Questions and Answers with the Elders of Gaza

Barsanuphe
Sts. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza (fl. first half of the 6th century).

Saints Barsanuphius and John (who was also known as John the Prophet) settled in the vicinity of Gaza, Palestine at some point during the reign of Justinian; the exact dates of their deaths are unknown though they are commemorated together in the Orthodox Church on February 6. Barsanuphius was of Coptic origin, having begun his monastic life in the fabled desert of Egypt, but, like many others in his time, he eventually traveled north into Palestine where he and his contemporaries developed a new form of embedded- quite literally in his case- monasticism in the well-populated countryside of Palestine. Barsanuphius and his disciple, John, who would come and settled alongside his master and live beside him for eighteen years, both practiced strict seclusion, communicating primarily through letters and intermediaries. However, their reputation drew other more conventional monsastics, and soon a thriving monastic community with handicraft production, medical services, a church, and other features grew up around them. Both Barsanuphius and John acted as spiritual counselors to not just the monastics around them but to ordinary laypeople in the nearby communities. Drawing upon years of spiritual practice and discernment, these two men provided careful and sympathetic, but frequently powerful and insightful, responses to the questions- some profound, some very quotidian- directed towards them. Below is a selection of these questions and answers, with an emphasis on matters pertaining to laypeople.

444. Question: If I am distracted during prayer, what should I do?

Response by Barsanuphius: If you are praying to God and become distracted, struggle until you begin to pray without distraction. And keep your intellect alert in order that it does not become too lofty. Nonetheless, should this occur, since we are weak, persist to the very end of your prayer; then prick your heart, and say with compunction, “Lord, have mercy on me and forgive me all of my offenses.” And, afterward, you will receive forgiveness of all your offenses as well as of the distraction that occurred at the beginning of your prayer.

463. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man [John] if one should reflect a great deal about the sacred mysteries, and whether a sinful person approaching these would be condemned as being unworthy.

Response by John: When you enter the holies, pay attention and have no doubt that you are about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; indeed, this is the truth. As for how this is the case, do not reflect on it too much. According to him who said, “Take, eat; for this is my body and blood,” these were given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. One who believes this, we hope, will not be condemned.

Therefore, do not prevent yourself from approaching by judging yourself as being a sinner. Believe, rather, that a sinner who approaches the Savior is rendered worthy of the forgiveness of sins, in the manner that we encounter in Scripture those who approach him and hear the divine voice: “Your many sins are forgiven.” Had that person been worthy of approaching him, he would not have had any sins! Yet because he was a sinful man and a debtor, he received the forgiveness of his debts.

Again, listen to the words of the Lord: “I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.” And again: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick.” So regard yourself as being sinful and unwell, and approach him who alone can save the lost.

686. Another Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: I want to press some Jewish wine in my presser. Is this a sin?

Response by John: If, when God rains, it rains in your field but not in that of the Jew, then do not press his wine. If he is loving-kind to all and rains upon the just and the unjust, then why do you want to be inhumane and not compassionate, rather, as he says: “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.”

763. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: “God created the human person free, but he also says: ‘Without me, you are not able to do anything.’ How, then, is this freedom reconciled with not being able to do anything without God?

Response by John: God created the human person free in order that we may be able to incline toward good; yet, even while inclining out of freedom, we are incapable of accomplishing this without the assistance of God. For it is written: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”

Therefore, if we incline the heart toward good and invoke God to our assistance, God will pay attention to our good intention and bestow strength upon our work. In this way, both are developed, namely human freedom and God’s power. For this is how good comes about, but it is accomplished through his saints. Thus God is glorified in all and again glorifies them.

765: Question: I have a servant who is wounded with leprosy. Should I keep him or not?

Response by John: It is not necessary for you to keep him in your house; for not everyone will bear to live with him. If they could bear this, that would be a pious thing to do. Yet, you should not afflict others on his account. Instead, send him to a hospice for poor lepers, and provide for his meals and as many garments as he requires, as well as his bed, so that he is no way burdened.

Excerpted from Barsanuphius and John, Letters from the Desert: A Selection of Questions and Responses, translated by John Chryssavgis (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)

 

Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”

Indeed Grace Will Be The Judge

Mar Isaac
St. Isaac of Nineveh (c. 613 – c. 700) ܡܪܝ ܐܝܣܚܩ ܕܢܝܢܘ

Who, then, understands this and faithfully discerns is not able to rejoice in works but only in the goodness of God. And the one who truly recognizes that God’s goodness is the cause of his joy, does not hold that his joy be only for himself but rejoices for all creatures. His joy comes to be more abundant than the sea, because it is the goodness of the God of the universe affording such joy, and all creation is a partaker in it, even sinners share in this.

So then, he is quick to rejoice even for sinners. He says in fact: ‘They are not far from mercy because of the goodness of the Lord of the universe by which righteousness has been given even to me without works.’ And again he says: ‘All like me share in this great good because God is good: He only requires a little will then He gives His grace abundantly and remits sins.’

This is the grace which strengthens the righteous, preserving them by its being near and removing their faults. It is also near to those who have perished, reducing their torments and in their punishment deals with compassion. In the world to come, indeed grace will be the judge, not justice. God reduces the length of time of sufferings, and by means of His grace, makes all worthy of His Kingdom. For there is no one even among the righteous who is able to conform his way of life to the Kingdom.

But if human realities are to be judged and examined according to justice, yet in listening to the word of Scripture one investigates according to exterior knowledge, not entering into the meaning- where is justice here? As it is said, He is merciful in all His works. However, even when He chastises here below or in the life beyond, it is not correct to consider this as justice, but rather fatherly wisdom.

Nor do I call ‘exacting punishment’ even those times when God visits one with a severe aspect, either here or in the life beyond, but rather ‘instruction,’ because they have a good end. On that account, as I said, no one is able to make his way of life resemble the Kingdom and that way of life which is granted only by mercy.

So then I have explained what was already said, that we inherit heaven by what is His and not by what is ours. And this grace is given every day, not just from time to time. If we all receive this grace, let us rejoice in Him who gives it and the greater will be our joy! Let us adore and give thanks for it, and an even greater gift will be given.

Whoever then has joy by reason of his way of life, this joy is false, or rather, his joy is wretched. And not only in his joy is he wretched but also in his understanding. Whoever rejoices because he has truly understood that God is good, is consoled with a consolation that does not pass away, and his joy is true joy. This is because, as was just said his soul has considered and perceived that truly the goodness of God is without measure.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Third Part,’ in Isaac the Syrian’s Spiritual Works, ed. and trans. by Mary T. Hansbury (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016), 102-104.

St. Paisius Loves Grapes

Paisi Velichkovski
St. Paisius Velichkovsky in an early iconographic depiction.

Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) was a monk, writer, translator, and spiritual guide who was born in what is now Ukraine, but who spent much of his life traveling through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Moldovian and Wallachian principalities of the Ottoman Empire, encountering many forms of monastic life and gathering spiritual and patristic writings. His spiritual disciples and his writings and translations would prove highly influential in the wider Orthodox world, providing the foundation for the Russian startets tradition made famous in Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima. Paisius also wrote a fascinating and detailed autobiography of the first half or so of his life, from which the below is excerpted. The image of himself that he presents is of a young man who is pious and driven to deepen his spiritual practice, but also subject to numerous failings, ambiguous moral situations and decisions, and various difficulties and struggles. This particular story illustrates the quite intimate and human self-image that Paisius presents throughout his autobiography.

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At the appropriate season the venerable superior of the hermitage, Father Dometij, assigned me the obedience of tending the hermitage’s vineyard, which was on level ground above the hermitage, at a distance of nearly one verst. He commanded me in no wise to dare eat any grapes until I had eaten at least a small piece of bread ; but provided I ate the bread, he gave me his permission and blessing to eat as many grapes as I wished , before or after the daily meal. He did this for two reasons, firstly because grapes were few in the country where I was born, and I had scarcely ever had the chance to taste them, and secondly, out of indulgence to my weakness, for he realized that I had a great desire to eat grapes and that I could not get my fill of them. Having received his command and blessing, then, after eating a bit of bread, I ate grapes often, both before and after the meal, choosing the one which grew sparsely, that is, not close together, for these were sweeter than the others. My passion for eating grapes came to such a pitch that I wanted no other food. When I went to the meal in the hermitage, I ate very little of anything else, but I ate grapes in abundance and with great relish. Having partaken of almost no other food that whole season until the harvest, I suffered no small illness of body, and my face grew thin as if from some disease. But after the harvest, when I ceased eating grapes and partook of the usual food with the brethren, I began to feel stronger day and night; and in a short time I was restored to my previous state of health.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj, translated by Jeffrey Featherstone (Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, 1989), 82-83.

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For further reading: John A. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky. 1722-1794: An Early Modern Master of the Orthodox Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 9, no. 2 (2009): 157–73.

The Incident at Nabi Samwil

img_5151.jpg
The mosque-shrine of Nabi Samwil, now split between Muslim Palestinians who use the above-ground mosque, and Jewish Israelis, who control the tomb-shrine itself. The figures atop the structure are members of the IDF.

i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.

ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.

After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.

iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”

Walking in Tel Aviv the Night Before Flying Home

My feet take me westwards through a soft white night of street
Lights low and gentle. Outlined high rises climb up behind the city asleep
In the shadow of Shabbat. Coming to the shore of the Great Sea I pass by
Arab families circled on the sand laughing as the smells of low little grills alight
Mingle with the sea’s salt scent drifting skywards. Girls in head scarves
Bob along the surf’s edge blurred in the darkness. Ah, this is where I end up,
My own limbs laced with certain rhythms, effortless.
How many tongues, how many cartographies and lays of land
Jumble in me, palimpsetting one on another and in arabesquing interlace? The sand
Is soft on my unshod feet. Around the shore’s curve
The lights of old Jaffa glow, soft, against the dark rising sea.

Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”