An Orthodox Circuit Preacher: St. Anastasius of Sinai and the Church Today

Anastasius of Sinai, Viae dux. Ed. Karl-Heinz Uthemann. Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca 8. Turnhout: Brepols, 1981.
Anastasius of Sinai, Viae dux. Ed. Karl-Heinz Uthemann. Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca 8. Turnhout: Brepols, 1981.

The following piece by Nicholas Marinides was originally a talk given at Princeton University to the Florovsky Orthodox Theological Society on December 10, 2011. It followed on a talk given by about the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor. Both were part of a half-day workshop on “Athens vs. Jerusalem,” intended to allow doctoral students to present their research on Church Fathers in relation to contemporary Orthodox theological concerns and benefit from discussion; hence the more conversational tone of the piece. It is presented here in the same spirit. Its original title was Circuit Preacher of Orthodoxy in the Near East, or: St. Anastasius of Sinai and his relevance for the Church today.

St. Anastasius of Sinai is not very well-known these days. New editions of most of his writings, which provide more reliable texts, have been produced over the past thirty years or so, but they are still waiting for scholars to study them in depth for their theological and historical content. Over the past year and a half I’ve managed to read most of Anastasius’ works and I feel that I have gotten to know him quite well, because his writing gives a strong sense of his personality as well as his ideas.

I’ll start by contrasting St. Anastasius with St. Maximus in a way that will relate them to contemporary academic and intellectual life. We might imagine Maximus as a high-powered, Nobel-prize winning research scholar, the kind of professor who is brilliant but sometimes difficult to follow. He would also be gentle and quiet, although able to mount a good defense of his views when called upon to do so. Anastasius would, in contrast, be a less original, less powerful thinker, but someone who had a gift for teaching intro-level courses and a knack for bringing the material down to the level of the average student. He would also be of a rather fiery and argumentative temperament, the kind of person who would constantly write blog posts and Facebook comments; but also someone who cared deeply about his students and would sacrifice a limb for them if necessary. To retranslate this back into more traditional theological terms: Maximus was essentially a synthesizer and a mystagogue, whereas Anastasius was a preacher, a story-teller, an interpreter, and above all a pastor. I think that both of these approaches are necessary in the work of building up the body of the Church, and both can be instructive in our investigation of faith and reason, spirituality and scholarship.

So, firstly, Anastasius’ basic info. You can see a bare-bones sketch in the first translated passage on the handout, from the Synaxarion, or Book of Saints, of the Church of Constantinople in the eleventh century. Based on his writings we can fill in some more details. We don’t know his dates exactly, but a good estimate is roughly 620-710. He was from Cyprus, and spent time as a monk in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives earlier in his life, and ended up on Mount Sinai, hence his epithet. He appears to have traveled much throughout the Near Eastern lands of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, ministering to various Orthodox communities that were often quite isolated. This explains the title of my talk, based on the phenomenon in early American history of the Methodist circuit rider or circuit preachers, who would cover large distances on horseback to serve scattered frontier settlements. In some places, in the countryside of Syria and especially in Egypt south of Alexandria and Cairo, the Orthodox were a small minority. At this time the Orthodox were defined primarily by their adherence to the teachings of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held at Chalcedon in 451, which enshrined the dogma that Christ is one single person existing in two inseparable and unmixed natures, wholly divine and wholly human. Many Christians in the Near East had rejected this teaching, because they only accepted a phrase that had been sometimes used by St. Cyril of Alexandria, that Christ is “one incarnate nature of God the Word.” Because of this, they were called Monophysites, meaning “believers in a single nature.” Their contemporary descendents are the Copts of Egypt, the Jacobites of Syria and of India, and most of the Armenians. As today, they were numerous in Egypt, and also in Syria, although Palestine in between was heavily Chalcedonian Orthodox (as was Cyprus, Anastasius’ homeland). Because of these demographics, the Orthodox often found themselves isolated and pressured to compromise, sometimes simply by receiving communion at the nearest Monophysite church because there was no local Orthodox priest. Added to this difficulty, starting around 635 the Near East was quickly overrun by the Arab followers of Muhammad, the newly emerging Muslims. They were still a small minority of the population, but they possessed political domination and by the 680s they were beginning to become more articulate and vocal about the superiority of their religion to Christianity. The building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was part of this program of Muslim assertiveness – Anastasius actually responds to it in one of his writings, trying to persuade Christians that it is not a rebuilt Temple of God in Jerusalem but an evil new invention. Anastasius is also one of our earliest non-Muslim witnesses to Muslim beliefs.

In response to these challenges Anastasius wrote a variety of works. Some of these are of a pastoral character, such as his Questions and Answers, where he addresses practical concerns of laypeople; the Tales, where he bolsters the faith of the Orthodox through accounts of miraculous happenings from Mt. Sinai and from other places in the Near East; and various homilies, including a rather amusing one about the Divine Liturgy where he criticizes the Christians for how badly-behaved they are in church (for example, they come late, just in time for communion, instead of attending the whole service, and then they rush out; the men come only to ogle the women; everyone gossips with their neighbors instead of paying attention to the service). He also wrote polemical works, such as the Hodegos (roughly translated as Road Guide), which is a somewhat hasty compilation of various arguments against theological opponents and includes accounts of real debates he had with Monophysite and Jewish theologians in Alexandria and elsewhere; also Two Sermons on the Creation of Man, against the Monotheletes and various other shorter anti-Monothelete tracts. Finally, he composed a large exegetical work, the Hexaemeron, where he interprets the first three chapters of Genesis in a non-literal way. In this text he shows a somewhat more speculative approach than in the other ones, which are more strictly practical or polemical.

His teachings were grounded in practical experience of the ascetic life, and also in theoria, in the patristic sense, which does not translate to “theory” in the modern academic sense, but to something like “mystical contemplation” – that is to say, he seems to have had some direct encounters with the hidden grace of God, which allowed him to understand the true nature of God and man. Two of his Tales describe visitations of the grace of God to a certain person spoken of in the third person, and it is high likely that he is obliquely referring to himself, just like St. Paul wrote that “I know a man who was taken up into the third heaven …” when he was describing his own experience. Anastasius’ beautiful Homily on the Transfiguration also suggests, through its vivid and ecstatic language, that he was preaching about something into which he himself had some special insight.

This personal experience nourished and informed his pastoral work, as was the case for all the genuine Fathers of the Orthodox Church and as should be the case for all ecclesiastical leaders to at least some degree. Based on this, he took the monastic tradition which expressed this ascetical and mystical insight and interpreted it in ways accessible for a lay audience, especially in the Questions and Answers and in the Tales. He tried to help his flock have a true understanding of Christian spiritual life and expected them to practice an asceticism modeled on the monks but adapted to the circumstances of daily life in the world. But he also addressed more intellectual problems, combining both theological and scientific reasons to explain such questions as why some people die young and others live to old age, how the operation of the natural laws of the universe can be reconciled with the providence of God, etc. Many such problems were not just theoretical but practical, because the whole Orthodox Christian world-view was being severely challenged by the decline of the Christian Roman Empire based in Byzantium and the rise of the new Islamic Arabic caliphate. It also addressed perennial questions of concern to Christians everywhere, such as disparity of wealth and poverty within the Church. This problem was sharpened by the economic effects of the Islamic invasion, when some few Christian middlemen profited while many others were reduced to destitution, or even taken captive in raids and sieges and sold into slavery.

The Muslims were not the only outside challenge. I have already mentioned the Monophysites, and in addition to being the majority of the population in Egypt and in Syria, their position had been strengthened relative to the Orthodox by the withdrawal of Byzantine imperial power, which had often propped up the minority Orthodox through material support and sometimes through the regrettable use of violence against the Monophysites. But in Anastasius’ time, at least till 680, the Byzantine imperial church itself was aligned with the doctrine of Monotheletism, which tried to compromise with the Monophysites by stating that Christ had two natures but only one will – a doctrine that St. Maximus steadfastly opposed, earning him the tortures for which he is remembered as a “Confessor” of the faith. Incidentally, Anastasius never mentions Maximus by name, although in one passage he mentions the Lateran Council of 649, a synod convened by St. Martin the pope of Rome at the advice of St. Maximus to declare the Orthodox position of two wills against Monotheletism. Anastasius says that certain participants in the council (whom he does not name) had their hands and tongues cut off, which is exactly the punishment Maximus endured.

Anastasius combats un-Orthodox beliefs of all kinds – whether Monophysite, Monothelete, Jewish, or Muslim – by various means. He does so partly through logic, arguing based on the philosophical terms – nature, essence, person, hypostasis – that were at stake; partly through authority, compiling quotations from the Church Fathers that support his case in collections known technically as florilegia; and partly through concrete examples. These can be expansions of the basic Biblical texts. For example, he describes in detail what the childhood experience of Jesus would have been like in order to prove that he possessed a full human nature and human energy and human will (it’s actually a very beautiful passage to ponder, especially in this Christmas season). Or they can be metaphors that simplify the argument, such as when he dissuades Orthodox Christians from attending non-Orthodox churches while travelling on long journeys by comparing it to cheating on one’s wife while away from home. Or they are miracle stories proving the power of God in the Orthodox Church, such as tales that show the power of icons or of the Eucharist (often contrasted with Muslim disbelief in these things). They can even be in the form of pictures, such as the one I have provided in the handout, which uses a depiction of the crucifixion to prove the concurrent existence of divinity and humanity in Christ. But he also emphasizes that argumentation only goes so far: ultimately, only those can correctly interpret Scripture and the Fathers who have actually received the Holy Spirit and his wisdom and had some experience of that whereof they speak.

Connected somewhat to his polemical interests are his speculative forays. It was difficult for him to devote much time or effort to these, due to a combination of difficult circumstances: frequent illness, lack of time, lack of books (especially on Mt. Sinai, which apparently did not then have the famous library it possesses now!), texts corrupted either by design or by carelessness, lazy publishers who wouldn’t work hard to make his work available, and bad copyists who filled his works with errors, some of them blasphemous. But nevertheless we catch glimpses of speculative thought in his polemics, to some of which he give interesting twists, such as his Sermons on the Creation of Man against the Monotheletes, where he develops the idea, found in some previous Fathers, that man is according to the image of God by virtue of Christ’s incarnation. This insight is developed at great length in the Hexaemeron, which is his one truly creative work. It interprets Genesis 1-3 typologically and sometimes allegorically, using Ephesians 5:32 as a key, where St. Paul says that marriage between man and woman is a great mystery, “but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” Based on this, Anastasius sees types of Christ and the Church everywhere in the Genesis stories of Creation and Fall: for example, on the fourth day, the Sun represents Christ and the Moon the Church, with the stars being all the various saints; and Adam is a type of Christ, tasting of the fruit that leads to death in order to save Eve, humanity which had been led astray by the devil but which is now redeemed as the Bride of Christ. Anastasius cites earlier Fathers extensively, especially the pre-Nicene Fathers and the two Gregories (of Nazianzus and of Nyssa), trying to retrieve their more allegorical method of Scriptural exegesis in the face of the damage done by the excesses of Origenism. He explicitly affirms the literal meaning as well, but in my opinion he does not devote enough time to harmonize the two methods, and sometimes it sounds like he is only affirming the literal in order to avoid charges of Origenism – although elsewhere he more positively integrates the literal meaning into his thought. The allegorical tendency also tends to cause problems with his Eucharistic theology, which is a strange mixture of opposites. On the one hand, throughout his writings Anastasius affirms the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament and its sacredness and significance for Christians, often in explicit contrast to heretical or Muslim opinions. But on the other hand, he sometimes posits a higher mystical Eucharist which is attained by those who truly know Christ, such as the hermits in the desert of Sinai who almost never receive communion. He is certainly right to emphasize the importance of such experience beyond the mere ritual observance of the Liturgy, but he probably should have worked toward reconciling the two rather than separating them out. In any case, Anastasius is redeemed by his humility and restraint, because he acknowledges whenever he is speculating rather than speaking from sure dogmatic authority, and always expresses a willingness to be corrected.

In conclusion, I’d like to reflect on the significance of all this for us today as Orthodox Christians and as people faced with the ongoing dilemma of Athens vs. Jerusalem. It seems to me that the Hexaemeron, despite its flaws, offers interesting insights for a contemporary Orthodox interpretation of Genesis, as a patristic alternative to a fundamentalist overly-literal reading. With regard to his polemical writings, they are somewhat limited in their scope, as well as often being shrill-sounding – which is understandable if you see how stubbornly his opponents resisted the clear logical proofs and patristic testimonies that he marshaled. But they are also logically formidable and thus can be a useful corrective to the tendency among many Orthodox theologians to soft-pedal the strictness of the dogmatic teachings of the Church. Yet perhaps they are not a creative way forward in sober ecumenical discussion such as Fr. Florovsky espoused. By comparison, Anastasius’ pastoral and ascetical vision is the most directly edifying and relevant, as it seeks to apply the insights of monastic wisdom to lay piety, and to reconcile theology and science in practical questions – perhaps a helpful model in articulating a sensitive Orthodox response to contemporary arguments over sexual morality, for example. All this is tied in, as it should be, to Anastasius’ sublime vision of the Church as the splendidly radiant Bride of God and of the ultimate goal of each human being to be transfigured into that same splendor within her bosom.

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English translations of two of the works mentioned in the paper can be purchased here:

Questions and Answers: http://www.brepols.net/Pages/ShowProduct.aspx?prod_id=IS-9782503535128-1

Tales, Book I: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/H/bo8364567.html

Two scholarly web sites by Dr. Clement Kuehn, co-editor and translator of Anastasius’ Hexaemeron, can be found here, including bibliography of the works cited here:

http://www.anastasiosofsinai.org/

http://www.newmoses.org/ (including information about how to purchase his critical edition and English translation of the Hexaemeron)

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Nicholas Marinides hails from Buffalo NY. He is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University, writing a dissertation on the topic of lay piety in seventh-century Byzantium, including a chapter on St. Anastasius. He is also a research fellow in the Department of Theology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where he currently lives. Some of his published work can be accessed online.

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