20 July 2010

‘Divine love is a very passionate love’

Dr Sebastian Brock, who introduced some generally unknown Syriac texts this afternoon at the IOCS summer school in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

John the Solitary is a Syriac Father who has only come to the attention of Western scholars in the past few decades, with the publication of his Dialogue on the Soul and the Passions in 1936. A translation by Mary Hansbury is forthcoming, and other works have been translated by Dr Sebastian Brock. Not everything has been published, though, and his identity is unclear, and there is a great deal of confusion about his lifestory.

We were introduced to his writing and thinking this afternoon by Dr Brock, who spoke at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on “The Passions according to John the Solitary.” At one time, Dr Brock worked with the director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Professor David Frost on the translation of the Psalms that was used in the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland.

Solitary probably means that he was “single-minded,” we were told, but little is known about his background, life or biographical detail, although he lived in the first half of the fifth century, in a time before the Chalcedonian divisions.

John the Solitary, who says that divine love is a very passionate love and that the love of Christ is like a fire than consumes the soul, is the first Syriac writer to write about sufferings in terms of the passions. He clearly knew Greek writings and is a very Hellenised writer, and while his own system of the passions is different from other Greek writings, he bears an interesting comparison with Evagrius.

Although John the Solitary was long unknown to western scholars, he was strongly influential in the Syriac tradition. He sets out a three-fold pattern of the spiritual life: pagrana (of the body), napshana (of the soul) and ruhana (of the spirit). Dr Brock compared these with the Apostle Paul’s three levels or stages in I Corinthians 2-3: σαρκικός (sarkikos), Ψυχικός (psychikos), and πνευματικός pneumatikos).

John the Solitary emphasises on the hope for the post-Resurrection New World, and the fully-lived life there, with Christ dwelling fully in people who are there, and we were introduced too to the theme of the interior or hidden person, which is also dominant in his writings.

John identifies six passions he says are common to human beings and animals: anger, wickedness, love, desire, discrimination, and pride. But people are different from animals in three ways: the nature of the soul, the ability to acquire (spiritual) knowledge, and the possibility of acquiring divine love or the love of God.

John the Solitary distinguishes between those passions that are of the body and those that are of the soul, and writes about the nature of passions at different levels.

Surprisingly, he includes tears or weeping as one of the passions. People who weep in prayer may be recalling past troubles or the departed, or worries over their children, property or oppression. But, at another level, this may reflect a recollection of sins and God’s graces, or worries about death and judgment. But weeping at the level of the spirit can be brought on by wonder at God’s majesty, astonishment at the depths of God’s wisdom and the glory of his coming, or at those who go astray in the world.

In some places, John the Solitary poses a number of puzzles, including ones on the passion of zeal and the passion of anger. Talking about the passion of love, which is naturally present in human beings, he writes about divine love as a very passionate love.

“You are masters of your passions,” he tells his readers. “You can control them, you can direct them.” You cannot begin talking about the love of God unless you love your fellow human beings, he says. The Love of Christ is like a fire than consumes the soul.

Earlier today, Dr Brock spoke to us in the morning on “The ‘Anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers.” He drew on the writings of Saint Ephrem (right), the poet-theologian of the fourth century, to consider “The ‘Anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers.”

The idea of a deity that is angry is widespread in all religions, and disasters are often explained by blaming them on the wrath of the deity. In the Hebrew Bible, the wrath and anger of God is often presented as being provoked or as a response to human wrongdoing or sin, but is dealt with in different ways. God’s anger is often seen as being expressed towards his people because of their iniquities or wrongdoings. In the New Testament, it is the Apostle Paul who principally speaks about the wrath of God (see Romans 1: 18).

In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem spoke of a chasm between the Creator and all that is created. This chasm can only be crossed in one direction – by God towards us. If God had not taken that initiative, we would not be able to say anything that is truthful about him.

Saint Ephrem uses images of clothing to describe this revelation of God. So God puts on names, yet they are inadequate and defective, and should not be taken literally. To illustrate this, Dr Brock quoted from one of Saint Ephrem’s poems:

If someone concentrates his attention solely
on the metaphors used of God’s majesty,
that person abuses and misrepresents His majesty
and thus goes astray by means of those metaphors
with which God has clothed Himself for that person’s benefit,
and he is ungrateful to that Grace which stooped low
to the level of his childishness.
Although She has nothing in common with him
yet Grace has clothed Herself in his likeness
in order to bring him to likeness of Herself.
– (Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise 11: 6.)

Although the Syriac Fathers have little to say about the wrath or anger of God, this approach to revelation and scripture allows Saint Ephrem to deal with the question, saying: “There is in His Being neither anger nor repenting. He put on the names of them for the sake of our weakness.” – (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 31: 1.)

In this, Dr Brock found a useful corrective to Biblical fundamentalism.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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