of the altar-fires of a long succession of holy and earnest men.”

They must include John Jebb (1775-1833), the Bishop of Limerick(1823-1833), claimed that this adherence to the Catholic Faith as received in the primitive and purest ages of Christianity is what especially characterises Anglicanism and distinguishes Anglicanism from every other reformed communion.

This is what Jebb describes as her “peculiar character” in that it derives all “that is to be believed for necessity of salvation,” from the Scripture alone but resorts to the concurrent sense of the Church catholic, for assistance in the interpretation of the sacred text and for guidance in those matters of religion, which the text has left at large: and herein she differs from every reformed communion.”

Jebb is a pioneer of and anticipates the movement that includes the unbroken continuity of the Church and the via media character of Anglicanism. He was a great advocate of the rule of Vincent of Lérins, which he said had been received, extolled and acted upon by such theologians as Ridley, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Bramhall and Jeremy Taylor.

The 19th century Anglican recovery of Patristics

The University Church of Saint Mary, Oxford … John Keble’s sermon here marks the beginning of the Tractarian Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On his election as Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge in 1816, Bishop John Kaye (1783-1853), Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, became the first Anglican theologian in the 19th century to recall theological students to the study of the Fathers.

The publication of William Palmer’s Antiquities of the English Ritual with a Dissertation on Primitive Liturgies in 1832 is a chief factor in the preparation for the Tractarian movement. Palmer insisted on “the almost forgotten fact that the Prayer Book is mainly a translation from earlier office-books, and so represents the descent of the Reformed Church of England from the church of earlier days.”

The Tractarian Movement begins the following year, with John Keble's Assize Sermon in the University Church of Saint Mary, Oxford.

A copy of the portrait of Newman as a cardinal, by Sir John Everett Milais, in University Church Dublin … his theology is marked by a ‘rediscovery’ of Patristic writers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The theology of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) in particular is marked by a “rediscovery” of Patristic writers. Archbishop Michael Ramsey claimed that next to the Reformers in the 16th century and the Caroline Divines in the 17th century, it was the Tractarians who specially cherished the appeal to the Fathers.

The 19th century Tractarians built their theology on the Caroline Divines and so were led to Patristic sources. Their sought to focus on the doctrine and discipline of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and so they turned to both patristic theologians and to those 17th century theologians whose classical Anglican mind had been formed by them.

There they found that reading the Bible should be mediated not primarily through the secondary sources of post-Reformation manuals – what CS Lewis calls “new books” – but through the “old books” of the Fathers of the Church, who were the first to recognise and receive the Christian biblical canon, which is the spirit of the English Reformers.

The Tractarians represent either a rediscovery or new point of departure, and through their rediscovery of Patristic writings reclaim the continuity of Anglicanism with the ancient Catholic Church. In doing this they avoid the false division of theology and spirituality, of the mind and the heart, of thought and feeling – what TS Eliot describes as “a dissociation of sensibility” when he discusses the metaphysical poets of the 17th century.

Renewed Scholarship

Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort have changed how we now read the Greek text of the New Testament (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This engagement with Patristic sources also inspired a renewal in Biblical scholarship. The second half of the 19th century was an exciting time with discovery or rediscovery of Biblical and Patristic texts, bringing the increased availability of patristic texts.

The Codex Sinaiticus came to the attention of scholars in the 19th century after its discovery in 1859 in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, and the Codex Bezae was edited in Cambridge in 1864.

The twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843-1920) captured the imagination of the world of academic theology with their discovery of the Syriac Sinaiticus on one of their many journeys to Mount Sinai. It was the most important manuscript find since that of the Codex Sinaiticus. Their contribution to “cataloguing the Arabic and Syriac manuscripts at Saint Catherine’s Monastery was literally incalculable.” Their exciting story is told in Janet Soskice, Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels (London: Vintage, 2009).

In addition, the Didache, one of the earliest manuals of Christian morals, liturgy and practice, was found in 1875 in a library in Constantinople, and the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the 3rd century Roman theologian Hippolytus, was published in 1900. The Apostolic Tradition contains the full text of a Eucharistic liturgy, and was highly influential in the decades that followed.

It was in this climate that Bishop Brooke Westcott (1825-1901) and the Dublin-born Professor Fenton Hort (1828-1892) – known with Bishop Joseph Lightfoot (1828-1899), as the ‘Cambridge Triumvirate’ – drew extensively on the Codex Vaticanus as they reshaped our knowledge and understanding of the Greek text of the New Testament. These three also placed Patristics at the heart of Anglican theology from the late 19th century on, for many generations.

A brass on the north wall of the Ante-Chapel in Trinity College, Cambridge, recalls that Fenton Hort was born in Dublin; the inscription was composed by his son, Sir Arthur Hort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Catholic and Orthodox rediscoveries

Georges Florovsky (top) and (bottom, from left): Vladimir Lossky, Metropolitan John Zizioulas with Archbishop Rowan Williams

Jacques Paul Migne (1800-1875) published editions of various early theological texts in two massive compilations: Patrologia Latina (1844-1855) and Patrologia Graeca (1857-1866).

Migne’s editions made many original texts available popularly for the first time, and contributed to a revival of Patristic studies among Roman Catholics in the 20th century.

Robert J Hurley (Hermeneutics and Catechesis, University Press of America, 1997) says the twin influences of Biblical renewal and the rediscovery of Patristic sources effected a metamorphosis of Roman Catholic theology in the 20th century.

In the mid-20th century, some French theologians, including Henri de Lubac, Jean Danélou, Henri Bouillard, Yves Congar, Louis Bouyer and Marie-Dominique Chenu, and the Swiss, Hans Urs von Balthasar, initiated a remarkable theological movement termed ressourcement theology. They shared a common belief that the writings of the Early Church are an incomparable source for the contemporary renewal of the Church. There they found sources for a deeper understanding of the Gospel in our world and for the renewal of liturgy and sustaining spiritual life.

These ressourcement theologians turned to the work of great patristic theologians and writers such as Origen, Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, John of Damascus, and Thomas Aquinas. In these Patristic writers, they recovered crucial sources for the revitalisation of contemporary theology and pastoral life.

It is often said that the Orthodox do not consider the Patristic era to be a moment of the past, but that it continues in an unbroken succession of enlightened teachers from the Apostles to the present day.

However, there has been an interesting reawakening of interest in Patristic theology in Orthodoxy from the early 20th century. A contributing factor was the flight of many Orthodox theologians from Russia after the Russian Revolution. They founded centres of Orthodox theology in the West, including the Orthodox Theological Institute of Saint Sergius in Paris and Orthodox Seminary of Saint Vladimir in New York.

Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) and Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958) in particular opposed the efforts of the Slavophile movement to identify a uniquely Russian approach to Orthodox theology. Instead, they advocated a return to the Greek fathers in what Florovsky called a “Neo-Patristic Synthesis,” and they set the course for Orthodox theology in the 20th century.

In the 1940s, Russian émigré theologians rediscovered the ascetic-theology of Saint Gregory Palamas. From this rediscovery, the theology of Saint Gregory Palamas became the basis for an articulation of an Orthodox theological identity apart from Roman Catholic and Protestant influences.

Lossky, who was the subject of Archbishop Rowan William’s doctoral work, argued (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 1944) that Orthodox theologians maintained the mystical dimension of theology in a more integrated way than those of the Catholic and Reformed traditions because the Western traditions misunderstood Greek terms such as οὐσία (ousia), ὑπόστᾰσις (hypostasis), θέωσης (theosis), and θεωρία (theoria).

To illustrate his argument, he cites the Philokalia and Saint John Klimakos and the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as well as works by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory Nazianzus, and Saint Gregory Palamas.

Florovsky was particularly concerned that modern Christian theology might receive inspiration from the lively intellectual debates of the patristic traditions of the undivided Church rather than from later Scholastic or Reformation categories of thought. Among his pupils is the theologian Metropolitan Bishop John Zizioulas. We see his influence too in the writings of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and others.

The impact of Florovsky and Lossky soon spread beyond the Slavic Orthodoxy, and as the first generation of Russian émigré theologians died out, their approach was taken up in the post-war years by Greek theologians.

Until the 1950s, Greek theology had tended towards a scholastic approach, which David Ford characterises as “doctrinal capita with patristic catenae added.”

This post-war re-engagement by modern Greek theologians with Patristic sources also drew on the work of diaspora theologians and Western patristic scholars. It led to a rediscovery by Greek theologians of Saint Gregory Palamas, and with a rediscovery, for example of the Hesychast theologians, and in particular of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

This rediscovery of the significance of Patristic writings in the 19th and 20th centuries by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant theologians also contributed to fresh understandings of the Liturgy and informed the development of the Liturgical Movement in the 20th century. In particular, the Didache and the Apostolic Tradition helped to shape much of our present-day liturgical understandings.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 9 February 2015 concluded the Year I MTh module, Introduction to Patristics.

Patristics (2015): 5, The Desert Fathers

The Sphinx and the pyramids at sunset ...the Desert Fathers had a major influence on the development of Christianity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Introduction to Patristics,

Brown Room,

Mondays, 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

Outline of Module:

10.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: Introducing Patristics

2, 11.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: The Apostolic Fathers

3, 10.30 a.m., 2 February 2015: The Greek Fathers

4, 11.30 a.m., 2 February 2015: The Latin Fathers

5, 10.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Desert Fathers

6, 11.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

Monday, 9 February 2015:

10.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers – and the Desert Mothers – including hermits, ascetics and monks, lived mainly in the settlement of Scetes in the Western Desert of Egypt beginning around the third century.

They had a major influence on the development of Christianity, and many of their thoughts, stories, sayings and writings are collected in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

The small communities forming around the Desert Fathers were the beginning of Christian monasticism. Initially Saint Anthony and others lived as hermits, sometimes forming groups of two or three. Small informal communities began developing, until the monk Saint Pachomius, seeing the need for a more formal structure, established a monastery with rules and organisation.

Three main types of monasticism developed in Egypt around the Desert Fathers:

1, The austere life of the hermit, as practiced by Saint Anthony and his followers in lower Egypt.

2, The cenobitic life, lived by communities of monks and nuns in upper Egypt formed by Saint Pachomius.

3, A semi-hermitic lifestyle seen mostly in Nitria, Kellia and Scetis, west of the Nile, begun by Saint Amun. These were small groups of perhaps two to six monks and nuns with a common spiritual elder. These separate groups would join together in larger gatherings to worship on Saturdays and Sundays. This third form of monasticism was responsible for most of the sayings compiled as the Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).

The Desert Life:

A church in a provincial town in the Nile Valley in Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Desert Fathers put more emphasis on living and practicing the teachings of Christ than on theoretical knowledge. Many stories recall their struggles to overcome negative emotions such as anger and judgment of others.

Helping a brother monk who was ill or struggling took priority over other considerations. Hermits would frequently break a long fast when hosting visitors, as hospitality and kindness were more important than fasting.

The lives of the Desert Fathers included frequent recitation of the scriptures. During the week they chanted psalms while performing manual labour and during the weekends they served liturgy and took part in group services.

Group practices were more prominent in the organised communities formed by Saint Pachomius. The purpose of these practices were explained by Saint John Cassian, who described the goal of psalmody or the outward recitation of scripture and asceticism as the ascent to deep mystical prayer and mystical contemplation.

Some Desert Fathers:

An Egyptian monk in a monastery in the Western Desert

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers include 1,202 sayings attributed to twenty-seven abbas and three ammas.

The notable Desert Fathers and Mothers include Saint Anthony, Abba Arsenius, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius of Egypt, Abba Moses the Black and Amma Syncletica of Alexandria.

Other notable Desert Fathers include Saint Pachomius and Shenouda the Archimandrite.

Many Patristic writers who also spent part of their lives in the Egyptian Desert include Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint John Chrysostom, Evagrius Ponticus, Saint Hilarion and Saint John Cassian.

1, Saint Paul of Thebes (d. ca 341)

Saint Paul of Thebes (right) being visited in the Desert by Saint Anthony … notice the raven and the desert lions

Desert monasticism appeared almost simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria. Saint Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert. He is also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit or Saint Paul the Anchorite.

Familiar stories from The Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit, written in Latin by Saint Jerome ca 375/376, include: the meeting of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony, the raven who brought them bread, Saint Anthony being sent to fetch the cloak given him by “Athanasius the Bishop” to bury Saint Paul’s body, Saint Paul’s death before he returned, and the grave dug by lions.

So, Saint Paul of Thebes is known to posterity because Saint Anthony was told in a dream ca 342 about the older hermit and went into the Desert to find him.

Saint Jerome also tells the story of how these two Desert Fathers met when Saint Paul was aged 113. They conversed with each other for one day and one night.

The Synaxarium shows the saints inviting each other to bless and break the bread as a token of honour. Saint Paul held one side, putting the other side into the hands of Father Anthony, and soon the bread broke through the middle and each took his part.

When Saint Anthony next visited him, Saint Paul was dead. Saint Anthony clothed him in a tunic he was given by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and buried him, with two lions helping to dig the grave. Saint Anthony returned to his monastery taking with him the robe woven with palm leaf. He honoured the robe so much that he only wore it twice a year, on Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost.

2, Saint Anthony the Great (ca 251-356)

Salvador Dali’s ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ … a modern representation that builds on the rich iconography of the past centuries

The best-known of the Desert Fathers is Saint Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in 270-271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. The biography of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria helped to spread monasticism, particularly in Western Europe through Latin translations.

Sometime ca 270, Saint Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all one’s possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ (see Matthew 19: 21). He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.

Saint Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity. The Diocletian Persecution in 303 was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Ten years later, Christianity became legal in Egypt under Diocletian’s successor, Constantine I. Those who left for the desert formed an alternative Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifices of the desert were seen by Saint Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice.

By the time Saint Anthony died in 356, thousands of monks and nuns had followed his example by moving to live in the desert. His biographer, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote: “The desert had become a city.”

Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable. Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers.

3, Saint Pachomius (ca 292-348)

Saint Pachomius … monastic rules originate with his understanding of monastic life

Saint Pachomius was the first of the Desert Fathers to realise the need for a more formal structures for the monks and nuns in the Desert. He established a monastery with rules and organisation.

His regulations included discipline, obedience, manual labour, silence, fasting, and long periods of prayer – some historians view the rules as being inspired by his experiences as a Roman soldier.

The first fully-organised monastery under Saint Pachomius included men and women living in separate quarters, up to three in a room. They supported themselves by weaving cloth and baskets, along with other tasks.

Each new monk or nun had a three-year probationary period, concluding with admittance in full standing to the monastery. All property was held communally, meals were eaten together and in silence, twice a week they fasted, and they wore simple peasant clothing with a hood.

They came together several times a day for prayer and readings, and each person was expected to spend time alone meditating on the scriptures. Programmes were created for educating those who came to the monastery unable to read.

Saint Pachomius also formalised the positions of an abba (father) or amma (mother) in charge of the spiritual welfare of the monks and nuns, with the implication that those joining the monastery were also joining a new family.

Members also formed smaller groups, with different tasks in the community and the responsibility of looking after each other's welfare. The new approach grew to the point that there were tens of thousands of monks and nuns in these organised communities within decades of the death of Saint Pachomius.

4, Abba Poemen (ca 340–450)

Abba Poemen … the greatest number of sayings of the Desert Fathers are attributed to him

The greatest number of sayings in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are attributed to Abba Poemen, whose name is derived from the Greek for shepherd.

However, because of the wide disparity of dates for the sayings attributed to Abba Poemen, some scholars believe that “Poemen” was a generic name for a combination of different unnamed abbas. Others conclude that the sayings attributed to Abba Poemen are accurate, based on a notable and historical Abba Poemen.

5, Evagrius Ponticus (345-399):

Evagrius Ponticus is an influential and gifted writer

Evagrius Ponticus (Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός), also called Evagrius the Solitary (345-399), was a monk, an ascetic and a gifted writer.

Evagrius was born into a Christian family in Ibora, modern-day İverönü, Erbaa, in present-day south-central Turkey. He was educated in Neocaesarea, where he began his career in the church as a lector under Saint Basil the Great. Around 380 he joined Saint Gregory of Nazianzus in Constantinople ca 380, a year after Gregory had become Patriarch of Constantinople. There he became deacon, and then an archdeacon, and he was present in 381 at Constantinople I, the Second Ecumenical Council.

Constantinople had many attractions, and Evagrius’s vanity was aroused by the praise of his peers. Eventually, he became infatuated with a married woman. Amid this temptation, he is said to have had a vision in which he was imprisoned at the request of the woman’s husband. This vision, and the warning of an attendant angel, made him flee from the capital and move to 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 shake off his pride. He confessed to Melania, and became a monk in Jerusalem in 383.

He then joined a cenobitic community of monks in Nitria in Lower Egypt ca 385, and later moved to Kellia, where he spent the last 14 years of his life studying under Saint Macarios the Great (who had been a disciple of Saint Anthony the Great), and Macarius of Alexandria.

Evagrius is said to be one of the first people to begin recording and systematising the oral teachings of the Desert Fathers.

He was the teacher of other monks, including Saint John Cassian and Palladius of Galatia. He rigorously tried to avoid teaching beyond the spiritual maturity of his audiences.

The most prominent feature of his work is his categorising different forms of temptation. He developed a comprehensive list of eight evil thoughts (λογισμοι), or eight terrible temptations, from which all sinful behaviour springs. This list was intended to serve a diagnostic purpose: to help readers identify the process of temptation, their own strengths and weaknesses, and the remedies available for overcoming temptation.

He listed the eight patterns of evil thought as gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride. Two centuries later in 590, Pope Gregory the Great refined this list in the Seven Deadly Sins.

In the words of Evagrius:

“A man in chains cannot run. Nor can the mind that is enslaved to passion see the place of spiritual prayer. It is dragged along and tossed by these passion-filled thoughts and cannot stand firm and tranquil.”

6, Saint John Cassian (ca 360-435)

Saint John Cassian … introduced monasticism to the west

Saint John Cassian’s works brought the wisdom of the Desert Fathers into a wider arena, especially to the early medieval West.

Saint John Cassian was born ca 360, most likely in the region of Scythia Minor (now Dobruja, on the borders of Romania and Bulgaria), although some scholars think he may have been of Gallic origin.

As a young adult, he went with an older friend, Germanus to Palestine, where they stayed for about three years in a hermitage near Bethlehem. From there, they moved to the Scete in the Western Desert of Egypt, and visited a number of monastic foundations.

Then, ca 399, Saint John Cassian and Germanus fled to Constantinople during a controversy provoked by Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria and other followers of Origen. They sought protection from the Patriarch of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom. John Cassian was ordained a deacon and became an adviser the Patriarch.

When Saint John Chrysostom was forced into exile from Constantinople in 404, John Cassian was sent to Rome to plead his case before Pope Innocent I. In Rome, he accepted the invitation to found an Egyptian-style monastery near Marseilles, in southern Gaul. He may also have spent time as a priest in Antioch between 404 and 415, but he was in Marseilles by 415.

His Abbey of Saint Victor, which included monasteries for men and women, became a model for later monastic foundations in the Western Church.

The single most important influence on his ideas was Evagrius Ponticus, and his writings codified and transmitted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. The Institutions deal with the external organisation of monastic communities, while the Conferences deal with “the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart.” His books were written in Latin, in a simple, direct style. They were swiftly translated into Greek, which indicates the Eastern monks recognised him as one of their own.

Saint John Cassian’s achievements and writings influenced Saint Benedict, who incorporated many of the principles into his monastic rule, and recommended his own monks to read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict’s rule is still followed by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist communities, and Saint John Cassian’s thinking still influences the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women.

Saint John Cassian died in 435 in Marseille.

7, Saint John Klimakos (ca 525-626?)

The Ladder of Saint John Klimakos represented in a late 12th century icon in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

Next month [30 March 2015], the calendars of the Church commemorate Saint John Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος), the author of the great spiritual work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The ascetic example of Saint John Klimakos is also inspiring during our Lenten journey.

The Ladder is one of the most widely read and much-loved books of Orthodox spirituality, and is read especially during Great Lent. It is often read in the refectory in monasteries, and in some churches it is read as part of the Daily Office on Lenten weekdays.

Saint John Klimakos was a seventh century monk in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. Although his lifespan is often given as 525-606, we have little information about the life of this saint apart from a hagiography by a monk named Daniel of Raithu monastery, who admits he knows nothing about Saint John’s origins.

In various accounts, the date of his birth is given between 505 and 579 in Syria – although other sources say he was born in Constantinople. Any speculation about his birth comes from a much later period. But it is said Saint John came to the monastery on Mount Sinai and became a novice when he was aged about 16.

On Mount Sinai, he was taught about the spiritual life by the elder monk Martyrius. After Martyrius died, John withdrew to a hermitage at Tola at the foot of the mountain, about 8 km from Saint Catherine’s.

He lived in his hermitage in Tola for 20 years, constantly studying the lives of the saints, and became one of the most learned of the Church Fathers. There too, he was sought out for spiritual direction, and he also visited several monasteries near Alexandria. Far from being an escape from the world and human life, his retreat led to ardent love for others and for God.

At about the age of 75, the monks of Mount Sinai persuaded him to become their igumen or abbot, and in this role he showed great wisdom. Shortly before his death, he resigned as abbot to return to his solitary life. Once again, various dates are given for his death on Mount Sinai, between 605 and 649.

His Κλίμαξ or The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written in the early seventh century at the request of Abbot John of Raithu, a monastery in Sinai on the shores of the Red Sea.

He also wrote To the Pastor, which may have been an appendix to The Ladder.

In The Ladder, Saint John describes how to raise one’s soul and body to God through the acquisition of ascetic virtues. He uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder as the framework for his spiritual teaching.

Each chapter is referred to as a step, and deals with a separate spiritual subject. There are 30 steps of the ladder, corresponding to the age of Christ at his baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry.

Within the general framework of a ladder, The Ladder is divided into three sections.

The first seven Steps concern general virtues necessary for the ascetic life, while the next 19 (Steps 8-26) give instruction on overcoming vices and building their corresponding virtues. The final four steps (27-30) concern the higher virtues towards which the ascetic life aims. The final rung of the ladder – beyond prayer (προσευχή), stillness (ἡσυχία), and even dispassion (ἀπαθεία) – is love (ἀγάπη).

The Ladder describes how to raise one’s soul and body to God, as if on a ladder, the goal of which is θέωσης (theosis), or mystical union with God. This book is one of the most widely-read among Orthodox Christians, especially during this season of Great Lent. It is often read in the trapeza or monastic refectory during Lent, and in some places it is read in church as part of the Daily Office during the weekdays of Lent.

Saint John Klimakos uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder to provide the framework for his spiritual teaching. Each chapter is referred to as a “step,” and deals with a separate spiritual subject. There are 30 steps on the ladder, which correspond with the age of Christ at his baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry.

The first 23 steps give instruction on overcoming the vices, and the remainder speak of building the virtues.

The Ladder holds dispassionateness (apatheia) as the ultimate contemplative and mystical good in a Christian.

I should advise that reading this book is usually reserved for monastics or lay people who have progressed spiritually, and Orthodox Christians say that this book should only be read with the permission and guidance of a Spiritual Father.

The 30 steps or rungs on the Ladder:

1–4: Renouncement of the world and obedience to a spiritual father

1, Περί αποταγής (on renunciation of the world, or ascetism)
2, Περί απροσπαθείας (on detachment)
3, Περί ξενιτείας (on exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have)
4, Περί υπακοής (on blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals)

5–7: Penitence and affliction (πένθος) as paths to true joy

5, Περί μετανοίας (on painstaking and true repentance, which constitute the life of the holy convicts, and about the Prison)
6, Περί μνήμης θανάτου (on remembrance of death)
7, Περί του χαροποιού πένθους (on joy-making mourning)

8–17: Defeat of vices and acquisition of virtue

8, Περί αοργησίας (on freedom from anger and on meekness)
9, Περί μνησικακίας (on remembrance of wrongs)
10, Περί καταλαλιάς (on slander or calumny)
11, Περί πολυλογίας και σιωπής (on talkativeness and silence)
12, Περί ψεύδους (on lying)
13, Περί ακηδίας (on despondency)
14, Περί γαστριμαργίας (on that clamorous mistress, the stomach)
15, Περί αγνείας (on incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat)
16, Περί φιλαργυρίας (on love of money, or avarice)
17, Περί αναισθησίας (on non-possessiveness (that hastens one towards heaven)

18–26: Avoidance of the traps of asceticism (laziness, pride, mental stagnation)

18, Περί ύπνου και προσευχής (on insensibility or the deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body)
19, Περί αγρυπνίας (on sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood)
20, Περί δειλίας (on bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practice it)
21, Περί κενοδοξίας (on unmanly and puerile cowardice)
22, Περί υπερηφανείας (on the many forms of vainglory)
23, Περί λογισμών βλασφημίας (on mad pride and, in the same step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts)
24, Περί πραότητος και απλότητος (on meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness, which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and on guile)
25, Περί ταπεινοφροσύνης (on the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception)
26, Περί διακρίσεως (on discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned)

27–29: Acquisition of hesychia, or peace of the soul, of prayer, and of apatheia (dispassion or equanimity with respect to afflictions or suffering)

27, Περί ησυχίας (on holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them)
28, Περί προσευχής (on holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer)
29, Περί απαθείας (on heaven on earth, or God-like dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection)
30, Περί αγάπης, ελπίδος και πίστεως (on linking together the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarising all that has said at length in this book).

Humour and suffering

Dr George Bebawi … a humorous tale about the Desert Fathers

If you have developed any doubts during this module about the potential for humour among the Early Fathers, then let me say that my own misgivings were dispelled a few years ago by Dr George Bebawi, an Egyptian scholar now living in Indianapolis.

In the course of a lecture in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, 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.”

If you are in danger of thinking the Desert Fathers are concerned only with their own personal salvation, and not with the salvation of the whole world, then they also warn against what may be described as “learning wisdom.” The Egyptian Desert Father, Abba Poemen, 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.”

There was 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 he demanded to become a martyr.

But once the nomadic people captured the monk, 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.

If your image of the Early Fathers, particularly the Desert Fathers, is of humourless men stuck on the top of pillars or columns, sending down baskets with human waste and hauling them back up again full of food and drink, then think again of Saint Anthony, the founder of monasticism, saying: “Joy and not fear are the signs of the holy.”

The influence of the Desert Fathers

An icon of Saint Francis (left) and Saint Benedict (right) in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge … the Desert traditions of monasticism influenced Saint Benedict and later western monasticism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As pilgrims began visiting the monks in the desert, the early writings of Desert Fathers circulated quickly. Latin versions of the original Greek stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers, along with the earliest monastic rules, shaped the development and growth of the early monastic communities, first in the Byzantine world and then throughout western Christian world.

As we have seen, the Rule of Saint Benedict was strongly influenced by the Desert traditions. Saint Benedict urged his monks to read the writings of Saint John Cassian on the Desert Fathers. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers was also widely read in the early Benedictine monasteries.

All the monastic revivals of the Middle Ages looked to the Desert Fathers for inspiration and guidance.

Saint Basil of Caesarea took the Rule of Saint Pachomius to the Eastern Church. Saint Basil expanded the idea of community by integrating the monks and nuns into the wider public community, with the monks and nuns under the authority of a bishop and serving the poor and needy.

The desert communities became the model the monastic life on Mount Athos, and much of Orthodox spirituality, including the practice of the Jesus Prayer and the Hesychast movement, had its roots in the experiences of the Desert Fathers.

Hesychasm (from the Greek for “stillness, rest, quiet, silence”) is a mystical tradition and movement that originated with the Desert Fathers, for whom Hesychasm was primarily the practice of “interior silence and continual prayer.”

It became a popular practice in Byzantine meditative prayer techniques in the 14th century. In this way, it became more closely identified with the Prayer of the Heart, or the Jesus Prayer.

Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The monastic tradition continues ... Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, shows the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A hermit said, “Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons.”

Abba Moses, “Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all.”

Somebody asked Anthony, “What shall I do in order to please God?” He replied, “Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guidelines, you will be saved.”

Evagrius said, “A monk was told that his father had died. He said to the messenger, ‘Do not blaspheme. My Father cannot die’.”

Abbot Pastor, “If someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may drive out his malice.”

An Elder said, “A man who keeps death before his eyes will at all times overcome his cowardliness.”

Blessed Macarius said, “This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.”

It happened that as Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, “O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.”

When one desert father told another of his plans to “shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,” the second monk replied, “Unless you first amend your life going to and fro amongst men, you shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.”


6, 11.30 a.m.: The Patristic Legacy, especially for Anglicans.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 9 February 2015 was part of the Year I MTh module, Introduction to Patristics.