Two Stories about Discipleship from the Desert Fathers

1)    “Four monks of Scetis, clothed in skins, came one day to see the great Pambo. Each one revealed the virtue of his neighbor. The first fasted a great deal; the second was poor; the third had acquired great charity; and they said of the fourth that he had lived for twenty-two year in obedience to an old man. Abba Pambo said to them,  ‘I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.’”

2)     “Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria.   He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep. Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said,

‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’”

(Pambo in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg.196)

St. John Chrysostom (A)

This is the 5th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is Clement of Alexandria (B).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

We will now consider St. John Chrysostom, the famed preacher and bishop of both Antioch and Constantinople (d. 407 A.D.), who is one of the greatest teachers in Church history.  His volumes of sermons and writings inspired Orthodox Christians from his day to our own.

As a great thinker and pastor, St. John was concerned with the educational upbringing of his flock.  He constantly exhorted his people to know God and live according to God’s teachings and commands.  Chrysostom, like other Patristic writers believed salvation was achieved within the Church community “through the process of making the kingdom of God present to an unbelieving world”  (Vigen Guroian, “Family and Christian Virtue in a Post-Christendom World: Reflections on the Ecclesial Vision of John Chrysostom”,  St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol 35, No. 4, 1991, p. 330)    As Chrysostom said:

“When we teach our children to be gentle, to be forgiving, to instill virtue in their souls, we reveal the image of God within them.  This then is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment seat?… How can we be worthy of the kingdom of heaven?”  (St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life, tr. Catherine Roth & David Anderson, p. 71).

St. John Chrysostom’s AD­DRESS ON VAINGLOR­Y AND THE RIGHT WAY FOR PARENTS TO BRING UP THEIR CHIL­DREN cannot be dated with certainty.  Historians now generally agree that it was written some­time around 400 AD.  It is one of few Patristic documents directly envisioning the goals and purposes of education, though it is limited by its focus on the responsibility of parents in educating their children.

Chrysostomus Bauer, St. John’s Twentieth Century biographer, has written of this work:

“In its substance, the little book enjoys the distinction, from the first page, of being a history of Christian pedagogy.  It is actually the oldest comprehensive teaching on Christian education which is not exclusively directed to Christian children….   It may well be that other writers have incidentally inserted shorter or longer discussions of children’s education in their writings; but no one had yet supplied a complete and independent treatise on this subject.

So this little book occupies a special place of honor in the history of Christian catechetics.  The author has brought together in his treatise (Chapters 39 and 43) two standard catechisms for children, in order to demonstrate to parents, by means of these two examples, how they should train their children from early youth onward in the Holy Scriptures….”  (Chrysostomus Bauer, John Chrysostom and His Time, p. 172).

St. John’s main theme, which he repeats three times, is “We are raising an athlete, let us concentrate our thought on that”   (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, p. 112). He envisions education as a great training process in which we form and condition the Christian.  From Chrysostom’s point of view this task is not an easy one and requires diligence and perseverance on the part of parents.  St. John places heavy emphasis on studying the Scrip­tures and teaching virtues.  His methodology is repetition and storytelling.  St. John is quite compassionate toward children and is very concerned about their sensitive souls.

Next:  St. John Chrysostom (B)

St. John the Forerunner

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.  He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”    (John 3:27-30)

Fr. Anthony Coniaris paraphrased St. John the Forerunner:

 “Take yourself less seriously, and Christ more seriously.”  (Anthony Coniaris, HOLY JOY: THE HEARTBEAT OF FAITH, p 91)

A few meditations from the Hymns of Matins for the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner which is commemorated in the Orthodox Church on August 29:

“Faithful, let us assemble!  Let us praise together the mediator between the law and grace!  He preached repentance to us, And was beheaded for boldly and publicly denouncing Herod!”

“You fed on the milk of the Law, and as its seal you upheld the place of lawful marriage, standing against abhorrent adultery.”

“Herod’s birthday appears ungodly to everyone, for in the midst of the reveling, the head of the Faster was proposed as meat.  Joy was united to sorrow, and laughter turned to bitter tears, for the girl entered in front of everyone carrying the head of the Baptist on a platter as she had said.  In the face of strong desire, sadness fell on all those lying there with the king, for she did not make them happy, nor Herod, yet their grief was not true sorrow but that which is false and temporal.”

Clement of Alexandria (B)

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog Clement of Alexandria (A).     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.  This is the conclusion of the blog looking at Clement of Alexandria (d. 215AD).   Clement was one of the first Christians to write enough about education as to give us a sense of what he saw as the goals of Christian education.   Basically Clement argued that we follow Christ by learning to live virtuously.

The content of religious education for Clement is the virtues, carefully taught and applied to each learner in each unique set of circumstances.  His plan is to form a system of wise discrimination in which each Christian’s failures are diagnosed and then the appropriate remedy in the form of training is applied (Geraldine Hodgson, Primitive Christian Education, p. 131).   Ultimately for Clement, the Christian community itself is the schoolhouse for learning.  Everything we see and experience and learn about in the Church becomes an encounter with Christ who is the Word of God, the right reason of the Father, and the true Educator of mankind  (Hodgson, p. 129).

Christ’s chief goal is to train and form our inner being (Clement, Christ the Educator, p. xiv). In Clement’s own words,

Let us call Him (that is Jesus), then, by the one title: Educator of little ones, an Educator who does not simply follow behind, but who leads the way, for His aim is to improve the soul, not just to instruct it; to guide to a life of virtue, not merely to one of knowledge…. As Teacher, He explains and reveals through instruction, but as Educator He is practical.  First He persuades men to form habits of life, then He encourages them to fulfill their duties by laying down clear-cut counsels and by holding up, for us who follow, examples of those who have erred in the past (Clement, p. 4).

He (The Word) educates us in fear of God, for this fear instructs us in the service of God, educates to the knowledge of truth, and guides by a path leading straight up to heaven…. The education that God gives is the imparting of the truth that will guide us correctly to the contemplation of God, and a description of holy deeds that endure forever…. so the Educator, in His concern for us, leads His children along a way of life that ensures salvation (Clement, p. 49-50).

According to Clement, religious education must not only instruct souls, it must form and improve them as well.  True education leads to virtues, not simply intellectual knowl­ed­ge.  It must provide not just facts but examples of how to live.   Education teaches us the fear of the Lord in order to lead us to heaven.  Its goal is the salvation of souls.  Clement was not alone in his understanding of Christ the Educator in terms of virtuous living.   Writing almost 50 years before Clement, St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 165AD) in his Apologies had taken the viewpoint that

Christ is preeminently the Teacher who enables his disciples to live rationally.  Taught by Christ, they become chaste (chapter 15), gentle, patient and free from anger (chapter 16), and obedient to civil authorities (chapter 17)” (Robert Sider,  The Gospel and its Proclamation, p. 70). 

In Clement of Alexandria, we see several of the goals for education found in the Holy Scriptures being emphasized.  Clement strongly believes instruction should focus on the fear of God, obedience to God’s teaching, and on holiness.  All of this results from the (new) relationship we now have with God in Jesus Christ.

Next:  St. John Chrysostom (A)

Are the Blessed Happy?

Commenting on Matthew 5:1-12, English Evangelical the Rev.  John Stott  (who died last month) wrote:

“The beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be. … The eight beatitudes which Christ speaks describe his ideal for every citizen of God’s kingdom.”

In the beatitudes Christ speaks of being “blessed.” Some say “blessed” can also be translated as “happy.” But John Stott writes:

“It is seriously misleading to render makarios ‘happy’. For happiness is a subjective state, whereas Jesus is making an objective judgment about these people. He is  declaring not what they may feel like (‘happy’), but what God thinks of them and what on that account they are: they are ‘blessed’.

What is this blessing? The second half of each beatitude elucidates it. They possess the kingdom of heaven and they inherit the earth. The mourners are comforted and the hungry are satisfied. They receive mercy, they see God, they are called the sons of God. Their heavenly reward is great. And all these blessings belong together.”       (John R.W.Stott, The Message of The Sermon on the Mount, pp 31, 33-34)

Judging the Sinner Who is Tempted

“A brother questioned Abba Poeman saying, ‘If I see a brother whom I have heard is a sinner, I do not want to take him into my cell, but when I see a good brother I am happy to be with him.’ The old man said, ‘If you do a little good to the good brother, do twice as much for the other. For he is sick. Now, there was an anchorite called Timothy in a coenobium. The abbot, having heard of a brother who was being tempted, asked Timothy about him, and the anchorite advised him to drive the brother away. Then when he had been driven away, the brother’s temptation fell upon Timothy to the point where he was in danger. Then Timothy stood up before God and said, “I have sinned. Forgive me.” Then a voice came which said to him, ‘Timothy, the only reason I have done this to you is because you despised your brother in the time of his temptation.’” (Poeman in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs.176-177)

Clement of Alexandria (A)

This is the 3rd  blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is  A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer.     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

Apostle Philip instructs the Ethiopian

While no one Patristic writer left us a theology of education, we gain some insight from their writings about the purpose for religious education. “The term `Christian education,’ was first used by Clement of Rome (A.D. 96) in his letter to the Corinthians: `Your children should partake in Christian education.'”  (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators,  p. 27)   It has already been noted that the first Christ­ians did not establish specifically Christian schools for teaching their children.  They relied more on the community and life itself as the school for learning God’s ways.  They believed there was a certain knowle­d­ge which was specifically Christ­ian.  This knowledge is to be conveyed by life in the Church community.

Not until about 200 A.D. does another Clement, this one of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD), give us a vision for Christian education.   He focuses on the title frequently given to Christ in the New Testament – Teacher.  He wrote his book, THE EDUCA­TOR, to help form a person totally in the image of God.

Clement of Alexandria believed that anyone can be trained to regulate his thoughts, will, emotions and actions according to the teaching of Christ.  (Igino Giorgani, The Social Message of the Early Church Fathers  pp. 186-187;  see also Clement of Alexandria, p. 91).  However, before this training can take place, every human soul must be healed of the sickness of sin.

“In fact, if a person is sick, he cannot master any of the things taught him until he is first completely cured …  Just as our body needs a physician when it is sick, so, too, when we are weak, our soul needs the Educator to cure its ills.  Only then does it need the Teacher to guide it and develop its capacity to know, once it is made pure and capable of retaining the revelation of the Word.” (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, p.  5)

For true education to take place,  there must be first the healing of the human made sick by sin.  This notion is found in the Old Testament.

When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because You afflict them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and give rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:35-36)

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)  

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me with Your generous Spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You.  (Psalms 51:12-13)

In each of these passages, we find first a forgiving encounter with the living God, and only then an ability to learn from the Lord.  This healing is accomplished in Jesus Christ, the true Educator.  Human nature itself is healed by Christ, in addition to the inner being of each person.  Christ Jesus, the Word of God, does not limit his activity to healing that which is infirm in us.  Christ the Educator, being perfect God, heals us by forgiving our sins.  Then as a man, Christ educates us in how to avoid sin  (Clement, p. 9). For us, “Salvation is the follow­ing of Christ” (Clement, p. 27).  Education becomes that sound training that teaches us how to follow Christ by living a virtuous life (Clement, p. 17).

Next:  Clement of Alexandria (B)

Equal Time for the Sunrise

I revisited the Adena Indian Mound in Miamisburg, OH.    The almost 70 feet high Mound is now part of an Ohio State Park Memorial.  It was a burial ground for these early Ohio residents.

Since I earlier posted a blog about watching the sun set from atop the Miamisburg Mound, I thought I would give equal time to the sunrise.  (You can watch a Flickr slide show of the photos I took of the sunset.)   I got up early enough to make it to the top of the Mound to watch the dawn  of the sun and a new day.

It was a spectacular sunrise and certainly worth the effort.

Thanks be to God, the Creator of the heavens and earth, and of all beauty!

I was asked if these were the natural colors in the photo, yes, I didn’t edit the photo other than crop it.

You can see my Flickr set of the Miamisburg Sunrise and watch it as a slide show.   Once you are on the page with the thumbnail photos, just click on the Slideshow button above the small photos.  Once the slides appear you can also then click on the “Show Information” which will reveal a few notes I made for some photos.

The Appropriate Place and Prayer

“Certainly there are countless attitudes of the body, but that in which we stretch out our hands and life our eyes to heaven is to be preferred for expressing with the body the dispositions of the soul during prayer. That at least is the way we should act when there are no obstacles. But circumstance may lead us to pray sitting down, for example when we have a pain in the legs; or even in bed because of fever. For the same reason, if for example we are on board ship or if business does not allow us to withdraw to perform our duty in regard to prayer, it is possible to pray without taking up any particular outward attitude.

In regard to kneeling for prayer, this is essential when we are accusing ourselves of our sins before God and entreating him to heal and absolve us. It symbolizes the prostration and humility of which Paul speaks when he writes: ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ (Eph. 3:14). That is spiritual kneeling, so called because every creature adores God in the name of Jesus and prostrates itself humbly before him. The Apostle seems to be alluding to this when he says: ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth’ (Phil. 2:10). As for the place, you should realize that every place is suitable for prayer…However, in order to pray undisturbed it is possible to choose a particular place in one’s house, if practicable, as a kind of hallowed spot, and to pray there.”   (Origen in The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clément, pg. 196)

A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer

This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.   It is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

The Christian community with its full sacramental/mystical life was seen as living proof of the Divine revelation.  For the early Church, education was based on the revealed truth.  This revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was the content of their teaching.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386AD) says, “Do not believe me unless you have a proof of what I proclaim from the divine Scriptures.  For the saving power of our faith does not come from clever arguments but from proofs from the divine Scriptures… ” (Robert Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, p. 104).  Proofs of the faith were to be experienced and discovered within the revelation of God proclaimed by the Church.   St. Augustine (d. 430AD) exclaimed to his listeners, “Let us hear the Gospel as if the Lord were present… ” (Robert Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, p. 129).    We must teach and proclaim the Gospel in our com­munities in this same manner.   Our congregations should feel the presence of the Lord in our teaching ministry.  It is in this encounter with the Living God that people’s lives are changed.  It is here that we learn the truth of God.

Keep in mind that in the scriptures, the apostles were sent out as witnesses to the truth.   In other words they were to speak about that which they personally experienced.   Their call to faith was not an appeal to believe in something that cannot be proven, but to believe their witness that Jesus is risen and He is the Son of God, Christ and Savior.    Somehow it was their very life that was the confirmation of the Gospel.   In that sense what was on trial was not their message (and could they prove it), but could they live the life that would convince others that they themselves were believers.   The crux of the argument was not abstract issues between faith and reason, but the effectiveness of their own witness (and thus in effect their own lives and lifestyles).   This means for us today in doing our educational ministry, can we convince others that Christ is risen or that Christ is in our midst?

St. Gregory

In teaching this revelation, the Fathers insist that instruction cannot be impersonal.  Christianity is God reconciling each one of us to Himself.  It cannot be taught by creating one lesson plan for all learners.  The Fathers all recognize that each person progresses spiritually at a different pace.   St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 391AD) explains, “It does not belong to everyone… to philosophize about God….  It is not appropriate to discuss God at all times, nor with all people, nor all aspects of the subject, but there is a proper time, the right people, and a sufficient extent.”  (Robert Sider,  The Gospel and its Proclamation,  p. 227).  Each person requires personalized instruction to bring him or her to the full knowledge of the truth.  This is certainly evident in Proverbs where seemingly contra­dictory bits of wisdom follow one after the other (see for example Proverbs 26:4-5).  Christian instruction is lived out daily by each person in a unique circumstance.  Any lesson might prove harmful for a person of a different level of maturity.  This is not to say that ethical truth is completely situational. Truth is truth.   The teacher’s job is to know the learner in order to know what to teach and when.  The learner’s duty is to learn the lessons and to learn discer­nment – the wisdom of when and how to apply the lesson.  As Matsagouras notes:

“The educational task according to the Desert Fathers, was not an easy routine which could be applied in the same manner to all Disciples, but it was a laborious process, involving many methods, which were to be applied in various manners, according to the nature of the Disciples.  This does credit to the Desert Fathers who, living in a period when little attention was paid to the individual, emphasized by words and actions, the necessity of in­dividualized education.  The variety of teaching methods, and the organiza­tion used by the monks were two of the most important characteristics of the  monastic educational system.”  (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators, p 66)

St. John Chrysostom

What does this mean for our own work in Christian education?  It means the design for our educational programs must incorporate a system structured to support numerous levels of spiritual development.  One-lesson-fits-all curriculums cannot satisfy the goals nor the metho­dolo­gies of the early Church or of our work today.   Before sharing the Gospel, some learners may need more preparatory work than others to be ready to receive the message.   Remember, St. Gregory the Theologian taught that humans originally fell into sin because they had not gone through the educational stages God intended for them.   They were not mature enough to deal with the knowledge for which they reached out.  The knowledge of good and evil was a necessary part of the education of humans; they prematurely took hold of the knowledge and suffered the consequences.   (Constantine Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology,  p. 50).    For modern Christian educators, this lesson ought not be forgotten.   As John Erickson wrote,

…Chrysostom, who regularly emphasizes the good judgment and tact demanded of the preacher/teacher, and by Gregory of Nazianzen, who insists on the need `to give in due season to each his portion of the word.’…  `since the common body of the Church is composed of many different characters and minds…,  it is absolutely necessary that its ruler should be at once simple in his uprightness…,  and as far as possible manifold and varied in his treatment of individuals…’  The spiritual gift of discernment and a proper sense of `economy’ are essential for the exercise of the Church’s `teaching office.   (John Erickson, The Challenge of our Past, p. 59)

Next:  Clement of Alexandria (A)