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The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Introduction and Commentary

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V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.

Introduction

As Eastern Orthodoxy grows among English-speaking peoples, Western Christians are becoming increasingly familiar with Christianity's oldest tradition, with the Church which claims to bring to modernity the very spirit and essence of the Apostolic Church. Yet this familiarity, as flattering as it might be to a venerable faith which has seen the ancient witness of millions upon millions of its children fade into social and historical obscurity in the West, is fraught with danger. For, paradoxically, the growth of Eastern Orthodoxy is occurring at a time when Orthodox spirituality is at a particular low. A vast majority of the Church struggles in Eastern Europe under the yoke of political persecution. In many places the simple discussion of Orthodoxy is perilous. Monasticism, often characterized by Eastern Fathers as the barometer by which Orthodox spiritual health is measured, is engaged in what appears to be a losing battle with contemporary social ideals and morality. Some of the most popular Orthodox theologians are tainted in their teachings by Western thought and by a non-Orthodox mentality. And with overwhelming sadness, we have seen, in the last several decades, the passing of many of the spiritual giants (Elder Philotheos Zervakos of Greece and Archimandrite Justin Popovich of Serbia, among others) who have been our living links to Orthodoxy's healthier spiritual past.

More importantly, Eastern Orthodox in the Western diaspora are struggling to establish a firm spirituality in the very midst of this world-wide crisis in the Church. The dangers of being cut off from the more mature and developed centers of historical Orthodoxy are heightened by the fact that in the West we have the mere rudiments of traditional Orthodoxy. The Orthodox goal par excellence is the deification of man, his union through grace with Christ, and his attainment in this present life of the virtues of Christian perfection -- sainthood. But the Saints, these exemplars of Orthodoxy and the fulfilled Christian life, fading as they are in world Orthodoxy, are hardly to be found here in the West, however painful or discomforting this fact may be. If we have attained any spiritual maturity, it is by merciful grace and at the cost of factionalism and spiritual pride nurtured in an atmosphere which hardly augurs well of future growth. The dangers which these weaknesses brew, as though they were not dreadful enough for Orthodox Christians, are compounded many times over when a non-Orthodox Westerner wishes to learn or avail himself of the spirituality of the Orthodox East. Blinded by the fearful forces which bombard Orthodoxy in these days, an Orthodox Christian in the West is hard-pressed to see his own way, let alone guide a stranger to his path.

Yet, as always, though the darkness seems encompassing, there is a glimmer of light to which we can turn. If the living Fathers of the Church are disappearing and their availability to some Orthodox is ever so slight, they have none the less left us, as one spiritual man has assured me, "elders bound in leather and gold." They have left to us their words and their written instructions. We can add, therefore, to the bare essentials of Orthodoxy present in the West, the thunderingly silent printed patristic witness. We can begin slowly to see the essence and substance of the unique truth that Orthodoxy is, not in catechisms or statements of belief, but in actual practice. For, ultimately Orthodoxy is not expressed only in correct beliefs, doctrines, or dogmas. It is lived and felt and experienced. Beliefs, doctrines, and dogmas reflect a "theology of facts," as one great Church Father expressed it, and the locus of these facts is personal spiritual experience and practice. Until we know what we believe as it is expressed in lives lived and transformed by real individuals, rather than from logical dicta rising out of rigorous philosophical systems, we cannot adequately express to the Westerner the truth of the Orthodox Faith. And to know these real individuals, these incarnate pillars of philosophical truth, we must turn to the largely unknown spiritual treasures of Orthodoxy, the ascetic parables and writings of those who struggled with the passions for perfection in Christ.

There are two outstanding and indispensable compilations of the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church which are most important for Orthodox in the West: the Philokalia and the Evergetinos. The Philokalia, a collection of writings by Fathers living approximately between 300 and 1400 A.D., contains exalted theological writings by some thirty Fathers. These writings are essentially instructions to monks and spiritual aspirants in methods by which, to quote the full title of the collection, "the mind is purified, illumined, and made perfect through practical and contemplative moral philosophy." It contains very advanced teachings ranging from advice on the proper control of the breath during prayerful contemplation to detailed instructions for the attainment of freedom from the passions. Though it has appeared in part in English, it is relatively unknown in its entirety to many Orthodox. Even in its Greek, Slavonic, and Russian editions, it is not widely read in modern times. The transition from an Orthodoxy lacking spiritual maturity and beset by formidable external foes to the perfection of the theoretical philosophy of the Philokalia is not an easy one and, even in translation, this collection is not a first solution to the spiritual naivet� of contemporary Orthodox.

The Evergetinos is probably the beginning point for Orthodox in the West who wish to capture something of the essence of their faith. If the Philokalia teaches pure prayer and the path to deification and union with God, the Evergetinos provides us with anecdotal evidence that the practice of Christian virtues, such as humility, chastity, love for our neighbor, and submission to the will of God, can bring us to the brink of the ultimate encounter with the divine by which we are elevated to the philosophical and higher struggle for perfection. If from the Philokalia we are instructed in the philosophical way to perfection, in the Evergetinos we are guided to the pragmatic life of humility and self-control (composure), the indispensable requisites for the more advanced endeavor of the former. In the Evergetinos we see the virtuous lives of the desert monks who, during the first few centuries of Christianity, fled to the barren deserts around the Mediterranean and lived the most extreme and awe-inspiring lives of asceticism in a search for God.

The Fathers (and among the Fathers, we include the spiritual Mothers) who dwelled in the desert and whose lives fill the Evergetinos are much like the sacred icons of the Orthodox Church. By naturalistic standards, they are distorted, strange, and foreign to us, images at times seemingly appropriate to the fanciful. Nevertheless, just as icons draw us into their spiritual auras and become windows through which we see faint glimpses of the heavenly world, so the Fathers of the desert draw us into the sphere of their spiritual power and force us deep into the recesses of our consciences and allow us to look on the almost lost spiritual powers dwelling unheeded within ourselves. Their asceticism cannot be - perhaps should not be - imitated by many. They are simply a standard to which we should strive, a flame so bright as to kindle within us the spark of spiritual desire. But this is not to say that they are removed from us.

The desert Fathers speak of sexual desire, envy, greed, jealousy, hate, and the most complex human foibles. They expose to us what is all too familiar and obvious. They let us see with alarming clarity the depth of our depravity and the labyrinths of our sinful inner chasms. And though we probably cannot attain to the fullest extent the virtues by which these holy hermits overcame human depravity, we can see clearly the folly of a modern world seeking goodness, truth, purity, and virtue without first humbling itself before its Creator and the subtle inward world of spiritual truth. Hearing today of virtues, the ancient Fathers show them, by their examples, to be plastic virtues. Seeing today monuments of faith built with stone and mortar, the desert dwellers show us monuments of faith built on flesh and blood.

As we enter into the world of beginning monks, freshly having left the world, and accomplished elders who have gained discernment of the inner life, spiritual discretion, the ability to see into the hearts and minds of others, we embark on a journey into a strangely real world. In the small communities of monks gathered in the wilderness (sketes), we find those who, in their lives and by their experience, vivify the rules and commandments of Christian conduct. We see the living source of the rules which most Christians today emptily follow. And we see the mystical rewards and products of virtuous lives in these examples of perfection attained on earth. Indeed, we have an elemental encounter with what the Orthodox Christian life encompasses: a set of beliefs and practices gleaned from experience and a profound way of life, not a system based on regimented acts coldly governed by abstract beliefs and rules propped up with mere emotionalism. We touch what gives our otherwise vain and fruitless efforts in the Christian life their meaning and content. Standing before us is the answer to modern disbelief: the possibility of deeper life and the fulfillment of lost goals which, at least in the wild attempts by many contemporary religious groups to give external meaning to an internally moribund Christianity, have become meaningless, if not ignominious, pursuits.

The Evergetinos was first published in the eighteenth century through the efforts of Saint Makarios of Corinth and Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain. It was thus taken from the hands of the monks of Mount Athos and made available to the Orthodox faithful. In addition to recent, excellent editions published in Greece, parts of the Evergetinos have appeared in English. However, these English translations have not adequately provided for the spiritual needs of Orthodox in the West. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the writings in the Evergetinos, as we have observed, though not as advanced as those in the Philokalia, still express some very profound philosophical and psychological precepts. They are written in an ironic tone, often having shades and levels of meaning not immediately apparent. Moreover, since they are written largely for those seriously engaged in the spiritual struggle, they often assume some ascetic experience on the part of the reader.

Therefore, selections from the Evergetinos designed for the general reader should be made by those with spiritual experience and the discernment to know what is and what is not too complex for the beginner. This has not, in general, been the case. For the most part, the available translations are by Roman Catholics working from Latin texts with anecdotes that relate to an Eastern monasticism foreign to the traditions and development of Western monasticism, or by scholars with largely academic interest in the desert Fathers. However noble the efforts of these translators may be, they lack the very experience which the Evergetinos transmits and which is necessary in order to produce a useful introduction to Orthodox spirituality for the beginner or lay reader.

Secondly, there are today very few individuals who truly understand what translation is. I have noted that the presentation of deep spiritual writings demands very careful selection of passages by spiritually experienced individuals. How much more, then, we should expect such experience to play a role in the translation of the passages. Too many times we find that translators have fallen into a supercilious style of translation in which they unwittingly lose the meaning of a passage in their misguided efforts to show technical precision and, one might suspect, to demonstrate their superior knowledge of some language. They produce lengthy introductions in criticism of one or another translator, thereby, in the case of spiritual writings, acting against the very charity embodied in what they translate.

Even in the case of some superb translations, such as the translation of the Philokalia now in progress with the aid of such superior translators as Archimandrite Kallistos Ware and Professor Constantine Cavarnos, the publishers often show a complete lack of spiritual sensitivity. Certainly against the better judgment of Dr. Cavarnos (and no doubt other translators), the first volume of this project violated the arrangement of the writings made by Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, the first publisher of the Philokalia. In the interest of supposed "scholarly objectivity," the writings of Saint Anthony the Great were appended to the text with effusive accusations against their authenticity. An acquiescence to the spiritual authority of Saint Nikodemos, natural for anyone of spiritual knowledge, would have been the proper course. It would have reflected the understanding which is absolutely necessary for the preparation of spiritual books.

Thus it is that I offer the present slim volume of selections from the Evergetinos. They are not meant as pedantic considerations of the Greek text, but as comparative translations which bring out the simple messages of the easier lessons of the desert Fathers. They are meant as beginnings for beginners. The passages are translated primarily from the demotic Greek, the colloquial dialect of Greece, and therefore reflect the same concise, simplified versions which the less-sophisticated and less learned (albeit, perhaps more pious) faithful of Greece have received. Some will find this offensive, since in places phrases and expressions, magnificently expressed in the better Greek dialect, but difficult to understand and confusing to the beginner, have been omitted. Still in other places, though as seldom as possible, the modern Greek renderings have been supplemented by phrases from the standard Evergetinos to insure clarity of meaning. Where extant English translations of the passages seem to express better the spiritual intent of the text, despite some disloyalty to the demotic Greek version, they have been incorporated into the final rendering.

There is, then, nothing precisely scholarly in what I have done. The concern has been for the transmission of certain spiritual precepts and for the selection of passages which are as beneficial to the layman as they are to the experienced monk. But even in this, a few words have to be said about the underlying theology of the desert Fathers and about their spiritual psychology. Let us take several important examples. It is almost impossible to capture in translation the Greek words diakrisis and penthos. The former word implies discretion, discernment, and even a supernatural kind of cognition. So when a monk possessed of spiritual diakrisis appears in the proverbs of the Fathers, I have arbitrarily called him a monk of discretion or a monk endowed with discernment. In the case of the latter word, one can render it grief, mourning, lamentation, and even, at times, something akin to repentance. I have tried not to be arbitrary in translating this word. In both cases it would be foolish to try, in the simple translation of a word, to convey the characteristics of an accomplished monk. Diakrisis and penthos have technical meanings in Orthodox patristic writings. If one can be somewhat arbitrary with the one and not with the other, this allowance can only result from some familiarity with the theology of those writings. For this reason I strongly suggest that the reader acquaint himself with Professor Constantine Cavarnos' essay, "The Philokalia," which constitutes the fourth chapter of his readable and essential book, Byzantine Thought and Art (Belmont, Mass., 1968). In a few pages one can gain an understanding of the spiritual terminology of the Fathers and enhance greatly his comprehension of their writing and deeds.

I must say, also, something about my style of translation. Demotic is, as it were, a short-hand version of the "pure" Greek dialect. This has necessitated, for clear understanding in the English text, some changes in the verb tenses and in the sequence of adjectival expressions. As well, I have taken the liberty of repeating nouns in some clauses where references are made by Greek pronouns having no counterparts in English. In the case of particularly complex or ironic statements, sometimes rendered idiomatically in the Greek, I have used an underlining purely of my own invention. In addition, I have felt free to include some idiosyncratic uses. While names are usually transliterated directly from the Greek (according to the modern rule) even when English translations are available (e.g., "Antonios" instead of "Anthony," or "Markos" instead of "Mark") in some cases I did not find this comfortable; hence, Abba "Moses" the Black. Further, I have used the word "Abba" much as we use today the word "Father." At times I have arbitrarily interchanged the words. And finally, the Greek word "hosios" I have translated as "holy" in most places, though, in order to enhance the text, as "Saint" in others. Otherwise, I have usually rendered the word "hagios" as "Saint" (except when used as an adjective). I apologize for these oddities.

Now, lest anyone think that I have proceeded with an overestimation of my own abilities, may I add a crucial disclaimer? The following passages, by virtue of being translated from a demotic Greek version of the writings of the desert Fathers, aim at giving a simple and very understandable introduction to Orthodox spirituality. Moreover, they are comprised of selections which provide a deliberate and balanced view of the inner life of the desert dwellers. These two qualities, we have said, are the earmarks of a good translator and a good spiritual guide. I am neither. In no sense do I pretend to have adequate abilities to translate the sublime spiritual words of the Fathers. Nor, as is well known to those around me, am I a man of any spiritual attainment whatever. I have, rather, followed very closely and used as my primary original source a small volume, the Mikros ("Small" or "Shorter") Evergetinos (Hagion Oros-Athens, 1977), by the monk Kallinikos of the Skete of Saint Ann on Mount Athos. In following his selections, I have necessarily benefited from the wisdom of Father Kallinikos. Whatever I have presented that is good is his; the errors and the poorness in presentation are my own.

I have taken a final liberty in this small effort. Combined with the anecdotes of the desert Fathers are a few anecdotes which I have attributed to spiritual people of our own times, mostly holy men and women living in Greece. I have done this to emphasize that, despite the waning tide of Orthodox spirituality today, there are still some spiritual Fathers of the stature of the ancients. The desert exists not just in the past years; it is also in our hearts. And though they are few and silent and hidden, there are today Fathers and Mothers dwelling in the deserts of their hearts. To the extent that we, too, search our hearts and turn to the inner life, God will no doubt raise up these men and cure, with their perfect examples, the spiritual malaise of our age. Then they can do with deeds what poor spiritual pariahs such as myself can only ape with limited offerings such as the present little book.

Comments On The Book

"These translations, by the Very Rev. Dr. Chrysostomos, of the anecdotes and tales of the early Fathers of the desert are superb. They express, beyond the theological discernment necessary for their adequate translation, the essence of poetic insight."

Robert J. McGovern, Co-Editor, The Ashland Poetry Press

"One of the primary goals of the historian is to know the thoughts and minds of those who lived before us and who have shaped the realities of the present. Archimandrite Chrysostomos, in his trenchant and careful translations of the ancient parables of the desert Fathers, gives us our Christian past in a beautiful and vivid way. His superb introduction to these writings reminds us that all of us have forgotten all too much about the sources of our contemporary Christian traditions. He has thus given us something to think about as historians. But in addition to this; he has done something more. He has brought back to mind the psychology of a Christianity that is common to all of us - which lingers intuitively in the mind of anyone who is historically conscious."

Charles D. Ferroni, Professor of History, Ashland College

"Anyone reading (in translation) the writings of the Holy Fathers cannot but regret not possessing the knowledge of Greek, so as fully to savor their beauty. In this work we have before us charming, yet profound, anecdotes and deep spiritual advice. The holy men become all but personally known to us. Archimandrite Chrysostomos has indeed done a great work in making so many of the desert Fathers as accessible and vivid in the English language as they are in the Greek."

Mother Alexandra, Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration (formerly Her Highness, Illeana, Princess of Romania)

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