They said of Sarah of blessed memory that for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked at the water.
From The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward. (Compare to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Both testify to the beauty and power of flowing water.)
Someone on a closed group posted a question about why several Greek church fathers would have taught that Eve was a virgin until after she left Eden. Someone else pointed out that, in this case, Adam would have also been a virgin before leaving the garden, and it was noted that Irenaus mentions Adam’s virginity as also significant. There was some continued speculation about why Eve’s virginity gets more comment. Most comments, however, focused on the theology involved—such as teachings about the fall of humanity. In any case, one comment that I made was appreciated, and I wanted to record it for possible later use (along with a few other comments from the same thread).
Point of humor that I appreciated from an earlier comment:
…Much of this is above my pay grade.
This thread is helpful, and I’ve learned a few things above my pay grade too. For what it’s worth, I’d take it as given that preoccupation with Eve’s virginity would be connected to bigger problems in relation to sexuality within our history together as humans. That’s likely true and well worth considering, but it does not make the teaching wrong of course.
For my part, I take some comfort in the pervasive idea (among the fathers) of Adam and Eve as pre-adult and innocent in the time leading up to their first sin. It actually puts the fall into its place as a very sad but also relatively simple thing that happened to us all. It’s not the epic crime scene or the premeditated rebellion that’s its sometimes made out to be. Our sins have grown far more “mature” since that first and collective fall. Also, there is some sense in which all of humanity has suffered in a kind of “arrested development” since the fall: Jesus Christ and his saints are the only “adults” among us. Anyway, I’m not sure that the idea of Adam and Eve being virgins when they fell is so much about sex as it is about many other things. When it comes to sex, the church’s teaching that I love most is the gentle and modest icon of the Conception of the Theotokos which shows the joyful and tender context in which sex can exist inside of the marriage sacrament.
Another later comment:
Panyotis Nellas’ book Deification in Christ talks about pre-fall procreation and post-fall. The “garments of skin” were not “animal skin clothing” (as I was always taught in my Protestant traditions), but our actual “fleshly existence”. Prior to the fall we had different “bodies” and our communion with each other was on a different (spiritual) level. After the fall, we are now clothed in a “fleshly existence” and subject to physical necessities and have a different kind of relationship to each other and creation. So in that sense, pre-fall procreation could be defined as “virginal” and post-fall as “fleshly” and subject to fallen “passions”.
Yet another later response:
There are things written about what procreation would have been like before the fall. The idea of Eve being a virgin has more to do with sin being primordial to humanity. All human beings after creation are conceived in sin, which is about the condition of Man, not the imputation of sinfulness to sexual intercourse.
This idea has looked more and more clear to me for some time: that communism and capitalism (understood along with its close parallel of consumerism) are the twin children of modern secular thought. I therefore was interested to find this thought so succinctly expressed by the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas from the year 2000:
As bishops who have ties to many churches that suffered terribly under communism we believe that we have an understanding of that system that few other Americans share. The common belief that communism was predicated on atheistic materialism is true. However, we acknowledge that our capitalist system is no less predicated on purely materialist principles, which also do not engender faith in God. There is no place in the calculus of our economics to account for the “intangibles” of human existence. Reflect on how the simple accounting phrase “the bottom line” has shaped our whole culture. We use it to force the summarization of an analysis devoid of any externals or irrelevancies to the “heart of the matter.” This usually means the monetary outcome.
From the 2000 Pastoral Letter of the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas.
Art, to be sure, has its roots in the lives of human beings: the weakness, the strength, the absurdity. I doubt that it is limited to our comrades; since we have discovered that art does not belong to what was once the aristocracy, it does not therefore follow that it has become the exclusive property of the common man—which abstraction, by the way, I have yet to meet. Rather, since it is involved with all of us, it belongs to all of us, and this includes our foes, who are as desperate and as vicious and as blind as we are and who can only be as evil as we are ourselves.
James Baldwin in a 1947 review of Gorky’s novel Mother.
What the mass culture really reflects …is the American bewilderment in the face of the world we live in. We do not seem to want to know that we are in the world, that we are subject to the same catastrophes, vices, joys, and follies which have baffled and afflicted mankind for ages. And this has everything to do, of course, with what was expected of America: which expectation, so generally disappointed, reveals something we do not want to know about sad human nature, reveals something we do not want to know about the intricacies and inequities of any social structure, reveals, in sum, something we do not want to know about ourselves. The American way of life has failed—to make people happier or to make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula (which can be corrected); that the bottomless and aimless hostility which makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created, and felt, by a handful of aberrants; that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction, of personal authority, proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.
James Baldwin in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes.”
God’s Mother was born today, the first of the twelve great feasts in the church year. These poor thoughts rattled around in my mind over the last few days, so I set them down. Those familiar with the feasts connected to Mary’s life will see that my words are just clumsy responses to three of the most common images in the church’s hymns about Mary: Moses’s burning bush, Jacob’s heavenly ladder and Ezekiel’s closed gate.
Today a green bud came out upon a once dead branch from deep within the heart of our own tree. Unwitting, song birds and myriad wild creatures chorused, flitted and chattered amid the many wide-reaching boughs of this great tree. Around its heart, tangled branches have rubbed raw their brothers, bruised and sometimes barren. This spray of life from within the thicket will receive sap and sun and all—when, lighted at her core by divine flame, she will carry to her rambling race that bright and living fire.
Today a ladder was set down by the Creator that would extend with her humble prayers and attentive heart to span from earth to heaven—saying yes to God’s desire that He might descend to make a throne upon the earth and a paradise with us.
Today, the Architect set upon its hinges the one gate within our rebellious city that stood ready for its Maker’s voice—ready to open only for our God that He might come forth to live with us, sharing our homes and our full humanity.
And here is a favorite passage from Fr. Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory that summarizes, as succinctly as I’ve found, the entire history of those differences over Mary that developed between the Greeks and Latins:
As Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, ‘Mary is not the great exception.’ You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.
And then far, far away, from the heart of the forest, they heard a SOUND! At first so faint as to be hardly audible, but growing with each passing moment. Was it the song of some insect in the fern, the wind in the tree tops? Nearer it seemed to come, and then they knew it was pipe music, surely the loveliest music ever heard. It seemed not of this earth; yet in it was all the song of birds, of the wind passing over the meadow grasses and through slender reeds, the song of insects at the heat of noon, of trees in tumult, the voices of secret streams and broad rivers and of the eternal seas.
From The Little Grey Men by BB.
It was this hour by the dying firelight that the gnomes loved more than any other time. It was then they talked of so many things.
“Funny how a fire makes you want to stare and stare at it,” said Dodder reflectively, blowing out a cloud of tobacco smoke and watching the glow of the red fire’s core; “men are just the same, so the hobgoblins used to tell me. There was a hobgoblin in the old farmhouse which stood where Lucking’s farm now is. He told me they sit, just like we do, staring into the embers. Of course, it is understandable in man, because a fire is the only bit of wildness left in his house; his surroundings are artificial, but a fire makes him think of the days when he lived as we do, out in the open with nothing but caves and hollow trees to shield him from the weather.”
Excerpt from The Little Grey Men by BB.
After just having listened to The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks edited by Benedicta Ward, I recently listened to the Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. [This is the text translated by H. Ellershaw: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.] Saint Augustine was famously drawn to the Christian faith as he read this text (as he recounts in his Confessions). I’ve read the Life of Saint Anthony in full only once before (several years back), and it was far more meaningful this time. I hope to read it again and to write more in reflection upon it with time. Here are some initial notes from this last reading:
- Saint Anthony’s life was one of many new beginnings (with several admonitions to begin each day as if just setting out upon the acquisition of virtue). The stages and main events of his life provided examples of multiple types for a wide variety of those who would follow him in later years. For example, these various stages included living together versus in solitude as well as ministering in the desert versus within the city. Another important structure that takes shape is the life of the inner and the outer mountain.
- A critical and clarifying distinction is made between passion and desire (with desire being essential to the acquisition of virtue).
- Saint Anthony’s most visible public ministry (within a city) was in the direct support of those publicly facing death for the sake of Christ. Later in life, he also visited Alexandria for an extended time to publicly denounce the Arians (and during this visit many in the city were healed and came to the Christian faith).
- One brief passage made it clear that the shared life of the monks within the desert provided a beautiful example of the ideal civic life or human community: “So their cells were in the mountains, like filled with holy bands of men who sang psalms, loved reading, fasted, prayed, rejoiced in the hope of things to come, laboured in almsgiving, and preserved love and harmony one with another. And truly it was possible, as it were, to behold a land set by itself, filled with piety and justice. For then there was neither the evil-doer, nor the injured, nor the reproaches of the tax-gatherer: but instead a multitude of ascetics; and the one purpose of them all was to aim at virtue. So that any one beholding the cells again, and seeing such good order among the monks, would lift up his voice and say, ‘How goodly are your dwellings, O Jacob, and your tents, O Israel; as shady glens and as a garden by a river; as tents which the Lord has pitched, and like cedars near waters’ (Numbers 24:5-6).”
- One passage claims that there are many types of demons in complex rankings and that these rankings can be studied profitably (although Saint Anthony did not himself feel called to become an expert in such matters).
- A major theme is the powerlessness of demons and their fear of being mocked and humiliated for their false displays of power.
- One passage made it clear that demons have serious limitations within both space and time. Demons can therefore predict the future only in the same ways as humans who forecast based on what they have already seen. Nonetheless, the demons used these predictions of the future in oracles as a means of deceiving the pagans.
- The clear differences between good and evil spirits are given by Saint Anthony in a long list that highlights how good spirits do not push themselves upon people, create distractions or sustain fear (as all evil spirits will try to do).
- “And again others such as these met him in the outer mountain and thought to mock him because he had not learned letters. And Antony said to them, ‘What do you say? Which is first, mind or letters? And which is the cause of which — mind of letters or letters of mind.’ And when they answered mind is first and the inventor of letters, Antony said, ‘Whoever, therefore, has a sound mind has not need of letters.’ This answer amazed both the bystanders and the philosophers, and they departed marvelling that they had seen so much understanding in an ignorant man. For his manners were not rough as though he had been reared in the mountain and there grown old, but graceful and polite, and his speech was seasoned with the divine salt, so that no one was envious, but rather all rejoiced over him who visited him.” [This is one of several remarkable exchanges with Greeks, philosophers and learned pagan wise men.]
E. F. Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed:
Since …we tend to see ourselves primarily in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others mainly in the light of their actions, which are visible to us, we have a situation in which misunderstanding and injustice are the order of the day.
…Genuine understanding of one’s neighbor is replaced by sentimentality, which, of course, crumbles into nothingness as soon as self-interest is threatened and fear of any kind is aroused. Knowledge is replaced by assumptions, trite theories, fantasies. The enormous popularity of the crudest and meanest psychological and economic doctrines, purporting to ‘explain’ the actions and motives of others—never of ourselves!—shows the disastrous consequences of the current lack of competence in [understanding the interior worlds of others], which, in turn, is the direct result of the modern refusal to attend to …self-knowledge.