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The ‘Our Father’ Explained by the Church Fathers

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Patristic Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer

The following is a list of Patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, with links to original-language versions and English translations.

The Lord’s Prayer is a pearl of great price, a treasure of Christianity, the value of which is often obscured by its very familiarity. Tertullian rightly called it “truly the summary of the whole Gospel.” (De oratione 1; Migne PL 1,1155). More than a simple prayer, the Our Father constitute a spiritual exercise, a form of meditation and contemplation, and a complete philosophy of life, all contained in a few lines.

It is vital that Christians learn to pray it reflectively, with understanding. For this we have numerous commentaries of Church Fathers to assist us.

Perhaps no better preface for the following can be found than the following remarks of St. John Cassian, taken from Conferences 9 (full citation supplied below).

[3] … and the soul kept free from all conversation and from roving thoughts that thus it may little by little begin to rise to the contemplation of God and to spiritual insight. …

[4] For the nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather or very light wing, which, if it has not been damaged or affected by being spoilt by any moisture falling on it from without, is borne aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath: but if it is weighted by any moisture falling upon it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any aerial flights but will actually be borne down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received. So also our soul, if it is not weighted with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised as it were by the natural blessing of its own purity and borne aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation; and leaving things low and earthly will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible. …

[25] This prayer then though it seems to contain all the fullness of perfection, as being what was originated and appointed by the Lord’s own authority, yet lifts those to whom it belongs to that still higher condition of which we spoke above, and carries them on by a loftier stage to that ardent prayer which is known and tried by but very few, and which to speak more truly is ineffable; which transcends all human thoughts, and is distinguished, I will not say by any sound of the voice, but by no movement of the tongue, or utterance of words, but which the mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light describes in no human and confined language, but pours forth richly as from copious fountain in an accumulation of thoughts, and ineffably utters to God, expressing in the shortest possible space of time such great things that the mind when it returns to its usual condition cannot easily utter or relate.

Compilation of the list was considerably facilitated by: Petiot, Henri (alias M. Daniel-Rops; editor); Hamman, Adalbert (translator). Le Pater expliqué par les Pères. (2nd ed.) Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 1962.

Authors are listed chronologically, in order of year of birth.

Notation: Migne PL = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina; Migne PG = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Graeca.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225)

On Prayer (De oratione) 1–10

  • Latin: Migne PL 1, 1149–1166
  • English: Thelwall, Sydney. (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (ANF-03), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887. (pp. 681–684). (Text)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253)

On Prayer (De Oratione) 18–30

St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; Treatises 4)

  • Latin: Migne PL 4, 519–544
  • English: Wallis, Robert Ernest (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (ANF-05), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. (Cyprian: Treatises, 4, pp. 447–457). (Text)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386)

Catecheses mystagogicae 5.11–5.18

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; 5 Sermons)

St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337–397)

On the Sacraments (De sacramentis) 5.4.18–5.4.30

Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)

Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (Expositio in orationem dominicam); Clavis patrum graecorum (CPG) no. 2461

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)

Homilies on Matthew (In Mattheum) 19

Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio)

  • Greek, Latin: Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio; Migne PG 51, 44–48
  • English: ?

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428)

Catechetical Lectures

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

On the Sermon on the Mount 2.4.15–2.11.39

Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament 6–9 (= Benedictine edition 56–59 )

St. John Cassian (c. 360–435)

Conferences 9.18–9.25 (On the Lord’s Prayer, De oratione Dominica)

St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450)

Sermons 67–72

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)

A Brief Explanation of the Prayer Our Father to a Certain Friend of Christ (Orationis Dominicae expositio)

Bibliography

Ayo, Nicholas. The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 (Orig. 1992, Notre Dame University)

Hammerling, Roy. The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church: The Pearl of Great Price. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Simonetti, Manlio (ed.). Matthew 1-13. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). InterVarsity Press, 2001. (pp. 130–139).

St. Leo the Great – Christian Wisdom

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Comment:  St. Leo the Great is not usually considered a Platonist, but this sermon certainly suggests an affinity to Platonism, at least to me.

Christian Wisdom

From Sermon 95 (On the Beatitudes) by Pope St Leo the Great (Pope Leo I,  c. 400 – 461)

6. The blessedness of desiring righteousness

The Lord then goes on to say: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. This hunger is not for bodily food, this thirst is not for any earthly drink: it is a longing to be blessed with righteousness, and, by penetrating the secret of all mysteries, to be filled with the Lord himself.

Happy is the soul that longs for the food of righteousness and thirsts for this kind of drink; it would not seek such things if it had not already savoured their delight. When the soul hears the voice of the Spirit saying to it through the prophet: Taste and see that the Lord is good, it has already received a portion of God’s goodness, and is on fire with love, the love that gives joy of the utmost purity. It counts as nothing all that belongs to time; it is entirely consumed with desire to eat and drink the food of righteousness. The soul lays hold of the true meaning of the first and great commandment: You shall love the Lord God with your whole heart, and your whole mind and your whole strength, for to love God is nothing else than to love righteousness.

7. The blessedness of the merciful

Finally, just as concern for one’s neighbour is added to love of God, so the virtue of mercy is added to the desire for righteousness, as it is said: Blessed are the merciful, for God will be merciful to them.

Remember, Christian, the surpassing worth of the wisdom that is yours. Bear in mind the kind of school in which you are to learn your skills, the rewards to which you are called. Mercy itself wishes you to be merciful, righteousness itself wishes you to be righteous, so that the Creator may shine forth in his creature, and the image of God be reflected in the mirror of the human heart as it imitates his qualities. The faith of those who live their faith is a serene faith. What you long for will be given you; what you love will be yours for ever.

8. The blessedness of a pure heart

Since it is by giving alms that everything is pure for you, you will also receive that blessing which is promised next by the Lord: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Dear friends, great is the happiness of those for whom such a reward is prepared. Who are the clean of heart if not those who strive for those virtues we have mentioned above? What mind can conceive, what words can express the great happiness of seeing God? Yet human nature will achieve this when it has been transformed so that it sees the Godhead no longer in a mirror or obscurely but face to face – the Godhead that no man has been able to see. In the inexpressible joy of this eternal vision, human nature will possess what eye has not seen or ear heard, what man’s heart has never conceived.

Written by John Uebersax

September 6, 2010 at 12:59 am

St. Gregory the Great on Adversity Within and Without

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The Moral Reflections on Job by Pope St GregoryThe Great

Fights without and fears within

The saints are caught up in a turbulent war of troubles, attacked at the same time by force and by persuasion. Patience is their shield against force, and doctrine makes the arrows that they shoot against persuasion.

See the skill with which they prepare themselves for both fights. The perversity within, they straighten out and teach and correct. The adversity without, they face and endure and suppress. They despise the enemies that come from outside to attack them, they resist them and stop them from subverting others. But to the weak and feeble citizens within they give compassion, afraid that they might otherwise lose the life of righteousness completely.

Let us look at St Paul, the soldier of God’s army, as he fights both enemies: asShipwreck_of_St_Paul_in_Malta_fresco he says, quarrels outside, misgivings inside. He lists the enemies he has to resist: danger from rivers and danger from brigands, danger from my own people and danger from pagans, danger in the towns and danger in the open country, danger at sea and danger from so-called brothers. He lists the weapons he fires against them: I have worked and laboured, often without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty and often starving; I have been in the cold without clothes.

In the middle of all these battles the army’s camp must still be patrolled and safeguarded: and, to leave out much more, there is my daily preoccupation: my anxiety for all the churches. You see how bravely he takes the war upon himself and how compassionately he devotes himself to keeping his neighbours safe. First he lists the evils he suffers, then he lists the good things he is giving.

tornado_le_sueur_county_2006Let us ponder what a burden it is to endure attacks from outside and at the same time to give protection to the weak inside. From without, he suffers attack: he is beaten, he is chained. From within, he endures fear: the fear that his sufferings might discourage not him, but his disciples. So he writes to them: Let no-one be unsettled by the present troubles: as you know, they are bound to come our way. In the middle of his own sufferings, it was the downfall of others that he feared: if they saw him being beaten because of his faith, they might hold back from professing that faith themselves.

What an immense love he has within him! He neglects what he himself is suffering and worries only that his disciples might suffer temptation because of it. He thinks nothing of the wounds of his body and he heals the wounds of other people’s hearts.

This is something characteristic of the righteous. Just because they suffer pain themselves it does not stop them caring for the needs of others. They grieve for themselves and the adversity they face but they still give the needed teaching to others. They are like some great doctor who is struck down by sickness: they endure their own wounds while giving healing medicines to their patients.

From:  the Roman Breviary, August 17.

The Moral Reflections on Job by Pope St Gregory the Great Fights without and fears within

The saints are caught up in a turbulent war of troubles, attacked at the same time by force and by persuasion. Patience is their shield against force, and doctrine makes the arrows that they shoot against persuasion.

See the skill with which they prepare themselves for both fights. The perversity within, they straighten out and teach and correct. The adversity without, they face and endure and suppress. They despise the enemies that come from outside to attack them, they resist them and stop them from subverting others. But to the weak and feeble citizens within they give compassion, afraid that they might otherwise lose the life of righteousness completely.

Let us look at St Paul, the soldier of God’s army, as he fights both enemies: as he says, quarrels outside, misgivings inside. He lists the enemies he has to resist: danger from rivers and danger from brigands, danger from my own people and danger from pagans, danger in the towns and danger in the open country, danger at sea and danger from so-called brothers. He lists the weapons he fires against them: I have worked and laboured, often without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty and often starving; I have been in the cold without clothes.

In the middle of all these battles the army’s camp must still be patrolled and safeguarded: and, to leave out much more, there is my daily preoccupation: my anxiety for all the churches. You see how bravely he takes the war upon himself and how compassionately he devotes himself to keeping his neighbours safe. First he lists the evils he suffers, then he lists the good things he is giving.

Let us ponder what a burden it is to endure attacks from outside and at the same time to give protection to the weak inside. From without, he suffers attack: he is beaten, he is chained. From within, he endures fear: the fear that his sufferings might discourage not him, but his disciples. So he writes to them: Let no-one be unsettled by the present troubles: as you know, they are bound to come our way. In the middle of his own sufferings, it was the downfall of others that he feared: if they saw him being beaten because of his faith, they might hold back from professing that faith themselves.

What an immense love he has within him! He neglects what he himself is suffering and worries only that his disciples might suffer temptation because of it. He thinks nothing of the wounds of his body and he heals the wounds of other people’s hearts.

This is something characteristic of the righteous. Just because they suffer pain themselves it does not stop them caring for the needs of others. They grieve for themselves and the adversity they face but they still give the needed teaching to others. They are like some great doctor who is struck down by sickness: they endure their own wounds while giving healing medicines to their patients.

Written by John Uebersax

August 17, 2009 at 5:25 pm