Archive for June, 2013

Murder of a Syrian Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on June 27, 2013 by citydesert

A revered Syrian monk and hermit, Father François Mourad, has been killed during an assault of the Franciscan monastery in a predominantly Christian village in the north near the Turkish border, Vatican Radio reported.
The circumstances surrounding Mourad’s death in the monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, about 70 miles from Syria’s largest city Aleppo, remain unclear.

It’s believed that Maroud was shot dead when tried to defend several religious sisters from the rebels when the monastery that gave them shelter was attacked and pillaged on June 23.

After the outbreak of the war in Syria, Father François left his hermitage to be with a friar in fragile health and to serve a neighboring community of religious sisters, Vatican Radio reported.

Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo of Hassake-Nisibi told Fides (the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) that Father Mourad sent him “several messages which showed he was aware of living in a dangerous situation and was willing to offer his life for peace in Syria and the world.”

Syria’s 10 percent Christian population is particularly vulnerable to such attacks, especially from the opposition groups, as they have remained largely neutral or supportive of the government.
See also

Father François, Memory Eternal!

Being and Doing

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2013 by citydesert

Some nights ago I sat and talked with a young man whose newly-married wife is dying of a dreadful, slow and terminal disease. I heard the ghastly, dull and dry formulaic tone of my voice echoing fixed reassurances, set texts, prescriptive comforts, rehearsed assurances, almost magical rituals supposed to heal the pain. Thank God, I managed not lapse into clichés about God’s Will, Divine Providence beyond our understanding, ultimate good….even (God help me!) the spiritual benefits of suffering. He was much more patient than I could have been in response to some parody of “good comfort”. All that I could, in reality, offer to him was my presence – as sounding board, shoulder upon which to cry, punching bag at which to direct entirely understandable anger…..practical adviser….cook, cleaner, laundryman. I realized, yet again, that the silence of love is what is required. It is not my role to do but to be. The pastoral must always be responsive not prescriptive.
being and doing
My remaining inspiration in the face of my entirely inadequacy comes from a simple hymn,

Desert in Egypt and Ireland

Posted in Uncategorized on June 21, 2013 by citydesert

“The evidence for oriental Christians in Ireland is fragmentary but there are several fascinating mentions of Egyptian and even Armenian Christians in Ireland from around the same time as the Ballycotton brooch. [9th century]

In an early Irish litany attributed to Óengus of Tallaght (fl. 800) there is mention of seven Egyptian monks (manchaib Egipt) buried in Uilaigh, Co. Antrim. The discovery in 2006 of an Egyptian style book binding (with papyrus lining) with the Faddan More psalter in a Tipperary bog has given support to the theory of Egyptian Christians in Ireland around the year 800.
Litany of Óengus
Literary sources in the early Irish church do make occasional reference to the Egyptian Church. The famous Stowe Missal (c.750) invokes the Egyptian desert Father Anthony and the other hermits of the Scetis valley in Egypt (Antoni et ceterorum partum heremi Sciti). But there is nothing unusual in this per se, as the fame of St. Anthony was widespread in the west through the Latin translation of Athanasius’ ‘Life of Anthony’ and the writings of John Cassian. More unusual is the curious account of the origin of the Irish liturgy. There is preserved in a manuscript in the British library (Nero A II), an account written in the eighth century claiming to trace the different origins for the Gallic, Roman, Oriental and Irish liturgies. The manuscript claims that the Irish liturgy was derived from the liturgy used in Egypt. The account is certainly an embellishment of an early tradition relating to Ireland and Egypt but as Warren has noted it still may preserve “a solid foundation” for such a link.

The arrival of Christians from Ummayad Spain or Egypt does open up some interesting questions relating to the character and theology of the early Irish church. Telepneff has suggested that certain Irish ascetic practices once thought to be exclusively Irish can actually be traced back to Egyptian sources. One example is the so called crux-vigilia. This ascetic practice involved praying for hours on end with your arms extended in the form of a cross. Verkerk mistakenly asserted that the cross vigil was exclusive to Irish monasticism, but as Telepneff has correctly shown the practice was followed by Egyptian monks like Pachomios as early as the fourth century.

Another oriental influence in the Irish church can be seen in the use of flabella, which were long hand held fans used in the liturgy of eastern churches to keep flies off the eucharist. The use of these fans in Ireland is attested in both liturgical texts and also in the Book of Kells, which contains several depictions of angels holding flabellum. These fans are still used in the Coptic Church in Egypt today.
coptic hermit 2
irish hermit
The Coptic monks lived in the desert. The Irish had no desert, but they did have the Atlantic Ocean. Like the Egyptian desert, it was vast and even waterless, since one cannot drink seawater. To the Irish, the wild, empty ocean appeared as lonely and forbidding as the desert had to the Egyptians. The connection was more than psychological; Irish texts, for example, spoke of the ocean as a desertum. The most widely read Irish book of this period was the Voyage of Saint Brendan. It tells the story of the abbot Brendan’s departure from his homeland and his voyage on the ocean in search of the Blessed Isles, an obvious reenactment of the Egyptians’ withdrawal to the desert in search of a heavenly life. Brendan
wanders, meets fabulous creatures, wins contests with demons, and reaches his destination. To stress the Egyptian parallels, the anonymous author even has Brendan meet Paul the Hermit.

Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia: “British Isles, Coptic Influences in the”:

Fr Gregory Telepneff in “The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs. The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism” (Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna CA, 2001) explores these links further. Basing his arguments on monastic rules, lives of Saints, manuscript illuminations, ecclesiastical architecture, and liturgical texts, Father Gregory presents a convincing case for the Eastern origins of the distinctively Celtic form of monastic life. He uncovers many striking similarities between the world of the Desert Fathers and the now lost world of Irish Orthodox Christianity, which was so deeply permeated by the monastic ideal.
For a sample chapter:

“The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, an early ninth century monastic bishop of Clonenagh (Co. Offaly) and later of Tallaght, has a litany invoking ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Disert Uilaig, I invoke unto my aid, through Jesus Christ.’ [Morfesseor do manchaib Egipr(e) in disiurt Uilaig]. The Antiphonary of Bangor (dating from between 680-691) also contains the text:
” … Domus deliciis plena Super petram constructa Necnon vinea vera Ex Aegypto transducta …”
which is translated as:
” … House full of delight Built on the rock And indeed true vine Transplanted from Egypt …””

The Word in the Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2013 by citydesert

“The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism”
by Douglas Burton-Christie (1993)
word in the desert
“The growing scholarly attention in recent years to the religious world of late antiquity has focused new attention on the quest for holiness by the strange, compelling, often obscure early Christian monks known as the desert fathers. Yet until now, little attention has been given to one of the most vital dimensions of their spirituality: their astute, penetrating interpretation of Scripture. Rooted in solitude, cultivated in an atmosphere of silence, oriented toward the practical appropriation of the sacred texts, the desert fathers’ hermeneutic profoundly shaped every aspect of their lives and became a significant part of their legacy. This book explores the setting within which the early monastic movement emerged, the interpretive process at the center of the desert fathers’ quest for holiness, and the intricate patterns of meaning woven into their words and their lives.”

Winner of the College Theology Society’s 1993 Annual Book Award
“Highly recommended for all serious collections of patristic church history, Christian spirituality, and fourth-century Roman mentality.”–Choice
“An excellent book that focuses attention on hermeneutical questions.”–Brother Ray McManaman, FSL, Lewis University
“[An] excellent scholarly work, superbly lucid as well as careful and thorough. A necessary addition to all collections of church history and a fine text for an advanced course on the same. Or a specialized course in early Christendom.”–Richard Simon Hanson, Luther College
“A valuable textbook for both the study of monasticism and the history of exegesis, as well as an important reminder of the centrality of scripture to early monastic and later medieval spirituality.”–Wanda Cizewski, Marquette University
“An excellent introduction to the role of Scripture in early monasticism, an essential, though often neglected, aspect of the history of asceticism. I recommend it highly.”–Bernard McGinn, University of Chicago

Women’s Monasticism

Posted in Uncategorized on June 19, 2013 by citydesert

From Conciliar Press comes an interesting book on a topic rarely specifically considered: women’s monasticism. “The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery” by Constantina R. Palmer.
“Every monastery exudes the scent of holiness, but women’s monasteries have their own special flavor. Join Constantina Palmer as she makes frequent pilgrimages to a women’s monastery in Greece and absorbs the nuns’ particular approach to their spiritual life. If you’re a woman who’s read of Mount Athos and longed to partake of its grace-filled atmosphere, this book is for you. Men who wish to understand how women’s spirituality differs from their own will find it a fascinating read as well.

Constantina R. Palmer is originally from New Brunswick, a quaint province on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Currently, however, she lives in Thessaloniki, Greece, with her husband, a deacon in the Canadian Archdiocese of the OCA. She has called Greece home for five years, in which time she has received her Master’s degree in Theology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She is also an iconographer and a student of Byzantine chant.”

See and
“Throughout the book, woman’s spirituality is shown in its God-intended beauty. Not only this, but there are two ‘themes’ (or additional lessons) which live within the lessons of the book, and these should be kept in mind throughout.

The first theme is found in the introduction of the book, where it begins: “There is a well-known saying in the Orthodox Church: Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world.”

Then, the dedication page quotes the second theme:
“It is said that a certain brother asked an elder, ‘What shall I do, father, in order to fear God? The elder answered, ‘Go and cling to a man who fears God and from the fact that he fears Him, he will teach you to do likewise.'”

Both of these themes are related, and should not be regarded as separate from each-other or even from the other lessons in the book. Where there is God, there is no dividing of knowledge, but an all-encompassing knowing.
Schema Nuns
Therefore, we can see here, that Orthodoxy is taught not by simple word of mouth or because of printed word or document (though, certain of these supplement); neither is it taught as a dry philosophy meant to be absorbed only by the mind, and then by the body separately, by personal interpretation, or by some odd earthly form of morality. Instead, we find that Orthodoxy is Life (and not a segregated part of life), and is attained, strived for and taught by direct and full participation with the ascetic lives of those who Live it: the Church (the clergy: Priests, Bishops,etc; and the laity: monastics and lay-men) and in Synergy with the Divine energies of God in the Life Himself: Christ.”

Matthew the Poor’s Teachings

Posted in Uncategorized on June 19, 2013 by citydesert

words for our time
Conciliar Press has released a volume of the teachings of Matthew the Poor (1919-2006): “Words for Our Time” (2012). He was the key figure in the revival of Egyptian monasticism which began in 1969 when he was appointed to the Monastery of St Macarius in the Wadi El Natrun in Egypt. By the time of his death the community had grown from 6 aged monks to 130 monks, and many other monasteries had revived, and new ones opened. He was twice nominated to become Coptic Pope, but was not chosen in either case.

He was also a theologian, and author of 181 books and hundreds of journal articles on Biblical exegesis, Ecclesiastical rites, spiritual and theological matters, and much more, but few of them have been translated into English. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press has published “Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way” and “The Communion of Love” – see
matthew the poor
“The twentieth-century elder Abba Matta of Egypt, known in the West as Matthew the Poor, is widely regarded as the greatest Egyptian elder since St. Antony the Great. He produced a huge and varied body of work in Arabic, only a little of which has been translated into English. In addition, a great many of his informal talks to monks and visitors were recorded. This volume (“Words for Our Time” ) is the first appearance in English of a small selection of these talks.

Abba Matta had a marvelous ability to communicate the deepest spiritual truths in the simplest and most practical language, making them accessible to laypeople as well as monastics. He speaks to the heart rather than the head, gently exhorting the reader to pursue a deeper life in Christ.”


For a talk by Father Matthew (with English subtitles) see
MonasteryMarcarius the Great
For the Monastery of St Macarius. see
For a documentary on the Monastery of St Macarius, see

Scenting Salvation

Posted in Uncategorized on June 18, 2013 by citydesert

Thinking about the senses in Orthodox worship, and having displayed some of my collection of bread seals, I turned to the olfactory sense, and began to organize my collection of censers and thuribles, and my collection of incense (including ingredients for making incense).
incense resin
The incense collection includes the ordinary (as, for example, olibanum, mastic, and frankincense) and the (now) extremely rare. The latter is represented by “Dragon’s Blood”: Dragon’s blood is a bright red resin that is obtained from different species of a number of distinct plant genera: Croton, Dracaena, Daemonorops, Calamus rotang and Pterocarpus. The red resin was used in ancient times as varnish, medicine, incense, and dye. It was obtained from the Canary Islands and the island of Socotra. With the development of synthetic dyes and varnish, the commercial need for Dragon’s Blood (for example, for staining violins) has essentially disappeared.
Dragons Blood1
Susan Ashbrook Harvey “Scenting Salvation. Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination” University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006 421pp is a fascinating study of incense, oils and perfumes in early Christianity.
scenting salvation 2
“This book explores the role of bodily, sensory experience in early Christianity (first – seventh centuries AD) by focusing on the importance of smell in ancient Mediterranean culture. Following its legalization in the fourth century Roman Empire, Christianity cultivated a dramatically flourishing devotional piety, in which the bodily senses were utilized as crucial instruments of human-divine interaction. Rich olfactory practices developed as part of this shift, with lavish uses of incense, holy oils, and other sacred scents.
At the same time, Christians showed profound interest in what smells could mean. How could the experience of smell be construed in revelatory terms? What specifically could it convey? How and what could be known through smell? Scenting Salvation argues that ancient Christians used olfactory experience for purposes of a distinctive religious epistemology: formulating knowledge of the divine in order to yield, in turn, a particular human identity.

Using a wide array of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, Susan Ashbrook Harvey examines the ancient understanding of smell through religious rituals, liturgical practices, mystagogical commentaries, literary imagery, homiletic conventions; scientific, medical, and cosmological models; ascetic disciplines, theological discourse, and eschatological expectations. In the process, she argues for a richer appreciation of ancient notions of embodiment, and of the roles the body might serve in religion.”

“Susan Ashbrook Harvey has surely produced the definitive analysis of the role of scent in Early Christian ritual and theological discourse. This is a welcome new trajectory in the study of religion and the body.” – Patricia Cox Miller, author of “The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography”

The standard work on incense in the Christian tradition is: E.G.C.F. Atchley “A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship” London, Alcuin Club, 1909
The Jewish origins of the Christian use of incense are important; see: Kjeld Nielsen “Incense in Ancient Israel” E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1986, and Paul Heger “The Development of the Incense Cult in Israel” New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1997.
The more general Middle Eastern context is considered in: Violet MacDermot “The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East” London, Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, 1971

The Bread of Heaven

Posted in Uncategorized on June 17, 2013 by citydesert

Orthodox worship and spirituality involves all the senses: touch, sight, taste, smell, hearing…..

I did some re-organization of kitchen shelves this weekend to enable me to display some of my collection of Orthodox bread seals. The kitchen is the obvious place to keep them! “Prosphora” (Greek for “offering”) is bread prepared for use in the Divine Liturgy, and particular seals are used on it prior to baking. Seals are also used for non-Eucharistic bread and even small cakes and biscuits that are distributed outside the Divine Liturgy on particular Feasts (for example, St Michael’s Bread).
The use of bread seals is an ancient tradition: the seal pictured is a Eucharistic bread mould carved from a single section of wood. Galanaris dates this particular type to the Early Byzantine Period (5th-6th Century AD), and it is most likely from Coptic Egypt.
There is a marvellous web site devoted to the seals and the bread:
The standard works on the subject are:

(1) E.S. Drower “Water into Wine. A Study of Ritual Idiom in the Middle East” John Murray, London, 1956 – despite the title, the book is essentially about bread, and mostly about Oriental Orthodox use of it. Ethel Stefana Lady Drower née Stevens (1879 1972) was a British anthropologist who studied the Middle East and its cultures.
(2) George Galanaris “Bread and the Liturgy. The Symbolism of Early Christian and Byzantine Bread Stamps” The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1970 235pp 95 illus.
(3) Sergei Sveshnikov “Break the Holy Bread, Master. A Theology of Communion Bread” BookSurge Publishing, 2009
(4) R.M. Woolley “The Bread of the Eucharist” Alcuin Club Tracts XI, A.R. Mowbray, London, 1913.
prosphora 2

The Blind Leading The Blind

Posted in Uncategorized on June 16, 2013 by citydesert

The blind leading the blind [Matthew 15:13-14 and Luke 6:39-40]
I have recently been motivated to reflect on the qualifications essential for a pastor or spiritual counsellor, particularly after having received a number of e-mails seeking advice in relation to the dubious, or manifestly destructive, advice or direction of some clergy.

When we go to a physician for our bodies, we assume – indeed, demand – that the physician be properly educated, trained, accredited and supervised. We do not accept that amateurs with “good intentions” ought to be able to, for example, diagnose, treat, prescribe medication or undertake surgery.

How much more so ought we to assume – indeed, demand – that the “physicians” of our souls are properly educated, trained, accredited and supervised, not just well-meaning “spiritual” amateurs. The Orthodox Church has a long Patristic tradition of healing, not just of the body, but of the mind and the soul – sometimes referred to as “Orthodox Psychotherapy”.

Dabbling in or “playing around” with the physical or psychological health of a person is negligent, often unlawful, and subject to legal action is harm follows. How much greater should be the responsibility of those responsible for the spiritual health of others?

In some Orthodox Churches only Priests specifically qualified and authorised are permitted to hear Confession or give Spiritual Guidance. In others, those with no education, training or evaluation are set loose on those who assume (wrongly) that Ordination is all that is necessary to make a man a “spiritual physician”.

A good introduction to Orthodox pastoral care is Thomas Oden’s “Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition” (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984) – now available for download at – based essentially on the approach of Saint Gregory the Great.
orthodox psychotherapy
More complex studies are found in the works of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos: “Orthodox Psychotherapy. The Science of the Fathers” (Birth of Theotokos Monastery, Greece , 2005) – see – and “The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition” (Birth of the Theotokos Monastery Press, Greece, 2005).
illness and cure

The Asceticism of the Desert Fathers and the Unconscious

Posted in Uncategorized on June 15, 2013 by citydesert

The Asceticism of the Desert Fathers and the Unconscious: the projection of the enemy within and the cleansing of the heart

An interesting and inspiring blog on Desert Asceticism is written by Fr David Abernethy CO , a Roman Catholic Priest at the Pittsburgh Oratory, and a psychoanalyst.
“I have always thought of the desert Fathers as the first depth psychologists. From experience, they came to know and understand the dark underground of the human heart and the obscure workings of the unconscious. As one who has had the opportunity to study psychoanalysis, I have become even more convinced of the Fathers great psychotherapeutic shrewdness and their ability to see and understand what lies beneath.

Paul Evdokimov in his work “The Struggle with God” captures beautifully not only this shrewdness but what the Fathers struggle has brought and continues to bring to us today. He writes:

“The ascesis of the desert is a vast psychoanalysis followed by a psychosynthesis of the universal human soul. Origen, the brilliant commentator, compares the desert to Plato’s cave. The desert with all its arsenal of phantasmagoria was a theater of shadows, a spectacle for men and angels; only the shadows did not reflect the reality outside the cave. They were the projection of the world inside man……
The therapeutic effect formed by ‘the desert’ in the profoundest depths of the human spirit is universal. It represents the collective vomit, the objectification and the projection on the outside of the original and the accumulated impurity. This is perhaps the meaning of the words of St. Paul, ‘to add to the suffering of Christ’, something that the innocent Christ could not do in the place of man; only the sinner, the man of the desert, could do it in the place of all and with a universal significance. From a positive point of view, it was the formation of the ascetic archetype of man. It pre-formed ‘the violent’ in order to fight evil and the evil one inside and outside of man.’ (pp. 103-104)”