Archive for February, 2014

Escape: Modern Russian Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on February 28, 2014 by citydesert

A major project by Danila Tkachenko has involved photographing modern Hermits in Russia.
Tkachenko was born in 1989 in Moscow, Russia, and studied at The Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia, the department of documentary photography (Valeriy Nistratov), Moscow, Russia.
danilla 1
“The main characters of my project violate social standards for different reasons. By a complete withdrawal from society they go live alone in the wild nature, gradually dissolving in it and losing their social identity. While exploring their experience, it is important for me to understand if one is able to break free from social dependence and get away from the public to the subjective – and thus, to make a step towards oneself.”

“I was traveling in search for people who have decided to escape from social life and live all alone in the wild nature, far away from any villages, towns or other people, gradually dissolving in the nature and losing their social identity. While exploring their experience, it was important for me to understand if one is able to break free from social dependence and get away from the social to the individual – and thus, to make a step towards oneself. The most of my trips were done in Russia.”
danilla 2
“For three years, a Russian photographer documented the solitary lives of men and women living in the hinterlands of Russia and Ukraine.
It wasn’t exactly a trip to Walden Pond, but three years ago, photographer Danila Tkachenko left the modern world to explore the hinterlands in Russia and Ukraine. His goal: to document the solitary lives of people who have left society behind. His work resulted in a moving collection of portraits, which earned him first prize in the prestigious 2014 World Press Photo contest. I spoke with Tkachenko about what drives people to leave the world and his own quest for solitude.
Why did you become interested in living alone?
My father lived in the woods as a hermit for about three years, but then returned to city life. I was interested in seeing how a person chooses to cut himself off from the outside world and tries to get close to his true self. It is a question of looking for your real identity. When I met these people, I was interested in seeing how they compare to me as a city dweller. But I spend a great deal of time alone in nature myself. About five years ago, I was hiking through the Altai Mountains when I became lost and had to spend a month completely alone. It was a very hard and important experience for me, which is why I decided to explore it further.
danilla 4
Was it difficult to locate these people?
I spent three years working on this project and visited a great deal of places, from the Altai region to the Ural Mountains and Ukraine. I had to call many local newspapers, city administrations [and] tree farms in search of any leads.
Do you have an estimate of how many people escape into the woods?
It’s difficult to say exactly how many people there are, but I think quite a few. Russia is a country that makes it easier for you to escape, because there is a lot of space and nature, while at the same time the social environment is not very pleasant.
Was it difficult to earn these people’s trust?
There were times when I had to take really long train rides, walk about 20 kilometers [12 miles]…just to find out that they were completely unwilling to talk to me. And there was nothing I could do, so I had to turn around and go back. Bringing food sometimes helped. Often I had to spend a few days living with them just to get to know them first before being allowed to take photographs.
danilla 3
Are the people you came across religious?
I came across people who belong to many different confessions. There were many Russian Orthodox Christians and some who even worship nature. There were also quite a few atheists who became disillusioned with religion.
What pushed these people to give up on civilization?
Each story is different. But the one thing that probably unties them all is that they are discontented with the way our society functions. Some of them leave because of family problems; others leave because they are in trouble with authorities, for example. A great many of them escaped into the woods following Perestroika after realizing that they couldn’t adapt to the changes. These are people who have been there for 15 to 20 years.
Any one person whose story has stuck with you?
There was one academician who left society back in the 1990s because he was struggling during Perestroika. He moved to the woods to breed a new sort of ginseng, which he did. When I met him while working on this project, he was very old and half blind. I am thinking of going back and visiting him to see how well he has survived the winter.
Can you describe their living conditions?
You can see what kind of personality one has just by looking at their home. There are those who build entire palaces using materials available in the woods. Some hollow out caves, others build fences and even bridges. Work is a very important part of their lives.
danila 5
What do they eat?
Some people hunt, others grow their own food. They eat berries and mushrooms. If you know the forest well enough, it will give you plenty of food. But they also have the option of traveling to the nearby villages and exchanging their kill and crop for something they can’t find in the woods.
Are these people happier than those who live in the city?
Happiness is a very personal construct. But they do appear to live in harmony with themselves and the world around them. They are a lot like children. If they are sad or happy, they will share it with you because they don’t have the usual mask of privacy that people living in a civilized environment have. They have no social standards that they follow, and they are very sincere and open people.
danila 6
Did the thought of moving into the woods ever cross your mind while you were working on this project?
I consider myself one of those people who feels discontent with the modern society. Some people simply find the courage to walk away. I don’t have the strength to do it right now, but I have my art that helps me study this conflict. At the same time, I make sure that I spend at least a month each year completely alone in the nature. It helps me sort things out, look back at some of the things I have done and realize what I want to do next.”

see also

Saint Romanus of Condat, Desert-Dweller

Posted in Uncategorized on February 27, 2014 by citydesert

February 28 is the Feast of Saint Romanus of Condat, Desert-dweller
“Saint Romanus of Condat (c. 390 – c. 463) is a saint of the fifth century. At the age of thirty five he decided to live as a hermit in the area of Condat. His younger brother Lupicinus followed him there. They became leaders of a community of monks that included Saint Eugendus.
Romanus and Lupicinus founded several monasteries. These included Condat Abbey, which was the nucleus of the later town of Saint-Claude, Jura), Lauconne (later Saint-Lupicin, as Lupicinus was buried there), La Balme (Beaume) (later Saint-Romain-de-Roche), where Romanus was buried, and Romainmôtier (Romanum monasterium) in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland. Romanus was ordained a priest by St. Hilary of Arles in 444.”
romanus 2
“Abbot of Gallo Roman descent, he adopted the life of a hermit in the Jura Mountains, France, at age thirty five and was joined by his brother, St. Lupicinus, and many other disciples. The two brothers thus found it necessary to establish two monasteries, at Condat and Leuconne, and a convent at La Beaume which was governed by their sister. Romanus was famed for his healing of two lepers at Saint Maurice. He died on February 28 and was buried at La Beaume.”
st romanus bell
“St.Romanus, Abbot of Condat, now St. Claude in the French Jura, b. about 400; d. in 463 or 464. When thirty-five years old he went into the lonely region of Condat to live as a hermit, where after a while his younger brother Lupicinus followed him. A large number of scholars, among whom was St. Eugendus, placed themselves under the direction of the two holy brothers who founded several monasteries: Condat (now Saint-Claude), Lauconne (later Saint-Lupicin, as Lupicinus was buried there), La Balme (later Saint-Romain-de-Roche), where St.Romanus was buried, and Romainmôtier (Romanum monasterium) in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland. Romanus was ordained priest by St. Hilary of Arles in 444, and with Lupicinus he directed these monasteries until his death. His feast is observed on 28 February. Two lives of him are in existence: one by Gregory of Tours in the “Liber vitae patrum” (Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script. Merov., I, 663), and an anonymous “Vita Sanctorum Romani, Lupicini, Eugendi” [ibid., III, 131 sqq.; cf. Benoît, “Histoire de St-Claude”, I (Paris, 1890); Besson, “Recherches sur les origines des évêchés de Genève, Lausanne, et Sion” (Fribourg, 1906), 210 sqq.].”

The Psalter: II Understanding the Text

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2014 by citydesert

The Scriptures need to be read with care, intelligence and prayerful reflection. Particularly in the case of the Psalter, which is repeatedly read in the Hours and other services, when there is a real danger of mindless repetitive reading and “vain repetition”. Simply reciting Psalms over and over again cannot be said to be reading them in a meaningful way. Reciting twenty Psalms one after the other without any attempt at understanding and reflection reduces the text to some sort of quasi-magical formula.
The Fathers engaged in “Lectio Divina” (Latin for divine reading)(a term made popular by the Benedictines but based on ancient Christian principles). The roots of Scriptural reflection and interpretation go back to Origen in the 3rd century, after whom St. Ambrose taught them to St. Augustine. Traditionally the “Lectio Divina” has four separate steps: read, meditate, pray and contemplate.

“In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk called Guigo, described the stages which he saw as essential to the practice of Lectio Divina. There are various ways of practicing Lectio Divina either individually or in groups but Guigo’s description remains fundamental.

He said that the first stage is “lectio” (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us. Any passage of Scripture can be used for this way of prayer but the passage should not be too long.
The second stage is “meditatio” (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us.

The third stage is “oratio” (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.

The final stage of “Lectio Divina” is “contemplatio” (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God. We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within. Obviously this transformation will have a profound effect on the way we actually live and the way we live is the test of the authenticity of our prayer. We must take what we read in the Word of God into our daily lives.”

This presupposes careful and attentive reading. It also presupposes an attempt to understand the text, and that requires both time and effort, and some basic resources. For example:

1. A good translation: sometimes modern English translations blur the original meaning of the Hebrew. For example, we are accustomed to “The Lord is my Shepherd” but a more accurate translation is “The Lord shepherds me” or (from the Coptic) “The Lord is He Who shepherds me.” Are these differences significant?

2. A good Bible dictionary: the Psalms were written originally in Hebrew and translated into Greek and then (for most of us) into English. Sometimes we need to consider what the word originally meant in Hebrew since there may be no direct equivalent in English.

3. A good Bible encyclopaedia: this will help in understanding terms in their originally cultural and historical context.

4. A good Bible commentary: this will assist in understanding context and meaning.

Sometimes, a single verse may require our full attention for a considerable time as we seek to understand its meaning, and its application in our lives prayerfully and reflectively.
A good example of an Orthodox reading of a Psalm is found at
The following is an extract.
psalm 23
“Psalm 22/23 which begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is probably one of the best known, most often quoted and memorized of all David’s beautiful hymns. It has always occupied an important place in the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, and is one of the Psalms included in the order of preparation for the reception of Holy Communion.
In the early Church the catechumens, especially as the time for their baptism drew near, were made familiar with its contents and were even obliged to learn it by heart. It seems, however, that its meaning was not fully explained to them until after they had received the grace of the All-holy Spirit in the mysteries of baptism, chrismation and the eucharist.
“We gave you the Psalm, beloved children who hurriedly approach the baptism of Christ, so that you might learn it by heart. But, it is necessary, because of its mystical, hidden meaning, that we explain it to you, with the light of divine grace.” (From a sermon attributed to St. Augustine.)

The Fathers of the Church saw in Psalm 22 both a prophecy and a summary of the mysteries (sacraments) of Christian initiation: “By this Psalm, Christ teaches the Church that, first of all, you must become a sheep of the Good Shepherd: the catechetical instruction guides you to the pastures and fountains of doctrine. Then you must be buried with Him into death by baptism. But this is not death, but a shadow and image of death. Then He prepares the mystical table. Then He anoints you with the oil of the Spirit. And finally He presents the wine that gladdens the heart of man and produces that sober inebriation characteristic of the true Christian” (St. Gregory of Nyssa).

It is to be noted that then, as now, our Orthodox Church used the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint – it is Psalm 22 in the Greek), and the understanding of its mystical meaning was based on this version. The traditional meaning given the Psalm in our Church is obscured in a few phrases of the most widely known English translations, since they follow the Hebrew rather than the Greek. In the following selection of commentaries on the six verses, we give first the King James translation and in the parentheses a more or less literal translation of the Septuagint.

1. The Lord is my Shepherd (The Lord shepherds me); I shall not want (I shall lack nothing).
“David invites you to be one of the sheep whose Shepherd is Christ and who lack no good thing. The Good Shepherd makes Himself everything for you: pasture, water of rest, food, dwelling place, and the way of righteousness, and He gives you the Comforter, distributing His grace according to your needs” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). Those who belong to Christ “have as their guide not a simple holy man, as Israel had Moses, but the Prince of Shepherds and the Teacher of doctrine, in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are young…they shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them…(Isaiah 40:11; 49:10).

2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures (He has made me to dwell in a place of verdure): He leadeth me beside the still waters (He has nourished me beside the waters of rest).
“The place of verdure (green pastures) means the ever-fresh words of Holy Scripture, which nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). “The waters of rest means, no doubt, holy baptism, by which the weight of sin is removed.” After having fed the person who comes to Him in faith with His word, the Lord leads him to the waters of baptism, making him a sheep of His holy flock, whose destiny is only to enter into God’s rest. “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God…Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest…” (Hebrews 4:9,11). (“Rest” in both Hebrews 4 and our Psalm is “anapausis” in Greek.)

3. He restoreth my soul (He has converted my soul): He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (He has led me…).
David speaks of his own experience: after having learned of God’s ways he strayed from the paths of righteousness and fell into deadly sin. His experience in this Psalm becomes a prophecy: anyone, no matter how far he may have strayed from God, in Christ may be converted and return to the way of righteousness and learn to do God’s will.

4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil (…though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death…): for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (…they have comforted me).
“It is necessary for you to be buried in death with Him by baptism. But it is not really death, but a shadow and image of death” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). “For we are baptized into the death of Christ, baptism is called the shadow and image of death, in face of which there is no longer anything to fear” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). The last part of this verse refers to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “He comforts the believer, or guides him, with the rod and staff (the Shepherd’s crook) of the Spirit, for the One who guides or comforts is the Spirit (the Paraclete – the Greek verb here is “parekalesan”) (St. Gregory of Nyssa). “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever…when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth…” (John 14:16; 16:13 – the verb translated “He has led…” in v. 3 of the Psalm, and “will guide” in John is “hodigise” and “hodigisei” in Greek).”

Christopher Hall “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” [IVP Academic, Downers Grove IL, 1998]
“Many Christians today long to become reacquainted with their ancient ancestors in the faith. They see a deeper worship and devotion in the prayers and hymns of the early church. And they believe that the writings of the early church can shed new light on their understanding of Scripture. But where and how do we begin? Our first encounter with the writings of the church fathers may seem like visiting a far country where the language, assumptions, concerns and conclusions are completely unfamiliar to us.
In “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” Christopher Hall helps us through this cultural confusion, introducing us to the early church, its unique world, and the sights and sounds of Scripture that are highlighted for them. As Hall points out, the ancient fathers hear music in Scripture where we remain tone-deaf. Despite their occasional eccentricities, theirs is a hearing refined through long listening in song, worship, teaching, meditation and oral reading. And like true masters they challenge and correct our modern assumptions as they invite us to tune our ears to hear the divine melodies of the Bible.
“Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” is an exceptional guide. Hall provides a warm, winsome, informative and indispensable introduction to who these leaders and scholars were, how they read and interpreted Scripture, and how we might read Scripture with them for all its worth.”

Psalms 1-50 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) IVP Academic (November 14, 2008)
by Craig A. Blaising (Editor) , Carmen S. Hardin (Editor)
Psalms 51-150 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) Hardcover
by Quentin F. Wesselschmidt (Editor) IVP Academic (November 26, 2007)
psalms ACCS
“The Psalms have long served a vital role in the individual and corporate lives of Christians, expressing the full range of human emotions, including some that we are ashamed to admit. The Psalms reverberate with joy, groan in pain, whimper with sadness, grumble in disappointment and rage with anger. The church fathers employed the Psalms widely. In liturgy they used them both as hymns and as Scripture readings. Within them they found pointers to Jesus both as Son of God and as Messiah. They also employed the Psalms widely as support for other New Testament teachings, as counsel on morals and as forms for prayer. But the church fathers found more than pastoral insight in the Psalms. They found apologetic and doctrinal insight as well, as is attested by the more than sixty-five authors and more than 160 works excerpted in this commentary. Especially noteworthy among the Greek-speaking authors cited are Hippolytus, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Evagrius of Pontus, Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Asterius the Homilist, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyr, Cyril of Alexandria and Hesychius of Jerusalem. Among noteworthy Latin authors we find Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine, Arnobius the Younger and Cassiodorus. Readers of these selections, some of which appear here for the first time in English, will glean from a rich treasury of deep devotion and profound theological reflection.”

For details of the series, see The series is also available on CD-ROM:

Bruce Waltke and James Houston “The Psalms as Christian Worship. A Historical Commentary” [William Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2010]
psalms as christian worship
“This collaboration by two esteemed evangelical scholars blends a verse-by-verse exposition of select psalms with a history of their interpretation in the church from the time of the apostles to the present.

Bruce Waltke, who has been teaching and preaching the book of Psalms for over fifty years, skilfully establishes the meaning of the Hebrew text through the careful exegesis for which he is well known. James Houston traces the church’s historical interpretation and use of these psalms, highlighting their deep spiritual significance to Christians through the ages.

Waltke and Houston focus their in-depth commentary on thirteen psalms that represent various genres and perspectives or hold special significance for Christian faith and the life of the church, including Psalm 1, Psalm 23, Psalm 51, and Psalm 139. While much modern scholarship has tended to “despiritualize” the Psalms, Waltke and Houston’s “sacred hermeneutic” listens closely to the two voices of the Holy Spirit — heard infallibly in Scripture and edifyingly in the church’s response. A masterly historical-devotional commentary, “The Psalms as Christian Worship” will deepen the church’s worship and enrich the faith and life of contemporary Christians.”

An introductory Orthodox guide to Biblical reference sources is found at

The Psalter: I Selecting a Translation

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2014 by citydesert

“By far the largest single element in the Church’s Divine services is the Psalms of David. Of them St. John Chrysostom has said: “If we keep vigil in church, David comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.”
basil the great
“The function of the Psalms in the Orthodox Christian spiritual life has been well set forth by St. Basil the Great: “When the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the Psalms, that they who are children in age, or even those who are youthful in disposition, might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul. For never has any one of the many indifferent persons gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message but they do chant the words of the Psalms, even in the home, and they spread them about in the market place, and if, perchance, someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, when he begins to be soothed by a Psalm, he departs with the wrath of his soul immediately lulled to sleep by means of the melody.” (Homily X, 1; On Psalm I.)”

Various Orthodox translations of the Psalter into English have been published. The following are some of the more significant versions.
Orthodox Psalter full sizehr
“The Orthodox Psalter, an English translation of the Psalms and Nine Biblical Odes, translated from the Septuagint and the Greek Psalterion authorized by the Church of Greece.” [Holy Apostles Convent, Beuna Vista, CA, 2010]
This new revised and expanded 2nd edition can be used in the divine offices of the Church. Twenty groups of Psalms, called kathismata, have been arranged and versified according to the Greek Psalterion. Although the Septuagint numbering of Psalms is used, yet KJV numbering also appears. Six expanded Tables of Usage are furnished, as well as a general listing of the Psalms for daily services as provided in “The Great Horologion”, and an alphabetical list of introductory verse of each Psalm. This publication also equips the reader with Patristic Commentary and notes on select verses and inscriptions of the book of Psalms. The ecclesiastical English is most faithful to the original Greek, and diligently compared with the Psalterion of the Church of Greece, published by Apostolike Diakonia. This brand-new translation echoes the rhythms of the original Greek, which was faithful to the Hebrew idiom. The full-sized version with Commentary, reflecting the Orthodox perspective and interpretation of the spiritual insights of the holy Fathers from the East and West, promises to be an enriched reading experience that resonates with understanding of God’s word through the Psalmist David and others. Even for those who do not know Greek or Hebrew, exegetical material found within this book gives critical analysis of key words, that is not overly technical, for both beginners and scholars alike.
Psalter seventy
“The Psalter According to the Seventy” (1997) Translated by the monks of Holy Transfiguration Monastery. This is the book of Psalms of the Old Testament, in an English translation from the Septuagint version.
psalter sheehan
The Psalms of David: Translated from the Septuagint Greek, translated by Donald Sheehan, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 2013
“In this rendering, the Psalms become once again what they were for Christian believers from the very beginning: the hymnal of the Church. They remain, certainly, the songs of Israel: from its cries of lamentation to its shouts of exultation. But for the Christian reader, they become as well hymns of petition and praise that express both the joy and the longing of those who live ‘in Christ’ . . . At the same time their very language can convey to us the assurance that, as he has throughout the millennia, God hears our prayer and responds to it with boundless mercy, love, and compassion.”
—from the Preface by Fr. John Breck
Psalter new skete
“The Psalter” The Monks of New Skete (Orthodox Church in America )(1984) The 150 Biblical psalms and 11 scriptural canticles used in Orthodox Church services. Our translations have been refined by study and daily use at our services over the last three decades. Rendered in clear, modern American English, especially suitable for Lectio Divina meditation and singing in church.
agbeya 1
A translation of the Psalms from the Coptic version can be found in “The Agpeya. The Coptic Book of Hours” edited by Fr Matthias Farid Wahba [St Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church, Hayward CA, 1999]
psalter asser
“The Psalter of the Prophet and King David with the Nine Biblical Odes” Compiled by Michael Asser [Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna CA, 2008] Arranged for liturgical use, with full kathismata and verses. King James and Douai version English, translated to conform to the Septuagint.
Also available as “The Psalter of David the Prophet and King According to the Septuagint with the nine Odes and an explanation of how the Psalter should be chanted throughout the whole year after the use of the Orthodox Church” [2005] on-line at
For this English translation of the Psalter of the Septuagint, the Psalter of the King James Bible has been taken as a base and then revised where it differs from the Greek, always keeping as close as possible to the King James Version.
psalter moore 2
“The Holy Psalter: The Psalms of David from the LXX” Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, [Diocesan Press, Madras, India. (1st printing 1966, 2nd revised printing 1971.)] Fr. Moore’s edition is remarkable for its innovative literary style. The translation has an abundance of fresh interpretations which capture the original meaning with amazing clarity.
Also available on-line at

For an overview of some English translations of the Psalter for Orthodox, see

АπϵηϬοιϲ – The Coptic Lenten Hymn of Apenchois

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2014 by citydesert

Something of the “Desert flavour” of the Coptic Lent can be experienced through this beautiful hymn.
coptic hymn
This hymn is sung in the Coptic Orthodox Church during the Fast of the Great Lent. It is sung solely in Coptic. The “Apenshois” translated is “Our Lord Jesus Christ fasted on our behalf for forty days and forty nights until He saved us from our sins. And we, too, let us fast with purity and righteousness, and let us pray, proclaiming “I have sinned, I have sinned. O my Lord Jesus, forgive me; for there is no slave without sin, nor mast without forgiveness.” Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy Kingdom come, for Thine is the glory forever.” then the concluding “Agios”.
Members of the Egyptian Coptic Choir stand near the chair of the late Pope Shenouda during mass at Abassaiya cathedral in Cairo
A traditional version sung by a Coptic choir is found at
A modern, accompanied version by the David Ensemble [] is found at
heavenly harp
Another version by the modern Heaven Harp Choir at St. Mary and St. John Coptic Church at Janaklise, Alexandria, is found at

Desert Spirituality for City Folks

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2014 by citydesert

ancient faith radio
An interesting series of podcasts with the title “Desert Spirituality for City Folks” is offered on “Ancient Faith Radio” [] beginning at:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2
Part 3—Theology of the desert
Part 4 – The Fact of Myth
Part 5 – St. Anthony of Egypt
Part 6—Pachomius
Part 7—Love the Goal
Part 8 – The Journey
Part 9—What’s the Problem?
Part 10 – Getting Ready for Battle
Part 11 – Three Wrong-Way Signs to Christian Living
Part 12 – Detachment: Letting Go of Important Things
Part 13 – Humility
Part 14 – Gluttony
Part 15 – Why is our Gospel too small?
Part 16 – Defeating the Noonday Demon
Part 17 – Anger
An extract from the talk on Anger:

“So what are we to do about it? There’s a lot to say about this emotion, but here’s just a few strategies that were used by the monks that you might find helpful when fighting this dark emotion.
First, don’t get discouraged or be surprised to find anger in your soul. You’re just a fallen human being, and that means you can get your feelings hurt. Some of the monks had a hard time admitting that. Many monks expressed anxiety about their inability to resist anger. They thought they were above that sort of thing; after all, they were monks, not ordinary Christians.
In one of the sayings of the Desert Mothers, Amma Syncletica addressed this concern. She said that anger overcomes all of us from time to time. We’re not to think of ourselves different from anyone else in this matter.
Second, Amma Syncletica tells us that when we do get angry, we must deal with it quickly and decisively or else it will take root in our souls. We shouldn’t let it linger and seethe in our conscious or our subconscious minds. Rather, we should keep short accounts with other people and mend the problem before the day has passed. She tells us that “we must bear in mind the words of the Apostle. It is not good to get angry, but if it should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion.”
So keep short accounts with others. Anger will only keep you from the love God wants you to have for others. Agathon, a disciple of Abba Poimen, said, “Even if an angry man should raise the dead, he is not acceptable to God.”
A third strategy we can use in combating anger in our souls is simply to die to our egos. Instead of falling headlong into hostility and revenge toward the person who angered you, choose a reaction that is compassionate and fair. Choosing a reaction that is compassionate and fair can only be done if you’ve died to your ego.
Are you too sensitive about what other people think of you? Are you suspicious that others are talking about you behind your back? Are you feeling hurt because someone disappointed you? Are they expecting too much of you? Did they say bad and hurtful things about you? Well, if you feel angry from that, get in line behind the rest of us who want revenge on those who harmed us. We all get our feelings hurt from the stupidity of others. We all know what it feels like for someone to act discourteously toward us.”
“Dr. Bradley Nassif is an Orthodox Christian, scholar, and trusted spokesperson for Orthodoxy, known especially for his ecumenical involvement and active role in Orthodox evangelism. Raised within the Orthodox Church as a Lebanese-American, Dr. Nassif also spent some time worshipping in the Evangelical tradition in his youth. His experience in both realms has made him a pioneer in Orthodox-Evangelical relations. His life experience, combined with his knowledge of Orthodox faith and history, places him in a unique position from which to articulate the Orthodox faith to a diverse audience.
Dr. Nassif is currently Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He has been a teacher for the Antiochian House of Studies, and the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California. He serves as a consultant for Time and Christianity Today magazines. Dr. Nassif holds a Ph.D. from Fordham University where he studied with the late Fr. John Meyendorff. Additionally, he holds a M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a M.A. in New Testament Studies from Denver Seminary, a M.A. in European History from Wichita State University, and a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Friends University. He is a member of Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois.”

For an interview with Dr Nassif, see

Fasting as Askêsis

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2014 by citydesert

“The strife which the monks felt to be a necessary condition of all spiritual advance took place in two regions. There was strife against the body — the struggle with physical needs, desires, and passions. There was also the struggle against infirmities and failings of the soul — spiritual strife. In each region the strife is, strictly speaking, an asceticism, that is to say, an exercise undertaken with the object of attaining some further end. In the case of the physical asceticism of the hermits it is especially necessary to understand the meaning of the words we use and the real nature of the practices described. Asceticism (askêsis) means an exercise, and an exercise is an entirely useless and meaningless thing unless it is undertaken with a view to something to be gained by its use. When St. Paul speaks of “exercising” himself he says that he does so in order to have a conscience void of reproach. In exactly the same way the monks practised exercise, asceticism (askêsis), not as if the things they did were in themselves good, but simply as a means to the attainment of that perfection which they desired.
The most striking form which the physical asceticism of the hermits assumed was fasting. There were other forms, but fasting was the most esteemed, and it is of fasting that we read most in the stories of their lives. There are in the annals of Egyptian monasticism some instances of terribly severe and prolonged fasts. There were hermits who ate only once every two or three days. A common practice was to eat nothing until after sunset. There was no attempt, at all events in Lower Egypt, to establish anything like a uniform rule on the subject of fasting. It was recognised that the capacity for fasting varied greatly in different individuals. One man might eat what seemed to be a great deal, and yet truly fast. Another might eat very little, and yet be a glutton. So far as the advice of the greatest Fathers can be said to form a rule, it may be expressed in the words — “Do not eat to satiety.” In the spirit of this advice each hermit regulated the time of his own meals and the quantity and quality of his food as seemed best to himself.

The end which the hermits hoped to attain by fasting was the subjugation of the lusts of the flesh. The hermit who disdained the exercise of fasting was compared to a horse without a bridle. How far the hermits were from regarding fasting as an end in itself, or even as invariably the best means for overcoming fleshly lusts, may be seen from the fact that young men were sometimes advised to eat more and fast less, so as to obtain more strength to resist the attacks of their spiritual enemies. Apart, however, from the practice of fasting as an asceticism, an exercise undertaken for a purpose, the hermits fasted in simple obedience to the Lord’s teaching and in sympathy with His fasting. This is part of their whole conception of the religious life as a literal imitation of Christ.

Fasting, being a merely physical exercise, is regarded always by the hermits as a practice which ought to be discontinued directly it interfered in the smallest degree with the attainment of a virtue or the fulfilment of a higher kind of duty. Thus, if success in fasting led a man into danger of becoming proud or vainglorious, it was better for him to eat, even to eat flesh. A hermit, whose severe fasting led him to envy a brother whose conditions of life were pleasanter, had better eat flesh and drink wine than fall into such a sinful state. In the same way it was felt to be better for a man to break his rule of fasting than to assert himself by keeping it when others in his company wished to eat. Active charity, such as manifests itself in hospitality to strangers was always to be preferred before fasting. It might happen that a hermit, whose ordinary observance was very strict, would break his fast even seven times in one day if seven separate strangers came to his cell demanding entertainment. In so doing he was right, for the lower duty, of fasting according to his rule, had only given place to a higher one, love showing itself in hospitality.”
wisdom of the desert
From James Hannay “The Wisdom of the Desert” Chapter IX: On Fasting

Lent 2014 in the Coptic Tradition

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2014 by citydesert

Monday, February 24 2014 marks the beginning of Lent in the Coptic Orthodox Tradition: it is Meshir 17, 1730, in the Coptic Calendar (for which, see and and
coptic cross 5
Great Lent consists of six weeks (40 days), which correspond to the 40 days that Christ fasted on the mountain. It precedes Palm Sunday, and the Holy Week, which precede Pascha. The seven days of the Holy Week is also a period of rigorous fasting. There are an additional seven days of fasting before the beginning of the Great Lent, which serve as a preparatory period, called “Pre-Lenten Fast” or “Preparatory Week”.

Although the Coptic calendar designates approximately 210 days of fasting during the year, the 55 days of fasting for Lent are the days most widely observed by members of the Coptic Church. When fasting strictly, the Copts can eat no animal products, including poultry, meat, fish, eggs, and milk. No food or drink is allowed between the hours of sunrise and sunset.
The duration and the ranking of the fast of Holy Lent is documented in the “Didascalia” [“Didascalia Apostolorum”, a composition of the 3rd century, perhaps around 230 CE], indicating that “the forty days that Jesus Christ our Saviour fasted are to be fasted until sunset, along with the abstaining from any flesh and anything that belongs to the flesh.” [see – chapter XXI verses 13ff.]
Also, “the week preceding the Holy Forty Days (the Week of Preparation) is to be classified as one of the established fasts of the church, on which the rules of the Holy Forty Days are to be observed.” As for the Holy Pascha week, (the week following the Holy Forty days) the “Didascalia” states “it is to be fasted solely on bread, salt and water until the end of sunset.” With regards to Great Friday and Bright Saturday, “they are to be fasted with full abstinence until the cock crows very early Sunday morning.However, if one could not fast both days together, then it is acceptable to fast throughout Saturday alone.”

Church services, including the Divine Liturgy, have specific Lenten forms, as does Church music: see

The Desert in Lent

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2014 by citydesert

“The Desert: An Anthology for Lent” by John Moses [Morehouse Publishing, 1997
The desert, with its great emptiness and silence, has long been a symbol of solitude. In our spiritual lives, we sometimes seek such isolation as a means of abandoning ourselves completely to God. At other times, solitude comes upon us uninvited and unwelcome, as we find ourselves totally alone and desolate. In facing the silence and the vast expanses of loneliness, we test our courage, deepen our faith, and hear the voice of God anew. This book explores the tradition and relevance of desert spirituality in the life and worship of the church today and offers a collection of pertinent writings by these and many other ancient and contemporary authors: Thomas a Kempis, Mother Mark Clare, Henri Nouwen, Rene Voillaume, Charles de Foucauld, Thomas Merton, R. S. Thomas.

“The author is the dynamic new Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, whose predecessors include such literary giants as John Donne. First, he tells us the story of the Desert Fathers who retreated to the wilderness in the fourth and fifth centuries when the Emperor Constantine’s establishment of Christianity severely watered down the faith. He does this with a simple style, avoiding complex unpronounceable verbiage. When he has introduced us to the spirituality of the desert, to the use of solitude, he then gives the reader daily soul food to chew on. It can be used for personal devotion or as a small group study resource.” — The Living Church

“The desert is never an end in itself. It is a time of preparation, of testing, of transition. The long years of the exodus lead from slavery to freedom. The disciplines of prayer and study and fasting have always counted for much in the desert tradition. These ascetical disciplines have been concerned from the beginning to bring under control the appetites of the flesh and to focus the mind on the things of God. But there lies beyond all these spiritual disciplines the vision of a life that is set free and restored and renewed. [St. Irenaeus says:]‘The glory of God is a man or woman who is truly alive.’” (p.20-21)
john moses
John Moses, KCVO, was the Dean of St Paul’s from November 1996 until his retirement on 31 August 2006. In 2013, Moses was appointed as the John Macquarrie Professor of Anglican Theology at Graduate Theological Foundation in Mishawaka, Indiana.

St Baradates, Syrian Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2014 by citydesert

February 22 is the commemoration of St Baradates (Baradatus).
syrian desert
St Baradates (died circa 460) was a hermit who lived in the Diocese of Cyrrhus in Syria, and whose bishop, Theodoret, called him “the admirable Baradates.” Baradates lived in a tiny hut, too small for him to stand upright, and he wore a leather garment that exposed only his mouth and nose. He was said to have been very learned, particularly in theology. Emperor Leo wrote him, asking his advice regarding the Council of Chalcedon.
syrian desert 2
Saint Baradates the Syrian began to live as a desert-dweller in a hut near Antioch. He then built a stone cell upon a hill, so cramped and low that the ascetic could stand in it only in a stooped position. It had neither window nor door, and the wind, rain and cold came in through the cracks, and in summer he was not protected from the heat.
After many years Patriarch Theodoretos of Alexandria urged the monk to leave the cramped hut. Then the saint withdrew into a new seclusion: covered in leather from head to foot with a small opening for his nose and mouth, he prayed standing with hands upraised to heaven. The grace of God strengthened him in his works and purified his heart from passions. People began to flock to him for spiritual counsel, and St Baradates with deep humility guided them. Having acquired many spiritual gifts, St Baradates departed to the Lord in peace in 460.
syrian desert 3
“Among the lesser known ascetics was a very faithful figure known as Baradatus. He lived in the 5th century in the Syrian desert. Almost nothing is known about him, and what little information we do possess comes from the writings of Theodoret, who was the Bishop of Cyrrhus, in Syria. It is through his “Religious History” that we can learn with great interest about the types of penance he devised for himself.
Like most hermits in the 5th century, Baradatus fled from the company of people, and sought peace through prayer and meditation, but also through painful ascetic practice, as was very common of the times.
In order to find salvation, Baradatus built a small lattice confin-like structure, made of interwoven pieces of wood. Apparently the device was fashioned in such a way that it had many openings, so as to be open to all the conditions of the weather. As Theodoret writes, the box in “no way conformed to the dimensions of a human body, but in which he had to live bent double, for neither its depth nor its lenght was of a convenient size.”
Baradatus had crawled into the tiny torture device, in wich he lived in a very unpleasent manner. We have no way of knowing his daily schedule, as Theodoret nor any other person who came to visit him has left us any information. We do not know how he got his food. Was it brought to him or did he get out of the box and go fetch his food from a nearby garden? We can probably be suret that whatever he ate it was very meager, and very rare. Most ascetics of the period ate maybe once a day, and some who were very devout only ate on Sundays, and gave whatever they had to the poor or their visitors. Often hermits of the desert lived near open streams, where they had small vegetable gardens and lived off their gardens year round, and their diets consisted of an almost vegan menu.
We do not know how Baradatus lived for most of the day. Did he get out of the box when he needed to empty himself of waste? Or did he simply leave the waste in the living coffin, thus making the endurance even more troubling?
We do know that he must have suffered from tremendous burns, as the Syrian desert is unbearably cruel. The burn marks must have left great swelling on his body, and it must have also been uneven because of the lattice design.
However devout Baradatus was, when Theodotus who was the Bishop of Antioch showed up and saw the conditions in which the holy man was living he ordered him to come out of this enclosure and to serve God in other ways. This must have happened sometime in the 420s, because we know that Theodotus was the Bishop of the See of Antioch in the 420s.
But nevertheless Baradatus continued to labor for the sake of his and the world’s salvation. The desire for penance made him devise an even more painful form of worship. Having woven a body suite out of leather, he put it on and was completely covered from head to toe, with only openings for the nose and mouth so as to breathe. He could not even see.
Baradatus lived in this suit until his final days. But not only did he wear the suit, he also chose to stand, without moving, with his arms stretched to the skies.
We know that Baradatus was very ill for a large part of his life, however we are not sure if these illnesses came to him because of his ascetic practices or because of other means….
Baradatus appears as a fantastic being from the past. One can imagine the lonely figure, subjecting himself to the boiling conditions of the Syrian desert. One wonders what thoughts and prayers were uttered in such states of bleak existance. Theodoret talks about the fact that he was a wise man, and that apparently when speaking with him, he showed the keen sense of wisdom and reasoning comparable with one who has studied the “labyrinthes” of Aristotle. However, one wonders what reasoning Baradatus offered for the self-torture devices that he placed upon himself? Whatever his reasoning, we do know that he was not mad, but found peace through such an existance.”
syrian hermits caves
(about a.d. 460.)

[Greek Menaea. Authority : Theodoret, in his Philotheus, c. 27; who wrote whilst Baradatus was still alive, and from personal knowledge of him and his manner of life.]

S. Baradatus held so high a position among the solitaries of Syria, that the Emperor Leo, wishing to know the opinion of the Eastern Church touching the council of Chalcedon, wrote to him, as well as to S. Simeon Stylites and S. James the Syrian. All we know of him is derived
from the account left us by Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus, who calls him the admirable Baradatus, and says that he manifested his ingenuity in discovering new austerities.
Baradatus at first dwelt in a hut, but afterwards he ascended a rock and built himself a cabin, so small that he was unable to stand upright in it, and was obliged to move therein bent nearly double. The joints of the stones were, moreover, so open that it resembled a cage, and exposed him to the sun and rain. But Theodosius, patriarch of Antioch, ordered him to leave this den, and the hermit, at his advice, chose one more commodious. He spent most of his time in prayer, with his hands raised to heaven. His clothing was of leather, which covered him so completely that only his nose and mouth were visible. Theodoret says
that his knowledge of heavenly things and doctrinal perspicuity were very remarkable. His answer to the Emperor Leo is found appended to the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon. “
S. Baring Gould “The Lives of the Saints” (1914) at