Archive for April, 2023

St. Gregory of Nyssa: “Epektasis (ἐπέκτασις)- The soul’s eternal ‘straining toward’ God”.

“Brothers, I do not yet reckon myself to have seized hold, save of one thing: Both forgetting the things lying behind and also stretching out [ἐπεκτεινόμενος] to the things lying ahead,”

Philippians 3:13 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Background – A Brief Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s Theology

In Gregory’s account of creation, the nature-energies distinction, developed to counter Eunomius, a defender of the 4th century Arian heresy, becomes extended into a general cosmological principle.

To Gregory, the essence of God is incomprehensible, transcendent, and cannot be defined by any set of human concepts. When speaking of God’s essence, or ousia, all that can be said is what that essence is not (Against Eunomius II, IV). In saying this, Gregory anticipates the via negativa (apophatic) theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century) and much of subsequent Orthodox theological thought.

If God is simply some transcendent, unknowable entity, what possible relation to the world could God ever have? Gregory answers these questions by distinguishing between God’s “nature” (phusis) and God’s “energies” (energeiai). God’s energies are the projection of the divine nature into the world; initially creating it and ultimately guiding it to its appointed destination (Beatitudes VI). The idea of God’s energies in Gregory’s theology emphasizes God’s actual presence in those parts of creation which are perfected just because of that presence. Whereas God’s nature is totally transcendent and unknowable, God’s energies are immanent and knowable to mankind. With this revelation, Gregory anticipates the more famous substance-energies distinction of the 14th century Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas.

Gregory’s view of human nature is dominated by his belief that humans were created in the image of God. This means that because God’s transcendent nature projects energies out into the world, we would expect the same structural relationship to exist in human beings between their minds and their bodies. In fact, that is precisely what Gregory argues concerning the human nous (a word that was traditionally translated as “mind”, but by the 4th century included the Christian idea of its nature also extending beyond and separate from the physical world).

The most important characteristic of the nature of the nous is that it provides for a unity of consciousness; where the myriad perceptions from various sense organs are all coordinated with each other. Using the metaphor of a city in which family members come in by various gates but all meet somewhere inside, Gregory’s assertion is that this can occur only if we presuppose a transcendent self to which all of one’s experiences are referred (Making of Man 10). But Gregory maintains that this unity of consciousness is entirely mysterious, much like the mysterious nature of the Godhead (Making of Man 11).

Yet the nous is also extended by its energies throughout the body, which includes our ordinary sensory and psychological experiences as well as our discursive, rational mind (dianoia) (Making of Man 15; Soul and Resurrection).

There are two further important characteristics of the human nous according to Gregory. First, because the human nous is created in the image of God, it possesses a certain “dignity of royalty” (to tes basileias axioma) that is lacking in the rest of creation. Second, the nous is free. Gregory derives the freedom of the nous from the freedom of God. For God, being dependent on nothing, governs the universe through the free exercise of will; and the nous is created in God’s image (Making of Man 4).

Epektasis – the eternal ‘stretching and straining’ of the soul toward God

This concept of epektasis features heavily throughout the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (most especially in his Life of Moses and Homilies on the Song of Songs). His work leans toward an ascetic, mystical approach to the faith. Gregory believed that man’s ultimate purpose was to grow in participation in the divine. Since God is transcendent and infinite and man is created and finite, he reasoned that man could never reach a point where he fully participated in God; hence the need for the concept of epektasis. Gregory rejected the more typical view that happiness and perfection are found in attaining a concrete spiritual goal. Rather, he suggested, since humanity is incapable of reaching the actual transcendent perfection of God, purpose and meaning are found in progress toward that relationship standard. Gregory’s views on spiritualty had an early and lasting impact on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of theosis.

Epektasis is derived from a Greek word found in verses such as Philippians 3:13, where it is translated as “stretching out.” Epectasis, like askesis, is a term from athletics. It implies something that is becoming, developing, being strived for. It has alternately been understood as “evolving” or “growing.” As it pertains to Christian theology, epektasis implies that true joy in Christian living is found in the process of spiritual growth and development. That is, it is the internal change we experience that produces a sense of happiness, not the achievement of any particular goal. Specifically, epektasis emphasizes the need for continual “spiritual transformation” and suggests this process will continue forever in eternity. For Gregory, it is the journey that is important.

As Gregory puts it, “Deity is in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it” (Great Catechism 25). So, we directly experience the divine energies in the only thing in the universe that we can view from within – ourselves. God’s energies are always a force for good. Thus, we encounter them in the experience of virtues such as purity, passionlessness (apatheia), sanctity, and simplicity in our own moral character. “if . . . these things be in you,” Gregory concludes, “God is indeed in you” (Beatitudes VI).

Gregory tells us epektasis also imposes certain obligations on us in relation to both others and ourselves. To others we owe mercy (Beatitudes V) and the Christian virtue of agape (Beatitudes VII). To ourselves we owe the effort to overcome (through askesis; athletic training) the deficiencies and shortcomings in our likeness to God; for we are unable to contemplate God directly, and morally our free will has been compromised by the passions (pathe). Thus, with respect to ourselves we must continuously stretch out our souls (epektasis; like a straining athlete), toward intellectual and moral perfection (Beatitudes III).


“Whereby he has given us his precious and majestic promises, so that through these you may become communicants in the divine nature, having escaped from the decay that is in the cosmos on account of desire.”

2 Peter 1:4 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Text references (by Gregory of Nyssa):
Against Eunomius
Homilies on the Beatitudes
On the Making of Man
On the Soul and the Resurrection
The Life of Moses
Homilies on the Song of Songs
The Great Catechism

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Fr. Seraphim (Aldea): “Monasticism ‘Through a Monk’s Eyes’.”

Fr. Seraphim (Aldea) – was tonsured as a monk in 2005 at Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia. He has a PhD in Modern Theology from the University of Durham (UK) for a thesis on Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov’s Ecclesiology. He then became a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Theology, Oxford University, while working to found the Mull Monastery of all Celtic Saints (, the first Orthodox monastery in the Hebrides in over a millennium. This post was taken from a transcription of Fr. Seraphim’s podcast, “Through a Monk’s Eyes”, on Ancient Faith Ministries (, May 12, 2015.

“The most important first question I get when people meet me—and not only in America, but also in England, where I live – is: Why have I become a monk? So, I try to answer that today, just to get it out of the way. I have learned along the years to come up with a series of either very cold and distant answers or some smart ones, depending who’s asking me the question, but the reality, the very simple truth, is that the only honest answer is that I had no choice. You know when you read in the psalter how the prophet speaks that God chooses us from the wombs of our mothers, that’s how I’ve grown to see my own life. I had no choice but to become a monk, simply because, in some strange way, I was a monastic from the womb of my mother. It simply took me a while to recognize who I am.

It took me a while to put a name to what I am, but the values and the principles of a monastic life have always been part of me, even when I was living a life that went entirely against these values. I’m sure you all can identify with this. We all go through periods in our lives when what we do and how we behave has very little to do with the things we actually cherish and the values we actually hold. There are years in our lives when there are almost two people living in each of us, at least two people, but once those years have become history, once I’ve survived those years, it became very clear that what I am is a monastic, and that the values I believe in are those of a monastic.

To me, being a monk can be reduced to being alone. There are all sorts of other ways to understand monasticism, and I will probably get into them in the future, but the simplest, basic understanding, the one that I always get back to, is being alone, with God, for God, preparing to meet God. All those words in the Scripture about being alone, about going into the mountains to pray, about leaving one’s friends and disciples behind so Christ can pray by himself, all those tiny descriptions in St. Luke about the mother of God hearing things and just holding them, putting them into her heart but not saying anything on the outside—all these things have always spoken to me.

To be a monk is to be alone before anything else. To live a monastic life is to be dead and buried before anything else. I remember all those stories from the lives of the Desert Fathers, all that beautiful advice concerning living your life as if you were dead, and those were the things that spoke to me; those were the things that made the greatest impression on my life.

Being alone doesn’t always mean having no one around you, just as being silent doesn’t always mean not speaking. One can be alone, surrounded by a whole nation, and in the history of all Christian Orthodox countries, there are countless examples of elders who have lived surrounded by thousands and thousands of people every day of their lives, and yet they managed, through the grace of God, to preserve their aloneness, their silence.

I wouldn’t want to go too much into this now, in the first podcast, but I want you to keep this in mind as you listen to this series. I do not want to be surrounded by people, but Christ has called me to do it, and I do not want to speak to people, and yet, here I am, going every week in a different parish and meeting different people and truly praying for them and truly asking God to intercede for them and to have mercy on them.

And I’m sure you know that when you truly pray for someone, even when you’ve never met that person before and you shall never see him or her again, when you truly pray of love and mercy, then somehow that person becomes part of you. It’s almost as if your flesh opens up and your heart can just see the heart of the other person. There’s an intimacy which prayer imposes on you. I have to go through this despite my calling to live alone, because this is what Christ wants me to do. So, if I sometimes seem grumpy or not in the mood to speak, or well, unfriendly, please forgive me and remember that this is a deeply unnatural thing for me to be doing and that I am only doing it because Christ asks me to do it.”

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Icons: “… we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,”

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses1, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~ Hebrews 12:1


One of the most striking visuals in an Orthodox church is the great number and variety of highly stylized icons covering walls, ceilings, and seemingly any other available floor or shelf space.

Strictly speaking, an icon (εικών, eikon – image, picture) is a portable sacred image, painted on a piece of wood according to the style and techniques of Byzantine art. But in its broader sense, an icon is any sacred image painted, or otherwise reproduced, for the purpose of veneration2.

The Patristic Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” Veneration happens when we stop seeing an icon as an object of art or decoration and nothing more, and begin seeing it as a close, face-to-face encounter with the person represented. Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. In fact, those things only become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon.

Many icons depict persons recognized as holy Saints by the church. Of these, some of them are martyrs, having died for their Christian witness; some are confessors, having maintained their witness under especially difficult and or dangerous conditions, but not lost their lives; but the majority of Saints are neither; just people in all ages recognized as extraordinarily holy. Saints are not an anachronist relic of the distant past. They have been recognized since the birth of the church and new Saints continue to be identified and recognized to this day.

For most of church history, the majority of Christians could not read or write. In the Greco-Roman world of the Apostles, it is estimated that less than 15% of the population was literate. Hearing the Scripture read during church services and understanding the stories and people depicted in the icons adorning the church building served as important tools for the transmission of Christian tradition and faith. It follows then that icons continue to serve as educational and worshiping aids. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through icons, as images that complement the written words of Scripture. Icons also serve to transport us into the realm of spiritual experience, to go beyond our material world, to show us the greatness and perfection of the divine reality that is invisible to us.

During an Orthodox church service, it feels like the entire congregation is worshiping along with all of the Saints depicted in the icons adorning the church. And even when praying alone in an empty Orthodox church, you cannot feel alone; but rather accompanied, comforted, and supported by all of the Saints present through the icons.


1 Witness (Gr. μάρτυς, mártys) in its original meaning, the Greek word martyr, was used in the secular sphere as well as in the New Testament. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness, although it is known from ancient writers (e.g., Josephus) and from the New Testament that witnesses often died for their testimonies. During the early Christian centuries, the term martyr came to mean one who gives his or her life for the faith. A confessor (ομολογητής) came to mean a person who does not actually die for the faith but witnesses to it under difficult and often dangerous conditions.

2 Veneration (Gr. σεβασμός) is a reverence, love, and recognition paid to all those persons portrayed in an icon. Many people in the West often misinterpret veneration as worship; however, worship (προσκύνησης, total devotion of the self) in the Eastern Orthodox Church is reserved for God alone.

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The Rise of Monasticism in the 4th-Century Christian Church

The following two momentous events impacting the 4th-century church serve as contextual bookends to this discussion:

  • In AD 313 The Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine Augustus and Licinius Augustus.  It legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and ended Christian persecution.
  • In AD 380 The Edict of Thessalonica was issued by Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian.  It made Nicene Christianity the State Religion of the Roman Empire.

After Constantine I legalized Christianity, under the Edict of Milan in 313 (first bullet, above), pagan elites in search of notoriety and political gain filled the institutional church. In this season of significant transition in the Roman Empire, opportunists took the title “Christian” and sought ecclesiastical positions to improve their socio-political status. People became Christian in name only, thus compromising the morality of the church. Already at the Council of Nicaea in 325, church officials recognized that too many ill-prepared pagan converts had been promoted to positions of leadership.

At the same time, there remained many faithful Christians who endured the final persecution under Emperor Diocletian (AD 305). These Christians abhorred the apathy of the recent status-seeking converts. They wanted a deeper, disciplined expression of worship. But as the church became more politicized and dominated by people with imperial connections, the faithful remnant increasingly lost their voice, and eventually their hope of change. So, in a public display of protest, many fervent Christians made an exodus into the Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian deserts as solitary (eremitic) monks. To these Desert Fathers and Mothers, this ascetic life replaced the institutional church as the means to salvation. On some occasions, their deep animosity towards the institutional church turned into physical aggression and violence. They had zeal and passion, but frequently lacked leadership or spiritual guidance.

By the mid-300’s Christianity was divided into two extremes—the institutional church, corrupted by Byzantine politics, and protesting monks who were living as independent Christians. Both sides needed reform and visionary leadership if the church was to survive long-term.

St. Basil (329–379) was born into a wealthy Cappadocian family. As a young man Basil studied in Athens.  In 357, Basil traveled to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to study ascetics and monasticism. This included visiting not only the eremitic monks of the lower Nile region, but also the first cenobitic (communal) monasteries founded by St. Pachomius in the upper Nile region at Tabennis.

Basil sensed that retirement to a solitary eremitic monastic life was selfish. He felt called to use his education, zeal, and leadership abilities to restore Christians and the church to their true calling. Basil seized upon communal (cenobitic) monasticism to both renew the institutional church and reform the marginalized solitary monks. Vibrant monastic communities could address the dire problems on multiple fronts.  

By 358, Basil had gathered around him a group of like-minded disciples, including his brother Peter (later Bishop of Sebaste).  Together they founded a monastic settlement on his family’s Pontus estate near Annesi (modern Uluköy, Turkey, near the confluence of the Iris and Lycos rivers). His widowed mother Emmelia, sister St. Macrina, and several other ascetic virgin women, joined Basil and devoted themselves to pious lives of prayer and charitable works (some claim St. Macrina actually founded this community).  Its asceticism was dedicated to the service of God, which was to be pursued through community life and obedience. Here Basil wrote about monastic communal life. His writings became pivotal in developing monastic traditions of the Eastern Church. The Rule of St Basil (aka, Asketika) called for obligatory liturgical prayer and manual and mental work.  It also enjoined or implied chastity and poverty.  Basil’s rule was strict but not severe.

In 358, Basil invited his friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus to join him in Annesi.  When Gregory eventually arrived, they collaborated on Origen’s Philocalia, a collection of Origen’s works.  This was the fulfillment of Basil’s monastic dream.

But, during this period of monastic retreat, Basil became increasingly concerned about the mounting problems in the church and society. He lamented the injustice of poverty, the oppressive “Christian” aristocracy, the church’s marriage to politics, and the spread of the Arian heresy. The institutional church had lapsed and disgruntled believers were continuing to withdraw to the desert. Both forms of Christianity needed restoration.

By the 360’s and 370’s, Basil considered the institutional Church as heading to “utter shipwreck… in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox.” (to the Italians and Gauls, Letter 92.3)  

In 362, Bishop Meletius of Antioch ordained Basil as a Deacon.  Bishop Eusebius then summoned Basil to Caesarea (Mazaca) and ordained him as presbyter (priest) of the Church there in 365.  Basil described the situation of the collective institutional Christian church leadership in dire terms:

“The doctrines of true religion are overthrown. The laws of the Church are in confusion. The ambition of men, who have no fear of God, rushes into high posts, and exalted office is now publicly known as the prize of impiety. The result is, that the worse a man blasphemes, the fitter the people think him to be a bishop. Clerical dignity is a thing of the past. There is a complete lack of men shepherding the Lord’s flock with knowledge. Ambitious men are constantly throwing away the provision for the poor on their own enjoyment and the distribution of gifts. There is no precise knowledge of canons. There is complete immunity in sinning; for when men have been placed in office by the favor of men, they are obliged to return the favor by continually showing indulgence to offenders. Just judgment is a thing of the past; and everyone walks according to his heart’s desire. Vice knows no bounds; the people know no restraint. Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement.” 

~ Basil, Letter 92.2

In 370, Bishop Eusebius died, and Basil was consecrated as Bishop in June 370.  His new post as Bishop of Caesarea (Mazaca) also gave him the power of exarch of Pontus, and influence over all of Cappadocia.

The Church historian Rufinius of Aquileia in 397 AD explains Basil’s course of actions as Bishop:

“Basil went round the cities and countryside of Pontus and began by his words to rouse that province from its torpor and lack of concern for our hope for the future, kindling it by his preaching, and to banish the insensitivity resulting from long negligence; he compelled it to put away its concern for vain and worldly things and to give its attention to him. He taught people to assemble, to build monasteries, to take care of the poor and furnish them with proper housing and the necessities of life, to establish the way of life of virgins, and to make the life of modesty and chastity desirable to almost everyone.”

~ Rufinius, Church History, 11:9

Even though Basil was a prominent theologian and Bishop of Caesarea (Mazaca), he always remained committed to founding, developing, and strengthening Cappadocian monasteries. Basil corresponded with the satellite communities about various aspects of the Christian life. Basil’s book The Rule of St. Basil became the foundational text for Christian monasticism.

Through communal monasticism, Basil reformed Christianity at both the institutional and grassroots level. Monasticism had been pitted against the church, but Basil, ever the ecclesiastical statesman, incorporated the monastic movement into the church so they could benefit each other. As a powerful bishop over Cappadocia, Basil used his ecclesiastical authority to speak against the secularizing forces, refute the heresy of Arianism, appoint monk-bishops to leadership positions, publish theological treatises, and advocate for the poor among the elite.

At a grassroots level, Basil organized monastic communities of love-motivated disciples. These groups strengthened the church by providing true teaching, spiritual ministry, and capable leadership. Monks cared for lay people, both physically and spiritually. Monasticism expressed the true character of Christianity and thus restored confidence in the church. Monks would also purify the church by modeling faithful devotion to God. Their lives summoned the politicized church back to holiness and mission.

The following sections explain how Basil developed the cenobitic monastic communities to strategically address the social and ecclesiastical problems of his day.

1. Love in Community

Basil never developed a standardized rule for monasteries. In his view, love was the guiding rule for all the Christian life. The opening questions of Basil’s Asketika explain how the “utterly ineffable love of God” compels and guides the entire Christian life, including monastic communities. To fulfill the rule of love, each monastic community was free to develop in its own way. Byzantine monasteries constructed their own rules based on the monastic principles laid out in Basil’s books Moralia and Asketika.

Basil’s emphasis on love and community was a deliberate corrective to the lifestyle of the solitary (eremitic) monks. They practiced extreme forms of asceticism, such as competing to see who could most severely torment their body. Basil said asceticism without love was useless. This echoes the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In serving one another in a community of love, Basil encouraged the moderation of austere practices. Basil insisted that self-denial must be rooted in love and the power of the Holy Spirit. For Basil, the purpose of the monastic life was cultivating a true love for God and fellow humans.

Basil placed a strong emphasis on work as service. Monks were to work in groups for mutual edification, protection and to conduct prayer. Work was an expression of love. Monks assumed vows of poverty and shared property in common. This act resisted the allure and love of private property. Basil highlighted the loving purpose of mutual labor. In earlier models of asceticism, work was a way to overcome the lust of the flesh. But for Basil, work was an expression of love toward others.

2. Social Care

The monastic community not only served itself, but it was located near towns to serve as a public example and to help lay Christians. Social service was another overflow of the monastic life. Monks cared for the marginalized and poor. In 369 a severe famine caused mass starvation throughout Cappadocia. Strange weather patterns devastated crops and the rich stockpiled food. Basil explained, “The hungry are dying…The naked are stiff with cold. The man in debt is held by the throat.”

In response Basil constructed a large complex next to the original monastery at Annesi to care for the poor. So many people came to receive services that the growing region became known as “New Caesarea.” The Basilian complex was a source of great stability for the community. Both church and the State supported the work, and other monasteries followed suit by helping the poor. Almsgiving and generosity to the poor were defining aspects of monasticism.

3. Preaching and Teaching

Basil peppered monasteries throughout the populated areas of the Roman world to stop the spread of Arian heresy. Arianism taught that Jesus was not eternally God, but only “similar” to God. In the 360’s and 370’s when Basil was bishop, Arians controlled most episcopal leadership and enjoyed political support from the emperors in Constantinople. According to Basil, the champions of Arianism were waging war against Apostolic teaching, and were to be resisted. In Basil’s monasteries, monks studied the Nicene doctrines, learned rhetoric, and went into nearby towns to preach. Monasticism became a frontline defense against Arian heresy. As Christianity expanded into new areas, monks were ordained and sent out to evangelize.

4. Church Leadership

The leadership of the church had fallen into moral decline. Basil lamented there was “a complete immunity to sinning” among church bishops. As Arians gained political power, many Orthodox bishops were banished into exile and replaced by incompetent church leaders. In this perilous time, Basil developed the vision of the “bishop-monk.” The contemplative life at monasteries provided the biblical education and character development essential for church leadership. As a prominent bishop, Basil labored assiduously to recruit monks to serve as bishops. Their monastic training equipped them to shepherd local Christian communities. Monasteries trained and restored church leadership.


After Constantine’s political and religious reforms in the early 300’s (first bullet, above), the church quickly became diluted by political opportunists, neglected the needs of the marginalized, and fell into Arian heresy. Pious Christians grew disillusioned and retreated into isolated asceticism. In response to these crises, St. Basil of Caesarea formed monastic communities. These groups emphasized community, strived towards love, served the poor, refuted heresy, and trained leaders. These monastic communities that Basil shepherded became the antidote to the social and ecclesiastical problems that arose after Constantine. By the late 300’s, Theodosius I was confident enough in the church reforms and direction to declare Nicene Christianity as the sole State Religion of the Roman Empire (second bullet, above).

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Evagrius Ponticus – “… like a sapphire or the color of heaven.”

Evagrius Ponticus (c. 346-399) – was originally from Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is modern-day Turkey. He served as a Lector under St. Basil the Great and was made Deacon and Archdeacon under St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He was also greatly influenced by Origen of Alexandria and St. Gregory of Nyssa.  In about 383, Evagrius left Constantinople, eventually retreating to the Egyptian desert and joining a cenobitic community of Desert Fathers. As a classically trained scholar, Evagrius recorded the sayings of the desert monks and developed his own theological writings. The excerpt below is from Evagrius’ Skemmata (Reflections).

  1. If any would see the state of their nous, let them deprive themselves of all concepts (noemata): and then they will see themselves like a sapphire or the color of heaven (Exod. 24.10); but this cannot be accomplished without apatheia [dispassion] since it requires the cooperation of God who breathes into them the kindred light.
  2. Apatheia is the quiet state of the reasoning soul composed of gentle temperance.
  3. The state of the nous is the noetic [spiritual] height like the color of heaven, upon which the light of the holy Trinity comes at the time of prayer.

Skemmata, Gnostic Chapters 1-3

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St. Athanasius on St. Antony the Great: “… learn what the life of monks ought to be;”

St. Antony the Great (Greek: Ἀντώνιος) (251 – 356)- was a Christian ascetic monk from Egypt. Antony was among the first anchorites known to go into the Egyptian desert wilderness in about AD 270. Because of his importance among the Desert Fathers and to all later Christian monastics, he is also known as the Father of All Monks. Most of what is known about Antony comes from the Life of Antony, written around 360 by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. It depicts Anthony as an illiterate holy man who, through his stark solitary ascetic life in the desert, forges an absolute connection to the divine Truth. This biography of Antony’s life helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism into both the Greek and Latin worlds. The excerpt below is from St. Athanasius’ Life of Antony:

“Further, he was able to be of such use to all, that many soldiers and men who had great possessions laid aside the burdens of life, and became monks for the rest of their days. And it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not forthwith put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not forthwith deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?” (87).

“Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him: and leads those who serve Him unto the end, not only to the kingdom of heaven, but here also— even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world— makes them illustrious and well known everywhere on account of their virtue and the help they render others. And if need be, read this among the heathen, that even in this way they may learn that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only God and the Son of God, but also that the Christians who truly serve Him and religiously believe in Him, prove, not only that the demons, whom the Greeks themselves think to be gods, are no gods, but also tread them under foot and put them to flight, as deceivers and corrupters of mankind, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (94)

~ from: St Athanasius, Life of Antony, 87, 94

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father;”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 25 January 390), also known as Gregory the Theologian or Gregory Nazianzen, was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, theologian, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa). He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age. Gregory made a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology among both Greek and Latin-speaking theologians, and he is remembered as the “Trinitarian Theologian”.

“The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father; Who, inasmuch as He proceeds from That Source, is no Creature; and inasmuch as He is not Begotten is no Son; and inasmuch as He is between the Unbegotten and the Begotten is God. And thus escaping the toils of your syllogisms, He has manifested himself as God, stronger than your divisions. What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God. And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet, or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of Eternity, much less enter into the Depths of God, and supply an account of that Nature which is so unspeakable and transcending all words?”

~ from: The Orations and Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 31 (5th Theological Oration), VIII.

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St. Basil the Great: “Homily About Ascesis – How a Monk Should be Adorned”

St. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (330 – January 379), was a bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal (coenobitic) monasticism in Eastern Christianity. Basil, together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers.

“The monk, above all, must not possess anything in his life. He must have bodily isolation, proper clothing, a moderate tone of voice, and discipline speech; he must not cause a ruckus about the food and drink and he must eat in silence; he must be silent before his elders and be attentive to wiser men; he must love his peers and advise those junior in a loving way; he must move away from the immoral and the carnal and the sophisticated; he must think much and say less; he must not become impudent in his words, nor gossip and not be amenable to laughter; he must be adorned with shame, directing his gaze to the ground and his soul upward; he must not object with words of contention but rather be compliant; he must work with his hands and always keep in remembrance the end of this age; he must rejoice with hope, endure sadness, pray unceasingly and thank God for everything; he must be humble towards all and hate pride; he must be vigilant in keeping his heart pure of any evil thought; he must gather treasures in Heaven by keeping the commandments, examine himself for his thoughts and actions each day and not be involved in vain things of life and in idle talk; he must not examine inquisitively the life of idle people, but imitate the lives of the Holy Fathers; he must be happy with those who achieve virtue and not be envious; he must suffer with those suffering and weep with them and be sorry for them, but not criticise them; he must not reproach one who returns from his sin and never justify himself. Above all else he must confess before God and the men that he is a sinner and admonish the unruly, strengthen the faint-hearted, minister unto the sick and washed the feet of the saints; he must attend to hospitality and brotherly love, to be at peace with those who have the same faith and abhor the heretics; he must read the canonical books and not open even a single one of the occult; he must not talk about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but think and confess the uncreated and consubstantial Trinity with courage, and tell those who ask that there is the need of to be baptised, as we have received it from the tradition, to believe, as we have confessed it according to our baptism, and to glorify God, as we have believed.”

~ from: The Monastic Rule of St. Basil the Great

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St. Gregory of Sinai: ‘Sowing in the Light’

St. Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260s -1346) – was a well-travelled Greek Christian monk and writer from Smyrna (modern-day İzmir, Turkey). He was instrumental in the emergence of hesychasm on Mount Athos in the early 14th century. He was a contemporary of St. Gregory Palamas.

“According to St. Paul (cf. Rom. 15:16), you “minister” the Gospel only when, having yourself participated in the light of Christ, you can pass it on actively to others. Then you sow the Logos like a divine seed in the fields of your listeners’ souls. ‘Let your speech be always filled with grace’, says St Paul (Col. 4:6), ‘seasoned’ with divine goodness. Then it will impart grace to those who listen to you with faith. Elsewhere St. Paul, calling the teachers tillers and their pupils the field they till (cf. II Tim. 2:6), wisely presents the former as ploughers and sowers of the divine Logos and the latter as the fertile soil, yielding a rich crop of virtues. True ministry is not simply a celebration of sacred rites; it also involves participation in divine blessings and the communication of these blessings to others.”

~ from: The Philokalia

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St. Macrina and the Healing of the Soldier’s Daughter

St. Macrina the Younger (ca. AD 327 – July 379), was the older sister of three Cappadocian Saints and Bishops: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. She was also friends with St. Gregory of Nanzianzus. Macrina transformed one of her family’s rural estates in Pontus (modern Turkey) into a monastery for ascetic virgins who came from both an aristocratic and non-aristocratic backgrounds.  All members, including those from her own household, were free and ex-slaves received the same rights and obligations as their former masters. St. Basil established a men’s monastery nearby. Macrina was so well respected and loved by her younger brother, Gregory, that he wrote two books about her virtues, holiness, and intellect soon after her death in AD 379: The Life of Saint Macrina and On the Soul and the Resurrection. The post below is an excerpt from The Life of Saint Macrina, written in about AD 381.

“Along the way [from Macrina’s funeral], a distinguished military man who had command of a garrison in a little town of the district of Pontus, called Sebastopolis, and who lived there with his subordinates, came with the kindly intentions to meet me [Gregory of Nyssa] when I arrived there. He had heard of our misfortune [the death of Macrina] and he took it badly (for, in fact, he was related to our family by kinship and also by close friendship). He gave me an account of a miracle worked by Macrina; and this will be the last event I shall record in my story before concluding my narrative. When we stopped weeping and were standing in conversation, he said to me, “Hear what a great good has departed from human life.” And with this he stated his story.

“It happened that my wife and I once desired to visit that powerhouse of virtue; for that’s what I think that place should be called in which the blessed soul spent her life. Our little daughter was also with us and she suffered from an eye ailment as a result of an infectious disease. And it was a hideous and pitiful sight, since the membrane around the pupil was swollen and because of the disease had taken on a whitish tinge. As we entered that divine place, we separated, my wife and I, to make our visit to those who lived a life of philosophy1 therein, I going to the monks’ enclosure where your brother, Peter [of Sebaste], was abbot, and my wife entering the convent to be with the holy one. After a suitable interval had passed, we decided it was time to leave the monastery retreat and we were already getting ready to go when the same, friendly invitation came to us from both quarters. Your brother asked me to stay and take part in the philosophic table, and the blessed Macrina would not permit my wife to leave, but she held our little daughter in her arms and said that she would not give her back until she had given them a meal and offered them the wealth of philosophy; and, as you might have expected, she kissed the little girl and was putting her lips to the girl’s eyes, when she noticed the infection around the pupil and said, “If you do me the favor of sharing our table with us, I will give you in return a reward to match your courtesy.” The little girl’s mother asked what it might be and the great Macrina replied, “It is an ointment I have that has the power to heal the eye infection.” When after this a message reached me from the women’s quarters telling me of Macrina’s promise, we gladly stayed, counting of little consequence the necessity which pressed us to make our way back home.

Finally the feasting was over and our souls were full. The great Peter with his own hands had entertained and cheered us royally, and the holy Macrina took leave of my wife with every courtesy one could wish for. And so, bright and joyful, we started back home along the same road, each of us telling the other what happened to each as we went along. And I recounted all I had seen and heard in the men’s enclosure, while she told me every little thing in detail, like a history book, and thought that she should omit nothing, not even the least significant details. On she went telling me about everything in order, as if in a narrative, and when she came to the part where a promise of a cure for the eye had been made, she interrupted the narrative to exclaim, “What’s the matter with us! How did we forget the promise she made us, the special eye ointment?” And I was angry about our negligence and summoned some one to run back quickly to ask for the medicine, when our baby, who was in her nurse’s arms, looked, as it happened, towards her mother. And the mother gazed intently at the child’s eyes and then loudly exclaimed with joy and surprise, “Stop being angry at our negligence! Look! There’s nothing missing of what she promised us, but the true medicine with which she heals diseases, the healing which comes from prayer, she has given us and it has already done its work, there’s nothing whatsoever left of the eye disease, all healed by that divine medicine!” And as she was saying this, she picked the child up in her arms and put her down in mine. And then I too understood the incredible miracles of the gospel, which I had not believed in, and exclaimed: “What a great thing it is when the hand of God restores sight to the blind, when today his servant heals such sicknesses by her faith in Him, an event no less impressive than those miracles!” All the while he was saying this, his voice was choked with emotion and the tears flowed into his story. This then is what I heard from the soldier.”

~ from The Life of Saint Macrina, by St. Gregory of Nyssa


1 Philosophy as the ideal of the Christian monastic life plays a central role in The Life of Saint Macrina (LSM) and will undoubtedly seem strange, even alien, to modern ears long accustomed to the scholasticism and secularization of academic disciplines. However, the essential and organic unity of the spiritual, intellectual, and physical ways of life, central to the monastic Rule of St. Basil, even yields such a remarkable phrase in the LSM as “the philosophic table”. This usage accurately reflects St. Gregory’s fourth-century Christian understanding of “philosophy”, i.e., love of wisdom, passion for the truth, care of the soul, contemplation (theoria), and ascetic physical discipline which spurns attachment to material things while recognizing that the body will be restored to its true God-created stature by the resurrection.

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