Athanasius of Alexandria – 18th January

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In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favoured religion. About six years later, Arius of Alexandria began to teach concerning the Word of God (John 1:1) that

“God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.”

Athanasius was at that time a newly ordained deacon, secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a member of his household. His reply to Arius was that the begetting, or uttering, of the Word by the Father is an eternal relation between Them, and not a temporal event. Arius was condemned by the bishops of Egypt (with the exceptions of Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmorica), and went to Nicomedia, from which he wrote letters to bishops throughout the world, stating his position.

The Emperor Constantine undertook to resolve the dispute by calling a council of bishops from all over the Christian world. This council met in Nicea, just across the straits from what is now Istanbul, in the year 325, and consisted of 317 bishops. Athanasius accompanied his bishop to the council, and became recognized as a chief spokesman for the view that the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

The party of Athanasius was overwhelmingly in the majority. (The western, or Latin, half of the Empire was very sparsely represented, but it was solidly Athanasian, so that if its bishops had attended in force, the vote would have been still more lopsided.) It remained to formulate a creedal statement to express the consensus. The initial effort was to find a formula from Holy Scripture that would express the full deity of the Son, equally with the Father. However, the Arians cheerfully agreed to all such formulations, having interpreted them already to fit their own views. Finally, the Greek word “homo-ousios” (meaning “of the same substance, or nature, or essence”) was introduced, chiefly because it was one word that could not be understood to mean what the Arians meant. Some of the bishops present, although in complete disagreement with Arius, were reluctant to use a term not found in the Scriptures, but eventually saw that the alternative was a creed that both sides would sign, each understanding it in its own way, and that the Church could not afford to leave the question of whether the Son is truly God (the Arians said “a god”) undecided. So the result was that the Council adopted a creed which is a shorter version of what we now call the Nicene Creed, declaring the Son to be “of one substance with the Father.” At the end, there were only two holdouts, the aforesaid Secundus and Theonas.

No sooner was the council over than its consensus began to fall apart. Constantine had expected that the result would be unity, but found that the Arians would not accept the decision, and that many of the orthodox bishops were prepared to look for a wording a little softer than that of Nicea, something that sounded orthodox, but that the Arians would accept. All sorts of compromise formulas were worked out, with all shades of variation from the formula of Nicea.

In 328, Alexander died, and Athanasius succeeded him as bishop of Alexandria. He refused to participate in these negotiations, suspecting that once the orthodox party showed a willingness to make reaching an agreement their highest priority, they would end up giving away the store. He defended the full deity of Christ against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. For this, he was regarded as a trouble-maker by Constantine and his successors, and was banished from Alexandria a total of five times by various emperors. Eventually, Christians who believed in the Deity of Christ came to see that once they were prepared to abandon the Nicene formulation, they were on a slippery slope that led to regarding the Logos as simply a high-ranking angel. The more they experimented with other formulations, the clearer it became that only the Nicene formulation would preserve the Christian faith in any meaningful sense, and so they re-affirmed the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a final triumph that Athanasius did not live to see.

It was a final triumph as far as councils of bishops were concerned, but the situation was complicated by the fact that after Constantine there were several Arian emperors (not counting the Emperor Julian, who was a pagan, but correctly saw that the most effective way to fight Christianity was to throw all his weight on the side of the Arians). Under one of them Arian missionaries were sent to convert the Goths, who became the backbone of the Roman Army (then composed chiefly of foreign mercenaries) with the result that for many years Arianism was considered the mark of a good Army man. The conversion of Clovis, King of the Franks, in 496, to orthodox Christianity either gave the Athanasian party the military power to crush Arianism or denied the Arian Goths the military supremacy that would have enabled them to crush Athanasian Christianity, depending on your point of view.

 

Quotations from the writings of Athanasius:

We were made “in the likeness of God.” But in course of time
That image has become obscured, like a face on a very old
portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to renew it is for the Subject to come back to the studio and sit for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came–to make it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his Son.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • Those who recognise the likeness of God in others.
  • Those willing to take a stand to defend what they believe to be right.
  • All who are careful and diligent in their work.
  • All who are careful about their use of language.
  • Those torn between the desire to get along and a the desire to be clear.
  • Deacons.

Ita of Killeedy

Ita was a descendant of one of Ireland’s kings, born near Waterford in Munster, and baptised Deirdre.

When she became marriageable, Deirdre was courted by a noble suitor. In those days it was customary for the father to accept such a proposal. Deirdre, however, had already decided to become a nun. For three days she prayed that her father would see it her way. The prayer was granted, and she left home for the monastery with his blessing.

She established a that came to be known as Killeedy, that is, “Ita’s cell,” for on taking the veil she had adopted the religious name Ita. She gained a reputation for prophecy and miracle-working, and visitors came from afar to seek her advice.

Ita led a school for small boys. She must have been an inspiring teacher, for among her pupils were the future St. Fachtna of Ross, St. Pulcherius of Liath, St. Cummian of Clonfert, and St. Brendan of Clonfert. Brendan became known as Brendan the Voyager, because he sailed the Atlantic, perhaps even to America.

It is said that as a child Brendan asked St. Ita what three things God loved best. She replied, “True faith in God with a pure heart, simple life with a religious spirit, and openhandedness inspired by charity.” ‘”And what three things,” the child continued, “does God most dislike?” Ita said, “A face which scowls upon all mankind, obstinacy in wrongdoing, and an overweening confidence in the power of money.”

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • Those whose advice is trusted by others.
  • All involved in teaching.
  • Those with pure hearts, living simple lives.
  • All with openhanded charity.
  • All who tend to scowl.
  • All who persist in wrongdoing.
  • All who put their faith in the power of money.

 

Hut-burning… 15th January

Maximos the Hut Burner, lived an austere life, mostly as a recluse in crude shelters, moving from time to time to seek further seclusion. His habit of burning his hut at these times resulted in his nickname “the hutburner.” Before settling at Mt. Athos, Maximos spent one year in Constantinople acting as a “holy fool.” 

The stories of his life recount that as a child he was devoted to the Virgin Mary and gave his food and clothing to the poor. When his parents arranged his marriage at age 17 he instead moved to Mount Ganos, where he became the student of an elderly monk. Around this time he began his life of austerity, sleeping on the ground, staying awake for long periods, and fasting. After his spiritual father died, he went to Constantinople, where he pretended to be mad while living in the gateway of a famous church.

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A dream led him to an ascent of Mt. Athos, where he spent three days, ending with a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told him to remain on Mt. Athos. Thus began about ten years of wandering, including his frequent hut burning, ending with a permanent and very austere cell. He was held in high repute as a holy man and spiritual adviser, admired for his austerity, and a reputation for clairvoyance, prophecy, healing, and exorcizing demons.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • All who find it hard to settle in one place.
  • All who are driven to wipe the slate clean regularly and begin again.
  • All who feel unworthy of comforts.
  • All who are generous.
  • All who are prayerful.
  • All who struggle with their mental health.

Eustratios the Wonderworker 10th January

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Eustratios was born to Christian parents in Tarsia. At the age of twenty he entered monastic life at the Monastery of Agaures near his home. There he became a model of prayer, and holiness. He was ordained to the priesthood, and in time was made abbot of the community. But just at that time, Leo the Armenian became Emperor and revived the iconoclast heresy. The monks of Agaures, who held to the Orthodox Faith, scattered to caves and forests to escape persecution. Eustratios himself was imprisoned for a time, and was only able to re-gather the community and resume its direction when Leo died and Orthodoxy was restored in 842.
As abbot, Eustratios continued to live as the humblest of the brethren, spending the day sharing in their manual labour, and most of the night in prayer and prostrations. He often travelled among the dependencies of his large monastery to offer counsel and encouragement to the brethren. While travelling he would often give his coat or even his horse to anyone in need whom he met on the way. Once he gave the monastery’s only ox to a peasant who had lost his own. Another time, on a visit to Constantinople, he was given a large sum of money by the Emperor for the monastery; on the way back he distributed all of it to the poor. On yet another occasion, on the road, he met a man who had despaired because of his sins and was about to hang himself. Eustratios took the man’s hand and said ‘My child, may the weight of your sins lie on me from now on. On the day of Judgment, I will answer for them instead of you. Only throw away this rope and hope in God.’
INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • all who are faithful in prayer.
  • all who are generous and all in need.
  • all who take no pleasure in material wealth.
  • all who know how to speak to those in despair and all who are despairing.

Mother Domenica – 9th January

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Domenica was born in Rome and reared in the love of Christ. She secretly left her parents’ house and traveled by ship to Alexandria, where she found lodging with four virtuous pagan maidens. By her example and counsel these four were in time led to abandon idolatry and embrace Domnica’s faith. The five then sailed to Constantinople, where it is said that the Patriarch Nectarius  was notified of their coming by an angel and met them at the dock. The Patriarch baptized the four maidens himself, giving them the names Dorothea, Evanthia, Nonna and Timothea, then settled them and Domnica in a monastery.
The fame of Domnica’s pure life, wise teaching, and wondrous healings spread throughout the city, and even the Emperor Theodosius, with the Empress and his court, came to see her. The crowds soon made it impossible for her and her sisters to live the heavenly life for which they had entered the monastery; so they relocated the monastery to a remote, location where executions had once commonly been performed, since everyone avoided the area. Here a new monastery was built by order of the Emperor, and the sisters found peace.
Saint Domnica’s fame continued, and she became not only a healer but an oracle for the city of Constantinople, prophesying the death of the Emperor Theodosius and the unrest which followed it. 

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • all who are cradle Christians that stick with the faith.
  • all who live good lives but are yet to be drawn to Christ.
  • all those involved in bringing healing to others.
  • all who are gifted with foresight.

Genoveva Torres Morales – 5th January

Genoveva Torres Morales was born on 3 January 1870 in Almenara, Castille, Spain. She was the youngest of six children but by the age of eight, both her parents and four of her siblings had died.

Genoveva was left to to care for their home and her very demanding and taciturn brother, José. Having been deprived of affection and companionship so young, Genoveva became accustomed to solitude. By the age of 10, she had developed a special interest in reading spiritual books and came to understand that true happiness is doing God’s will. This became her rule of life.

At the age of 13, Genoveva’s left leg had to be amputated at home, in order to stop a gangrene that was spreading there. Throughout her life her leg continued to cause her pain and sickness, and she had to use crutches.

From 1885 to 1894 she lived at the Mercy Home run by the Carmelites of Charity. In the nine years she lived with the sisters and with other children, the young Genoveva deepened her life of piety and perfected her sewing skills. It was also in these years that a diocesan priest guided the “beginnings” of her spiritual life. Reflecting on this period at the Mercy Home, she later would write: “I loved freedom of heart very much, and worked and am working to achieve it fully…. It does the soul so much good that every effort is nothing compared with this free condition of the heart”.

Genoveva wanted to join the Carmelites of Charity, but she was not accepted due to her physical condition. She longed to be consecrated to God and, being of a decided and resolute nature, in 1894 Genoveva left the Carmelites of Charity’s home and went to live briefly with two women who supported themselves by their own work. Together they “shared” the solitude and poverty.

In 1911, Canon Barbarrós suggested that Genoveva begin a new religious community, pointing out that there were many poor women who could not afford to live on their own and thus suffered much hardship. For years, Genoveva had thought of starting a religious congregation that would be solely concerned with meeting the needs of such women, since she knew of no one engaged in this work.

The first community was established in Valencia. Shortly thereafter, other women arrived, wanting to share the same apostolic and spiritual life. It was not long before more communities were established in other parts of Spain, despite many problems and obstacles.The Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Holy Angels received Pontifical approval in 1953.

Mother Genoveva died on 5 January 1956. She is remembered for her kindness and openness to all, and for her good sense of humour – even joking about her physical ailments.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • All who find themselves in caring roles as children.
  • All who spend a great deal of time alone or with no-one to talk to.
  • Amputees.
  • All who are told that they cannot do something because of their physicality and yet go on to achieve their goal anyway.
  • All who fill our lives with kindness and good humour.

 

Masochism and the saints…

Yesterday Sue Owen made a helpful and thought-provoking comment on Geneviève of Paris, which I would like to respond to here.

Thank you for these daily readings on the lives of different saints. I have always found it very difficult to read about some saints’ lives. Especially those that self-inflict mortification or punishment. It seems very unhealthy in mind and spirit. There seems to be enough suffering in the world without inflicting it on oneself! The Holy Spirit can be found in beauty and simplicity – so I really don’t understand why masochism is so revered in the saints. I’d appreciate your views on this. Thank you!

I think there are a number of things going on that lead to an apparent reverence for masochism in the life of the saints. It certainly isn’t something I’m trying to promote by sharing their stories.

A misleading biblical interpretation…

The early church blossomed in a Greek-speaking culture. All the ideas we can have are shaped by the language or means we have to articulate them. In Hebrew culture body and soul are inseparable. We are ensouled bodies. In Greek thinking bodies are vessels in which souls are carried for a time, before escaping to their true bodiless state. St Paul (A Hebrew living in this Greek-speaking world) used the language of body and flesh (soma and sarx) throughout his letters, contrasting them with life in the Spirit. In Paul’s letters neither body nor flesh is inherently negative in itself these are simply characteristics of being human; we are embodied, made of flesh.

When thinking about being saved however, Paul uses body and flesh as shorthand for describing how we are choosing to live. Flesh is usually contrasted with Spirit to describe whether we choose to live as if the world were created and ruled by human beings (in the realm of flesh) or in a world created and ruled by God (in the realm of the Spirit). Body is usually contrasted with psyche, asking whether we orient our being towards the outward, physical pleasures, desires and needs (definitely base considerations in Greek thought) or to the interior intellectual and spiritual concerns of prayer and learning. In strictly Christian terms these are contrasts between life lived in an earthly way or life lived according to the ways of the Kingdom of God; life lived with a heart aligned to humanity’s values or life lived with hearts aligned to the will of God.

People of a largely Greek mindset, who believed Jesus would come again soon, appear to have heard this teaching as the message that forsaking physical needs in favour of spiritual and intellectual ones is the surest path to heaven. There was a rejection of earthly society by the mothers and fathers of the desert and a desire to live on prayer alone, following the example of Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus in the Desert. These were the early monastics whose patterns others followed.

It seems to me that this developed into a kind of spiritual athleticism, which misses the main point of what Paul was talking about. I have no doubt that those who were alone for long periods of time and without food, were more likely to see visions or even have near death experiences. I don’t think this is why we revere them though.

Entering into the suffering of others…

I think fasting and self-mortification, at their most prayerful, are bodily ways of entering into the suffering of others. We fast alongside those without food, alongside those in poverty, alongside those in need of healing or too deep in mourning to eat. I believe the self-mortification was supposed to help a monastic enter into the suffering of Christ during the passion, but it is a tradition much abused. Again, I don’t think these are the reasons why people are revered, even though they were taken to be signs of someone trying to live a holy life. I entreat any readers to avoid all practice of self-harm as this is not the way we treat a beloved child of God.

My personal understanding, which has no scholarly ground to stand on…

I have included saints, within this neurodiverse community’s calendar, who amongst other things have used fasting, self-mortification and isolation in their spiritual journeys. This is not because I revere these practices, but because I see them as symptomatic of how vulnerable and broken even those we revere as holy were.

I hope you have noticed through the emphasis of the intercession pointers, where I see people disappearing into isolation through grief, I wonder at how God made them founders of communities.

I know myself, that I have a daily struggle with anxiety to go about my daily living and regularly fantasise about being able to move to an isolated island. Some days I function quite well and at other times, even the ringing of the telephone is terrifying. I often wonder why I wasn’t called to a monastic life, but that was not where God wanted me. So those entrusted to my care struggle with me as I manage my hermit-like tendencies against the public-demands of a priest’s role. (Not an uncommon story.)

When I see people starving themselves, I wonder how someone who has such a difficult relationship with food can achieve such remarkable things. I don’t mean to glorify the extreme fasting, but to say: ‘here is a person who despite feeling that they did not deserve to eat for whatever reason, was used to show the glory of God in the world’.

Self-harming is one of the most widespread problems faced by teenagers in Britain at this time. Here are people who felt just as desperate, doing much the same thing and yet they are revered as holy – not because of the self-harm (it is always an incidental to the story) but because of some amazing act of courage, love, kindness or imagination that led others to God.

I don’t know how to make this more explicit without being triggering for people. Doubtless this post is very clumsy. Any ideas readers may have are very welcome.

Geneviève of Paris – 3rd January

Geneviève  was a peasant girl born in Nanterre. On the deaths of her parents, she went to live with her godmother Lutetia in Paris. There the young woman became admired for her piety and devotion to works of charity, and practiced corporal austerities which included abstaining from meat and breaking her fast only twice in the week. “These mortifications she continued for over thirty years, till her ecclesiastical superiors thought it their duty to make her diminish her austerities.”

Geneviève had frequent visions of heavenly saints and angels. She reported her visions and prophecies, until her enemies conspired to drown her in a lake. Through the intervention of Germanus, their animosity was finally overcome. The Bishop of Paris appointed her to look after the welfare of the virgins dedicated to God, and by her instruction and example she led them to a high degree of sanctity.

Shortly before the attack of the Huns under Attila in 451 on Paris, Genevieve and Germanus’ archdeacon, persuaded the panic-stricken people of Paris not to flee but to pray. It is claimed that the intercession of Genevieve’s prayers caused Attila’s army to go to Orléans instead. During Childeric’s siege and blockade of Paris in 464, Geneviève passed through the siege lines in a boat to Troyes, bringing grain to the city. She also pleaded to Childeric for the welfare of prisoners-of-war, and met with a favorable response. Through her influence, Childeric and Clovis displayed unwonted clemency towards the citizens.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • all who trust in the power of prayer.
  • all with courage despite apparent powerlessness.
  • all who are faithful to their work in the face of criticism
  • all whose homes are under attack or siege.