Archive for June, 2014

Introductory Reading on the Desert Spirituality

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2014 by citydesert

An excellent introduction to the Desert Fathers and Mothers is John Chryssavgis’ “In the Heart of the Desert. The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers” (2003). Dr Chryssavgis (b.1958) was educated in Australia and Greece, and has taught at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney, and Holy Cross School of Theology, where he is now Professor of Theology. After a brief introduction to the history of the sayings, the historical background to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the major figures of Desert Spirituality, the author devotes the great majority of his work to an exploration of the key themes of Desert Spirituality. These include “The Desert as Space”, “The Struggle Against Demons”, “Silence and Tears” and “The Power of Detachment”. There are chapters on the role of spiritual guidance, and on the education and formation of a Desert Father or Mother. Dr Chryssavgis’ excellent volume concludes with the first translation into English of Abba Zosimas’s “Reflections”, a work compiled in the first half of the sixth century, which records many sayings of the Desert Fathers.

In his final words, Dr Chryssavgis reminds his readers:

“The desert is a profound myth. It is a powerful symbol. These fourth-century elders are reminders of fundamental truths about our world and ourselves, which we tend to forget and which they translate for all generations throughout the ages. They should be considered as being prophets of another reality – in many ways, the only reality – rather than strange representatives of a remote past or inaccessible examples of former times.

Nonetheless, no one can lead us into the desert. Each one of us must find our own way. Each must look for the places where they are tempted, where we are lonely, thirsty for meaning and hungry for depth. Each of us will discover the areas that need to be purified, where we can encounter God and where God speaks to us. The desert is only one expression or translation of the truth, like art, music and beauty. Each of us must discover the ways of appropriating and appreciating this truth. We may question the truth conveyed by these desert elders, though we can never deny it.” [Chryssavgiss, “In the Heart of the Desert” 2003:109

Two standard works, now available in matching form and published by the Cisterians are “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection” (1975) translated by Benedicta Ward, and “The Lives of the Desert Fathers” (1981) translated by Norman Russell.
sayrings desert alphabetical
Benedicta Ward has done much to enhance awareness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. She was educated at Manchester and Oxford Universities, and is a member of the Anglican religious community, the Sisters of the Love of God. “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection” (1975), which she has translated, is prefaced by a Foreword providing an historical background to the Fathers and to the text, and to the spirituality of the Fathers. The author’s insight, not to say wit, provides great insights into her subject. To provide but one example:

“The desert was not a gigantic gymnasium where athletes vied with one another in endurance tests. When one of the fathers went in disguise to a monastery during Lent, he outdid all the monks in asceticism. His name was Macarius the Egyptian and he was very tough. At the end of a week, the abba led him outside and said, “You have taught us all a lesson, Father, but now please would you mind going away, lest my sons become discouraged and despair. We have been edified enough.”” [Ward, 1975:xxv]

The collections of apothegms are arranged alphabetically (albeit according to the Greek alphabet, so they commence with alpha and conclude with omega), with each collection introduced by a brief biography (where such exists) for the Father whose sayings follow. The language is less poetic than that of Waddell, but concise and clear. The following example is typical:

“Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does not good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy.”” [Ward, 1075:98]

Ward’s collection concludes with a helpful glossary, a “Chronological Table for Early Egyptian Monasticism”, a Select Bibliography, a general index and an index of people and places.
Norman Russell is a Catholic Priest of the London Oratory. His “Lives of the Desert Fathers” (1981) is the first English translation of “Historia Monachorum in Aegypto”, an account of the Desert Fathers given by seven monks from Palestine who travelled through the Egyptian desert in 394AD. Their pilgrimage was not unique; in the late fourth century many visitors, including Rufinus the friend of Jerome, sought out the Fathers. This translation begins with a valuable introduction by Benedicta Ward, who provides the historical background to the journey which led to the account, and the social and spiritual context of the Fathers and their monastic lives. Her Introduction includes a chapter entitled “A Sense of Wonder: Miracles in the Desert”, relevant because of the frequency of the miraculous in the “Historia”: clairvoyance, dreams (prophetic and demonic), cures, supernatural powers over animals and demons, and the power of spiritual discernment.

The actual text of the “Historia” itself is short (only seventy pages including the Prologue); to this Ward adds a substantiate body of annotations (pp.123-138) and “The Additions of Rufinus”, comprising sections which differ between the text of Rufinus and the Greek text of the “Historia”, and a further section on “The Syriac Version”, which notes the differences between the Greek and Syriac versions (which exist in Ananisho’s “Paradise of the Holy Fathers”, the complete text of which is translated by Budge (1907)). A bibliography of of primary and secondary sources, a Chronological Table, an Index of Persons and Place and a Subject Index complete Ward’s important work.
waddell desert fathers
Helen Waddell’s translation of parts of the “Vitae Patrum”, “The Desert Fathers” (1962) has been a standard work in the area since it was first published in 1936 and seems, happily, never to have been out of print since then. She has spent much of her professional career in translation, notably of medieval Latin poetry. This book contains extracts from ten of the major ancient collections of the apothegms: St Jerome’s life of St Paul the First Hermit; Rufinus of Aquileia’s History of the Monks of Egypt; “The Sayings of the Fathers” translated from the Greek by Pelagius and John; “The Sayings of the Fathers” from the Greek by an unknown translator; Paschasius the Deacon’s translation of “The Sayings of the Fathers”; John Cassian’s texts “Of Accide” and “Of Mortification”; the Paradisus of Palladius; the Pratum Spirituale of John Moschus; James the Deacon’s “The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot”; and “The Life of St Mary the Harlot” by St Ephraem of Edessa. The work is prefaced by an excellent general introduction focussing on the spiritual themes underlying the apothegms, and each of the selections from the ten works is preceded by an introduction to that work. The English translation is fluid and lively, as is seen in the following apothegm from St Antony:

“The abbot Pambo asked the abbot Antony, saying, “What shall I do?” And the old man made answer, “Be not confident of thine own righteousness; grieve not over a thing that is past; and be continent of thy tongue and of thy belly.”” [Waddell, 1962:80]

Waddell’s work lacks an index or a bibliography but, in one of the many available small paperback editions, it is a work eminently suitable for keeping by the bedside, no less than carrying in the briefcase, as a constant source of interest and inspiration.
desert mothers
Laura Swan’s “The Forgotten Desert Mothers. Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women” (2001) is an engaging, if also challenging introduction to what has for too long been a gap in the understanding of early Christian spirituality: the role of women, and the nature of women’s spirituality in the early Church. The author is a Benedictine nun, and Prioress of a Benedictine monastery in the northwest USA. Swan provides a useful introduction to “The World of the Desert Mothers” and “Desert Spirituality” which she describes thus:

“Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity – simplicity grounded in the possession of little – and the abundance of God’s presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to the deepening of this relationship. Obstacles included unhelpful attitudes and motives, thoughts that stalled their pursuit of God, and emotional ties that complicated their inner journeys.” [Swan, 2001:21]

Swan provides brief lives and examples (where these exist) of apothegms from the Desert Mothers, together with a survey of the “Lesser Known Desert Mothers”, and an overview of the role of Deaconesses in the Early Church. Her definition of Desert Mother is broad, and she cites examples from outside Egypt and the Middle East, including Mothers from France and Italy. Her quotations from the Mothers are interesting and inspiring, as is shown in an example of an apothegm from Amma Theodora:

“The same Amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vainglory, and pride. A teacher should not be fooled by flattery, nor be blinded by gifts, conquered by the stomach, nor dominated by anger. A teacher should be patient, gentle, and humble as far as possible; successfully tested and without partisanship, full of concern and a lover of souls.” [Swan, 2001:67]

Swan also explores the role of community leaders in women’s’ monasticism in a chapter entitled “Mentors of the Monastic Way”. Her work concludes with a “Timeline of the Forgotten Desert Mothers”, and Appendix on the ancient Ordination Rite of Deacons and Deaconesses, a Glossary, “A Calendar of Feasts of Holy Women” and a bibliography. Unfortunately, the work lacks an index.
day to day lives
An excellent study of the lives of the Fathers and Mothers is Lucien Regnault’s “The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers” (1999) which, while a significantly scholarly work, is written in lively and stimulating style, probably indicative of the author’s enthusiasm for his subject, for more than forty years the focus of his research. Regnault is part of that community of scholars at the Abbey of Solesmes which has been devoted to the study of early Christian spirituality in general, and of the monks of the Near East in particular. Regnault provides a comprehensive study of what might be though of as the practicalities of desert life, without ever ignoring the underlying spiritual purpose. His chapters address habitat, clothing, diet, life in the cell, the roles of elders and disciples, the reception and influence of visitors and the activities by which the Fathers and Mothers occupied their time. His chapters on “Angels and Demons” and “The Desert Bestiary” provide a fascinating source of information on the natural and supernatural worlds within which Desert Spirituality developed. In the chapter on “The Wonders of God”, Regnault explores the miraculous elements in the life of the Desert Fathers and Mothers – predictions and revelations, apparitions and visions, miracles and healings. But he notes that “the humility of these anchorites was sorely tested by such miracles”:

“All of them knew well that such power doesn’t constitute holiness. Agathon put it, “The quick-tempered, even if he resurrects a dead person, is not pleasing to God.” And Abba Nesteros said to Cassian: “The sum of perfection and of beatitude doesn’t consist in doing wonders, but in the purity of charity.”” [Regnault, 1999:222]

Regnault concludes with an interesting comparative time-line of landmarks in “The Church and the World” and in monastic Egypt, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The only index is one of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and those who had contact with them.

This small (257 pp) paperback provides a lively, comprehensive introduction to the day-to-day lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, encouraging (through such small details as accounts of their use of bread and oil, lentils and chickpeas) a sense of familiarity with these remarkable men and women.
For those seeking to understand in greater depth the ascetical theology of the Fathers and Mothers, two remarkable and magnificent works should be studied: Burton-Christie’s “The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism” (1993) and Chitty’s “The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire” (1996). Both these works would be described by most readers as difficult; the labour required is truly repaid by the understanding and insight received.
desert a city

Luke the Younger, Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on June 25, 2014 by citydesert

June 27 is the commemoration of Saint Luke the Hermit.
Luke the Younger 1
“Our Venerable and God-bearing Father Luke the Younger, also Luke of Steiris, Luke of Steirion, Luke the New of Mount Stirion, Osios Loukas O Steiriotis, Luke the Wonderworker, Luke Thaumaturgus, or Luke of Hellas (896-953 AD) was a Byzantine saint of the tenth century AD, who founded the Monastery of Osios Loukas (Venerable Luke) on the slopes of the “great and godly mount of Helicon” between Delphi and Levadia, near the coast of the Gulf of Corinth in Boeotia, Greece. He was also one of the earliest saints to be seen levitating in prayer.
The principal source for Luke’s life is an anonymous Life written by a monk of Hosios Loukas who had been one of Luke’s followers. According to some, he reposed in the year 946; according to others, in 953 AD.
Saint Luke was born in 896 to pious parents who came from Aegina but were forced to settle on the Greek mainland due to Saracen raids. Luke was the third of the seven children of Stephen and Euphrosyne. From his earliest years, he showed a desire for a life of ascesis and contemplation usually only found in seasoned elders. He abstained from all flesh, cheese, eggs, and delicacies, drank only water, and kept a total fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. While herding cattle or tilling the family fields, he would often give away his food and even his clothing to the poor, returning home naked. He once gave away almost all the seed which was needed for planting in the fields. The Lord rewarded him for his charity, and the harvest gathered was greater than ever before.
When his father died, he abandoned farm work to devote himself entirely to prayer, making such progress that he was often witnessed by his mother lifted above the ground while praying.
As a child Luke tried twice to leave home to seek a solitary life of prayer. The first time, he attempted to withdraw to Thessaly, but was captured by soldiers lying in wait for escaped slaves and was returned home. The second time he had more success, meeting two monks journeying from Rome to Jerusalem who took him to a monastery in Athens where he received the small habit. At this point he was only fourteen years old (910 AD), and Luke’s mother who was very concerned for him, prayed for her son’s return. After seeing his mother in a dream, tearfully calling for her son, the abbot sent him home.
Luke the Younger 4
He returned home for four months, and then with his mother’s blessing he set out again upon the monastic life, going to a solitary place on a mountain called Ioannou (or Ioannitsa). Here there was a church dedicated to the holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, where he lived an ascetical life in constant prayer and fasting for seven years. The Life records with suspicious symmetry that during this time Luke received the great habit from two monks travelling from Jerusalem to Rome (presumably the same two from whom he had received the small habit on their outward journey). After this, St Luke redoubled his ascetic efforts, for which the Lord granted him the gift of foresight.
Luke’s fame spread and a number of miracles are ascribed to him during this period, such as revealing to two brothers the location of their dead father’s buried treasure. Numerous proofs of Luke’s holiness are also given, such as sleeping in a trench to remind himself of death, or being visited in a dream by an angel who let a hook down Luke’s mouth and “drew out a certain fleshly member therefrom”, freeing him from the temptations of the flesh.
After a seven years on Ioannou, the saint moved to Corinth because of an invasion of the Bulgarian emperor Symeon (which Luke had predicted). Hearing about a certain Stylite at Zemena (Gimenes) near Corinth, he went to see him, and remained for ten years to serve the ascetic with humility and obedience.
Afterwards, ca. 927 AD, the saint returned again to Mount Ioannou to build his own community and again pursue asceticism. Often he would be forced to move by the number of visitors who learned of his holiness, and came to him for prayer or a word of counsel or prophecy, no matter how secretly he tried to live. Luke drew so many followers that he found the distractions unbearable and decided to retreat further into the wilderness, with the blessing of his Elder Theophylactus. Three years later, however, Luke was displaced again, this time by a Magyar invasion.
Luke retreated with the local villagers to the nearby island of Ampelon. Once there, Luke found the desert island to be a suitable place to pursue his solitary ascetic life, and stayed for three years, enduring terrible thirsts. His sister would occasionally bring him some bread, but he gave much of it away to the needy or to passing sailors.
Eventually Luke’s disciples persuaded him to leave, and he returned to the mainland and settled for the remainder of his life in the far more amenable environment of the present Hosios Loukas, where he founded his hermitage ca. 946 AD in the area of Stiris (which may be a corruption of Soterion, or place of healing).
Here brethren gathered to the elder, and a small monastery grew up, the church of which was dedicated to the Great Martyr Barbara. Dwelling in the monastery, the saint performed many miracles, healing sicknesses of soul and of body.
Luke the Younger 5
Saint Luke fell ill in his seventh year at Stirion. Foreseeing his end, the saint confined himself in a cell and for three months prepared for his departure. When asked where he was to be buried, the monk replied, “Throw my body into a ravine to be eaten by wild beasts.” When the brethren begged him to change these instructions, he commanded them to bury his body on the spot where he lay. Embracing his disciples, he asked them to pray for him, prophesying that the place where he died would someday be the site of a great church and monastery. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he said, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!” and reposed in peace and joy. St Luke fell asleep in the Lord on February 7, 953.
Myrrh flowed from his holy relics, and many healings occurred. His tomb exuded a fragrant oil which was collected and burned in a lamp, and many miracles and healings were wrought at the tomb. The rumour that his relic worked miracles brought great numbers of believers to the monastery to be healed, and the original buildings gave way to more monumental structures. As the Saint had predicted, two churches and a monastery were built there, and the monastery of Hosios Loukas became a great place of pilgrimage, as it remains to this day.
Troparion of St Luke of Mount Stirion Tone 1
Let us firmly honour Luke the Godbearer with hymns and chants,
the glory of the faithful,
the boast of the righteous,
bright light of Stirion and its true inhabitant;
he brings near to Christ those who cry out in faith:
Glory to Him Who has strengthened thee;
Glory to Him Who has crowned thee;
Glory to Him Who through thee works healings for all.

Kontakion of St Luke of Mount Stirion Tone 8
God in ineffable judgment chose thee before thou wast fashioned according to His good pleasure;
He took thee from thy mother’s womb,
He sanctified thee as His servant.
As the Lover of mankind,
He guided thee to Himself,
before Whom thou dost now stand rejoicing,
O Luke.
Luke the Younger 2
“Hermit and wonder-worker whose solitary hermitage in Thessaly, Greece, became known as the Soterion, “the place of healing.” Luke tried to become a religious but was arrested as an escaped slave and imprisoned for a time. He finally became a hermit on Mount Joannitsa near Corinth. There he was revered for his holiness and miracles, which earned him the surname Thaumaturgus .”
Luke the Younger 3
“Saint Luke of Hellas was a native of the Greek village of Kastorion. The son of poor farmers, the saint from childhood had toiled much, working in the fields and shepherding the sheep. He was very obedient to his parents and very temperate in eating. He often gave his own food and clothing to the poor, for which he suffered reproach from his parents. He once gave away almost all the seed which was needed for planting in the fields. The Lord rewarded him for his charity, and the harvest gathered was greater than ever before.
As a child, he prayed fervently and often. His mother saw him more than once standing not on the ground, but in the air while he prayed.
After the death of his father, he left his mother and went to Athens, where he entered a monastery. But through the prayers of his mother, who was very concerned about him, the Lord returned him to his parental home in a miraculous manner. He spent four months there, then with his mother’s blessing he went to a solitary place on a mountain called Ioannou (or Ioannitsa). Here there was a church dedicated to the holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, where he lived an ascetical life in constant prayer and fasting. He was tonsured there by some Elders who were on pilgrimage. After this, St Luke redoubled his ascetic efforts, for which the Lord granted him the gift of foresight.
After a seven years on Ioannou, the saint moved to Corinth because of an invasion of the Bulgarian armies. Hearing about the exploits of a certain stylite at Patras, he went to see him, and remained for ten years to serve the ascetic with humility and obedience. Afterwards, the saint returned again to his native land and again began to pursue asceticism on Mount Ioannou.
The throngs of people flocking there disturbed his quietude, so with the blessing of his Elder Theophylactus, St Luke went with his disciple to a still more remote place at Kalamion. After three years, he settled on the desolate and arid island of Ampelon because of an invasion of the Turks. Steiris was another place of his ascetic efforts. Here brethren gathered to the monk, and a small monastery grew up, the church of which was dedicated to the Great Martyr Barbara. Dwelling in the monastery, the saint performed many miracles, healing sicknesses of soul and of body.
Foreseeing his end, the saint confined himself in a cell and for three months prepared for his departure. When asked where he was to be buried, the monk replied, “Throw my body into a ravine to be eaten by wild beasts.” When the brethren begged him to change these instructions, he commanded them to bury his body on the spot where he lay. Raising his eyes to heaven, he said, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!”
St Luke fell asleep in the Lord on February 7, 946. Later, a church was built over his tomb. Myrrh flowed from his holy relics, and many healings occurred.”
Crypt Hosios Loukas
“The tomb of Hosios Lukas in the crypt. Several other important members of the community are buried here. The church of Hosios Lukas is lower than the church of the Virgin, which forced the monks to build a crypt under the church to elevate the floor of the church to make it even with that of the church of the Virgin and also to support it. When the monks rededicated the first church to the Virgin, they dedicated the crypt to Saint Barbara.” (,

See also:

Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov

Posted in Uncategorized on June 25, 2014 by citydesert

The work of Mikhail Nesterov has previously featured on this site. But he warrants further attention for his attention to the solitary in the Russian Orthodox spiritual life.
nesterov 6
“Russian artist Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov (31 May 1862 – 18 October 1942) was born in Ufa into a merchant family. He received higher artistic education at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1877-1881 and 1884-1886), where his teachers were V.G. Perov, A.K. Savrasov, I.M. Pryanishnikov and the Academy of Arts (1881-1884), where he studied at P.P. Chistyakov. Mikhail Nesterov lived mainly in Moscow, and visited Western Europe, including France and Italy. He worked in Moscow (Abramtzevo Trinity-Sergius Lavra and their surroundings). Was a member of the “Association of the Wanderers.””
Nesterov 1
“Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov (Russian: Михаи́л Васи́льевич Не́стеров; 31 May [O.S. 19 May] 1862 – 18 October 1942) was a major representative of religious Symbolism in Russian art. He was a pupil of Pavel Tchistyakov at the Imperial Academy of Arts, but later allied himself with the group of artists known as the Peredvizhniki. His canvas “The Vision of the Youth Bartholomew” (1890–91), depicting the conversion of medieval Russian saint Sergii Radonezhsky, is often considered to be the earliest example of the Russian Symbolist style.
From 1890 to 1910, Nesterov lived in Kiev and St Petersburg, working on frescoes in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral and the Church on Spilt Blood, respectively. After 1910, he spent the remainder of his life in Moscow, working in the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent. As a devout Orthodox Christian, he did not accept the Bolshevik Revolution but remained in Russia until his death, painting the portraits of Ivan Ilyin, Ivan Pavlov, Ksenia Derzhinskaia, Otto Schmidt, and Vera Mukhina, among others.”
Nesterov 5
“Like many other famous Russian artists, Nesterov was born in the 19th century, on the 31st of May in the city of Ufa. In 1874, his parents sent him to Moscow to study at a technical college. There his skills as an artist caught the eye of K. Trutovsky, an artist of some renown at the time. Nesterov, at the recommendation of Trutovsky, was sent to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and later in 1881, the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.
From 1890 on to about 1910, Nesterov lived in Kiev and St. Petersburg where his talents led him to paint frescoes on local churches including the Cathedral of St. Vladimir. Prior to his work as a church painter, Nesterov had yet to find a suitable style of art that interested him. But his work as a painter convinced him to begin using Christian themes in his art. This interest in religious themes would eventually define Nesterov’s style as an artist.
Nesterov 2
But religion alone did not inspire him, the death of his wife Olga, whom he had married a year earlier in 1885, had given Nesterov a reason to add emotion into his works. From then on the artist spent the remainder of his life in Moscow, occasionally taking trips to Italy or France or with the Peredvizhniki, a renowned society of artists that he was a member of.
The October Revolution had brought great setbacks to his work. Being a devout Christian, Nesterov did not support the October Revolution. Because of the newly-established communist government, which was largely atheistic, Nesterov was not able to continue painting works containing Christian themes in fear of the consequences that would follow. During this time until his death on October 18, 1942, Nesterov made few works, with most of them being portraits of various individuals.
Nesterov 3
But among such artists as Repin, Vasnetsov and Vereschagin, one cannot deny that Nesterov’s art, where his visualization of folklore and poetry through traditional Russian/Christian imagery has a special place among the Russian art world, undoubtable making him one of the best examples the Russian symbolist idea had to offer.”
Nesterov 4

Confession, Guidance, Counselling

Posted in Uncategorized on June 21, 2014 by citydesert

Most Orthodox clergy appear to believe that they have been, by virtue of ordination alone, endowed with the competencies necessary for hearing Confession, giving Spiritual Direction and offering Pastoral Counselling. This is about as rational as assuming that they have also been endowed with the competencies necessary for medicine and law. Many of us know of cases – ranging from the mildly inappropriate to the unbelievably tragic – in which “the assumption of competence” has resulted in disaster.
The distinctions between hearing Confessions, offering Spiritual Direction (a term – “Direction” – I loathe, and prefer “Spiritual Guidance”) and Pastoral Counselling is not easy to define, so I offer my own simple (simplistic?) definitions. Hearing Confession is essentially that – although in Orthodox Tradition, it is radically different from the Western model. It is intended to be a “Spiritual Conversation”, not merely the hearing of a recitation of sins (“I lied three times, felt lust twice, and stole once…”). It is intended to be more of a part of Spiritual Guidance, which is why it is preferable that a person retains the same Confessor. What is generally known as “Spiritual Direction” is ongoing advice regarding the leading of the Orthodox spiritual life. Therefore, an individual really needs to retain the same “Director” (remember: a term that I loathe and think is completely wrong!), who should, ideally, also be that person’s Confessor. Pastoral Counselling is very much like Counselling or Psychotherapy more generally, except that it is based in Orthodox Spirituality: it addresses specific issues or crises in the individual’s life, whether immediate or ongoing. Ideally, the same person would serve as Confessor, Spiritual Director and Pastoral Counsellor, but there are circumstances in which a separation can be helpful, or even necessary.
spiritual direction
In my view, those who work in these fields require a good basic knowledge of a range of theories and practices in counselling and psychotherapy; a sound knowledge of Patristic psychology and Orthodox psychotherapy; a sound knowledge of Orthodox ascetical theology and practice; a high level of personal insight (for example, to distinguish between “my opinion”, what is in the interests of the individual, and what is the teaching and practice of the Church); and a stable spiritual life. To which should be added a good basic knowledge of appropriate agencies to which individuals may need to be referred (for example, for drug and/or alcohol counselling) and a high level of skills in making such referrals. And then a good working knowledge of the Orthodox Canons and their application (for example, in cases of marriage and divorce). To which must be added the highest understanding and commitment to sound ethical, Canonical and spiritual practice (for example, not creating or allowing dependence, or engaging in coercion or manipulation, or breaching confidentiality) and an established reputation for unconditionally upholding such standards of practice.
spiritual direction early church
As more people outside Orthodoxy seek to find appropriate spiritual guidance and counselling, so more professional bodies are being established to offer guidance and define standards: for example, Spiritual Directors International – or The Australian Network for Spiritual Direction – or (somewhat surprisingly) The Evangelical Spiritual Directors’ Association – It is possible to undertake professional qualifications in the field: for example the Graduate Diploma in Spiritual Direction offered in Australia –
Unfortunately, within Orthodoxy standards tend to be less than optimal, although some Churches have sought or are seeking to remedy this. The Antiochian Orthodox Church publishes a good guide, “The Spiritual Director: A Guide and Mentor”: Another useful resource is which includes a bibliography and further links. An excellent, and very substantial resource (intended for a course on “Models of Spiritual Direction, Ancient and Modern”) is

Whenever we intrude into the life of another – let alone into that person’s spiritual life – whether as social worker, counsellor, psychotherapist, mediator, Priest or judge (and I have played all of those roles) – we should do so with “fear and trembling” and a great sense of our personal inadequacy and responsibility. We have, alas, as much power to harm as we do to heal.

Brother Rex of the Little Portion Hermitage

Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 by citydesert

Sarah Reinhard of “The National Catholic Register” interviewed Brother Rex of the Little Portion Hermitage. Brother Rex has been featured on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” (he came to the Church from a Presbyterian and Episcopalian background), and his story has been covered by a number of Catholic bloggers.
What does it mean to be a hermit in 21st-century America?
Every baptized Christian has a vocation, a calling. Each of us is called by God to a particular way of life that God uses as he sees fit to share himself with the world. The hermit’s life is one such calling.
Through separation from the everyday hustle and bustle of 21st-century American life, the hermit enters more deeply into the spiritual desert that is our culture of death. In the desert, the hermit does spiritual combat with the forces of evil that threaten to overwhelm the world as a whole and American culture in particular. Like every vocation in the Church, the vocation of the hermit is to shine the light of Christ into the darkness that cannot overcome it.
All the above being said, it is still true that the Christian life is above all one of everlasting joy. We of all people should know that Christ has won the victory over sin and death. We of all people should know that the battle against the “powers and principalities of the air” (Ephesians 6:12) — in which each of us is engaged on a personal level and together as the Body of Christ — will not go on forever. And since this is the case, perhaps it falls to the hermit to witness in a very particular way to the joy that comes from knowing that, in the end, God wins — and, in the meantime, Christ alone suffices.

How do you live?
To all outward appearances, the life of the hermit looks very much like any other life. The hermit has bills to pay, meals to prepare, dishes to clean, laundry to wash and fold, a living space to keep clean, and so on.
There are two added dimensions to my life. First, there are the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are vows which I made before my diocesan bishop in the presence of the parish community.
Second, there is my “Rule of Life.” The Rule of Life, approved by the bishop who received my vows, governs my prayer life: adoration, Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, the clothing I wear, the time I spend outside the hermitage, etc.

Is this even possible with the Internet?
So long as the Internet is used as a tool to be used wisely, it proves no hindrance to life as a hermit. For instance, I receive prayer requests from all over the world via the Internet.
In addition to the ministry of intercessory prayer, I am a part of the ministry team of the Coming Home Network International. The Coming Home Network is an apostolate founded by Marcus Grodi to assist non-Catholic clergy and laity who are making or are considering making the journey home to the Catholic Church. My part in the Coming Home apostolate is to provide prayer support and/or spiritual direction for women and men on their journey home to the Catholic Church who desire help.
Given the nature of my vocation to the silence of solitude, I must be ever vigilant that the Internet does not become a distraction, rather than an aid, to my ministry of prayer and spiritual direction.

Why did you choose this lifestyle?
I am not sure why God chose me for this life. For a number of years, I was more or less content with my life and with my career as a professional firefighter. I had even toyed with the idea of becoming an ordained minister (I am a convert to the Catholic faith). I just kept saying Yes to what I perceived as the next right thing in front of me; one thing led to another, and here I am, living a life in Christ, the depth and beauty of which I could never have dreamed possible.
And it is all pure gift. All that I have (except my sinfulness) is because of God’s grace — every last bit of it.

What’s important about the life you’ve chosen?
I have a quote tagged to the end of my emails that reads: “Live to be forgotten, that Christ might be remembered.” It is how I want to live my vocation as a hermit, though my pride and ego often lure me into bringing more notice to myself than to Christ.
Perhaps one of the important things about the hermit’s vocation is to remind people that while each of us is beloved of God and will be remembered by him for all eternity, it is equally true that our vocation as a disciple of Jesus is to be forgotten, that Christ might be remembered.
Another important aspect of this vocation I have accepted as pure gift is to witness to the importance of praying for the glory of God, the good of his Church and the salvation of souls.

For those of us who are not called to a hermitage, what advice do you have? How can we use your example to inspire us?
As I said above, the importance of prayer in the life of a Christian cannot be overemphasized. We cannot have a relationship with Someone to whom we do not listen or to whom we do not speak. In the case of a Christian, there is no more important relationship than the one we have with the Blessed Trinity.
To pray is to listen and to speak to the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), the One who lives and moves in us (John 14:20). One need not live alone in a hermitage to pray well or to pray often, so my first bit of advice is to make prayer a priority in your life.
Secondly, try to take time each day to be silent and sit quietly. If you have a family with small children, you will need to be creative as to how and when you can be alone and sit quietly, but try it.
God speaks through the people and events in our day-to-day lives. This is true. But he often speaks most profoundly in silence: There are things he would say to us; things he would do in us; things he should do through us — if only we would sit quietly and in silence.
Maybe you have only five minutes. Give those five minutes to God in the silence of solitude. God will not disappoint.

Read more:

For The Little Portion Hermitage, see:
brother rex tv
A transcript of the interview with Brother Rex on EWTN’s “The Journey Home”can be found at:

Alban, Protomartyr of Britain

Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 by citydesert

June 22 is the commemoration of Saint Alban is venerated as the first English martyr.
alban 1
Along with his fellow saints Amphibalus, Julius and Aaron, Alban is one of four named martyrs remembered from Roman Britain. He was martyred by beheading in the Roman city of Verulamium (modern St. Alban’s Cathedral) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there since ancient times.
“St. Alban was the first martyr of England, his own country (homeland). During a persecution of Christians, Alban, though a pagan, hid a priest in his house. The priest made such a great impression on him that Alban received instructions and became a Christian himself.
In the meantime, the governor had been told that the priest was hiding in Alban’s house, and he sent his soldiers to capture him. But Alban changed clothes with his guest, and gave himself up in his stead. The judge was furious when he found out that the priest had escaped and he said to Alban, “You shall get the punishment he was to get unless you worship the gods.” The Saint answered that he would never worship those false gods again. “To what family do you belong?” demanded the judge. “That does not concern you,” said Alban. “If you want to know my religion, I am a Christian.” Angrily the judge commanded him again to sacrifice to the gods at once. “Your sacrifices are offered to devils,” answered the Saint. “They cannot help you or answer your requests. The reward for such sacrifices is the everlasting punishment of Hell.”
Since he was getting nowhere, the judge had Alban whipped. Then he commanded him to be beheaded. On the way to the place of execution, the soldier who was to kill the Saint was converted himself, and he too, became a martyr.
Alban martyred
Troparion (Tone 4)

In his struggle your holy martyr Alban,
Gained the crown of life, O Christ our God.
For strengthened by you and in purity of heart,
He spoke boldly before the judges of this world,
Offering up his head to you, the Judge of all!
alban 2
See also:


Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 by citydesert

Neurotheology? “The neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences.”
brain religion
As more research is undertaken using modern and increasingly sophisticated “brain scan” technology, new frontiers are being explored, including in the new field of neurotheology.

An excellent article to introduce the topic is “This is your brain on religion: Uncovering the science of belief” excerpted from “We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, From the Womb to Alzheimer’s” by D. F. Swaab [Spiegel & Grau, 2014] an imprint of Random House:
we are our brains
“Spiritual experiences cause changes in brain activity, which is logical and neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. After all, everything we do, think, and experience provokes such changes. Findings of this kind merely increase our understanding of the various brain structures and systems that play a role in both “normal” religious experiences and the type of religious experience that is a symptom of certain neurological or psychiatric disorders.”
we-are-our-brains 2
“In this no.1 Dutch bestseller, renowned neuroscientist Dick Swaab presents a biography of the human brain, from infancy to adulthood to old age, revealing how our most mysterious organ predetermines nearly everything about us. Drawing on a half century of his own groundbreaking research, Swaab shows that everything we think, do, and refrain from doing is determined by our brain. In other words, we don’t just have brains; we are our brains.
Swaab takes us on a guided tour of the intricate inner workings that determine our potential, our limitations, our desires and our characters, providing a vivid cross-section of what makes us human. Each chapter serves as an eye-opening window on a different brain stage: the gender differences that develop in the embryonic brain; what goes on in the heads of adolescents; how parenthood permanently changes the brain; the breakdown that leads to Alzheimer’s and other conditions.”
our religious brains
See also “Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God” by Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenberger [Jewish Lights; 2012]

See “This is your brain on religion: Uncovering the science of belief”

“Emerging research suggests that generalized religious belief involves cognitive activity that can be mapped to specific brain regions. Now, a new study has found that causal, directional connections between these brain networks can be linked to differences in religious thought. The concept that our belief in religion is associated with the manner in which our brain is wired is an extension of neuroscience research identifying the flow of information within the brain….Researchers from the National Institute on Aging and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, analyzed data collected from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies to evaluate the flow of brain activity when religious and non-religious individuals discussed their religious beliefs.”

See also: