“These Are Our Angels …”
Although Saint Benedict wrote his Holy Rule for “cenobites, that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot” (RB 1.2), he also lauds the prototypical “anchorites or hermits” (1.3–5). In monastic parlance, these monikers were inspired by the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, according to which Jesus frequently “withdrew [anechōrēsen]… to a deserted [erēmon] place by himself” (Mt 14:13). By joining Jesus in the solitude of the desert, the earliest monks lived like the angels who “ministered to him” (Mt 4:11).
This identification of human monks with otherworldly angels was noted especially by pilgrims to the Egyptian desert. In one fourth-century travelogue, the anonymous author summarized his encounters with monks in the following words:
In Egypt I saw many fathers living the angelic life as they advanced steadily in the imitation of our divine Saviour… They do not busy themselves with any earthly matter or take account of anything that belongs to this transient world. But while dwelling on earth in this manner they live as true citizens of heaven. (The Lives of the Desert Fathers, Prologue 5)
The monks, too, sometimes understood themselves in these terms. Evagrius, for example, taught that “a monk becomes equal to the angels by means of true prayer, yearning to see the face of the father who is in heaven” (On Prayer 113; quoting Lk 20:36, Mt 18:10). Only radical withdrawal—anachoresis—from the world could possibly enable men of flesh and blood to imitate incorporeal spirits in their contemplation of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15).
In the deserts of Syria, monks took angelic anachoresis to entirely new heights—in some cases, quite literally. One historian, Peter Brown, describes such men as
‘angelic’ persons… dedicated to a ferocious and fully visible asceticism and living a life shorn of all the normal attributes of human beings—perched in the open air on crags near their villages or, a little later, on the top of great columns. (The Body and Society, 327)
And yet, for all their “histrionic feats of self-mortification” (“The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” 91), the Syrian monks were never entirely withdrawn from the world of men. “To go to the [desert] in Syria,” explains Brown, “was to wander into the ever present fringe of the [settled land]; it was not to disappear into another, unimaginable world” (83). Ordinary Christians could thus enjoy frequent and intimate contact with many Syrian monks, about whom Saint John Chrysostom was proud to declare: “these are our angels” (Homilies on Matthew, 55.8).
Such an epithet perfectly encapsulates the relationship between the fourth/fifth-century anchorite Peter (“the Galatian”) and Theodoret, later bishop of Cyrrhus. In one chapter of his History of the Monks in Syria, Theodoret fondly recounts his childhood visits to Peter’s hermitage: “He often sat me on his knees and fed me with grapes and bread; my mother, who had experience of his spiritual grace, ordered me to reap his blessing once each week” (9.4). According to Theodoret, he and his family enjoyed a similarly-blessed familiarity with the monks Aphrahat (8.15) and Macedonius (13.8). Such relationships had a lasting effect on the young Theodoret, who attributed his own ecclesiastical vocation to the prayer and example of these holy monks.
Despite the chasm of cultures and centuries which separate Mount Angel Abbey from the early monks of Syria, we have at least one thing in common: guests. As Saint Benedict says, “monasteries are never without them” (RB 53.16). And many guests of Mount Angel Abbey describe their relationships with the monks who dwell here in stories very similar to Theodoret’s. Whether it be an oblate on retreat in our guesthouse, a regular patron at our brewery, or a family with school-aged children joining us each week for Mass, ordinary Christians (and non-Christians alike!) are drawn to our holy hilltop by something distinctly attractive about our way of life—something that bubbles up over the confines of our cloister, begging to be shared with the Church and the world. Us monks can’t always pinpoint precisely what this “something” is, but most of our guests, oblates, and employees are happy to share their own graced accounts.
Even if we—“lukewarm as we are” (RB 18.25)—don’t deserve to be called “angels” in the same strict sense as the anchorites of old, we pray for the grace to be your angels as our withdrawal from the ways of the world aids us—paradoxically—in welcoming you as Christ (cf. RB 53.1).
- The Lives of the Desert Fathers [Historia Monachorum in Aegypto]. Translated by Norman Russell. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981.
- Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. See especially ch. 16, “‘These Are Our Angels’: Syria,” pp. 323–338.
- Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” The Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80–101.
- Theodoret of Cyrrhus. A History of the Monks of Syria [Historia Religiosa]. Translated by R. M. Price. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1985.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
33 Icons, a Historic Homecoming, and a Syriac Legend (Can You Guess What They Have in Common?)
For most of our students and staff, the first week of August came and went with little fanfare. The big July festivals—in honor of Saint Benedict and Bach, respectively—were already in the books, and the seminary was quietly observing its summer break. But for those attuned to our rich ways of promoting art and culture, something historic happened between July 31 and August 4: the Saint Benedict Guesthouse & Retreat Center welcomed the Classical Iconography Institute back to our holy Hilltop after a decades-long absence to facilitate an intensive iconography workshop for 33 students, five of whom were Mount Angel monks (namely, Br. Alfredo, Br. Isaiah, Fr. Michael, Br. Novice Sherif, and myself).
The “Iconographic Arts Institute” (as it was formerly called) was first founded in 1989 by Charles Rohrbacher and our own master iconographer, Br. Claude Lane. Together, they taught yearly workshops at the Abbey, passing on the ancient art of iconography to successive generations of students. After six years, Br. Claude drifted away from the Institute, and then, in 1999, the Institute drifted away from Mount Angel Abbey. More than 20 years later, in 2022, the Institute found a new home, new leadership, and a new name, reincorporating as the “Classical Iconography Institute.” By offering this summer’s retreat at Mount Angel and working with a new generation of budding monastic iconographers, the Classical Iconography Institute was returning to its roots.
During this summer’s workshop, the “Beginning” students (including all five monks) produced their own unique renderings of the most iconic icon in the traditional canon: the “Image of Edessa” or the “Holy Mandylion” (Greek for “towel,” designating the cloth upon which the image was painted). This depiction of Christ’s face is, according to ancient tradition, patterned upon the only portrait of Jesus ever painted. As the story goes, King Abgar of Edessa sent envoys to Jesus—including Hannan, his royal painter—requesting a personal visit in Edessa. Although Jesus declined the invitation (being too busy with the salvation of the whole world), he did permit Hannan to paint his portrait and to jot down a message of encouragement for King Abgar and his people. Upon Hannan’s return, both the likeness and the letter became priceless treasures for Syriac Christians, who spread the story far and wide. By the sixth century, so many miracles had been ascribed to the image that authors began describing it as “acheiropoieton” or “not made by [human] hands.” In the tenth century it was transferred to Constantinople, where it was prominently displayed for many years. It remained in the Byzantine capital until 1204, when it ultimately vanished from the historical record in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.
Whether or not the above tale is entirely true, the traditional Mandylion icon has exercised an undeniable attraction for many centuries of iconographers and iconophiles— including, now, all those who participated in this summer’s workshop at Mount Angel Abbey. As these students gazed upon Christ’s face, slowly emerging during the week of prayer and painting, many small miracles were worked in the hidden recesses of each artist’s heart. How many more miracles might be worked now, as Christ’s likeness is venerated by countless new viewers in the homes, parishes, and monastic cells to which these holy images have been borne?
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
“A School of the Lord’s Service” (Barhadbeshabba, Benedict, and Mount Angel Seminary)
Sometime in the sixth century, Barhadbeshabba ascended a podium and looked out at a sea of expectant students. He, a Syriac theologian, was delivering that year’s inaugural address at the School of Nisibis (in modern-day Turkey). Beginning his speech with a long and tiresome preamble (some things never change…), Barhadbeshabba eventually arrived at his playful and provocative thesis, namely, that the whole history of the world is nothing more than a long series of schools.
According to Barhadbeshabba, the six days of creation were the primordial school in which the angels learned to read the material world as the “alphabet” of God (119). The second school was established for Adam and Eve, who learned right from wrong by reading God’s inscription—Psalm 1, according to Barhadbeshabba’s imaginative gloss on Genesis 2—below the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (123). In subsequent centuries, all the righteous patriarchs and prophets were educated in the Lord’s school and thus became teachers in schools of their own. When God’s chosen teachers were eventually corrupted or eclipsed by the schools of pagan philosophy, Jesus, “the great teacher,” came and “renewed the first school of his father” (136). After his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, he established Peter as the steward of his school and entrusted “the diligent student and careful teacher, Paul the Master” with the instruction of the Gentiles (141). In time, the apostles and their successors passed on their teaching authority to a string of schoolmasters revered in the Syriac tradition, such as Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Ephrem of Edessa. This list climaxed with Narsai, the poet-theologian who refounded the former School of Edessa in Nisibis and thus filled “the Persian realm with knowledge of the fear of God” (152). A handful of headmasters later, Barhadbeshabba’s narrative terminates with Henana of Adiabene, “who was adorned with all virtues,” and who appointed Barhadbeshabba to deliver his present address (155).
In the same century as Barhadbeshabba (albeit an empire away), a Latin-speaking ascetic by the name of Benedict delivered what one might call an “inaugural address” of his own. Unlike Barhadbeshabba, Benedict was writing to monks, not speaking to students. But in one respect, their addresses share a remarkable similarity: both broaden the meaning of “school” beyond the confines of a classroom to include holistic human formation. In the Prologue to his Holy Rule, Benedict expresses his intention “to establish a school for the Lord’s service” (Pr.45), in which a consistent curriculum of prayer and work (ora et labora) will bring wayward souls back to God. For Benedict, prayer primarily means holy reading (“lectio divina”), and the real monastic work is done via the seventy-four “tools for good works” enumerated in chapter four of his Rule. The “school” envisioned by Benedict is thus “not merely a matter of ideas”—to quote Terrence Kardong, one of Benedict’s commentators—but it aims at “the salvation of the whole human person” (Benedict’s Rule: A Commentary, 102). Kardong could have said the same thing about each of the “schools” enumerated by Barhadbehsabba.
Nearly fifteen centuries after the “inaugural addresses” of Barhadbeshabba and Benedict, Mount Angel Seminary heard its own inaugural address on August 28, marking the beginning of its 135th academic year. As an accredited academic institution, owned and operated by our Benedictine monastic community, Mount Angel Seminary stands in the tradition of every authentic “school of the Lord’s service,” from the dawn of creation down to the present day. In recognition of this fact, Fr. Stephen Clovis, the seminary’s Director of Human Formation, described our school in words redolent of Benedict’s Rule:
[The seminary] is a supportive environment, forging bonds of communion and community, whose members are being challenged to grow in virtue, to advance on the path of holiness, and to serve one another in charity. As a school of the Lord’s service, those who minister here are keenly aware of the importance of the human formation that is taking place in this Benedictine hilltop community. (Eucharistic Church, Eucharistic Formation, 129; emphasis added)
Consistent with Saint Benedict’s vision of “school,” whatever academic instruction happens at Mount Angel Seminary (and happen it does!) is not an end in itself, but a springboard to greater human, spiritual, and pastoral development—in a word, holiness. Such is the goal of every “school” worthy of the name. And such was the goal of Barhadbeshabba, who concluded his school’s inaugural address with words just as relevant for his listeners as they are for us today:
Let us labor diligently, according to the aim of our learning, while we adjust our way of life to our didactic reading… Crucify yourselves to the world. Strip off the old man with all of his ways. Put on the new man who through knowledge is renewed in the likeness of his creator, to Whom and to his Father and to the Holy Spirit be glory and honor forever and ever. (159–160)
- Barhadbeshabba. “The Cause of the Foundation of the Schools.” Translated by Adam Becker. In Sources for the Study of the School of Nisibis, 86–160. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
- Clovis, Stephen et al. “Human, Spiritual, and Pastoral Dimensions of Priestly Formation.” In Eucharistic Church, Eucharistic Formation, edited by Owen F. Cummings and Mark Nussberger, 129–133. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2023.
- Michelson, David. The Library of Paradise: A History of Contemplative Reading in the Monasteries of the Church of the East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
“Let Them Be Obliterated…” (Or: What Do We Do With Difficult Psalms?)
On Saturday, July 8, over 1,000 people descended upon (I should rather say ascended to) this holy mountain for our annual Saint Benedict Festival. The day’s festivities began with the ringing of our church bells to summon monks and visitors alike to Midday Prayer. After a brief introduction by the Abbot, everyone joined together in chanting our customary selection of psalms for that Saturday. Incidentally, this selection included the following words from Psalm 83:
Let them be obliterated from the face of the earth;
let them serve to fertilize the ground…
My God, make them like tumbleweeds,
like straw in the wind…
Pursue them with your storm,
torment them with your hurricane.
Cover their faces with chagrin,
and seek vengeance for your name, O Lord.
May they live in endless humiliation and oppression,
to be disgraced and finally to perish… (Psalm 83:11–18)
If these words sound inappropriate to you, then you’re not alone. Richard Dawkins, a distinguished scientist and outspoken atheist, found such bloodthirsty Bible passages to be so irreconcilable with Christian (or any other) morality that he posed a pointed question to all believers: “Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?” (The God Delusion). And even the Catholic Church’s Dicastery for Divine Worship exhibited similar sentiments when they explained their excision of certain psalms (including Psalm 83, quoted above) from the universal Church’s Liturgy of the Hours:
Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses; in the same way, some verses have been omitted from certain psalms, as noted at the head of each. The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty… (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, §131)
Since so many people — including perhaps ourselves — experience “psychological difficulty” with imprecatory (i.e., cursing) psalms, we may find ourselves wondering why the monks of Mount Angel Abbey continue to pray such psalms in public — or at all.
The answer, as it so happens, can be drawn from the text of Saint Benedict’s Holy Rule. While commenting, in the prologue, upon Psalm 15 (“LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?”), Benedict describes the behavior of a blameless man using biblical imagery: “He has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ” (Pr.28). And Benedict uses the same image again in chapter four, while enumerating the “tools for good works”: “As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father” (4.50). In both instances, Benedict is quoting Psalm 137, in which the psalmist laments the cruelty of his Babylonian oppressors. The two verses referenced by Benedict, however, are notorious for their violent imagery:
O Babylon, you plunder-loving city,
How blest will be the one who pays you back in full
for the treatment you meted out to us!
How blest the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against a rock! (Psalm 138:8–9)
Saint Benedict, following many of his patristic predecessors, does not interpret this psalm according to the letter — which, in this case, flagrantly contradicts Christ’s command to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors (Mt 5:44). Rather, he interprets it according to the Spirit, interiorizing the psalmist’s plea for vengeance and directing it against his own evil thoughts and the demons who prompt them. As the Apostle says, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).
The same spiritual interpretation which Saint Benedict applied to Psalm 137 can and should be applied to our own prayer of every imprecatory psalm. To facilitate this process, the monks of Mount Angel Abbey have printed the following inscription above the text of Psalm 83: “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? (Mt 5:46).” Other imprecatory psalms (58, 109) bear similar inscriptions (1 Pt 4:19, 1 Pt 3:9). When we pray these psalms in light of such New Testament texts — and in light of the patristic tradition in which Saint Benedict stands — they become opportunities for us to both recognize our own disordered desires and to dash those sinful inclinations against Christ.
- Anderson, Gary. “King David and the Psalms of Imprecation.” Pro Ecclesia 15, no. 3 (2006): 267–80.
- Origen of Alexandria. Contra Celsum. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. (See especially Book VII)
- Torretta, Gabriel, O.P. “Rediscovering the Imprecatory Psalms: A Thomistic Approach.” The Thomist 80 (2016): 23–48.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
Experts Agree that Mountains are Jesus
At the end of May, the monastic community was privileged to host Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis—a trappist monk and prominent Catholic theologian—as the preacher of our community retreat. During one of his conferences, Fr. Simeon stressed the necessity of a symbolic or allegorical reading of the Scriptures. To support this point, he quoted an aphorism from the 20th-century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (whose works Fr. Simeon translated into English):
All external scenes of Jesus’ life and sufferings are to be understood as a direct revelation of the interior life and intentions of God. This is the fundamental meaning of biblical symbolism and allegory, without which the whole gospel remains nothing but superficial moralism. (The Grain of Wheat, 58)
In other words, every Bible story about Jesus is not merely a moral model for us to imitate. On the contrary, each and every detail in the Scriptures reveals to us something about who God is—namely, an eternal communion of trinitarian love—and how he seeks to draw us into his own divine life. Von Balthasar enumerates a few exemplary details—“Jesus’ silence before Caiphas, the Ecce Homo episode with Pilate, the figure of the Lord covered with the cloak and flogged, his nailing to the Cross, the piercing of his Heart, his words on the Cross”—but his list is far from exhaustive. In fact, Fr. Simeon suggested that “Jesus is the protagonist of every scene, even when he is absent.” When one reads the Scriptures in this light, even the most mundane and seemingly-trivial features of each passage take on divine significance:
From the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery… What was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 515)
However novel this method of symbolic scriptural interpretation may seem, Fr. Simeon and von Balthasar were not the first ones to propose it. It was originally championed by the Fathers of the Church (themselves imitating the New Testament authors), for whom deep, allegorical reading was virtually second nature. Saint Ambrose, for example, was especially attentive to a scene in Saint Luke’s Gospel in which Christ ascends the Mount of Olives. Weaving the geographical details of the Gospel text together with a tapestry of verses from the Psalms—which, incidentally, he also refers to Christ—Ambrose comments thus:
He came to the Mount of Olivet [cf. Lk 19:29], so that He could plant new olive trees [cf. Psalm 127:4] on the heights of virtue… On this mountain, there is that Heavenly Husbandman, so that all those who are planted in the House of the Lord [Ps 91:12] may say, “But I am as a fruitful olive in the House of the Lord” [Ps 51:8]. And, perchance, that mountain is Christ Himself… He it is by Whom we ascend, and to Whom we ascend [cf. Jn 3:13]. (Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, 375)
In a similar vein, Saint Augustine discerns the mysterious presence of Christ whenever mountains are mentioned in the Old Testament. In one famously-puzzling passage, he even identifies Christ with the “curdled mountain” described in older translations of Psalm 68:
But what other mountain than Christ the Lord himself should we regard as the mountain of God, a rich mountain, a mountain full of curds [Ps 68:16]? Of him another prophet says, In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be manifested above all other mountains [Is 2:2]. He is like a mountain curdled into cheese because he tends with the milk of his grace the little ones who need nourishment; he is also a rich mountain because he strengthens and enriches us with his most excellent gifts. (Expositions of the Psalms 67.22)
“Enlightened” readers such as ourselves, who expect the Scriptures to recount only “historical facts,” might be put off by such allegorical readings. But Saints Ambrose and Augustine—along with their later imitators—searched the Scriptures not for historical narratives, but for a personal encounter with the risen Christ, the eternal Word of the Father. And, once they had found him in their own prayerful reading, they were compelled to share their joyful discovery with others.
Saint Benedict, who inherited this patristic tradition of lectio divina, wholeheartedly commends it in the concluding chapter of his Holy Rule. Addressing all those who would follow him “on the path of God’s commandments” (RB PR.49), he offers this advice:
For anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? (RB 73.2–4)
It is only when one reads the Scriptures as do “the holy catholic Fathers”—like Ambrose and Augustine, or even Hans Urs von Balthasar and Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis—that every page, every passage, and every detail of the inspired books can draw us into communion with our Creator.
- Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms. Translated by Erasmo (Fr. Simeon) Leiva-Merikakis. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.
- Ambrose of Milan. Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. Translated by Theodosia Tomkinson. Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2003.
- Stewart, Ambrose, O.S.B. “‘Christ the Lord is a Mountain Curdled Into Cheese’: An Apology for Augustine’s ‘Embarrassing’ Exegesis.” American Benedictine Review 74, no. 2 (June 2023): 141–163.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
Theōría Physikē (Or: What Happens When a Monk Looks at Art…)
If you’ve been to the Abbey Bookstore & Coffeehouse recently, you have probably noticed the new piece of art hanging on our windowed wall. It was placed there by Helen Bouchard, who works for us as a part-time barista to support her full-time passion of painting. This particular piece was inspired by a memory Helen had of her aunt—hence its title, “Sweet Nostalgia”—but she expressed a desire that each viewer of her painting would interpret it anew against the backdrop of his or her own life. Paraphrasing a recent presentation given by Abbot Jeremy on the importance of art and architecture, Helen explained that “the meaning of art depends on the active participation of the art and the person experiencing it… Art needs humans and humans need art.” Inspired, then, both by my abbot and the artist of the above painting, I was drawn to interpret “Sweet Nostalgia” through my own monastic lens. The painting thus became for me a visual summary of the whole spectrum of “Christianity” as defined by Evagrius Ponticus, a founding father of the monastic movement in fourth-century Egypt. “Christianity,” says Evagrius, “is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of ascetical practice [praktikē], natural contemplation [physikē], and mystical knowledge of God [theologikē]” (Praktikos 1). These three elements form the framework for the interpretation which follows.
Beginning in the center of the painting, the solitary figure around whom the scene revolves represents a monk, whose childlike and androgynous features suggest a resemblance to the angels—especially the cherubim as they are depicted in many classical paintings. In connection with this insight, I recall a saying of Evagrius: “a monk becomes equal to the angels by means of true prayer, yearning to see the face of the father who is in heaven” (On Prayer, 113; cf. Lk 20:36, Mt 18:10). The angelic monk is thus in the process of “true prayer,” facilitated in large part by the book he is reading. And this book is none other than the Bible, or at least the Psalter, the praying of which “calms the passions and puts to rest the body’s disharmony” (Evagrius, On Prayer 83). Sacred Scripture thus serves as something of a mantra for the monk, silencing the tempting thoughts—or, as Evagrius calls them, “logismoi”—which afflict him from within and from without (cf. Praktikos 6).
By using psalmody to combat the passions, this monk is clearly engaged in the first stage of Evagrius’ threefold schema for Christian mysticism. This initial stage, “praktikē” or “ascetical practice,” aims to “purify the intellect and to render it free of passions” (Gnostikos 49). That the monk of this painting has successfully attained a state of “passionlessness” (“apatheia”) is evident from the muted, monochromatic palette which makes up both the background around him and even his own form. No demonic “logismoi” leap out to distract the monk from his contemplation of God. Only the vivid, flame-like orange clamors for his attention.
The orange, however, is not a distraction; rather, it represents the second stage in Evagrius’ schema: “gnostikē” or the acquisition of knowledge. The monk in this stage strives “to reveal the truth hidden in all beings” (Gnostikos 49). When such truth is sought in the created world—in this case, in an orange—Evagrius calls the process “physikē” or “natural contemplation.” Evagrius, like all Christians, was convinced that God created everything by means of his personified Word, the “logos” (Jn 1:1–3). As a result, echoes of the “logos” are discernible in the “principles” or “reasons” (“logoi”) hidden within all created things. Only the purified vision of a passionless mind can perceive things for what and why they truly are. And since the monk of this painting has attained just such a state, the solitary orange upon which he meditates flashes out its secret meaning, making known to him the manifold wisdom of God (cf. Eph 3:10).
But the orange does not have the last word. After the monk has passed through the stages of praktikē and gnostikē/physikē, he finally arrives at the goal of all his labors: “theologikē” or “mystical knowledge of God.” This, for Evagrius, is “true prayer” in its proper sense. Such prayer transcends the sensible world—including even mental images—terminating in an ineffable experience of the invisible God (cf. 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16). Yet imageless as it is, Evagrius describes the evidence of this experience in visual terms:
When the [mind] has stripped off the old man and put on that which comes from grace, (cf. Col 3:9-10) then it will see its own state at the time of prayer, like a sapphire or the color of heaven, which Scripture calls the place of God that was seen by the elders under Mount Sinai (cf. Ex 24:10). (Peri Logismon 39)
This mysterious description of the purified mind’s own sapphire light is subtly suggested by the painting under consideration. Amidst the shades of black and gray which make up much of the backdrop, an underlying sapphire hue can be discerned—a hue which resembles the night sky above and behind the monk, and the day sky below and before him. Only against such a backdrop—when the monk’s mind has become a dwelling place for God—can a single orange serve as a springboard for mystical communion with the divine.
- Bouchard, Helen. “From the Studio of H. Bouchard.” https://www.helenbouchard.com
- Harmless, William. “Mystic as Desert Calligrapher: Evagrius Ponticus.” In Mystics, 135–157. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
Will the Real Risen Christ Please Stand Up?
While preaching during the Paschal Vigil, Abbot Jeremy posed (what he called) an “irreverent question” about Christ’s post-resurrection appearances:
Isn’t it a little strange and even unnecessary that if Jesus is risen from the dead and can appear and disappear as he will that he uses other means to announce his risen state before he appears. Why send an angel to the women? Why not just appear to them? Why send the women to his apostles? Why not just appear to them? …He commissions the eleven to announce to others that he is risen. Why not just appear to everyone, everywhere? Why all these messengers?
These questions all stem from the text of Matthew 28—the Gospel reading proclaimed at this year’s Paschal Vigil—but other post-resurrection Gospel accounts provoke still further questions. Why, for instance, does Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene under the guise of an unnamed gardener (Jn 20:11–18)? Or why does he appear to two of his disciples as an unrecognized traveler on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–35)? And what are we to make of Jesus’ beachside barbecue breakfast, at which his disciples are torn between their desire to ask this mysterious man who he is and their overwhelming intuition that it is the Lord (Jn 21:1–14)?
In answer to his (and my) irreverent questions, Abbot Jeremy offered a rationale for all Christ’s cloak-and-dagger tactics (minus, in this case, the dagger): “it is because in this way Jesus reveals to us that he wishes to share and live his risen life with us through our relations with one another.” Had not Christ, after all, promised his disciples that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20)? And that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40)? And did he not confirm the truth of these promises when he appeared to the persecutor, Saul—transforming him into the apostle, Paul—and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4–5)? Thus, in each of his post-resurrection appearances—or lack of appearances, as the case may be—Christ was actively training his apostles to recognize him present in the persons of Mary Magdalene and the myrrh-bearing women; of Peter, John, and the other apostles; of an unassuming gardener and a beach bum; and of every member of his body, the Church—including, Saint Benedict would later add, the abbot, guests, pilgrims, and the poor (RB 2.1–2; 53.1,6–7, 15). In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”).
Yet Christ was not only training his disciples to recognize his risen presence in other “men’s faces.” He was also training them to “become,” as Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis puts it, “the new visibility of Christ in the world.” He continues:
This is one of the astoundingly revolutionary results of the energy of Christ’s Resurrection. It has the power to transform very ordinary, sinful, and mediocre human beings into Jesus’ ears and mouth, hands and feet, and, above all, his very Heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” (642; quoting Jn 14:12)
Fifty days after rising from the dead—and ten days after ascending to his Father—Christ fulfilled his promise to the apostles, pouring out the power of his Spirit upon them at Pentecost and transforming each of them into an alter christus—another Christ. But this promise and this power were not confined exclusively to the apostles. As Saint Peter said in his speech at Pentecost, “the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Year after year, all of us who celebrate the solemnities of the Lord’s resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit are heirs of Christ’s promise and recipients of Christ’s power. May our celebration of these sacred mysteries enable us to recognize his risen life in others and embolden us to be his risen life for the world.
- Abbot Jeremy Driscoll. “Homily for the Paschal Vigil.”
- Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Erasmo (Fr. Simeon) Leiva-Merikakis. Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Volume IV: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2021.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
“It Is Good That We Are Here” (But Just Where Is “Here”?)
Monks of every age and every abbey have long loved the mystery of the Lord’s Transfiguration. The monks of Mount Angel, however, love this mystery in a way that is utterly unique. When we think of the Transfiguration, we experience something like religious awe for a cosmic event. There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with the earth: we live on our own “mountain” – Mount Angel – and there is a poetic resonance between this mountain and the mountain upon which Christ was transfigured – Mount Tabor. But that is not all. Every year on August 6 – the liturgical Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – all of us monks survey the horizon as the sun rises precisely behind another mountain – Mount Hood – just before we begin “Lauds” (our daily morning prayer). This image is thus burned into our brains (perhaps literally, for those who stared too long at the sun!) by the time we hear the corresponding Gospel passage proclaimed at Mass: “Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light…” (Mt 17:1–2). It is impossible for us not to see ourselves in this scene. We are there, with Peter, James, and John, as we stand atop our own “high mountain,” Mount Angel. And we observe two cosmic symbols for Christ – the “sun of justice” (Mal 3:20) and the “highest mountain” (Is 2:2) – coalescing in a blinding light that bathes the world. We know what the Evangelist is describing; we have just seen it!
In the glow of this glorious light, Peter’s response is perfectly understandable: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here…” (Mt 17:4). Although Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us that “he did not know what he was saying” (Lk 9:33), Origen of Alexandria – the 3rd-century “father of lectio divina” – discerned in Peter’s shout an inspired summons to the contemplative life:
They wanted to make booths in themselves for the Word of God who was to dwell in them… and because Peter loved the life of contemplation and chose its delight over being among the multitudes with its accompanying annoyance, he said, for the purpose of encouraging those who wished this kind of life, “It is good for us to be here.” (Commentary on Matthew, 12.41)
Heeding Saint Peter’s (and Origen’s) call to contemplation, future Benedictine monks would discern in Saint Peter’s words an echo of their own vows of stability and conversatio (often translated, in this context, as “fidelity to the monastic way of life”). Just as Saint Peter had experienced on Mount Tabor a foretaste of heaven’s glory – what theologians might call “realized eschatology” – so too did monks see their monasteries as microcosms of “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2). Saint Bernard, for example, once identified his own Abbey of Clairvaux with the heavenly Jerusalem, and he defined the “monk” as a citizen of that city – literally, a “Jerusalemite” (quoted in Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 55–56). If such things could be said by a monk of Clairvaux, how much more should the monks of Mount Angel have the words of Saint Peter on their lips: “Lord, it is good that we are here!”
But the luminous glory of Mount Tabor – and Mount Angel – is only half of the mystery of the Transfiguration. The other half is revealed on the second – and only other – liturgical day on which this Gospel pericope is proclaimed, namely, the Second Sunday of Lent. While preaching to the people of Rome on this occasion, Pope Saint Leo the Great (d. 461) first affirmed the contemplative desire present in Peter’s suggestion (“Lord, it is good that we are here! If you wish, I will make three tents here…”), but then proceeded to paint it in an entirely different light:
The Lord did not respond to this suggestion, indicating that what Peter wanted was not only base but disordered, for the world could not be saved except by the Death of Christ. By the Lord’s example, the faith of believers is called to this, that although it behooves us not to doubt the promise of beatitude, we should understand that, in the vicissitudes of this life, perseverance must be requested before glory, because the happiness of reigning cannot come before the times of suffering. (Sermons, 51.5)
Even though Saint Peter’s exclamation expressed an admirable desire for the glories of the contemplative life, Saint Leo described it as “base” and “disordered” because it did not take into account a central component of the Transfiguration scene, namely, Christ’s conversation with Moses and Elijah about “his exodus” (Lk 9:31), i.e., “the death he would endure in Jerusalem” (Second Sunday of Lent, Evening Prayer, Antiphon 3). Saint Peter especially should have picked up on this detail, because six days earlier (in the biblical scene which immediately precedes the Transfiguration narrative) he had heard Jesus plainly predict his passion and death (Mt 16:21). And Jesus followed this prediction with a clear list of conditions for all Christian disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24). In light of Saint Leo’s sermon – and the fuller context of the Transfiguration narrative – perhaps Saint Peter should have expanded upon his exclamation: “Lord, it is good that we are here”… crucified with you (cf. Gal 2:19)! “If you wish, I will make three tents here”… so that dying with you I may also live with you (cf. Rom 6:8)!
Such sentiments would come to be celebrated by Benedictine monks, who saw in the structure of their lives not only a share in Christ’s glorious reign, but also a share in his cross. Saint Benedict, for example, in the Prologue to his Holy Rule, summarizes the life of a cloistered cenobite in such language: “Never swerving from [God’s] instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom” (Prol 50). Later, when outlining the procedure for receiving a new monk, he stipulates that “the novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties [dura et aspera] that will lead him to God” (58.8). And again, when describing the characteristically monastic virtue of humility, he legislates the most difficult law of all: “in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, [a monk’s] heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape” (7.35–36). Such a degree of humility, explains Benedict in his chapter on obedience, is only possible for the one who “cherish[es] Christ above all” (5.1) – “becoming,” like him, “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
The mystery of the Transfiguration is thus beloved by monks because it sheds light on those perennial paradoxes which draw our daily lives into the mystery of Christ: contemplation and crucifixion, death and resurrection, suffering and glory. As Saint Benedict says in his chapter on Lent: “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (49.1), but all the while he should “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (49.7).
- Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Matthew. Translated by Ronald E Heine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Jean Leclerq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. Translated by Catharine Misrahi. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982.
- St. Leo the Great, Sermons. Translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, C.S.J.B., and Agnes Josephine Conway, S.S.J. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.
Monks Are “Idiots,” and You Should Be Too
“The soul is healed through contact with children” – so says Prince Myshkin, the eponymous “idiot” of Dostoevsky’s classic novel (71). Myshkin, afflicted from his youth with epilepsy and depression, spoke these words about his own therapeutic contact with children. But readers of the novel are meant to recognize Myshkin himself as a child – indeed, an image of the Christ Child – who confronts their own souls with an ultimatum: will they be healed by contact with his innocence and optimism, or will they, content in the sickness of their souls, condemn his naivete as hopelessly unrealistic?
Dostoevsky’s challenge to his readers is doubtless based on a popular passage from the Gospel according to Matthew:
The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Mt 18:1-5)
The same story also appears in the Gospel according to Luke, who – true to his physician’s training (cf. Col 4:14) – prefaces the apostles’ not-so-innocent question with a diagnosis of their spiritual disease: “An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest” (Lk 9:46). Jesus – the divine physician – “realized the intention of their hearts” (Lk 9:47) and prescribed the best possible remedy for a prideful soul: contact with a child, who thus becomes an icon not of immaturity, but of innocence and humility.
Christ’s command that his disciples “become like children” was received with relish by the earliest monks, who determined that even the clothes they wore should call this teaching to mind. According to John Cassian (c. 360–c. 435), monks should “always wear small hoods that extend to the neck and the shoulders and that only cover the head. In this way they are reminded to hold constantly to the innocence and simplicity of small children even by imitating their dress itself.” (The Institutes 1.3)
But it was not only their clothing that reminded monks of their need to become like children. Their very vocabulary expressed their self-identification as humble sons, learning from their loving “abbas” (i.e., “fathers”) (cf. Gal 4:6). In the very first line of St. Benedict’s Rule for monks, he addresses them thus:
Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.” (Prol 1)
Still earlier than St. Benedict, Evagrius Ponticus (345–399) began his own treatise, To the Monks in Monasteries or Communities, with the following proverb:
Heirs of God, listen to the reasons of God.
Coheirs of Christ, receive the sayings of Christ,
so that you can give them to the hearts of your children,
and teach them the words of the wise. (Ad Monachos 1)
Although Evagrius does not explicitly identify his reader as a “child,” a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans – to which Evagrius alludes – makes his meaning clear: “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:16–17). Evagrius addresses monks first and foremost as children, confident that if they humbly “listen to the reasons of God” and “receive the sayings of Christ,” they will also – paradoxically – be fathers, capable of teaching wisdom to children of their own. By thus associating childlikeness with wisdom, Evagrius demonstrates that to “become like a child” does not mean to renounce knowledge and understanding, but rather to understand things as they truly are.
In a climactic scene of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin exemplifies the childlike wisdom described by Evagrius and the monastic tradition:
“Is it really possible to be unhappy? Ah, what are my grief and misfortune to me, if I have the capacity to be happy? Do you know, I can’t understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy at seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! … So many beautiful things at every step that even the most desperate man finds beautiful! Look at a child, look at God’s dawn, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that look at you and love you…” (585)
Precisely because Prince Myshkin perceives the world as would a pure and humble child, he is able to discern beauty and goodness and love – “the reasons of God” par excellence – in everything from an affectionate gaze to growing grass. According to the wisdom of the world, Myshkin’s example may seem like infantile foolishness. But to the Christian – and especially to the monk – it is nothing less than a proclamation of the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–25).
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot. Translated and edited by Alan Myers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- John Cassian, The Institutes. Translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey, O.P. New York: The Newman Press, 2000.
- Evagrius Ponticus, Ad Monachos. Translated by Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.
– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.