03 April 2008

Introduction to Patristics: Readings in the Eastern Fathers

A 12th century icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, from the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai

Patrick Comerford

The theological study of the writings of the Fathers of the Church is known as Patristics. We generally define the Fathers of the Church (patres) as those writers who lived during the Patristic Age, the time after the writing of much of the New Testament and before the end of the 8th century.

The term is used for writers and teachers – not all of whom are regarded as saints. The term generally does not embrace the New Testament writers, although, as we saw some weeks ago with the Apostolic Fathers, some writings by Church Fathers were at first considered canonical in parts of the early Church.

The Patristic writings or writings of the Fathers of the Church are generally seen as being marked by orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, the approval of the Church, and antiquity.

At our last seminar [http://revpatrickcomerford.blogspot.com/2008/03/historical-foundations-for-spiritual.html], we looked at the Apostolic Fathers and their writings in the first two generations after the Apostles, including Saint Clement of Rome (ca 30-ca 100), Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, as well as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, which are usually placed among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers although their authors are unknown.

This week, I want us to look at the Eastern Fathers and to provide a brief introduction to some of the other Fathers of the Church. The Eastern Fathers or the Greek Fathers, as you can imagine, are those Church Father who wrote in Greek. They include: Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, although his work has survived only in its Latin translation), Saint Clement of Alexandria; the heterodox Origen; Saint Athanasius of Alexandria; Saint John Chrysostom; the Three Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus; Evagrios; Makarios; and John Klimakos.

Although the Orthodox tradition tends to put no closing date on the Patristic Age, it is generally accepted that this period came to a close in the West at the death of Saint Isidore of Seville in 636 and in the East with the death of Saint John of Damascus ca 750.

The works of Early Fathers, who wrote before the Council of Nicaea, were translated into English in a 19th century collection, the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Those who wrote after the First Council of Nicaea are collected in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

Although much the principle of Sola Scriptura is a key concept at the time of the reformation, many of the first reformers, like their Catholic and Orthodox contemporaries, relied heavily on the theological interpretations of scripture set out by the early Church Fathers.

The setting

When we are looking at the writings of the Fathers, it is helpful to understand the historical background to their writings. During the period between the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 and the death of Saint John of Damascus ca 750, the relationships between Empire and Church were so close that they seemed seem almost one, with the Emperor in the East often playing a prominent role in religious matters, while in the West the Papacy assumed increasing secular authority.

The domination of the East – reflected in the triumph of Greek over Latin as the language of administration – meant that Rome and the Western provinces were seen as rather provincial. On the other hand, the Church in the East faced challenges from a range of theological ideas. Nestorian and Monophysite doctrines were not suppressed by the Council of Chalcedon, new disputes arose, and there were strong differences over icons or images. Islam became a major threat to the Empire from the 7th century on, and Islamic ideas also carried weight in religious matters.

The Apolgists

The Apologists are those early Christian writers who wrote between 120 and 220, addressing the task of a finding a reasoned defence of the faith against outside critics. They include Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus and Tertullian.

Justin Martyr (ca 100-ca 165)

Justin Martyr was born to pagan parents and converted to Christianity ca 130. He taught first at Ephesus and later in Rome. When he refused to offer sacrifices to the emperor, he was beheaded.

In his First Apology and Second Apology, Justin Martyr argued that Christianity was a true philosophy. He developed the concept of the “generative” or “germinative” Word, who had sown the seed of truth in all humanity and had become incarnate as Christ. He used the doctrine of the Logos to explain why Christians, while remaining monotheists, worshipped Jesus Christ, regarding him as the incarnation of the Logos, “in second place” to God.

Tertullian (ca 160-ca 225)

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florente Tertullianus) (ca 160-ca 225) was a prolific author in Early Christianity and a notable early Christian apologist. He was the son of a Roman centurion, was raised in Carthage as a pagan, and at first practised as a lawyer in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was converted to Christianity ca 197.

Although Tertullian wrote three books in Greek, he was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, and so is sometimes known as the “Father of the Latin Church.” He was a notable lawyer.

In his early work, De Praescriptione Hareticorum, he attacked all heresies in principle, arguing that the one true Church possesses the authentic tradition and that it alone has the authority to interpret Scripture.

In Against Marcion, he defended the identity of the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament, and the Messiah of prophecy with Jesus Christ.

In Against Praxeas, he exposed the unscriptural and unhistorical teachings of Modalism, and formulated a positive doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian introduced the term Trinity as the Latin trinitas to the Christian vocabulary, the formula “three Persons, one Substance” as the Latin “tres personae, una substantia” (from the Koine Greek, treis hypostases, homoousios), and the terms vetus testamentum (Old Testament) and novum testamentum (New Testament).

In his Apologeticus, Tertullian is the first Latin author to speak of Christianity as the vera religio, and he systematically relegated the classical religion of the empire and other accepted cults to the position of mere superstitions.

His De Animae prefigures Augustine’s concepts of original sin.

Although in all these works Tertullian devoted himself to denouncing heretical teachings, Tertullian later joined the Montanists, an apocalyptic and heretical sect that appealed to his rigour and asceticism.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 130-ca 200)

Saint Irenaeus (ca 130-ca 200), Bishop of Lyons, was a notable early apologist and the first great theologian. He was born, perhaps in Smyrna, some time in the 2nd century and died at the end of the 2nd or beginning of the 3rd century. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, one of the Apostolic Fathers, who in turn was said to be a disciple of John the Divine. He became Bishop of Lugundum in Gaul, which is now Lyons in France. He is recognised as a saint in both the Orthodox Church and the Western Church, and his life and work form an interesting link between East and West.

His writings were formative in the early development of theology. His best-known book, Adversus Omnes Haereses (Against Heresies) (ca 180), is a detailed attack on heresies, particularly Gnosticism, which threatened the Church at the time. A second work, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, was found in recent decades in Armenian collections.

Irenaeus opposed Gnosticism, not by setting out a rival Christian gnosis, but by emphasising the traditional elements in the Church, especially the episcopacy, Scripture and the religious and theological tradition.

Irenaeus wrote that the only way for Christians to retain unity was to humbly accept one doctrinal authority – episcopal councils. He was the first to propose that all four gospels be accepted as canonical. And he developed a doctrine of the ‘recapitulation’ or summary of human evolution in the Incarnate Christ, thereby giving a positive value of its own to Christ’s humanity.

Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215)

Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens) (ca 150-ca 215), was one of the most distinguished teachers in the Church of Alexandria. He was born about the middle of the 2nd century, and he died ca 215. He was trained in Alexandria’s Catechetical School, where he was a pupil of Pantaenus in Alexandria, and assumed the role of teacher ca 190. However, he was forced to flee Alexandria during a persecution ca 202.

Clement’s surviving writings include: the Protrepticus, or an “Exhortation to the Greeks”; the Paedagogus, on Christian life and manners; and eight books of Stromateis, or “Miscellanies,” although the last of these books is probably a misplaced fragment on logic.

Clement’s work represents an attempt to counter the charge that Christianity is a religion for the ignorant. He presents Christianity as the fulfilment of the Old Testament of Greek philosophy, uniting Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine.

Clement depicts the Logos as exposing the error and immorality of Greek religion and leading people, through Baptism, to the true religion of Christianity. He applies the term “Gnostic” to the Christian who has attained a deeper understanding of the Logos.

Clement presents the ultimate goal of the Christian life as “deification.”

Origen (ca 185-ca 254)

Origen (Origen Adamantius) (ca 185-ca 254) was an Egyptian who taught in Alexandria, reviving the Catechetical School where Clement had been a teacher. He is a biblical critic, theologian and spiritual writer.

Origen was brought up as Christian, and was recognised by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Demetrius, as head of the Catechetical School.

At first, Demetrius of Alexandria supported Origen. When trouble broke out in Alexandria in the year 215, Origen went to Palestine. But his preaching there was regarded as a breach of the church discipline in Alexandria, and Demetrius called him back and censured him for preaching as a layman.

Origen went to Palestine once again in the year 230, and there he was ordained priest there by the bishops who had invited him to preach on his previous visit. As a consequence, Demetrius deprived Origen of his teaching position in Alexandria and deposed him from the priesthood for being ordained without the patriarch’s permission.

In 231, Origen went to Caesarea, where he established another school that became a famous. During the Decian persecution in the year 250, Origen was imprisoned and tortured, and died soon after.

Origen wrote much, but many of his works have perished and most of the others survive only in fragments or in Latin translations. His main work on Biblical criticism was his Hexapla, his unique, corrected Septuagint in parallel columns. He wrote commentaries on many of the books of the Bible and several homilies.

His principal theological work is his Peri Archon (De Principiis or First Principles), which covers a wide range of doctrinal topics. His two ascetical works, Exhortation to Martyrdom and On Praying, were well read in the past. He also wrote an apologetic work against Celsus.

Origen articulated the first philosophical exposition of Christian doctrine. He interpreted scripture allegorically and showed himself to be a Stoic, a neo-Pythagorean, and Platonist. However, his views of a hierarchical structure in the Trinity, the temporality of matter, “the fabulous pre-existence of souls,” and “the monstrous restoration which follows from it” were declared anathema in the 6th century.

As a Biblical scholar, Origen recognised a triple sense – literal, moral and allegorical – of which he favoured the allegorical. The point of departure of his doctrinal teaching was faith in the unity of God. This unity, in its fullest sense, is understood of God the Father, and for Origen the Son is divine only in a lesser sense than the Father.

In his philosophical speculations, he affirmed that creation is eternal, that all spirits are created equal, but that through the exercise of their free will they have developed in hierarchical order and that some have fallen into sin, so becoming demons or souls imprisoned in bodies. Origen held that death does not finally decide the fate of the soul, which may turn into an angel or a demon. He believed that this ascent and descent goes on until the final Apocatastasis, when all creatures – even the Devil – will be saved.

Origen’s teaching on the pre-existence of souls and his denial of identity of the mortal and resurrection bodies was rejected by the Church, as well as his Trinitarian teachings in Peri Archon. His teachings were attacked by Saint Jerome, Saint Methodius of Olympus, bishop in Lycia, and by Saint Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus.

In his treatise on the Resurrection, Methodius took issue with Origen and upheld the identity of the resurrection body with the physical body of this life.

In an attempt to vindicate Origen’s orthodoxy, Rufinus issued a Latin translation of Peri Archon in the year 398. However, a Council of Alexandria in 400 condemned Origen’s teachings. The controversy over Origen’s teachings re-emerged in the 6th century, but they were condemned finally in 553 at the Second Council of Constantinople.

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (ca 296-373)

Athanasius I of Alexandria (ca 296-373), Patriarch of Alexandria, Saint Athanasius the Great or Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, was a theologian, Church Father and a noted Church leader of the 4th century. He is best remembered for his consistent role opposing Arius and Arian party in Alexandria. At the first Council of Nicaea (325), Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years later, he succeeded as Bishop of Alexandria, but his continuing conflicts with the Arians led to his forced exile on a number of occasions between 336 and 366.

In his De Incarnatione, written perhaps ca 318, Athanasius expounds how God the Word, the Logos, by his union with humanity, restored to fallen humanity the image of God, and by his death and resurrection overcame death. Between 339 and 359, he wrote a series of works defending the true divinity of the Son. From about 361, he worked on reconciling the semi-Arian party to the Nicene term homoousios (“of one substance”). In his Epistles to Serapion, he argued for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

He should also be remembered as the friend and biographer of the Desert Father, Antony, and as a bishop who encouraged the early ascetic movement. Athanasius was probably the biographer of Anthony, and is credited with introducing knowledge of monasticism to the Western Church.

Saint John Chrysostom (ca 347-ca 407)

Saint John Chrysostom (ca 347-ca 407), Patriarch of Constantinople, is known an eloquent preacher and public speaker – the name Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed.” John Chrysostom is known chiefly as a preacher, theologian and liturgist, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. But he is also known for his denunciation of abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, and his for ascetic sensibilities.

He was a hermit before being ordained deacon and priest, and his sermons began to receive acclaim from 386 on. His famous sermons “On the Statues” were preached in 387 after a series of riots in Antioch when the imperial statues were torn down. His sermons on the books of the Bible brought him the reputation as the greatest Christian expositor.

Saint John Chrysostom wrote: “Where the Church is, there is the treasure of the unutterable Mysteries.” (Homily XIV on I Corinthians).

His works combine a great ability to see an author’s spiritual meaning with an equal ability to provide the immediate, practical application. He opposed the allegorical exegesis of scripture, instead stressing the literal meaning.

In 398, he became Patriarch of Constantinople, but was deposed in 403 after he opposed those in Alexandria who continued to follow Origen’s teachings.

After his death – or, according to some sources, during his life – he was given the Greek sobriquet chrysostomos, meaning “golden mouthed.”

He has given his name to the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the normal liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the to Prayer of Saint Chrysostom, which Cranmer introduced from that liturgy to Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.

However, eight of his sermons played a considerable role in the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and were extensively misused by the Nazis in their ideological campaign against the Jews.

The Cappadocian Fathers

The Cappadocian Fathers are highly respected in both the Western and Eastern Churches. They are the brothers Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory Nazianzus and Saint Gregory of Nyssa. They are closely associated with Saint Peter of Sebaste, who was a brother of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and their eldest brother was the Christian jurist Naucratius.

Saint Basil the Great (ca 330-379) was Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Saint Gregory of Nyssa was bishop of the diocese associated with his name, while Saint Gregory Nazianzus became Patriarch of Constantinople,

The Cappadocian Fathers set out to show that Christians could hold their own in conversations with learned Greek-speaking intellectuals and that the Christian faith, while it was against many of the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, was an almost scientific and distinctive movement with the healing of the soul of a person and his union with God at its centre.

They made major contributions to the definition of the Trinity finally accepted at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, and to what we now accept as the final version of the Nicene Creed.

Despite the First Council of Nicaea, Arianism did not simply disappear. The semi-Arians taught that the Son is “like in substance” to the Father (homoiousios) as against the outright Arians who taught that the Son was like the Father (homoean). So the Son was held to be like the Father but not of the same essence as the Father.

The Cappadocians worked to bring these semi-Arians back to the Orthodox cause. In their writings, they made extensive use of the now orthodox formula “three substances (hypostases) in one essence (ousia).” In this way, they explicitly acknowledged a distinction between the Father and the Son – a distinction that Nicaea had been accused of blurring – but at the same time insisting on their essential unity.

Saint Basil the Great (ca 330-379) was a hermit near Neocaesarea when he was called on by his bishop to defend orthodoxy against the Arianism of the Emperor Valens. He became Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in 380, and as bishop was involved in disputes with the extreme Arian party, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He tried to reconcile the semi-Arians and tried to show that their term homoiousios had the same implications as the term homoousios (“of one substance”) in the Nicene Creed.

Due primarily to Basil’s exertions, the controversy over Arianism came to an end at First Council of Constantinople in 381.

Basil also had great organisational talents, and provided Eastern monasticism with the structure and ethos it has to this day.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-ca 395) was a brother of Saint Basil the Great. He was a monk before becoming Bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia ca 371. He was deposed as bishop in 376, but regained his see in 378. In his defence of doctrinal orthodoxy and the doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed, Gregory distinguished carefully between the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.

Gregory is remembered for his sermons, his exegeses, his polemical treatises against heretics, his defences of doctrinal orthodoxy, and his spiritual guide for monks, De Instituto Christiano.

Saint Gregory Nazianzus (ca 329/330-389/390) was the son of a Bishop of Nazianzus in Cappadocia and was educated in Athens before becoming a monk. Around 372, he was consecrated Bishop of Sasima in Cappadocia, and assisted his father as a suffragan bishop. He was brought to Constantinople in 379, when his preaching helped to restore the Nicene faith. In 381, Gregory was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople, but he retired later that year.

His Five Theological Orations include an elaborate treatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Together, Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzus compiled the Philokalia, an anthology of writings.

A prayer of Saint Gregory Nazianzus:

Merciful Father, take pity on me.
Have mercy on your servant who implores your grace.
Stretch forth your hand, and cleanse my inmost thoughts,
and snatch me from the jaws of death.
Never deprive me of your Holy Spirit.
So pour your courage and your strength into this soul of mine
that I may ever hymn you with all my heart and voice.

Evagrios Pontikos (349-399)

Evagrios was a contemporary of many of these Eastern Fathers. He was a noted preacher in Constantinople, but in 382 he withdrew to the Desert, where he spent the rest of his life in prayer.

Evagrios Pontikos was born in 345 or 346, probably at Ibora in Pontus, and is considered one of the major founding fatrhers of Christian spiritual writing. A disciple of the Cappodocian Fathers, he was ordained a reader by Saint Basil the Great and he accompanied Saint Gregory the Theologian to the Council of Constantinople in 381. He draws upon the living experience of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, among whom he spent the last years of his life.

Identifying and editing the works of Evagrios works is a continuing process. After his posthumous condemnation, his writings often survived in anthologies; in Syriac, Armenian, or Latin translations; or in pseudonymous collections ascribed to other more acceptable figures, such as Saint Basil or Saint Nilus.

Evgarios was one of the great teachers of prayer, and many of the later writers on prayer acknowledge their indebtedness to him. There is a dictum in the Philokalia attributed to Evagrios, in which he says: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” [Treatise on Prayer, 61.] He greatly influenced Saint John Cassian who introduced Evgarios’s thinking to western monasticism, and his ideas are reflected in the writings of Saint John Klimakos, especially The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Some thoughts from Evagrios:

“You must choose a way of life that suits your lesser abilities. Travel your road and you will find life there, for your Lord is merciful, and he will find you acceptable not because of your achievements, but because of your heart’s intention, just as he received the poor widow’s gift.”

“When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form; but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand.”

“Allow the Spirit of God to dwell within you. Then, in his love, he will come and make a habitation with you.”

“God’s angels are standing around you, do not be afraid. The hosts of demons are watching opposite you, do not grow careless.”

His main works include:

Praktikos, Λόγος πράκτικος (Practicus et epistula ad Anatolium): The first of three works (along with Gnostikos and the Kephalaia Gnostica) considered one of his more important works. This treatise comprises 100 chapters discussing praktika – the preliminary disciplines of the ascetic life, dealing with the passions of the body.

Gnostikos, Γνωστικὸς ἢ Πρὸς τὸν καταξιωθέντα γνώσεως (Gnosticus): The second part of the trilogy, comprising 50 chapters. This treatise discusses gnostika – the mental or spiritual front of the ascetic life.

Kephalaia Gnostica, Ἑξακόσια προγνωστικὰ προβλήματα (Kephalaia gnostica): The third part of the trilogy in 540 chapters or 90 chapters in each of six “centuries,” discussing gnostika further.

Skemmata or Reflections, Σκέμματα (Capita cognoscitiua): These 65 sentences fall into three sections: 39 from the Gnostic Chapters, 23 from On Thoughts, and three unparalleled, and so termed a supplement. The number 65 is derived from textual criticism. This text, according to Mar Babai (569-628), who wrote an extensive commentary on the Kephalaia gnostica, was a supplement to the 540 chapters of the 600 promised in the Kephalaia gnostica (Mar Babai’s version of Reflections contained only 60 chapters).

Antirrheticos, Ἀντιῤῥητικός (Antirrheticus): Comprises lists of Scriptures that are effective in combating the eight passions. The text is organised according to the eight passions with scriptures listed according to their biblical order.

Sentences to the Monks, Πρὸς τοὺς ἐν κοινοβίοις ἢ συνοδίαις μοναχούς (Sententiae ad monachos): 137 chapters on the monastic life, written in distychs, in imitation of the Proverbs, directed probably to a monastic community in Jerusalem associated with Melania and Rufinus. Evagrios discusses matters foundational to the coenobitic monastic life, so the material resembles, in some ways, a rule. This work is often associated with the next work under the title The Mirrors.

Sentences to a Virgin, Παραίνεσις πρὸς παρθένον (Sententia ad Virginem): 56 sentences of spiritual instruction addressed to a virgin. She is unnamed, but probably was an associate of Melania and Rufinus. This work is written in distychs in imitation of the Proverbs. Evagrios discusses matters foundational to the coenobitic monastic life for women, so the material resembles, in some ways, a rule. It is often associated with the previous work under the title The Mirrors.

62 Letters (Epistula LXII): 62 letters of various lengths, all letters of spiritual counsel to various figures such as Rufinus, Saint Melania the Elder, Saint Gregory Nazianzus and Bishop John of Jerusalem.

Letter to Melania (Epistula ad Melaniam): This may be his last and longest extant letter. It deals extensively with Christology and the ministry of letter writing, as well as the apokatastasis. The recipient may have been Melania the Elder, or Rufinus.

Dogmatic Letter (Sermo sive dogmatica epistula de sanctissima trinitate): His first extant letter, dealing with Trinitarian doctrine and his flight from Pontus, among other things. It was written around 380, when Evagrios was with Gregory of Nazianzus during his stormy time in Constantinople. The letter was included in the first printed editions of Basil’s letters, despite the mixed attributions in manuscripts.

On Prayer, Περὶ προσευχῆς ἢ Λόγος εἰς ρνγʹ κεφαλαῖα διειλημμένος (De oratione): This treatise, a prologue and 153 chapters on prayer, was shown in the 1930s to be by Evagrios, despite its attribution in the Greek manuscript tradition to Saint Nilus.

The Latin Fathers

Those Church Fathers who wrote in Latin are called the Latin Fathers. Famous Latin Fathers include Saint Cyprian of Carthage, and the four great Latin Fathers: Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Jerome and Saint Gregory the Great.

Cyprian (d. 258)

Saint Cyprian (Thascius Caecilianus Cyprianus), Bishop of Carthage, was an important early Christian writer. He was probably born in the early 3rd century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he received an excellent classical education. He was converted to Christianity ca 246, and within two years he was elected Bishop of Carthage.

Cyprian is sometimes remembered for his demands that schismatics and heretics who turn to the Church should be baptised on the grounds that no-one outside the Church could validly administer the sacraments.

Cyprian wrote extensively on the Church, the ministry and the sacraments. In De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate, Cyprian wrote that the true unity of the Church is found in the relationship with the Trinity.

During the Decian persecution, Cyprian was forced to flee Carthage in 249. He returned to his see in 251, but eventually died a martyr’s death in Carthage on 14 September 258.<

Saint Ambrose (ca 339-397)

Saint Ambrose (ca 339-397), was Bishop of Milan and became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He is counted as one of the four traditional Doctors of the Church.

When Auxentius, the Arian Bishop of Milan, died in 373 or 374, the people of Milan demanded that Ambrose should be elected bishop in his place. Ambrose was a provincial governor and had not yet been baptised.

Ambrose was vocal in countering Arianism, and he was partly responsible for the conversion of Augustine in 386. He wrote hymns and had a strong influence on the development of western liturgy.

Ambrose tells this story of the martyr Lawrence the Deacon: “When treasures of the Church were demanded from him, he promised that he would show them. On the following day he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor saying: ‘These are the treasures of the Church.’ And truly they were treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in him.” (On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.28).

Saint Jerome (ca 347-420)

Saint Jerome (ca 347-420) is best known as the translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, and was an apologist. His edition of the Bible, the Vulgate, is still an important text in the Roman Catholic Church.

He lived for four or five years as a hermit in the Syrian Desert, was secretary to Pope Damasus for three years, and then moved to Bethlehem, where he was the head of newly-founded monastery. Some of his letters advocate extreme ascetism.

He too is recognised as a Doctor of the Church.

Saint Augustine (354-430)

Saint Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo (Annaba, Algeria), philosopher and theologian, is one of the Latin Fathers, a Doctor of the Church, and one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity.

Augustine was radically influenced by Platonism. He framed the concepts of original sin and the just war theory. When Rome fell and the faith of many Christians was shaken, Augustine developed the concept of the Church as the spiritual City of God. His work defines the start of the mediaeval worldview, an outlook that was later firmly established by Gregory the Great.

Augustine was born in present-day Algeria, to a Christian mother, Saint Monica. He was educated in North Africa, and resisted his mother’s pleas to become a Christian. He lived as an intellectual, took a concubine, and became a Manichean. He later converted to Christianity, and was baptised by Ambrose of Milan in 387.

He returned to North Africa the following year to join a lay monastic community, but on a visit to Hippo was ordained priest against his wishes in 391. He became a bishop in 395, and opposed heresies, such as the belief that people can deserve salvation by being good (Pelagianism). His works – including The Confessions, often called the first western autobiography, and The City of God – are still read.

Augustine’s Tractates on Saint John’s Gospel, his Sermons and his Rule embody the heart of his religion: his yearning for God and his profound sense of his ecclesial community.

Saint Gregory the Great (ca 540-604)

Saint Gregory I the Great (ca 540-604) was Pope from 590 until his death in 604. He is known as Gregorius Dialogus (Gregory the Dialogist) in Eastern Orthodoxy because of his Dialogues. He was the first of the Popes from a monastic background, is a Doctor of the Church, and alongside Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome is one of the four great Latin Fathers.

Of all the popes, Gregory I had the most influence on the early mediaeval Church. He resigned from his position as Prefect of Rome in 573, gave his wealth away to the poor and joined a monastery. As Pope, he refused to recognise the Patriarch of Constantinople as the Ecumenical Patriarch, and is also remembered as the Pope who sent monks from his own monastic community on a mission to England under Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

Gregory promoted monasticism, reformed the liturgy, fostered liturgical music.

His theology was dominated by the ideal of the contemplative life, and some of his stories about the fate of souls after death contributed to the later development of the concept of purgatory.

The Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers were early monastics who lived in the Egyptian desert. Although they did not write as much, their influence was also great. They include Saint Antony the Great and Saint Pachomius. A great number of their short and often pithy sayings is collected in the Apophthegmata Patrum or Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Saint Antony the Great or Saint Antony of Egypt (ca 251-356) gave away all his possessions in 269 and devoted the rest of life to a life of ascetism. He retired to the desert completely ca 285, and there he is said to have fought with demons disguised as wild beasts. He came out of his solitude in 305 to organise his community into a community of hermits living under a common rule. Once again he retired to solitude in 310 to the “Inner Mountain,” near the Red Sea, although he later exercised strong influence through Athanasius of Alexandria on the Nicene party in the controversy with the Arians.

Saint Pachomius (ca 290-346) is the founder of coenobitic monasticism. He founded a monastery at Tabennisi and his rule has influenced monasticism in both the western and the eastern traditions.

On the eve of his baptism, Saint Pachomius had a vision “in which he saw dew falling on him from heaven, spilling into his hand in the form of honey, and flowing from there over the surface of the earth. A voice informed him that this was an augury for his future.”

Saint John Cassian (ca 360-ca 430) first joined a monastery in Bethlehem but later moved to a monastery in Egypt. Later he founded two monasteries near Marseilles. His two best-known works are his Institutes and his Conferences. He set out the ordinary rules for the monastic life. He also shared the unease of many with the extremes of Augustine’s teachings on grace.

He wrote: “Practical knowledge is distributed among many subjects and interests, but theoretical [knowledge] is divided into two parts, i.e., the historical interpretation and the spiritual sense.” – (Saint John Cassian, The Conferences, The First Conference of Abbot Nesteros, Chapter 8, Of Spiritual Knowledge).

Saint John Klimakos (ca 570-ca 649), a spiritual writer and ascetic, is known for his famous Ladder. He began his monastic life as a novice at the age of 16 on Mount Sinai, where he later became Abbot. His Climax, or Ladder of Paradise or Ladder of Divine Ascent (Κλίμαξ) discusses monastic virtues and vices, and the nature of complete dispassionateness (apatheia), which he speaks of as the ideal of Christian perfection.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder was written at the request of John, Abbot of Raithu, a monastery on the shores of the Red Sea. A shorter work, To the Pastor, is less well known.

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

The Ladder is addressed to anchorites and cenobites, and discusses how the highest degree of religious perfection may be attained. Saint John Klimakos uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder (see Genesis 28: 12) 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 on the ladder recalling the age of Christ at his baptism and the beginning of his ministry. The Ladder presents a picture of all the virtues and contains a great many parables and historical touches, drawn principally from the monastic life, and exhibiting the practical application of the precepts.

The first 23 steps give instruction on overcoming the vices, and the remainder speak of building the virtues. The Ladder teaches that dispassionateness (apatheia) is the ultimate contemplative and mystical good in a Christian.

The 30 chapters or steps or rungs on the Ladder to Heaven are:

Part 1:

Chapters 1–4, renouncing the world and obedience to a spiritual father:

1, Περί αποταγής (on renouncing the word 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, with episodes involving many individuals).

Part 2:

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

5, Περί μετανοίαs (on painstaking and true repentance that constitutes the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison).
6, Περί μνήμης θανάτου (on remembering death).
7, Περί του χαροποιού πένθους (on joy-making mourning).

Part 3:

Chapters 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).

Part 4:

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

18, Περί ύπνου και προσευχής (on insensibility or deadening 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 practise 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; on unmentionable blasphemous thoughts).
24, Περί πραότητος και απλότητος (on meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about 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; a brief summary of all the afore-mentioned).

Part 5:

Chapters 27–30, the 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 (concerning 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 (concerning linking together the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarising all that has been said at length in this book).

The Ladder of Divine Ascent was translated into Latin by Ambrogio the Camaldolese (Ambrosius Camaldulensis) and first published in Venice in 1531.

The original Greek version, edited by Archbishop Elias of Crete, became available in West when it was published in Paris in 1633.

An icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent shows a ladder extending from earth to heaven, with several monks climbing the ladder. At the top of the ladder, Jesus is prepared to receive the climbers into heaven, with angels helping the climbers, and demons attempting to shoot the with arrows or drag them down, no matter how high up the ladder they are. Most versions of the icon show at least one person falling. Often, in the lower right corner Saint John Klimakos is gesturing towards the ladder with rows of monks behind him.

Other Fathers

A small number of Church Fathers wrote in other languages: Saint Ephraem Syrus (ca 306-373), for example, wrote in Syriac. His works were widely translated into Greek, Armenian and Latin and over 500 of his hymns survive.

Later Fathers

Saint John of Damascus (ca 655-ca 750) is generally considered to be the last of the Church Fathers. Saint Bernard is sometimes called the last of the Church Fathers. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not regard the age of Church Fathers as over and includes later influential writers in the term. In the Western Church, the age of the Fathers gave way to he next period of church writers, scholasticism, was sown.

Saint John of Damascus had been an official in the court of the caliph before he resigned and became a monk in the Monastery of Saint Sabas near Jerusalem. He was strong defender of icons during the iconoclast controversy. His most important work is the three-part Fount of Wisdom, which deals with philosophy, heresy and the Orthodox faith. His hymns are still in use throughout the Eastern Church, and some are included in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland.

Some closing points

The Early Fathers remain an important link between the New Testament writers and development of doctrine in the Church. The Eastern Fathers made the proper connection between doctrine and the spiritual life, and left a legacy for the whole Church in their writings, their hymns, their translations of the Bible, and their role in developing monastic life.

Although their writings can be difficult for many readers in today’s culture, they have inspired Christian spirituality over the centuries and over the generations, and they remain relevant to us today. Many of them, such as Evagrios, stand out as teachers of prayer and writers on the patterns of mystical prayer and the spiritual life.

Select reading:

Angelo Di Berardino (ed), Patrology: The Eastern Fathers from the Council of Chalcedon to John of Damascus (2nd ed, pbk, forthcoming, May 2008, 736 pp).
John Chryssavgis, Light through Darkness: the Orthodox Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004, Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).
Mary Cunningham, Faith in the Byzantine World (Oxford: Lion, 2002).
Derek Krueger (ed), Byzantine Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, A People’s History of Christianity, vol 3).
John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: the Byzantine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001, Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).
Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on a seminar in Year I course, ‘Introduction to Christian Spirituality,’ on 3 April 2008.

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