Mark Olson, whose digs are over at Pseudo-Polymath, is (with my brother) one of the blogosphere’s best-kept secrets. He not only manages to find interesting links every morning, but frequently manages to write provocative and sophisticated content. A cyclist, Mark was educated at the University of Chicago in the 60s, which means he knows something about nearly everything.

In this post, Mark offers commentary on a few of the prayers of St. Theophan the Recluse, of whom I had never heard, which made for stimulating reading.

A Blast from the Past

This past Easter (Pascha) I have finalized my movement from the Western church (ECUSA) to the Eastern (OCA), with my Chrismation. In the light of some more famous Evangelical departures from the protestant reformation, notably two academic blogging at Right Reason, I’d like to remark that this was not primarily a move because of what was wrong were I was. It has been just over three years now since my return to the Christian fold, after a long post-collegiate sojourn. During those three years, in my attempt to begin thinking about my faith “not as a child”, I did a certain amount of study and came to cherish the teachings and writings of the Patristic Fathers. The Eastern Church keeps the patristic tradition far closer to its heart than the West. It is for that reason and a frank psychological desire to affirm my conversion with something different, and new that I moved denominations. I hope that newness might in part enkindle the “fanaticism of the convert”. And for me, newness is in part the unfamiliarity for me with the Byzantine liturgical rites and rituals of St. Chrysostom and St. Basil.

The Chrismation process is accompanied with the selection of a patron Saint, a personal hero of the faith whose example might guide us in our life and spiritual journey to joy at the eschaton. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I chose St. Ephraim the Syrian …. Not taking either St. Mark (the gospel writer from my name Mark as is sometimes customary) or any of the Sainted patristic Fathers whom I admired. St. Ephraim lived in the 4th century in Syria. He was never a Bishop or even a priest, but a deacon. However, he is known (largely again in the East) as an author of many hymns, poems, and prayers. By some (many?) in the East Ephraim is regarded as a New Testament Psalmist to be compared with David of the Old Testament.

I’d like to share, and to dare to comment on a few of the short prayers gathered by St. Theophan the Recluse in a book entitled A Spiritual Psalter. I’ve come to think that there is a terrible scandal somewhere related to this book. The scandal however, lies in the fact that few have heard or read from it. See if you agree.

Number 22: Life’s Lessons: Beatitudes

Blessed is the man who has the fear of God in him, for the Holy Spirit calls him blessed, saying: blessed is the man who fears the Lord.

Blessed is the man who has the love of god in him, for he bears God in himself. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God.

Blessed is he who has attained endurance, for a long suffering man is great in understanding.

Blessed is he who is a stranger to anger and irritability, for anger does not beget a man of God’s truth.

Blessed is he who has loved meekness, according to the Lord’s word: blessed are the meek.

Blessed is he who has attained true obedience, for such a man imitates the Lord our Savior, Who was obedient even unto death.

Blessed is he who is a stranger to envy and rivalry, for it was by envy that death came into the world.

Blessed is he who does not defile his tongue with slander, for the heart of a slanderer is full of all manner of defilement.

Blessed is he who has attained abstinence, for this one virtue is a buttress for all the rest.

Blessed is he who is charitable to the poor, for he will find many to defend him at the judgment.

Blessed is he who leads and exalted life yet maintains an humble persuasion, he imitates Christ and with Him he shall sit in glory.

Blessed is he who forces himself to perform all manner of good deeds, for the forceful shall capture the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed is he who walks the straight path, for he will enter heaven bearing a crown.

Blessed are all these, for they shall stand boldly before the Judge and receive a holy reward from His hands.

Number 53: Lament over the scarcity of Saints

My heart is pained, my soul agonizes and my inner parts are torn! Where am I to find the tears, where am I to find the contrition and the sighs to rightly mourn our orphaned state and the paucity of sanctity among us?

I see, O Master, that Thou takest thy saints like choice gold, from the vain world to the resting place of life.

Like a farmer who sees fruits well ripened and prudently hastens to gather them that they might not be the least bit spoiled, so dost Thou also, O Savior, gather Thy chosen ones who have labored righteously.

Yet we, who are slothful and weak-willed, remain hardened, and our fruits never ripen, for we have not the resolve to labor without sparing ourselves, in order to ripen in good works and rightly be gathered into the storehouse of life.

Say: woe is me, alas, O soul, and weep; for thou hast been left an orphan so young by the righteous fathers and righteous ascetics. Where are our fathers? Where are the saints? Where are the vigilant? Where are the sober? Where are the humble? Where are the meek? Where are those who vow silence? Where are the abstinent? Where are those who with a contrite heart stood before the Lord in perfect prayer, like angels of God? They have left here to join our holy God with their lamps burning brightly.

Woe is us! What times are these in which we live? Into what sea of evil have we sailed? Our fathers have entered the harbor of life, that they might not see the sorrows and seductions that overcome us because of our sins. They are crowned, yet we slumber; we sleep and indulge in selfish pleasures.

O Lord, have pity on us! Make sober our thoughts which whirl about in vain. Grant us contrition and tears, that they might shed some light on the blindness of our hearts, and we might see that way in which our fathers walked when they followed Thee. Grant us the desire and the strength to follow in this same way, so that we too with them might receive the lot of those who are saved, to the glory of Thy name.

Number 76: The Impermanence of the World’s Benefits

How beautiful the world is, but it is full of death! It is like unto a flower which opens in the spring. It blooms while dew and rain support its life; when hot weather comes, the flower wilts. Likewise does death cause the cheeks to fade, and in the grave does it destroy the members of the body so beautifully arranged … Grant us, O Lord, a refuge and defense in the land where the righteous dwell.

The world has made fools of its offspring. They sin, become distressed, and are convulsed by their own anxieties. How many of them whirl about, giving themselves no peace, yet they only gather thorns for the fire! Deceit arrogantly opens its mouth, but fidelity remains silent and does not speak. Iniquity gives speeches, but truth hides itself. Only death will silence all who have set foot on earth. Blessed is he who has completed his path in the world untainted.

The world is much stormier than the surging waves, and sin agitates it more than wind does the sea. There are times when the waters of the sea are calm, when the winds are concealed in their hiding places; but in the world waves of desire are ceaselessly whipped up, and the wind of deceit blows against the doors of the world’s vessels. Yet the day when it will abate is at hand … Blessed is he who as completed his path in the world without falling into its snares.

Iniquity committed in the world upsets and distresses; burning lust takes on ferocity of a magnitude much greater than that of waves. The snares and traps of the world entangle those who serve it —- their evil cargoes are sins an iniquities. But for the virtuous the time will come when their boat shall rest at harbor.

Your times and years are pleasant, O world, but they are like smoke. You are like unto a fleeting dream, and your days are just like shadows. You evening passes quickly and your morning does not linger. Your hours fly, racing toward the end … Hasten, O sinner, to receive forgiveness while the light of day shines on you.

Righteous is the judge, and righteous is the judgment of truth — then shall every man’s deeds be weighed and rewarded according to his merits. In that day, those who worked iniquity will be tormented by regret, and those who labored virtuously will partake of joy in that land … O Lord, grant that I who am inspired by Thy mercy may be freed from the snares of the world so that I might safely enter the harbor of life.

In reading these the first, Number 22, I had read at dinner to my family. My children were somewhat abashed and struck by the stanzas on anger and obedience, for that is a problem with which children often struggle. For myself, the notion that I it is right that the good works and things I do, might, even if they do not (yet) flow from an inner desire to do them might by my “forcing” myself to do them, capture the kingdom. I don’t think this is an early example of works -> salvation, for as far as I can tell in my reading Ephraim is very orthodox in his theology. I think however, that if faith without works is dead, works driven by faith … or more tellingly forced by my faith will also yield fruit.

When I first got this little book, for it is little, scanning through the titles, this one Number 53, jumped out at me. My eldest daughter scoffed at the title. Then I read it, and realized how apt it was for our age and our time. In the 4th and 5th centuries it was felt that their age was less good, less righteous, and less perfect than those ages before. This is the reverse from the common apprehension today. We moderns and post-moderns think progress describes the march or our civilization. That we have advanced in all ways compared to those of the past. I think we in the church should be closest to seeing how much in error this notion is, after all the apostles, Noah, and others long ago walked with God. We in this age, with every passing generation get further from that time.

I leave the last, for you … without sullying it with my impertinence words.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. One remark, it was the 80s not the 60s for me a the U of Chicago, I’m not quite that old. :)


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