To Speak, To Think, To Remember

In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance- briefly, to practice it… To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it. All of these shades of meaning are encountered in the language of the Christians; but they generally use the word in referring to a text. The reality it describes is used on a text, and this, the text par excellence, the Scripture par excellence, is the Bible and its commentaries. Indeed, it is mainly through the intermediary of ancient biblical versions and through the Vulgate that the word (meditation) has been introduced into the Christian vocabulary, particularly into monastic tradition, where it was to continue to retain the new shade of meaning given it by the Bible. There, it is used generally to translate the Hebrew hāgā, and like the latter it means, fundamentally, to learn the Torah and the words of the Sages, while pronouncing them usually in a low tone, in reciting them to oneself, in murmuring them with the mouth. This is what we call “learning by heart,” what ought rather to be called, according to the ancients, “learning by mouth” since the mouth “meditates wisdom”: Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. In certain texts, that will mean only a “murmur” reduced to the minimum, an inner murmur, purely spiritual. But always the original meaning is at least intended: to pronounce the sacred words in order to retain them; both the audible reading and the exercise of memory and reflection which it precedes are involved. To speak, to think, to remember, are the three necessary phases of the same activity.

To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind. In Christian as well as rabbinical tradition, one cannot meditate anything else but a text, and since this text is the word of God, meditation is the necessary complement, almost the equivalent, of lectio divina… For ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, this is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.

Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, pp. 16-17

They Were Made Perfect Even in Love For Wicked Men

In the case of the person who has been held worthy to taste of divine love, that person customarily forgets everything else by reason of its sweetness, for it is something at whose taste all visible things seems despicable: such a person’s soul gladly draws near to a luminous love of humanity, without distinguishing between good and bad; he is never overcome by the weaknesses to be found in people, nor is he perturbed. He is just as the blessed Apostles were as well: people who in the midst of all the bad things they endured from others, were nonetheless utterly incapable of hating them or of being fed up with showing love for them. This was manifested in actual deed, for after all the other things they even accepted death in order that these people might be retrieved. These were men who only a little previously had begged Christ that fire might descend from heaven upon the Samaritans just because they had not received them into their village! But once they had received the gift and tasted the love of God, they were made perfect even in love for wicked men: enduring all kinds of evils in order to retreive them, they could not possibly hate them.

St. Isaac the Syrian, from ‘The Second Part,’ trans. Sebastian Brock, p. 50.

The Creator’s Power Will Be Made Known in Them

On the symbol of the ministry of the saints that is to be seen in the natural world:

1. An illustration of what is hidden in seedlings can be seen through the labours which the saints and (other) godly persons endure in themselves for the sake of God. For under the ordinary appearance of (seeds) at the time when the land is tilled April’s own transformation keeps hidden the abundance of ineffable transformations and the beauty of the various variegated colours which it will (in due course) bring out and display, as a wonderful vesture and adornment for the earth that had been nurturing the (seeds) within itself.

2. This symbolic significance which can be recognized in tiny seeds holy people engrave spiritually in their minds when their ministry is depressing and darkened, as a demonstration that the Creator’s power will be made known in them, and they wait expectantly to see in themselves, as a result of the strength of these ordinary labours, an ineffable transformation which will become perceptible as a result of (or, after) them, through the workings of the Holy Spirit which they will receive subsequently in accordance with the progress of their ascetic conduct.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, trans. Sebastian Brock, in the CSCO, vol. 555.

This Is The Very Nature of Love

And now I give you an example from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centre point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of men. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor

Two on Anger

As I was reading through Annabel Keeler’s translation of the ninth-century Sufi Sahl al-Tustari’s commentary on the Qur’an (available online) this evening, I came across the passage below, and was immediately reminded of a quite similar story from the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt (and perhaps Palestine as well); the second story is also reproduced below. Are these two stories related? Obviously the details are slightly different, but the similarities are still pretty remarkable, if only for a congruence of values. Yet even the forms of the two stories are quite similar, enough to suggest to my mind the possibility of a relationship. There were, at some point, stories of the Desert Fathers translated into Arabic in Egypt, and these stories certainly circulated all over the Middle East and beyond. Could some of them have somehow entered the early Sufi milieu, enough to show up in the extant texts? I wouldn’t discount it…

That said, it was good to come across this story- I needed it personally. Unlike the anonymous Muslim and Christians, I have not yet overcome anger or reached a point of letting go of things. Anger is a viscous enemy; God grant us all the grace of resisting it!

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It was related that there was a man among the devout worshippers (‘ubbād) who never used to get angry, so Satan came to him and said, ‘If you get angry and then show patience your reward will be greater. The devout worshipper understood him, and asked, ‘How does anger come about?’ He said, ‘I will bring you something and will say to you “Whose is this?” to which you should say, “It’s mine.” To which I will say, “No it’s not, it’s mine.” ‘ So, he brought him something and the devout worshipper said: ‘It’s mine!’ to which Satan said: ‘No it’s not, it’s mine!’ But the worshipper said, ‘If it’s yours, then take it away.’ And he did not get angry. Thus did Satan return disappointed and aggrieved. He wished to engage his heart so he could get what he wanted from him, but he [the worshipper] found him out and warded off his deception.

Sahl al-Tustari, Tafsir al-Tustari Q. 114.4

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Two old men had lived together for many years and they had never fought with one another. The first said to the other, ‘Let us also have a fight like other men.’ The other replied, ‘I do not know how to fight.’ The first said to him, ‘Look, I will put a brick between us and I will say: it is mine; and you will reply: no, it is mine; and so the fight will begin.’ So they put a brick between them and the first said, ‘No, it is mine’, and the other said, ‘No, it is mine.’ And the first replied, ‘If it is yours, take it and go.’ So they gave it up without being able to find a cause for an argument.

Paradise of the Desert Fathers

On Cultural Relativity, Scripture Exegesis, and the Rule of Love

Re-reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s On Christian Teaching, I have been struck- again- at just how much the great North African saint is able to cover in a relatively small space, and within what seems like a fairly circumscribed and particular topic- the proper technique of scripture exegesis. Yet St. Augustine covers everything, it seems like, and it’s a joy to read: he works through sign-theory of language, how to confront the Zeitgeist and come out the richer, the role of art and science in the life of the Christian, the healing power of Christ- along with the expected exegetical techniques. It’s a little breathless at times, as he weaves in and out of topics while continually drawing the conversation back to exegesis and scripture. He often times manages to feel remarkably contemporary to our own concerns, while also quite clearly transcending (well, transcending is obviously anachronistic) our usual categories for thinking about scripture, exegesis, epistemology, and so on. St. Augustine is neither a ‘fundamentalist’ nor a ‘liberal’ in thinking about scripture: scripture is inspired, inspired through the writing of the human authors, who are clearly agents and not mere autodidacts. Scripture can have multiple, simultaneous senses, and St. Augustine is remarkably comfortable with conflicting translations even, on some levels (some translations are just bad, he suggests, and easily enough corrected). The ultimate rule for exegesis is a little startling: whatever encourages love of God and other people, is the best- the true- interpretation. And if an exegete arrives at an edifying meaning not intended by the original author- well, that’s good too.

Over all is the rule of love, as exemplified in the passage I present below. Love of God is the centering point for human life, and when we love God we will love ourselves and others properly, not dominating and controlling them but embracing them in kindness and knowledge of our mutual places in God’s divine economy. There is, I think, an implicit critique of pretty much all forms of human authority and domination of each other going on here, even if St. Augustine does not fully articulate it. He envisions life lived under the sign, the rule of Love, in which human relationships are properly ordered, not through the pride and lust of the powerful and dominating (or ourselves attempting to be powerful and dominating), but through a love-centered orientation towards God. Even the task of exegesis, as he argues at the beginning of this work, is a love-centered task. The very existence of exegesis forms community, as we need each other to truly understand the sacred text; we are not to boast over our special knowledge of the text nor hoard it or lord it over others. Even commentary ought to be done under the rule of love- agaparchy, we might call it- though of course there is no ‘system’ here, since love is particular, is oriented first towards the Person of God, then to those we live with, our neighbors.

But anyway- one could spend pages (and plenty of people have!) on the many things St. Augustine is doing and saying in these pages and in others. I am always amazed at the scope, and the frequent bursts of beauty and sense of love, even as in other places St. Augustine’s fallibility and limitations are equally in sight. But throughout I find that he presents possibilities and points of thinking- and doing, loving, acting- that continue to be full of potential and possibility, and, I suspect, will be for years to come.

This example comes from Book Three, and in it we see a good instance of St. Augustine’s welding of seemingly extra-exegetical concerns- here, what we might identify as ‘cultural relativism’- with explicitly exegetical and theological concerns. The exegetical concern is to explain the seemingly odd or even shocking behavior of Old Testament figures; the theological concern, so far as it is separate from the exegetical, is to reconcile the apparent relativism of cultural convention with an over-arching moral order. Obviously, St. Augustine’s words do not fully sum up the issues we might raise here- but they’re remarkably deft and penetrating, and within a quite short space. There is lots to think about, and not just to think about- the rule of Love, St. Augustine would tell us, is not a political program or an abstract problem. It is a way of life, realized in the love of Christ, and lived out day-by-day, step-by-step.

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‘Whatever accords with the social practices of those with whom we have to live this present life- whether this manner of life is imposed by necessity or undertaken in the course of duty- should be related by good and serious men to the aims of self-interest and kindness, either literally, as we ourselves should do, or also figuratively, as is allowed to the prophets. When those who are unfamiliar with different social practices come up against such actions in their reading, they think them wicked unless restrained by some explicit authority. They are incapable of realizing that their own sort of behavior patterns, whether in matters of marriage, or diet, or dress, or any other aspect of human life and culture, would seem wicked to other races or other ages. Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it- for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom- have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there clearly is no such thing as justice anywhere.

To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way by modified by racial differences. When this injunction is related to the love of God, all wickedness dies; and when it is related to the love of one’s neighbor, all wrongdoing dies. For nobody wants his own dwelling to be wrecked, and so he should not wish to wreck God’s dwelling (which is himself). Nobody wants to be harmed by anybody; so he should not do harm to anybody. So when the tyranny of lust has been overthrown love rules with laws that are utterly just: to love God on his account, and to love oneself and one’s neighbor on God’s account. Therefore in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with the realm of love. If this point is made literally, the no kind of figurative expression need be considered.’

St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book Three, XII-XIV

Why Do We Usurp God’s Right To Judge?

Nothing is more serious, nothing more difficult to deal with, as I say repeatedly, than judging and despising our neighbor. Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own wickedness whcih we know so accurately and about which we have to render an account to God? Why do we usurp God’s right to judge? Why should we demand a reckoning from his creature, his servant? Ought we not to be afraid when we hear about a brother falling into fornication said, ‘He has acted wickedly!’

….

Wherefore a man can know nothing about the judgments of God. He alone is the one who takes account of all and is able to judge the hearts of each one of us, as he alone is our Master. Truly it happens that a man may do a certain thing (which seems to be wrong) out of simplicity, and there may be something about it which makes more amends to God than your whole life; how are you going to sit in judgment and constrict your own soul? And should it happened that he has fallen away, how do you know how much and how well he fought, how much blood he sweated before he did it? Perhaps so little fault can be found in him that God can look on his action as if it were just, for God looks on his labor and all the struggle he had before he did it, and has pity on him. And you know this, and what God has spared him for, are you going to condemn him for, and ruin your own soul? And how do you know what tears he has shed about it before God? You may well know about the sin, but you do not know about the repentance.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor

Blessed Is She

Blessed is she in whose small and barren womb dwelt the Great One by whom the heavens are filled and are too small for Him.

Blessed is she who bore that Ancient one who generated Adam, and by whom are made new all creatures who have become old.

Blessed is she who gave drops of milk from her members to that One at whose command the waves of the great sea gushed forth.

Blessed is that one who carried, embraced and caressed like a child God might for evermore, by whose hidden power the world is carried.

Blessed is she from whom the Savior appeared to the captives; in His zeal He bound the captor and reconciled the earth.

Blessed is she who placed her pure mouth on the lips of that One, from whose fire, the Seraphim of fire hide themselves.

Blessed is she who nourished as a babe with pure milk the great breast from which the worlds suck life.

Blessed is she whose Son calls blessed all the blessed!

Blessed is that One who solemnly appeared to us from your purity!

Jacob of Serug, Homily Concerning the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, Mary

Academic Labors

‘Similarly, we know from our own experience that one who is wise does burden himself with late hours and hard work, reading books, taxing his mental powers and discernment, to understand. But this is no injustice and not wrong in the least on his part. As the prophet said, “Out of the toil of his soul shall he see and be sated.'”

Saadiah, The Book of Theodicy

‘I know that very often I understand many things in the sacred writings when I am with my brethren, which, when alone, I could not understand… Clearly, as this understanding is given me in their presence, it must be given to me for their sakes. Hence God grants that understand increases and pride decreases, while I learn, on your behalf, that which I teach you. For, really, very often I hear what I am saying for the first time, just as you do.’

St. Gregory the Great, Homily on Ezechiel

Approach Him Who Can Alone Save the Lost

A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man 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 can alone save the lost.

Letter 463, from Letters from the Desert: Barsanuphius and John, trans. John Chryssavgis (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003).