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.

If You Do Not Will, It Is Not Able to Enter

It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.

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 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament


[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.

Drip the Oil of Your Grace, My God

_____________

I have removed to a distance, Benevolent One, I dwelt in the desert
and I was hidden from You, the sweet Master.
I came under the night of life’s worry,
and there I sustained many stings and wounds,
having gone up I bear many blows in my soul,
and I cry out amid the suffering and trouble of my heart:
have mercy, have pity on me the transgressor!
O soul-loving doctor Who alone loves mercy,
Who heals the weak and wounded as a gift,
cure my bruises and wounds!
Drip the oil of Your grace, my God,
and anoint my injuries, wipe out my infections,
form scar tissues and bind up my severed
members, and remove all the scars, Savior,
and heal the whole of me completely as before
when I did not have defilement, when I did not have any bruise,
nor infected injury, nor stain, O my God,
but calm and joy, peace and meekness,
and holy humility, and patience,
the illumination of long-suffering and excellent works,
long-suffering and utterly unconquerable power.
Hence much comfort from tears each day,
hence the exultation of my heart
gushed forth like a spring, flowed everlastingly,
and was a stream dripping honey, and a drink of merriment,
continuously turning in the mouth of my mind.
Hence all health, hence purity,
hence cleansing of my passions and vain thoughts,
hence dispassion was with me like lightening,
and always associated with me. Understand me spiritually,
I who say these things, be not wretched, defiled!
The dispassion produced in me is the unutterable pleasure of communion,
and boundless desire for the wedding feast, for union full of God,
partaking of which I also became dispassionate,
I was burned up with pleasure, blazing with desire for it,
and I shared in the light, yes, I became light,
higher than all passion, outside all wickedness.
For passion does not touch the light of dispassion,
just as the shadow or darkness of night cannot touch the sun.
And so having become such, and being such a kind,
I was relaxed, Master, as I took confidence in myself.
I was dragged down by worry about perceptible matters,
I fell down, wretched, to the concern of life’s problems,
and I become cold like black iron,
and lying around for a long time I took on rust.
Because of this I shout to You asking to purified anew,
Benevolent One, and to be lifted up to the first
beauty, and to enjoy fully Your light
now and always unto all ages. Amen.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Hymn 46. Trans. Daniel Griggs

For as the Drunkard But Thirsts the More

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.

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5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

Even When He Chatters a Lot

One can never be faulted who speaks of Love and Beauty,
For however far his speaking goes, it will never reach the end.
A child speaks to his parent with love,
While his father listens affectionately to all that he says to him.
And when he hears the questions that are posed to him,
He accepts them just as if someone were speaking of serious things.
Even when he chatters a lot without making clear what he is saying,
He is happier with his speech than he would be the speech of philosophers.
So I, like the child before his father,
I am going to speak now before God with great love.
Now I am going to speak, and if I say too little- oh, I will not say too little!
For it is easier for love to speak too much, as much as it desires!

Jacob of Serug (d. 521), Homily on the Judgment of Solomon, ll. 37-48, trans. by Stephen A. Kaufman