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)

 

I Shall Treat Their Wounds

Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion Met 17.190.44
A mid-tenth century Byzantine (probably produced in Constantinople) depiction of the Crucifixion, relief icon in ivory (Metr. 17.190.44). Beside the bearded figure at the base of the Cross is an inscription which reads: ‘The Cross implanted in the stomach of Hades.’ The mood of this icon reflects the emotional, empathy-producing liturgical poetry of Romanos, in which identification with the (often female) other plays a major dramatic role.

7. Mary said: ‘My Son, see how I wipe the tears from my eyes.
I chafe my heart even harder,
but my mind cannot keep its silence.
Why, my Beloved, do you say “Unless I die, Adam will not be cured?”
Certainly you cured many people without suffering yourself.
You cleansed a leper, yet felt no pain- it was not your plan.
You unbound a paralytic, yet were gripped by no spasm.
With a word, Merciful One, you gave sight to a blind man,
yet remained free from suffering,
my Son and my God.’

8. ‘You raised the dead, but did not become a corpse.
You were not placed in a tomb, my Son and my Life.
Why do you say that you must suffer for Adam to be cured?
Give the command, my Savior, and he will rise and carry his bier.
Even if Adam was buried in a tomb,
you will raise him too, like Lazarus, with one word.
The entire universe serves you, the Creator of all things.
So why do you hurry, my Son? Do not rush to your sacrifice.
Do not embrace your death,
my Son and my God.’

9. ‘You do not understand, my Mother, you do not understand what I say.
So, open the gates of your mind, welcome what you hear,
and ponder within yourself what I say.
That man I mentioned, miserable Adam, so helpless,
not only physically, but also spiritually,
wanted to be sick. He did not obey me and pays the penalty.
You grasp what I mean. So, do not grieve, Mother,
but cry out, “Have mercy on Adam,
show pity to Eve,
my Son and my God!”

10. ‘Adam, helpless because of his lack of control
and his gluttony, has been carried down into the depths of Hell
and there he sobs over the agony in his soul.
Eve, who once tutored him in irresponsibility,
groans at his side. She is as helpless as he,
so that both may learn to obey the physician’s instructions.
You understand now, don’t you? You do grasp what I have said?
Shout out once more, Mother, “If you forgive Adam,
also be forgiving to Eve,
my Son and my God!”‘

11. When she heard these explanations,
the Ewe without blemish answered her Lamb: ‘My Lord,
if I ask another question, do not become angry with me.
I shall say what I feel, so I can learn from you all I want to know.
If you suffer, if you die, will you ever come back to me?
If you set out to heal Adam and Eve, shall I see you again?
I fear that you will never return from the tomb, my Son.
I am afraid and, anxious to see you,
I shall weep and cry out, “Where is
my Son and my God?”‘

12. When he heard these questions, the Lord who knows everything
even before it happens, replied to Mary: ‘Mother, be certain
that you will be the first to see me when I come from the tomb.
I shall return to reveal to you the terrible agonies
from which I freed Adam, the terrible pains I endured for him.
I shall show my loyal comrades the marks of nails in my hands.
And then, Mother, you will behold Eve,
alive, as in Eden, and you will shout with joy,
“He has redeemed my primeval parents,
my Son and my God!”

13. Be strong for a little while, Mother, and you will see how,
just like a surgeon, I strip and rush to where my patients lie.
I shall treat their wounds:
I shall cut away solid tumors with the soldier’s spear.
I shall use gall and vinegar to staunch the incision;
nails, a lancet to probe the tumor; a seamless robe to wrap it.
The cross itself I shall use as a splint.
By this you will understand and sing,
“By suffering himself, he has destroyed suffering,
my Son and my God!”

14. ‘Cast your pain aside, Mother, cast it away,
and rush out with joy. Now I am eager to bring my mission
to its end and complete the plan of the one who sent me.
From the very first, this was agreed by me and by my Father,
with the full assent of the Holy Spirit:
I would become man and suffer to redeem that who had fallen.
So, my Mother, go and deliver this proclamation to everyone:
“By suffering he shatters the one who hates Adam-
and he returns triumphant,
my Son and my God!”‘

17. Son of the Virgin, God of the Virgin, Creator of the Universe,
you suffered and you revealed the depths of your wisdom.
You know what you were and what you became.
You wished to suffer, for you judged it glorious to save mankind.
As a Lamb, you took away our sins.
Your sacrifice, our Savior, redeemed all those who were dead.
You are the one who suffers and who cannot suffer.
You save by dying! You gave your holy Mother
the privilege of faith: to cry out to,
‘My Son and my God!’

St. Romanos the Melodist (d. after 555), ‘Mary at the Cross,’ translated by R. J. Schork, in Sacred Song from the Byzantine Pulpit: Romanos the Melodist (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995), 110-113, 114

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 Khan and the Vardapet

The following passage, which comes from a 17th century work of Armenian history focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on happenings in the Safavid Empire, reveals some of the complexities of relations that could arise between the Armenian Orthodox minority and the majority Muslim populations in the Safavid and neighboring Ottoman polities. In this instance, an important early 17th century religious reformer, Vardapet Movsēs (a vardapet/վարդապետ is a type of teacher–scholar-clergyman in the Armenian Church, whose function, as in this case, might also shade towards preacher), forges a bond with the local Safavid governor, an Emir Gūna Khan. Movsēs would go on to build good relations with the Safavid shah himself, even as Movsēs found himself in bitter conflict with other members of his own church’s hierarchy.

In this story, excerpted from a much longer hagiographic account embedded in Aṛakʻel of Tabriz’s chronicle, we see Movsēs interacting with the khan and receiving him as a patron. This relationship allows Movsēs to pursue his goal of renewing the Armenian Church in the border region around Erevan (modern-day Yerevan, Armenia), a work of renewal and reform that simultaneously seems to have won him renown as a living saint and enemies threatened by his upsetting of the church’s status quo. What was ‘in it’ for the khan? Perhaps he saw in Movsēs saintly practice and power- many of the vardapet’s ascetic and devotional practices would have been quite familiar to an early modern Muslim as marks of sainthood, and so carried an ecumenical ‘charge.’ The khan probably also hoped that Movsēs’ work would help to stabilize the Armenian community and encourage its growth, especially since the region had long been contested between Ottomans and Safavids, the resulting warfare hardly being good for what we would now call ‘infrastructural’ development. At any rate, the vardapet and the khan’s mutualistic bonds point towards the dynamic range of relations- positive and negative and neutral- early modern Armenian Christians and Ottoman and Safavid Muslims could have with one another, something that is easily forgotten in the shadow of the tragedies of the modern period that would devastate Armenian communities in the region.

The Scribe Petros and his Pupils, 1386
The scribe Petros and a pupil, offering a good example of the sort of clothing an Armenian vardapet might have worn in the late medieval or early modern period. From a Gospel book completed in 1386 in the Lake Van region (J. Paul Getty Collection, Ms. Ludwig II 6, fol. 13v).

The prince and ruler of the city of Erevan and the Ararat province at that time was the great and mighty governor, Emir Gūna Khan, who somewhat accidentally met Vardapet Movsēs. The khan asked about him from the Christians who stood before him, who replied that who he was and where he came from. It so happened that the khan met the vardapet once again and, during their meeting and conversation, the khan was pleased with the vardapet, for God’s kindness made his servant appear agreeable in the eyes of the ruler. The khan did not let Movsēs go to the Western provinces [ie the Ottoman Empire] but kept him in the city of Erevan. Day after day the khan came, witnessed the liturgy and other church ceremonies, conversed with him about knowledge and religion, and listened to the vardapet’s replies, which were polite, pleasant, and bearing God’s graces. The khan grew fond of him because of his pious lifestyle; that is why he kept him in the city of Erevan. The vardapet stayed three years in the Kat’ohike church.

From olden days in the northern part of the city of Erevan, among the vineyards, stood a beautiful chapel, built on the grave of the holy apostle Anania. It was in ruins and uninhabited. The khan told the vardapet, ‘Do you see this church, which stands uninhabited? Pay heed to me and do not go to another province. Make it your home, settle here, so that we can be near and comfort each other.’ All the parishioners, citizens and merchants, begged and asked the vardapet to do the same. Their words pleased the saintly vardapet, and he undertook to build that place through the income and with the help of local Christians and merchants, who, because of their love for the vardapet, willingly gave alms for the construction, so that the vardapet would reside among them. That is why the surrounding fence, cells, chapel, sacerdotal, and other structures were quickly built, When all the construction was completed, the vardapet, together with his fellow monks, settled there and established the order and regulations practiced in the Great Hermitage. Many monks, hermits, and men who wished to study the scriptures and who were wise and led a saintly life, gathered there. They lived together, young and old, happily, based in cells, praying continuously and reading holy books.

His fame and truthful sermons, as well as word of his pleasant disposition spread to all the lands in Rum, Kurdistan, Georgia, and Persia, for merchants from all lands came there [to Erevan], met him, and spread the word.

Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy)  Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 217-218.

Relics

And so this: culture, to cultivate, cultus,
The smell and feel of soil and of holy dust, the sacred grit
That will break the fine tuned gears of the machine,
Rust out its parts and reveal the garden.
To grow, to guide, to shape the self that
Passes beyond the self, finds the Other and the Elsewhere,
Here and now, and finally then. Watered and broken down.
Unless the seed die…
Such is the labor, and the prayer, the labor in prayer. Bowing,
My lips touch the bit of bone, proximity in fragments. From these
Pieces scattered and gathered grows the universe.

Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

IMG_4901
The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”