Saturday, February 18, 2023

“Those Who Shone Forth in the Ascetic Life”

Rejoice, faithful Egypt; rejoice, holy Libya; rejoice, o chosen Thebaid; rejoice, every place, and city, and land that nourished the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and raised them in self-discipline and toil, and showed them forth to God as men perfect in their desires. They were revealed as those who give light to our souls; these very same, by the glory of their miracles, and the wonders of their deeds, shone forth to our minds, unto every corner of the world. Let us cry out to them, “All-blessed fathers, pray that we may be saved!”

Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers, or “Thebaid”, by Blessed Fra Angelico, 1420; now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
Χαῖρε Αἴγυπτε πιστή, χαῖρε Λιβύη ὁσία, χαῖρε Θηβαῒς ἐκλεκτή, χαῖρε πᾶς τόπος, καὶ πόλις, καὶ χώρα, ἡ τοὺς πολίτας θρέψασα τῆς Βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ τούτους ἐν ἐγκρατείᾳ καὶ πόνοις αὐξήσασα, καὶ τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν τελείους ἄνδρας τῷ Θεῷ ἀναδείξασα. οὗτοι φωστῆρες τῶν ψυχῶν ἡμῶν ἀνεφάνησαν, οἱ αὐτοὶ τῶν θαυμάτων τῇ αἴγλῃ, καὶ τῶν ἔργων τοῖς τέρασιν, ἐξέλαμψαν νοητῶς, εἰς τὰ πέρατα ἅπαντα. Αὐτοῖς βοήσωμεν· Πατέρες παμμακάριστοι, πρεσβεύσατε τοῦ σωθῆναι ἡμᾶς.

On the Saturday before Great Lent begins, the Byzantine Rite commemorates “All of the God-bearing Fathers and Mothers Who Shone Forth in the Ascetic Life.” This text, from Vespers of the preceding day, beautifully recalls the origins of monasticism and the ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt and north Africa. The “Thebaid” to which it refers is one of the provinces into which Egypt was divided by the reforms of the Emperor Diocletian in the later 3rd century; this province had its capital at Thebes, the impressive ruins of which are now within the city of Luxor, including some of the most famous ancient temples. Likewise, the first Ode of Matins for this day begins with the words “Let us all sing together in spiritual songs, of those who shone forth in asceticism, our godly Fathers, whom Egypt, Libya and the Thebaid bore, and every place and city and land.”

One of the most influential writings on Western monasticism is John Cassian’s Institutes, which refer very frequently to the Egyptians as the models of monastic life, as, for example, at the beginning of the third book, in which he speaks of “the perfection and inimitable rigor of the discipline of the Egyptians.” Likewise, when St Benedict’s Rule commands that the entire Psalter should be said in the Office within a week, since “we read that our holy forefathers promptly fulfilled (this recitation) in one day,” he is referring to the common practice of the early ascetics. As the Fra Angelico painting above, and various others like it show, the Western Church never forgot the origin of the ascetic and monastic life; and the motif of the “Thebaid” serves to recall all religious of whatever sort to the ideal expressed by the words of Christ, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.”

Pope St Leo the Great writes in his fourth sermon on Lent that very few have the strength to remain continually in a spiritual condition such as the feast of Easter ought to find them in, and with the relaxation of the more strict observance of Lent, and the general cares of this life, “even religious hearts must grow dirty with the dust of this world.” Therefore, the forty days exercise of Lent was instituted by Divine Providence, so that the devotions and fasts of Lent might purify us of the sins which we have committed in the rest of the year. The Byzantine Rite therefore concludes its Fore-Lent with a commemoration of those Saints who did have such strength, and by embracing the ascetic life, lived as it were a continual Lent, invoking their intercession on behalf of the whole Church on the eve of the Great Fast.

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