Archive for October, 2015

Barefoot in the Desert of Munich

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2015 by citydesert

“Can God be found on the streets of Munich? Munich, of all places, a city of wealth, pride and power with its designer stores and business headquarters?
It was Father Christian Herwartz SJ who encouraged us, a group of men from all over Germany, to believe just that. He had practiced ‘Street Exercises’ in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood in Berlin famous for its rebellious spirit. So we met in St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, slept on the balcony of the sanctuary, met for breakfast and prayer in the mornings and then set off individually into the bustle and noise of the streets.

Cities are the deserts of the 21st century. Brick and concrete walls radiate the loneliness that pervades these places, just as the rocks and sand did when the desert fathers moved away from the centers of worldly Christianity to find God afresh.

There are no strict rules to follow during street exercises. Our biblical guideline was Moses in the book of Exodus who went beyond where he had been before (the grassland) to encounter a burning bush and the voice of Israel’s God who tells him to take off his shoes. In the same way, we went to places where you would not go if you came as a tourist or on some sort of business. The leaders handed us a list of places like soup kitchens, accommodations for refugees, food banks, AIDS care, mosques and Buddhist centers and Jewish places. But walking around, taking random turns was just as good, or asking locals where they thought God would be found. This, Christian made clear, was not a project to be executed and completed.

Late in the afternoon we would return from our journeys to celebrate the eucharist and share a meal together. Afterwards, we gathered in groups of five or six to tell our stories: places we had seen, people we had met, fears, anger and longings we had felt, and their echoes in our spirit. Most of the time, this was the moment when things started to make sense to me.

One day, I passed through the Glockenbach Quarter when I saw a surprisingly inconspicuous sign pointing to a bailiff’s office. I followed into the third courtyard, retreating from the sounds of cars and trams for a few moments. I climbed the staircase and sat down in the dark imagining the conversations going on behind the glass door: People in embarrassing debt, families struggling with increasing costs for living and housing, the ubiquitous appeals to spend more money I had seen on the billboards and in the shop windows. A couple with a baby came out, seemingly agitated as they descended to street level. Obviously, bailiffs do not need to advertise. The system creates the demand for their services automatically. Taking off my shoes, I had learned, means to allow myself to be touched by the pain and confusion or whatever is there.
In his wisdom Christian had asked the group to watch out for our anger. Whatever upsets me, has the potential to reveal my desires – the deeper intuitions of how life is supposed to be. I discovered a yearning for a place free from the pressure to move faster, speak louder, satisfy every appetite or be more productive. Just as Moses needed a name for God, we turned our insights of the day into a name for him. My words were ‘You, who created beauty, who becomes human like myself and takes me to a place where I can play and breathe freely’. It turned out to be the secret rhythm for the rest of the week.

Unlike some others in the group, I was not drawn to any of the church buildings that Munich is littered with and who share in the city’s preference for a slightly monstrous architecture. Most of them looked like oversized clothes that no longer fit their owner – like an old skin that a reptile has shed and left behind, like the imprint of some weighty object that is no longer there. Congregations nowadays rarely fill the space inside. Maintaining (or even heating) the building absorbs massive amounts of energy. I was reminded of the tower of Babel that was built because people were afraid of their insignificance and smallness. Perhaps some theologies of sacred spaces are just that: evidence of our inability to discover God in this chaotic, diverse, restless and sometimes antagonistic world?

I sat down on a bench surrounded by beech trees that seemed like pillars of a green cathedral, the cool October winds passing between them: Open skies, no walls, inhabited by a multitude of living creatures that move and sing and breed new life.
In our evening conversations we realized that every now and then we had been talking to angels. Not in the metaphysical sense of the word (at least they seemed to be real people of flesh and blood) but in the biblical sense of a divine messenger. Like someone stumbling onto a movie set with no idea of the screenplay saying something and disappearing without waiting for our response but giving a new and unexpected twist to the story, perhaps even pointing to a theme that lies still in the future. So the movie director decides to keep the unintended footage and includes it in the story. Similarly, several of us felt that they met strangers who spoke truth to us without even knowing what their words would mean in the context of our particular quest…

As Christian activists, most of us had to resist the occasional urge to launch social projects among the strangers, homeless or alcoholics or any other group with visible, tangible needs. Only then we discovered how they had become our neighbors, sharing whatever they had, gracefully allowing us to come out of our position (and posture) as the socially privileged. Much to my surprise, there had not been a single moment when I had not felt perfectly safe during that whole week.

Our evening conversations were full of laughter and tears. Looking at each other’s faces and body language we could see the changes that had happened. We shared some of our stories with the congregants of St. Martin on Sunday morning that ended our time together. I left with a deep sense of divine presence, infused with hope, breathing freely.

God, I have learned, can find me even in a place like Munich, if I adopt a contemplative view of life. As Richard Rohr once wrote, contemplation ‘…keeps the field open; it remains vulnerable before the moment, the event, or the person – before it divides and trees to conquer or control it. Contemplation refuses to create dichotomies, dividing the field for the sake of the quick comfort of their ego.’ [Richard Rohr “The Naked Now. Learning to See as the Mystics See” 2009:32]
Looking back, I wonder what church would look like if we would stop treating it as a project; if we would stop trying to fix people to make them like us (so that we feel better about ourselves?); if we would stop to hide behind our ancient – or even fairly modern – walls and routines; if we walked our streets ‘barefoot’ – with receptive hearts, discerning and welcoming whatever God sends our way?”

From Peter Aschoff “Barefoot in Munich” “Journal of Missional Practice” (2015) at


Backpacking with the Saints

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2015 by citydesert

Belden C. Lane “Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice” [Oxford University Press, 2014]
“Carrying only basic camping equipment and a collection of the world’s great spiritual writings, Belden C. Lane embarks on solitary spiritual treks through the Ozarks and across the American Southwest. For companions, he has only such teachers as Rumi, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Dag Hammarskjöld, and Thomas Merton, and as he walks, he engages their writings with the natural wonders he encounters–Bell Mountain Wilderness with Søren Kierkegaard, Moonshine Hollow with Thich Nhat Hanh–demonstrating how being alone in the wild opens a rare view onto one’s interior landscape, and how the saints’ writings reveal the divine in nature.

The discipline of backpacking, Lane shows, is a metaphor for a spiritual journey. Just as the wilderness offered revelations to the early Desert Christians, backpacking hones crucial spiritual skills: paying attention, traveling light, practicing silence, and exercising wonder. Lane engages the practice not only with a wide range of spiritual writings–Celtic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi Muslim–but with the fascination of other lovers of the backcountry, from John Muir and Ed Abbey to Bill Plotkin and Cheryl Strayed. In this intimate and down-to-earth narrative, backpacking is shown to be a spiritual practice that allows the discovery of God amidst the beauty and unexpected terrors of nature. Adoration, Lane suggests, is the most appropriate human response to what we cannot explain, but have nonetheless learned to love.

An enchanting narrative for Christians of all denominations, “Backpacking with the Saints” is an inspiring exploration of how solitude, simplicity, and mindfulness are illuminated and encouraged by the discipline of backcountry wandering, and of how the wilderness itself becomes a way of knowing-an ecology of the soul.”

See: Simon Worrall “How Backpacking Can Put You in Touch With Your Inner Saint” in “National Geographic”:
“What is it about backpacking that makes it a “spiritual practice”?
There’s a sense of being taken to the edge. I have to draw on resources I didn’t know I had. Maybe most importantly, my ego gets challenged. It makes me hungry for a beauty I cannot control. It teaches me to travel light. There’s something wonderful about the idea that all you really need is what you can carry on your back like a turtle, both in terms of actual essentials and in terms of letting go of things in your life that you need to release.
The trail also teaches me a sense of mindfulness, as the Buddhists would call it. You’ve got to pay attention to the weather, you’ve got to pay attention to blisters and places where you may be hiking or camping for the night. But the most important thing for me is silence and solitude.
One of your sources of inspiration is the “wilderness spirituality” of the early Desert Christians. Who were these people?
They were a fascinating group of men and women. They lived in the fourth century A.D., when Constantine had made Christianity not only legal but also the most powerful religion in the Roman Empire. A lot of Christians started to do well and become very wealthy. As a result, they lost their original vitality. So the Desert Christians went into the desert of Egypt, southern Palestine, and Syria to live a simpler life and practice the teachings of Jesus with a greater authenticity. I use the wilderness spirituality of the Desert Fathers as a pattern for the various narratives that I weave in the book.”

Belden Lane is also the author of:

“The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (2007)
“In the tradition of Kathleen Norris, Terry Tempest Williams, and Thomas Merton, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” explores the impulse that has drawn seekers into the wilderness for centuries and offers eloquent testimony to the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference.
Interweaving a memoir of his mother’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer, meditations on his own wilderness experience, and illuminating commentary on the Christian via negativa–a mystical tradition that seeks God in the silence beyond language–Lane rejects the easy affirmations of pop spirituality for the harsher but more profound truths that wilderness can teach us. “There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokeness we find within.” It is this apparent paradox that lies at the heart of this remarkable book: that inhuman landscapes should be the source of spiritual comfort. Lane shows that the very indifference of the wilderness can release us from the demands of the endlessly anxious ego, teach us to ignore the inessential in our own lives, and enable us to transcend the “false self” that is ever-obsessed with managing impressions. Drawing upon the wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Simone Weil, Edward Abbey, and many other Christian and non-Christian writers, Lane also demonstrates how those of us cut off from the wilderness might “make some desert” in our lives.
Written with vivid intelligence, narrative ease, and a gracefulness that is itself a comfort, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” gives us not only a description but a “performance” of an ancient and increasingly relevant spiritual tradition.

“Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality” (2001)
“This substantially expanded edition of Belden C. Lane’s “Landscapes of the Sacred” includes a new introductory chapter that offers three new interpretive models for understanding American sacred space. Lane maintains his approach of interspersing shorter and more personal pieces among full-length essays that explore how Native American, early French and Spanish, Puritan New England, and Catholic Worker traditions has each expressed the connection between spirituality and place. A new section at the end of the book includes three chapters that address methodological issues in the study of spirituality, the symbol-making process of religious experience, and the tension between place and placelessness in Christian spirituality.”

Belden C. Lane is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches on a Jesuit faculty at Saint Louis University. His interests include the relationship between geography and faith, wilderness backpacking in the Ozarks, the magic of storytelling, desert spirituality, exposing students to urban poverty through the Catholic Worker community, and the poetry of Rumi. He also works with men, helping to lead initiation rites through Richard Rohr’s program for Men as Learners and Elders in Albuquerque. Some time ago he found himself delightfully introduced as a Presbyterian minister teaching at a Roman Catholic university telling Jewish stories at the Vedanta Society.

Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on the Solitaries

Posted in Uncategorized on October 30, 2015 by citydesert

“Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on the Solitaries”
Edited and Translated by Morgan Reed & Colby A. Scott
(Texts from Christian Late Antiquity ) [Gorgias Press, 2015]
“Recognized as a saint by both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians alike, Jacob of Sarug (d. 521) produced many narrative poems that have rarely been translated into English. Of his reported 760 metrical homilies, only about half survive. Part of a series of fascicles containing the bilingual Syriac-English editions of Saint Jacob of Sarug’s homilies, this volume contains his two homilies on the Solitaries. Jacob’s pastoral concern and rhetorical acumen have appropriately earned him the title “the lyre of the Holy Spirit”. This volume presents Jacob’s admonitions to those living a life of consecrated singleness to God. The Syriac text is fully vocalized, and the translation is annotated with a commentary and biblical references. The volume is one of the fascicles of Gorgias Press’s “The Metrical Homilies of Mar Jacob of Sarug”, which, when complete, will contain all of Jacob’s surviving sermons.”

“Jacob of Serugh (Syriac: ܝܥܩܘܒ ܣܪܘܓܝܐ, Yaʿqûḇ Srûḡāyâ; his toponym is also spelled Serug or Sarug; c. 451 – 29 November 521), also called Mar Jacob, was one of the foremost Syriac poet-theologians among the Syriac, perhaps only second in stature to Ephrem the Syrian and equal to Narsai. Where his predecessor Ephrem is known as the ‘Harp of the Spirit’, Jacob is the ‘Flute of the Spirit’. He is best known for his prodigious corpus of more than seven-hundred verse homilies, or mêmrê (ܡܐܡܖ̈ܐ), of which only 225 have thus far been edited and published.”

See also:

The Northern Thebaid — The Russian “Desert”

Posted in Uncategorized on October 29, 2015 by citydesert

“What Orthodox Christian is not exalted in heart and mind at the thought of the Egyptian Thebaid — the place of struggle of the great St. Anthony, first among monastic Fathers and model of the anchoretic life; of St. Pachomius, the coenobiarch, who received the monastic rule of the common life from an Angel; and of the thousands of monks and nuns who followed them and made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving towards the heavens in the Angelic way of life?
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Few, however, are those who know of Orthodox Northern Thebaid — the Russian “desert” of the forested, marshy North — where no fewer thousands of monks and nuns sought out their salvation in the footsteps of the great monastic Fathers of more recent times: St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Cyril of White Lake, St. Nilus of Sora, and hundreds of others whose names have been entered in the Calendar of Orthodox Saints.
Little has been published in English about these saints, and most of what has appeared thus far is of little value. No work in English has even been attempted to present the Orthodox monastic tradition which inspired and formed the great Russian Fathers. Indeed, the Russian religious intelligentsia of the Diaspora has been largely at fault for spreading false ideas about these Saints and their tradition. The most accessible works on Russian Saints in English [those of Fedotov and de Grunwald] are so filled with inaccuracies and distortions, with a Roman Catholic terminology totally foreign to Orthodoxy, and with an astonishingly fanciful notion of Orthodoxy, sanctity, and monasticism — as to be more a hindrance than a help to the serious student of the Russian monastic tradition.

One Orthodox scholar of the Russian Diaspora — Ivan Michailovich Kontzevich [†1965] — devoted his life to a serious study of the Orthodox spiritual tradition.
Unlike the Westernized Russian intelligencia, he was not an “academic” scholar, but proceeded rather from the living Orthodox tradition. Even while living in the Diaspora in the 1920’s, he continued to receive spiritual guidance from Elder Nectarius of Optina, and to mold his life and thought , not on the heterodox “wisdom” of the West, but on the age-old tradition of Holy Russia. Having acquired a theological education, he planned to write [in Russian] a trilogy of works on this tradition.
The first, on the spiritual tradition of ancient Russia, before Peter I [“The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, Paris 1952]; the second on Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky [which was never completed]; and the third, on the Optina Elders [“Optina Monastery and It’s Epoch”, published posthumously by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, N.Y., 1973].

The present work, which was inspired by Professor Kontzevitch, is a kind of “source book” in English for the first volume of his trilogy in Russian on ancient Russia, and utilizes above all two of his key ideas regarding the Orthodox spiritual tradition: [1] that the Lives of the Saints are the chief source of our knowledge of the Russian spiritual tradition of this period,and a careful examination of them will give a clear idea of this tradition to one who is well versed in the phenomena and the vocabulary of true Orthodox spirituality; and [2] that it is evident — as a result of such an examination — that the Russian spiritual tradition is not at all something “uniquely Russian,” or something novel in Orthodox history, but is identical in essence with the whole Byzantine tradition of spirituality, which in its monastic formulation comes down to us from the Fathers of the Egyptian desert. Indeed, the Orthodox reader of these Lives — which have been taken from sources in Russian and Slavonic as close to the original Lives as possible — will find that they breathe the same spiritual fragrance as the Lives of the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert, and have the same signs of true Orthodox monastic life: the “mental activity” of the Jesus Prayer, spiritual guidance by Elders, “revelation of thoughts” to the Elder, spiritual labors joined with love of neighbor. The Introduction by Professor Kontzevitch consists of excerpts from his book, “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, referring to the period of the “Northern Thebaid” — the great spiritual current which proceeds from St. Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century [and behind him, from Byzantine Hesychasm] to the end of the 17th century, when Russia, although outwardly in spiritual decline, was preparing its forces for a spiritual current which has come down to our own times — that of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky and the great Elders of the 18th century to the 20th centuries.
It was in the mid-19th century that a pious Orthodox Russian, Andrew Muraviev, undertook a pilgrimage to the almost-forgotten monasteries of the North and brought them back to olive for the readers of his book, giving the whole region the name by which we now know it. At that time most of these monasteries still existed.
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Today, however, these monasteries have been closed and destroyed, and most of them removed from the face of the earth. Why speak of them any more, and give the Lives of their founders and the history of their monastic tradition, as we attempt to do in these pages — and that not merely as an example of dead history, but of living tradition, as is our definite intention? While these Lives were being printed separately in “The Orthodox Word”, one of the leading modernists “Orthodox theologians” chastised in print “those who call to non-existent deserts,” evidently regarding such Lives as an appeal to a religious “romanticism” and idealism totally out of step with contemporary conditions of life. Why, indeed, should we inspire today’s Orthodox youth with the call of the “Northern Thebaid,” which has in it something more attractive and somehow more accessible for a 20th-century zealot than the barren desert of Egypt?

First of all, the monastic life here described has not entirely disappeared from the earth; it is still possible to find Orthodox monastic communities which teach the spiritual doctrine of the Holy Fathers, and to lead the Orthodox monastic life even in the 20th century — with constant self-reproach over how far one falls short of the Lives of the ancient Fathers in these times. True Orthodox Christians have preserved the living monastic tradition of Holy Russia and are linked directly to Optina, Valaam, St. Seraphim’s Diveyevo, St. Job’s Pochaev, Lesna, and of course to the monastic citadels of the Holy Land and the Holy Mountian of Athos. The wise seeker can find his “desert” even in our barren 20th century.
Monks of Optina Monastery Image 2
But this book is not intended only for such fortunate ones.

Every Orthodox Christian should know the Lives of the Fathers of the desert, which together with the Lives of the Martyrs gives us the model for our own life of Christian struggle. Even so, every Orthodox Christian should know of Valaam, of Solovki, of Svir, of Siya and Obnora and White Lake, of the Skete of Sora, and of the Angel-like men who dwelt there before being translated to heaven, living the Orthodox spiritual life to which every Orthodolx Christian is called, according to his strength and the conditions of his life. Every Orthodox Christian should be inspired by their life of struggle far from the ways of the world. There is no “romanticism” here. The actual “romantics” of out time are the reformers of “Parisian Orthodoxy” who, disparaging the authentic Orthodox tradition, wish to “sanctify the world,” to replace the authentic Orthodox world -view with a this-worldly counterfeit of it based on modern Western thought. The spiritual life of the true monastic tradition is the norm of our Christian life, and we are called to account for our lax life. We shall not be judged for our ignorance of the vocabulary of contemporary “Orthodox theology,” but we shall surely be judged for not struggling on the path of salvation. If we do not live like these Saints, then let us at least increase our far-too-feeble struggles for God, and offer our fervent tears of repentance and our constant self-reproach at falling so shot of the standard of perfection which God has shown us in His wondrous Saints.”…

The great monastic movement which began with St. Sergius, the great Abba of the Northern Thebaid, came to an end with the conclusion of the 17th century. New historical conditions — chiefly the Old Believer schism and the Westernizing reforms of Peter I — made no longer possible that harmony between the ascetic fervor of the best sons and daughters of Russia, and the profound piety of the believing Russian people, which led to the creation of innumerable new monasteries and convents under the inspiration of the Byzantine monastic ideal. We have seen, indeed, that the end of the period of the Northern Thebaid is one of decline — but it is a decline only by comparison with the astonishing monastic blossoming of the 14th to 16th centuries; by comparison with almost any other Orthodox land or period, the 17th century Russian monastic movement would have to be called a flourishing one that produced at least 45 canonized Saints [and many were never canonized owing to 18th century conditions] and a large number of new monasteries.

At the end of the 18th century, a new great epoch of monasticism began with the great Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, the Abba of a new monastic movement whose current has not entirely died out even in our times. That must be the subject of another book.
What, then, of the 18th century itself? Was the true monastic tradition dead in Russia? Did Peter and Catherine actually destroy monasticism, as has sometimes been said? The answers to these questions will do much to illuminate not only the continuity of the monastic tradition in Russia, but also the condition of Orthodox monasticism in the 19th century, and even today.

Some of the decrees of Peter I regarding monasticism to be sure, were directed against abusers in an institution which at that time had become very large and,in places where the monastic rule and spirit were not carefully preserved, there were unquestionably disorders which needed regulation. But several of the decrees were directed against the free existence of monasteries, and they smothered the very spirit of monasticism. Thus, in 1703 Peter forbade the building of new monasteries; a decree of 1724 turned monasteries into refuges for sick soldiers; and in 1734 it was forbidden to tonsure anyone except widowed priests and retired soldiers. Finally, under Catherine, in 1764, the Government appropriated monastic property altogether and assigned a monetary salary to the monastic clergy; of the 953 monasteries then existing, 568 were closed entirely and 160 more were left totally without income; and “quotas” we reestablished of the number of monks allowed in each monastery. It can be imagined what a blow these reforms gave to Russian monasticism: what room was there for desert-loving fervor in State-supported and supervised institutions whose abbots were often transferred and too often had the function of administrators rather than spiritual fathers?

But the aims of the Westernizing rules were not achieved: the monastic spirit, still very much alive in all classes of Russian society, was not snuffed out. Desert-loving monks and nuns simply went again to the desert, whether in Russia of outside her borders, avoiding the “established” monasteries; new communities were established, despite the laws; and there rose up a number of powerful monastic leaders, new Abbas of Holy Russia, who were not afraid to defy the authorities in order to preserve the free monastic spirit, and who sometimes endured a trial hitherto unknown in the history of Russian monasticism, revealing the extent of the disharmony between the monastic ideal and the corrupted leading society: they were placed in prison.

Here it will be possible to mention only very briefly some representatives of the genuine Orthodox monastic tradition in the 18th-century Russia — enough to show that t he monastic “revival” of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky was not at all something imported from abroad, but something which had deep roots in Russia itself and only awaited more favorable conditions to burst forth into the glorious flowering of 19th-century Orthodox monasticism.

Blessed Job [Joshua in Schema] of Solovki [†1720, March 9], the first monastic victim of the reforms of Peter I, humbled himself to such a degree that he was vouchsafed to converse with the Most Holy Mother of God. She blessed him to found the Golgotha hill in Soviet times.

Blessed John of Sarov [†1737, July 4], founder of the great 18th-century monastic center of Sarov, lived at first in caves, fought the schism of the Old Believers, and was finally placed in prison, where he had a righteous death, leaving behind a whole host of disciples and successors: the Blessed Demetrius, Ephraim, Pachomius, Joachim, Joaseph, Mark, and the great St. Seraphim.

Abbess Alexandra of Diveyevo [†1789, June 13] founded her convent under the close spiritual direction of the Sarov Elders, especially St. Seraphim, and nurtured a real Larva of 3000 righteous nuns and fools for Christ; the Convent continued to exist until the Soviets closed it in 1927.

Blessed Nazarius of Valaam [†1809, Feb. 23 and Oct. 14] was the re-founder of the great Larva on Lake Ladoga, using the Typicon in which he had been trained in his native Sarov, leaving behind him a great tradition and holy disciples: Blessed Patermuthius, Innocent, Barlaam, Abel the Prophet, Cyriacus, Euthymius, and St. Herman of Alaska.

Blessed Theodore, Macarius, Theophanes, Ignatius, Basil, Martha … [22 more are mentioned] …

The new monastic movement which sprouted from the fertile Orthodox soil of 18th-century Russia under the favorable conditions given by the truly Orthodox Tsars of the 19th century, was to rival the epoch of the Northern Thebaid itself. But now there was to be a subtle difference in tone, one not affecting the changed historical circumstances of the whole Orthodox world: the new monastic revival is no longer dependent on Byzantium. There are no more pilgrimages to the East in search of the Orthodox monastic tradition; or, to be more precise: the few pilgrimages thus undertaken, such as that of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky to Mount Athos, meet with failure. The Orthodox monastic tradition is more alive in Russia than in Greece, and it is the Russians themselves who, in the 19th century, are responsible for a great monastic flowering on Mt. Athos, led by great Elders such as Jerome and Arsenius, who had their spiritual roots firmly in Russian soil. Even the great Greek Fathers of the Patristic revival of this time, Sts. Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus the Hagiorite, are not monastic founders as were Blessed Paisius and his disciples, but only transmitters of the Patristic doctrine and its texts.

What all this means is one thing: Orthodox monastic Russia, in the epoch of the Northern Thebaid, had come of age. Just as once Byzantium itself had humbly absorbed the spirituality and tradition of Palestine and Egypt and had transmitted it to other peoples, so now Russia had thoroughly absorbed the Orthodox tradition of Byzantium and made it her own. There is no longer any need to travel outside of Russia to find it. Whether one says “Byzantium” [the earlier phase] of “Holy Russia” [the later phase], the same thing is meant: the tradition of unadulterated Orthodoxy.

The monastic movement of Blessed Paisius completed the monastic foundation which the monks of the Northern Thebaid had begun, by providing Slavonic and then Russian translations of almost all the monastic works of the Holy Fathers which had been written in or translated into Greek. The Northern Thebaid itself richly provided new sources of monastic literature in the numerous Lives of Saints and the spiritual writings of its great Holy Father, St. Nilus of Sora; then in the 18th century, the golden age of Slavonic and Russian Patristic literature begins with the writings of Blessed Basil of Merlopolyani, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Blessed Paisius himself, and many others. The great Greek and Near-Eastern Patristic epoch had already produced the basic texts of Orthodox spirituality and monasticism, but the final Patristic flowering in Russia — where the purity of Orthodox tradition was sealed by the sanctity of the wonder-working Elders – was to provide the connecting link between the Patristic tradition and the Orthodox faithful of today, some of whom have seen the last great Orthodox Elders of the golden chain of Orthodox spirituality which has come down unbroken from the Egyptian desert to us. The spiritual strength of Orthodoxy today, whether Russian of non-Russian, rests directly upon the Saints of the Northern Thebaid, who have bequeathed to the Orthodox faithful their experience of communion with God and the example of their God-pleasing lives.

How can we make use of this holy inheritance in our own lives today? We must not deceive ourselves: the life of the desert-dwellers of the Northern Thebaid is far beyond us in our time of unparalleled spiritual emptiness. In any epoch the monastic life is limited by the kind of life which is being led in the world. At a time when daily Orthodox life in Russian was both extremely difficult and very sober, monasticism could flourish; but in our time when ordinary life has become abnormally “comfortable” and the world-view of even the best religious and intellectual leaders is shockingly frivolous, what more is to be expected than that lukewarm “spirituality with comfort” with which bold voices from inside Soviet Russia even now are reproaching the free West? The situation within enslaved Russia is spiritually much more favorable, because on the foundation of the suffering and hardship which are the daily lot of most people there, something spiritual can come out. From many signs it is evident that a religious awakening is beginning now in Russia, whose result cannot yet be foreseen, but which may well result in the re-establishment of some of the monastic centers mentioned in this book.

And yet, the situation of enslaved Russia and the free West is not as different as it might seem. Everywhere today the disease of disbelief has entered deeply into the minds, and most of all the hearts, of men. Our Orthodoxy, even when it is outwardly still correct, is the poorest, the feeblest Christianity there has ever been. The God-bearing Elders who, comparatively speaking, abounded even in the periods of spiritual decline in earlier centuries, are now conspicuous by their total absence, and the conditions of contemporary life are scarcely likely to give birth to anything but counterfeits.
And still the voice of the Northern Thebaid calls us — not, it may be, to go to the desert [although some fortunate few may be able to do even that, for the forests are still on God’s earth] — but at least to keep alive the fragrance of the desert in our hearts: to dwell in mind and heart with these angel-like men and women and have them as our truest friends, conversing with them in prayer; to be always aloof from the attachments and passions of this life, even when they center about some institution or leader of the church organization; to be first of all a citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City on high towards which all our Christian labors are directed, and only secondarily a member of this world below which perishes. He who has once sensed this fragrance of the desert, with its exhilarating freedom in Christ and its sober constancy in struggle, will never be satisfied with anything in this world, but can only cry out with the Apostle and Theologian: ‘Come, Lord Jesus. Even so, Surely I come quickly’ [Apocalypse 22:20]. Amen.”
From “The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North”
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Compiled and Translated by Fr. Seraphim Rose and Fr. Herman Podmoshensky (1975).

“Northern Thebaid (Russian: Северная Фиваида), is the poetic name of the northern Russian lands surrounding Vologda and Belozersk, appeared as a comparison with the Egyptian area Thebaid – well-known settling place of early Christian monks and hermits.
Historically Thebaid (Greek: Θηβαΐδα) is the region of Upper Egypt, the term derives from the Greek name of its capital Thebes.
The term was coined by an orthodox writer Andrei Muravyov in his book of reflections about a pilgrimage to holy places of Vologda and Belozersk, which he named “Russian Thebaid in the North” (1855).
“Here in this quiet retreat, where suddenly I found my summer shelter under a hospitable roof of a hospitable owner. Here I am undertaking a description of our native Thebaid which I have just visited around Vologda and Belozersk. Secular people are unlikely to know it, whereas many people have heard about the Thebaid of Egypt and have read in paterikon about the exploits of the great Greek Fathers, who lighted up in the harsh deserts of the Monastery and the Palestine… In a space of more than 500 miles from the Lavra to Beloozero and further, it was like one continuous area studded with hermitages and desert hermits, which lay people were then to settle and build their homes where there were only cells. St. Sergius is the head of all, stands on the southern edge of this wonderful area and sends pupils and companions into the Thebaid, and St. Cyril, on the other side of the area accepts newcomers…..”

See also:

For Ivan Michailovich Kontzevitch (1893-1965), author of “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia”, Paris 1952 see:

The First Franciscan Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on October 29, 2015 by citydesert

“A common image of Francis of Assisi would be of a little restless herald of good news, skipping through where people were and wishing joy and peace on everyone he met; rather as the inhabitants of the mountain town of Poggio Bustone commemorate the saint’s first ever visit to them when long ago he passed through with the cheery salutation, “Buon giorno, buona gente!” ‘Good morning, good people!’ In that town also, a plaque records his evangelism: ‘St Francis, on leaving this mountain in the winter of 1209, gathered his first seven companions and told them, “Go, dearest brothers, two by two into the various parts of the world announcing peace to the people.”’
Poggio Bustone happens to be just one example of a place, among numerous others, associated with the converse side of Francis’ character. He was always looking out, St Bonaventure notes, for solitary places suitable for prayer and recollection. At Poggio he and his brothers received from the Benedictines a small hermitage, perched on the edge of a precipice 2,400 feet above sea level. The hermit’s “modus vivendi”, so keenly and so variously aspired to by so many in those times, was the icon, so to say, of his interior life. He himself set up or was associated with about twenty hermitages, and in 1224 at the stark mountain-retreat of La Verna in Tuscany, he received the stigmata, during a period of intense meditation on the mystery of the Cross.
Such hermitages were in fact his Order’s first friaries, when the originally house-less itinerant preachers came to have, though not strictly possess, any kind of habitation. Following their founder’s lead, the first friars minor sought to alternate between preaching and reclusion.

For the friars who ‘went through the world’ observing and announcing the gospel, there was already a Rule. When evangelism with reclusion had been the pattern of a dozen years, Francis was asked to prescribe some regulation specifically for the hermitages (about 1219). Extant is the precious little “Rule for the Hermitage”, which has proved so inspirational to subsequent and modern endeavours to experience an evangelical life in reclusion. (Reclusion, rather than solitude since there is a marked retention of the element of fraternity). The document is so concise it can be reproduced, in translation, here. We divide it into particles to highlight its features.

‘Those who want to remain in hermitages to lead a religious life should be three brothers, or four at most; of these, let two be ‘mothers’ and have two ‘sons,’ or one at least.
The two that are ‘mothers’ should maintain the life of Martha and the two ‘sons’ the life of Mary, and have a single enclosure, in which each may have his cell to pray and sleep in.
And they are always to say Compline of the day immediately after sunset.
And they should make sure to keep the silence. And they are to recite their Hours. And they are to get up for Matins. And let the first thing they seek be the kingdom of God and his justice.
And let them say Prime at the appropriate hour and, after Terce, conclude the silence so that they can speak and go to their ‘mothers;’ from whom, when they want to, they can beg an alms, like little paupers, for love of the Lord God.
And afterwards, they are to recite Sext and None and, at the appropriate hour, Vespers.
And as to the enclosure where they stay, they may not allow any person either to enter or to eat there.
Those brothers who are the ‘mothers’ are to make sure they keep their distance from people and, on account of the obedience due their minister, shield their ‘sons’ from people, so that nobody can get to speak with them.
And those ‘sons’ are not to speak with any person other than their ‘mothers’ and their minister and custodian, when he wishes to visit them with the blessing of the Lord God.
The ‘sons,’ nonetheless, should now and then take over the duty of the ‘mothers’, according to what arrangement they have come to about taking turns at intervals.
As for everything above-mentioned, let them earnestly and carefully endeavour to observe it.’
The hermitage experience was intended to be voluntary. Its special conditions were regulated in supplementary fashion, whereas there was an official Rule (with papal approval) which obliged the Order as a whole. Envisaged is a group of friars who are part of a larger fraternity, whose rule and life they share and whose minister they, too, obey in everything. The limited number was in line with Francis’ belief that poverty and simple living were best achieved by fewness; yet the small number was sufficient to preserve the brotherly element. Here was an infant Order’s experiment, not only in solitary prayer, but in fraternal living with remarkable interdependence. The mother/son relationship pictured for the caring hermits and those cared for is typical of Francis’ conception of the love that ought to exist in a fraternity. He wrote in the Rule for the whole Order, ‘Let each one love and nourish his brother as a mother loves and nourishes her son, insofar as God gives them grace.’

Whether permanent or temporary hermits were intended is not clear from the little Rule. We do know that figures like Blessed Giles of Assisi (one of Francis’ first companions) and St Anthony of Padua spent periods in different hermitages, and that they also interrupted their reclusion, Anthony especially, for his high-powered preaching tours.
The incorporation of the roles of the two women in Luke 10:38-42 who, in a long tradition symbolised respectively action and contemplation, accentuates the hermitage experience as a following of the gospel. It is noteworthy that the ‘Marthas’, despite their active duties, form part of the hermit group. While Francis is neither original or alone in this, he does add his own accents of humble ministration and a motherly care which he wishes to prevail in a male environment. He also echoes what he stresses elsewhere, ‘the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, to which all temporal things must be subservient.’ (Rule of the Friars Minor, c.5). The enclosure mentioned meant the space occupied by the cells which were simply ‘of clay and wattles made’ or hollowed out of the mountain tufa.

A partial impression of things Franciscan might expect, in such projects, a delightfully chaotic freedom! The life these hermits led, however, was nothing if not orderly. Everything was practically determined by the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours, which they very likely celebrated in common. The Office linked them not only with the larger fraternity, but with the universal Church. The Matthean text (6:33), from the context of trust in divine providence, underlines the priority of prayer over any material considerations. Rising for the midnight Office, and the careful observance of the other hours, evokes the early Christian vigilance for the coming of the master at ‘evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn.’ The rest is silence and contemplation; except for what served to remind the recluses of the poverty they shared with their brethren who, in time of need, would be begging alms from door to door when the ‘sons’ relied on their ‘mothers’ for the food they needed. Presumably, at least one of the ‘mothers’ would likewise have had to go begging for the food the whole group required.

There is no mention of the celebration of Mass or even of an oratory. Not until March/April 1222 were oratories permitted in Franciscan hermitages; and only in December 1224 came the privilege of saying Mass in them. Apart from the fact that not anyone or all of the hermits were necessarily priests, and even if we suppose they occasionally went out to some neighbouring country church, their normal regimen consisted of assiduous prayer and an experience of poverty in brotherly love.

The terms of ‘enclosure’ are strict in themselves. To maintain any real seclusion was difficult with a hedge at most, and not a monastery wall for boundary. In some matters one notices a certain ambivalence in Francis. For he wanted the friars to have a non-possessive attitude to any places they occupied, and even the hermitages were to be evangelically open to all comers: ‘Let the brothers take care that… whether in hermitages or other places, they make no place their own or guard it against anyone. And whoever comes to them, friend or foe, thief or robber, is to be kindly welcomed.’ (“Earlier Rule” OFM c.7). He, personally, could cope with such situations.
His first biographer describes how he managed in a spot. ‘He would always look for a secret place, where he might acclimatise to God not only his spirit but each part of his body. When unexpectedly visited by the Lord in public and lacking the seclusion of a cell, he would turn his mantle into a little cell. Sometimes, having no mantle, he would cover his face with his sleeve, so as not to betray “the hidden manna”. He would always screen himself with something, lest bystanders became aware of the Bridegroom’s touch; thus among crowds in the narrow con fines of a ship he could pray unseen. And then, if he could do none of these things, he made his heart a sacred enclosure.’ (Thomas of Celano, “Second Life”, 94).”

Greagóir Ó Seanacháin OFM “The Franciscan hermit: recluse in an open wind” “Spirituality” (July-August, 1997), a publication of the Irish Dominicans. On-line at:

Isaac the Syrian’s Asceticism

Posted in Uncategorized on October 28, 2015 by citydesert

Patrick Hagman, “The Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh” (Oxford Early Christian Studies) [OUP, 2010]
“The ascetic tracts of 7th century writer Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian) provide a wealth of material to better understand early Christian asceticism. By focusing on the role of the body in various ascetic techniques, such as fasting, vigils and prayer, as well as on the way the ascetic relates to the society a picture of asceticism as political activity emerges. For Isaac, the ascetic was to function as something like an icon, an image that showed the world the reality of God’s Kingdom already in this life, by clearly indicating the difference between God’s ways and men’s.

Patrick Hagman reviews the scholarly discussion on asceticism of the last three decades, and then proceeds to analyse the texts of Isaac to reveal an emphasis on asceticism as a practice that is at the same time performative, transformative and bodily. This contrasts with the long-established conception of asceticism as based on a negative view of the body. Isaac displays a profound understanding of the way body and soul are related, demonstrating how the body can be used to transform the personality of the ascetic, and to communicate the change to the world, without the use words.

The writings of Isaac offer a rare example of an extensive discussion of asceticism by a person who lived a radical ascetic life himself. Hagman’s new study brings Isaac’s fresh perspective to bear on an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of the Christian tradition.”

Bishop of Nineveh Isaac (Author), Mary Hansbury (Translator) “St Isaac of Nineveh on Ascetical Life” [St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1989]
“Isaac of Nineveh was a native of Bet Qatraye near present-day Bahrain on the Persian Gulf. A teacher and monk, he was consecrated bishop (ca. 660-680), but preferred to live out his live as an anchorite. A Scriptural scholar, he studies Scripture so much that he became blind and had to dictate his writings. He died at an advance age and was buried in Rabban Shabur, where he spent most of his monastic life. St Isaac’s monastic anthropology has a major influence on all of Byzantine spiritual literature. The way toward God, in his writing, was threefold: the way of the body, the way of the soul, and the way of the spirit. In the first stage, the person begins with a total preoccupation with the passions and moves toward God by means of bodily works: fasting, vigils, and psalmody. The next stage involves a struggle against thoughts foreign to the nature of the soul, turning from created objects to the contemplation of God’s wisdom and a transformation within. As the person arrives at a total openness of the soul to the future hope, he proceeds to the final stage of unified knowledge, which is an attitude of wonder and praise in continual prayer to God, leading to the freedom of immortal life that is given after the resurrection. This translation, by Mary Hansbury, of St Isaac of Nineveh’s work “On the Ascetical Life” is based on the Syriac text edited by P. Bedjan in “Mar Isaacus Ninivita, De Perfectione Religiosa”.
“On Ascetical Life” is part of the Popular Patristics Series.”

Hilarion Alfeyev (Author), Bishop Kallistos Ware of Diokleia (Foreword) “The Spiritual World Of Isaac The Syrian” [Cistercian Studies, 2000]
“Isaac the Syrian, also called Isaac of Nineveh, lived and wrote during “the golden age of Syriac Christian literature” in the seventh century. Cut off by language and politics from the Churches of the Roman Empire and branded “Nestorian,” the Church of the East produced in isolation a rich theological literature which is only now becoming known to outsiders. Yet over the centuries and in all parts of Christendom, Isaac’s works have been read and recommended as unquestionably orthodox.

Now, at last, to my great delight, we have at our disposal a single book in English, offering us a balanced and comprehensive overview of Isaac’s life, background and teaching. Wisely, Fr. Hilarion Alfeyev has allowed Isaac to speak for himself. The book is full of well-chosen quotations, in which Isaac’s true voice can be heard.
Saint Isaac of Syria was an ascetic, a mountain solitary, but his writings are universal in scope. They are addressed not just to the desert but to the city, not just to monastics but to all the baptized. With sharp vividness he speaks about themes relevant to every Christian: about repentance and humility, about prayer in its many forms, both outer and inner, about solitude and community, about silence, wonder, and ecstasy. Along with the emphasis that he places upon “luminous love”—to use his own phrase—two things above all mark his spiritual theology: his sense of God as living mystery; and his warm devotion to the Saviour Christ.” From the Foreword by Kallistos Ware, Bishop of Diokleia

The Sacred Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on October 28, 2015 by citydesert

David Jasper “The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture” [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004]
“The Sacred Desert is a reflection on the role of the desert in theology, history, literature, art and film. An original reflection on the role of the desert in theology, history, literature, art and film. Discusses figures as diverse as Jesus, the early Christian Desert Fathers, T.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Georgia O Keeffe, Wim Wenders and Jim Crace. Makes connections across millennia of desert literature. Deepens the reader s understanding of the desert as a real place, as an interior space, and as a textual site.”

David Jasper is Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow, and was the founding editor of the journal, “Literature and Theology”. He is the author of “The Sacred and Secular Canon in Romanticism” (1999) and co-editor of “The Bible and Literature: A Reader” (edited with Stephen Prickett, Blackwell Publishing, 1999) and “Religion and Literature: A Reader” (edited with Robert Detweiler, 2000).
“The Sacred Desert is a marvellous and truly integral conjunction of seemingly every dimension of that ultimate desert which is at once our deepest beginning and our deepest ending. Theological and poetic at once, and critical and historical simultaneously, it offers us a vicarious voyage into our most ultimate ground, a ground beyond God but nontheless embodying the totality of the Godhead. If that Godhead is an absolute nothingness, it is a truly actual nothingness, and most actual for us in that desert which is here so powerfully and so comprehensively evoked.” Thomas Altizer, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the State University of New York and Stony Brook

“The Sacred Desert provides a journey into the innermost core of the self––where the soul stands alone before an unknown God, who is both darkness and light. David Jasper has written a magnificent theological reflection on the depth of spiritual meaning sought and found by desert pilgrims in literature, art, film, history, and sacred scripture. A tour de force!”
David Klemm, University of Iowa
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“As the pace of contemporary life gathers speed, we can often feel a dizziness that suggests we are out of control. Perhaps this is why there is a marked growth of interest in places that offer a radically different perspective. The desert is one such place; and David Jasper’s profound, beautiful and serious exploration of his desert experience suggests that it is “a kind of theatre of memory”.
That phrase resonates with themes that Rowan Williams has outlined in Lost Icons, a book about “cultural bereavement”; and which Nicholas Lash has returned to in his recently published lectures Holiness, Speech and Silence. Lash speaks of abandoning “the burdensome and life-defining duty to seek and speak the truth”. Jasper foresees a new beginning for talk of truth, and therefore of God, “in a language whose end is silence. But before theology, the poetics.” Here Jasper makes a significant contribution to the poetics.
Our images of the desert are probably of Egypt and the Sahara. “The Sacred Desert” begins with Jasper’s notes from visits to deserts in Texas and South Dakota. They are not romantic places; it’s like being in the Fens of England. But these descriptions give a tone of authenticity to what, challengingly, follows.
The book is a series of meditations that draw on Jasper’s interests in literature, film, the visual arts and music, moving from scripture (entered via Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron) to the present day, and to a reflection on Jesus in the desert which puts important questions about how we read truth in scripture.
Each chapter presents a new dimension of the desert. Describing these, Jasper weaves together often disparate threads. For example, the chapter subtitled “Thomas Merton Meets Don Cupitt” also encompasses Charles de Foucauld and T. E. Lawrence. Another most imaginative chapter, “Desert Theology and Total Presence”, brings together poetry and philosophy to illustrate how “it is through the Fathers and Mothers of the desert that ‘the world is kept in being’.”
I have described this book as a beautiful exploration. I hope many people will read it. Its beauty is, I think, twofold. The more obvious expression is the skill with which Jasper draws together his sources, and with which he himself writes.
The second aspect of its beauty is in the grace and imagination with which material from our own arid culture is treated as desert stuff, and transformed, in the manner modelled by fourth-century desert hermits, into poetics: the cultural sustenance of men and women who wish to live as citizens of heaven. This is “nothing short of a ‘transubstantiation’”, and the recovery of a memory lost to us”.
Revd Martin Warner at