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Tag: Athanasius

Merry Christmas from Read the Fathers

Merry Christmas from Read the Fathers.* We greet you with this passage from St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word (§54):

… Let him marvel that by so ordinary a means things divine have been manifested to us, and that by death immortality has reached to all, and that by the Word becoming man, the universal Providence has been known, and its Giver and Artificer the very Word of God. For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impassible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impassibility. And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvellous, and wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, and be struck with exceeding great awe.

An icon of the nativity from fifteenth-century Greece

An icon of the nativity from fifteenth-century Greece

* If you’re on the Old Calendar, as some of our readers may well be, please accept this as a Christmas card that arrives a little early.

Reading as Whim and Discipline

Hugh of Saint Victor

Hugh of Saint Victor

On a whim I read Alan Jacobs‘s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction a couple of weeks ago.1 I had secretly hoped that the book would be a screed against my inability to pay attention to anything, but on that score I was mostly disappointed. What I found was better: a discussion of the paradox between reading as discipline and reading as whim. Jacobs is of the opinion that reading should be driven by whim rather than by lists of recommended reading. I have experienced, as you likely have, a curious inability to read many books once I’ve put them on my list of books to read. But when I follow my whims I tend to do a lot of reading: to wit, reading The Pleasures of Reading led me to Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, and Hugh led me to Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. People do and should read by Whim (with a capital W), Jacobs argues, because such reading is motivated by pleasure. But not an aimless pleasure: “In its lower-case version whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” Whim that is based on self-knowledge leads to reading that is more pleasurable.

The second meaning of Whim has room, I think, for conceiving of reading not only as whim but also as a discipline. You could scarcely decide to read seven pages of difficult prose every day for seven years without letting whim get the better of you, but you also cannot expect to read the fathers without some discipline. The way forward is to rely on both whim and discipline, to subject the flights of whim to a discipline which will yield a higher pleasure.

The discipline we’re attempting with Read the Fathers is akin to the ancient and medieval monastic disciplines (studio) in two ways. First, reading is a discipline because it involves, well, hard work. But this is hard work that leads to joy, not drudgery. The twelfth-century monk Hugh of Saint Victor, who wrote an introduction to Christian learning called the Didascalicon, described how pleasure (love) and discipline (hard work) combine to accomplish a task.

Hard work and love make you carry out a task; concern and alertness make you well advised. Through hard work you keep matters going; through love you bring them to perfection. Through concern you look ahead; though alertness you pay close attention.

Second, and more important, reading is a discipline because it requires holiness and in turn refines the soul. Here is Athanasius, describing the discipline necessary to read the Scriptures, to which the Fathers will inevitably make us turn, and in turn to know Christ, who is the fount of all joy:

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … He that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, … and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (On the Incarnation, §57)

Get ready for seven years of whim and discipline—and pleasure.

St. Anthony on the Dangers of Prayer, Sixteen Centuries Before “The Screwtape Letters”

This week I attended a series of meetings on prayer. The speaker mentioned that prayer can lead to spiritual danger, a point that reminded me of the Life of Antony.

The Life of Antony (Vita Antonii) is the best known of the hagiographies, or lives of the saints, from the early church. Written by Athanasius sometime around 357–58, the book is a biography of Antony, or Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism. Antony was an Egyptian Christian who, like many in his day, led a life of asceticism and prayer. Antony became known for being the first ascetic to live in the wilderness. Both because of his example and because of persecutions, many “desert fathers” lived in solitude or small bands in the wilderness. The Life tells of Antony’s life of prayer in the desert and his wrestling with demons. His temptations are described in great detail, so that the temptation of Antony became a common feature in Western art, such as in this allegorical painting by Hieronymus Bosch (click for full size):

Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of Saint Antony

Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of Saint Antony

The Life of Antony is one of the two foundational texts of Western monasticism. (The other is the Rule of St. Benedict.1) Though highly valued by the medieval church, Protestant reformers scorned the text for valuing monasticism and for its accounts of the supernatural. Twenty-first-century readers, no matter whether Protestant or Catholic, are likely to read the text incredulously.2 At a minimum, however, I think any reader can take the descriptions of Antony’s temptations as a description of the dangers encountered by people who take prayer seriously. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote the introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, so Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is a kind of retelling of the Life of Antony.

Here is a section of the text when Antony was living in the tombs before going to the desert (para. 8–10):

Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment. But by the Providence of God—for the Lord never overlooks them that hope in Him—the next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when he saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.

He was carried therefore by the man, and as he was wont, when the door was shut he was within alone. And he could not stand up on account of the blows, but he prayed as he lay. And after he had prayed, he said with a shout, Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ. And then he sang, ‘though a camp be set against me, my heart shall not be afraid.’ These were the thoughts and words of this ascetic. But the enemy, who hates good, marvelling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘Ye see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Antony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord hath made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.

Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.’ Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.

The entire book is short, and could be read in an hour or two. But if you’re only going to read one more passage, read Antony’s advice to the other Christians in the desert on prayer, temptation, and spiritual battles (para. 16–43).

C.S. Lewis on Reading the Christian Classics

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

In the coming days we’ll be posting excerpts by writers from various traditions about why you should read the church fathers. Today’s excerpt comes from the Anglican C. S. Lewis (the nearest authority to a church father for many American evangelicals). In 1944 Lewis wrote the preface to an edition of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. (An edition with Lewis’s preface is in print from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, an Orthodox press, as part of their Popular Patristics Series. There is also an online version.) Translated by the Anglican Sister Penelope Lawson, the book was “something of an experiment,” as Lewis notes, because it was “intended for the world at large, not only for theological students.” In the preface Lewis addresses the question of what kinds of books to read, arguing that—contrary to the popular wisdom—amateurs should read the “old” books rather than the modern.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

You can finish Lewis’s preface here.

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