Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Kenosis of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Mystery of God, Part II

Part 1 posted Jan 24, 2010

Let us continue our reflection on the Mystery of God which we started a few postings ago. There we emphasized the importance of encountering the Mystery of God in our lives, in the depths of our heart and in everything around us. Now it is fitting that those of us who are Christians reflect on this encounter in the light of Holy Week which is upon us.  The Triduum, the celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday,  and Easter Sunday are in reality one feast, one mystery celebrated in three modes.  And it is this one great feast which should lead us to an ever-deepening encounter with the Mystery of God.  For in the Christian context we are plunged into that Mystery most deeply through the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection.

There is a very prevalent hazard for Christians who especially have not been exposed to the spiritual and mystical traditions within Christianity to view Jesus in a superficial way–as God rewarding me for doing good or punishing me for doing bad or as God holding my hand “in a personal relationship” while “I do this” or “I do that.”   It is that very “I” which should be deconstructed in the light of the Mystery of God.  So when we say we need to “look at Jesus” it certainly is not in this superficial sense.  And this applies even more so to the reality of the Risen Christ.

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians there is this passage, which is one of those absolutely critical and central and crucial passages in the whole New Testament:

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [literally: “became nothing”] taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human beings.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (2:3-8)

In Christian faith and in Christian theology it is asserted that we as human beings encounter God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ and we have “knowledge of God” most deeply through and in Jesus Christ.  When we look at Jesus we see directly into the Mystery of God.  But as mentioned before, this does not at all take away the mystery.  Hardly.  In fact if we allow ourselves to be drawn into this Mystery by Jesus, it may take us to places where our language and our concepts will fail us.  So in the quote above Paul invites us to look at Jesus, but he has stripped away all physical and historical details and focuses on the key characteristic that Jesus reveals about God:  God is self-emptying, self-negating.  This perhaps sounds too radical a statement, too large a claim.  But recall that the sign of the cross is present in every Christian church; it is the central symbol of Christianity–it says something about the very nature of the God in whose presence we always stand,  and this moment is not just one moment in a string of moments in Jesus’ life, but the climactic moment.  And recall that the Gospel of John plainly tells us:  when we “see” Jesus, we see the Father.  Also when John tells us that “God is Love,” this is also what he means–not some feeling or emotion or sentiment.  This Reality, then,  the “Mind of Christ”, which is Absolute Love, which is a dynamic of self-emptying, self-negation, is seemingly alien to our “everyday fallen existence” –which in turn is one built on self-promotion, acting in self-interest, being self-centered, confusing this ego identity as “us” etc.–and so plunged into the realm of death.   But Paul also tells us that the “Mind of Christ” is there in us now as gift, as a liberation from this false identity of “fallen existence.”  Following Paul and adapting some language from our Buddhist friends, we can say then that we must discover the Mind of Christ in our ordinary everyday mind.  From the Christian perspective, to do this we must REALLY look at Jesus and follow Him and let what we find carry us into the depths of the Mystery of God, this life of self-emptying.

Now the key focal point of this and of what Paul tells us is Good Friday.  This radical and total self-emptying of Christ on Good Friday is called in Greek: the kenosis of Christ.  We need to stop and ponder that historical fact–the crucifixion.  There was a controversial movie a few years ago entitled The Passion, which was a very realistic portrayal of how the events of Good Friday unfolded.  It was controversial for several reasons, not the least of which was the accusation by some religious people that the movie so emphasized the torture and suffering of Jesus that it distorted the Christian message, that it somehow separated it from the Resurrection, which is the real meaning of Christ.  There may be some truth in that criticism, but actually the movie has a 10 second clip right at the very end which points to the Resurrection and it is this very scene which is more “wrong” than the gruesome scenes–more about that later.  Yes, in Western Christianity there have been in the past periods when the suffering of Christ was separated and looked at in an isolated and unhealthy way–that’s a whole topic in itself.  As said above, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are really one Feast, one Mystery, one Event.  You cannot separate and isolate any one moment from it.  The problem modern Christians are more likely prone to is to gloss over Good Friday and slide into Easter Sunday as if it were a “band aid” on the human condition. The Resurrection is there with the Easter bunny and the colored eggs.   That’s why religion almost never shakes one up at the roots of one’s being, never disturbs you out of your “comfort zone,” never seems to shake anything up.  Lets ‘fess up — we don’t really want to look at Jesus on Good Friday–it can put a crimp in our shopping.  That’s why we miss the real meaning of the Resurrection and how it takes us into the Mystery of God.

Let us turn to the Russian Orthodox Church for a moment.  These people have a reputation for really focusing on the Risen Christ, and it is true to a large extent–you really haven’t celebrated Easter yet until you have been to an Easter Vigil at a Russian Cathedral!  But what is less appreciated by Westerners is the very real and sober grasp of the kenosis of Christ in Russian theology, spirituality and culture.  They have a very existential grasp of Good Friday and those lines from Paul we quoted above.  The Russian religious mind is eager to follow Christ in his self-emptying, self-sacrifice, no matter where that takes it–even to human degradation and human folly.  They have an intuitive feel for this self-emptying dynamic, and they know that it is at the core of all truth, all beauty, all glory, all life, all reality. That is why you will find in Russian spiritual writings a strong dose of humility as a requirement of the spiritual path.  This is not a self-serving version of humility as in “Aw shucks, I’m not so good, etc.”, but it is a profound abasement of one’s ego before the reality of God.  And it is manifested even physically as when Fr. Zosima bows before even those who would demean and degrade him because he knows that God is present also in them.   As an illustration of that, Russian religious culture has a model of holiness that is seldom found anywhere else but is quite in abundance even today in Russia:  the Fool, or more precisely, the Fool for Christ.  These people could be found all over Russia by the hundreds of thousands in 19th Century Russia.  They did not have the credentials of religiosity; they did not have the credentials of respectable society.  Sometimes they would put on the appearance of being mad; sometimes they would hang out at brothels or tavens; sometimes they would just be smelly homeless vagrants–and many, many times, they would really be truly imbecilic or mad, but the Russian religious sensibility detected the presence of this self-emptying Christ in them especially, so there was no distinction made between those who put on a holy mask and those who were lost in that degraded reality.  In a sense this is why Rasputin fooled(no pun intended) so many Russians into idealizing him–he seemed to be a type of Fool for Christ.  But not if you looked carefully!

This kenotic movement by God, this self-emptying into the deepest and darkest corners of the human condition cast an overwhelming spell over the Russian mind and culture.  The “humiliated Christ” slinks unbeknownst through much of Russian literature, appearing in many guises and symbols.  Most modern secular critics have little or no awareness of his presence across the pages and across the sweep of the culture–even into contemporary times.  There is a marvelous little book–very rare and extremely hard to get–that delineates  this figure in the Russian literature of the past 100 years or so:  The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought, by Najda Gorodetsky.  When this kenotic dynamic is apprehended through the “Russian lens,” then we begin to appreciate the power of their celebration of the Resurrection and how the Humiliated Christ and the Risen Christ merge into one Reality.

Very closely related to this but coming at it from a Western perspective is Louis Dupre’s The Deeper Life, one of the best “little” introductions to Christian mysticism.  He begins by speaking of poverty and emptiness:

“That ultimate poverty is also the true humility.  Too often we confuse humility with false modesty.  We secretly hope that if we accuse ourselves of imperfection, God may contradict us, asserting that we are not all that bad.  But God will not contradict us, for imperfection is real and goes to the core of our existence…. True humility consists in the honest acceptance of my imperfection.  The meaning of this humility and this poverty is not simply that of being a means to an end.  It is not motivated, as many think, by the idea that by giving up ambition and possession now I shall be compensated for it later.  Rather than being a means , poverty is a method of giving way to God.  Since to be united with God is simply to be devoid of oneself, poverty and humility are the goal….God means absolute emptiness and poverty.”

A fundamental humility, then, is not a pretending of this or that about oneself, much less is it a neurotic self-hatred that afflicts so many, but it is an existential manifestation of a very deep emptiness and poverty which is one’s real identity–it becomes a total openness to life uninhibited by private desires and ambitions.  In Christian terms it becomes a following of Christ, a disciplship in his kenosis, and into the Mystery of God.                                  Again Dupre:  “In poverty and humility I abandon all that I have and even let go of what I am, in order to reach the uncreated core of my being–God’s own creating act.  God himself dwells in the absolute poverty that knows no possession, not even that of a name.  As we move more deeply into that divine poverty, we shall be less and less inclined to place labels on God or His creatures.”

Again Dupre:  “Negative theology means far more than that we find no adequate names for God.  It means, on a practical-spiritual level, that there exists no failproof method for reaching God, and hence that my only hope lies in the humble awareness of my inadequacy.  My lack of faith, my psychic limitations…, the radical worldliness of my age, this is the dark cloud I must enter deliberately if I am to find God at all.  It is the cloud of my own estrangement, my own waylessness.  No spiritual life can take off without passing through an intense awareness of the emptiness of the creature….  This message seems far removed from the aspirations of a culture predominantly bent on self-fulfillment and self-achievement.”

After laying this groundwork, Dupre then goes on to address the particularity of the Christian mystical journey, the following of Christ in His kenosis.  He quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola:

“I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world.”  This “imitation of Christ” is absolutely essential to Christian mysticism–not in the sense of some external, superficial mimicry, where one is constantly looking “in the mirror” to see how one is doing, but much more in the sense of plunging deeply into the human condition both in oneself and in others, unafraid and open to the suffering one will find there.

Dupre, reflecting on Good Friday:  “Christian piety has always sought an intimate presence to Jesus’ Passion rather than a mere commemoration of the past…  To be with Him in the present of His agony and rejection when no triumph was in sight, that is to be where He really was.  But to be present to His hour means more than to be present there in feeling.  It means entering into the dark reality of my own suffering, loneliness and failure.  Only in the brokenness and pain of life am I with Him where He continues to live His agony….How dare I call what possesses so little dignity “suffering”?  Whenever I lift my eyes to the crucified Savior it is mostly to move away from my private misery, certainly not to move into it.  Nevertheless,  Christian piety teaches that very suffering of mine, however despicable and even sinful in its origins, is Jesus’ agony in me.  Comparing my pain with Jesus’ Passion may seem blasphemous.  But all suffering began with a curse.  His as well as mine.  Whether pain has its roots in private weakness and failure, or whether it is inflicted by an entire universe of weakness and failure, the effect remains the same.  To him who suffers, suffering always means failure.  Jesus’ words on the cross–My God, my God why have you forsaken me?–do not express the attitude of one who is performing a clearly understood, effective sacrifice.  They say what suffering has said from the beginning of the world and what it still says in me:  In this I am hopelessly alone.”

The old Black slave song had a line:  “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?”  Was I there in my suffering–for that is where He is being crucified–in me, not in Jerusalem.  Again Dupre:  “Perhaps I shall be able to accomplish no more than silently to accept my inability to accept.  But not more is expected: to confront my bitterness, rebellion, greed, jealousy, rage, impatience is to encounter Jesus’ agony in my own.  I must find Jesus’ agony also in those private worlds of suffering around me, which I am so reluctant to explore and so unable to comprehend.  Here also I am invited to accept, without understanding, Jesus’ agony in the uncouth, the uncivilized, the unlovable.  On Good Friday failure itself has become redemptive.  That Jesus fails in me is the joyous mystery of the union between God and me.”

Hard to speak of the Resurrection after those words!  But it is precisely here that we truly find the Risen Christ–because, remember, the kenotic Christ and the Risen Christ are one–because if Jesus “is crucified” in me and in that wretched person over there, He is also the Risen Christ in me and in that person over there.  The light of the Risen Christ shines through absolutely every darkness–nothing can overcome it.  The Resurrection begins on Holy Thursday and continues on through Good Friday , and we become aware of it and acknowledge it on Easter Sunday!  For the Resurrection is not a “resuscitation” of a dead body; it is not one event in a sequence of events–a kind of interruption of death;  it is not “picking up where one left off” at death–a kind of things continue on and on–that would be a bogus victory over death.  Recall that in the Gospel resurrection narratives both continuity and discontinuity are present and emphasized.  The Gospel makes a point about the “sameness” of the Risen Christ with the crucified Jesus–afterall he shows his wounds.  But there is also a profound discontinuity, a difference–he is also hardly recognizable even to his closest associates.  The Gospel struggles with language here, and it would be a mistake to read these passages in a simplistic and superficial way. The Gospel presents in story and symbol hints and evocations of a radically new reality.  Suffice it to say that the “victory over death” is not an overcoming of just a physical death–no, here death encapsulates a whole realm of darkness, weakness, fear, falseness, misery, frozenness, egocenteredness, despair, disintegration, etc.–our “fallen existence.”  In perhaps a bit of overstatement, we can say, with all due respect to our Buddhist friends, that the “Risen Life” is what they mean by Enlightenment or Nirvana plus_____.  What that plus is we only discover through faith.  But the Resurrection  is a liberation from all fear, all darkness, all falseness and self-deception, all manipulation, etc, and a liberation into a life suffused with spontaneity and unconditional joy and boundless freedom.  We discover  that the Risen Christ is our true identity because He has made us one with Him.  St. Paul:  “It is now not I who lives, but Christ in me.”  People who speak of “dualism” or “monism” are fiddling with language while the Mystery remains.

To be continued in Part III, the Mystery of God and the Holy Trinity.

Solitude and Silence: a few thoughts

No one has written any better about solitude and silence in recent centuries than Thomas Merton.  His long essay, “Notes Toward a Philosophy of Solitude,” as found in Disputed Questions, is the most profound exposition of the topic in English.  His classic short preface to the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude is a masterpiece.  The first line begins, “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”  Amen.

There are degrees and varying depths to the solitude and silence that people experience.  However that be the case, there is no spiritual life without some elements of solitude and silence being there.  There are a rare few for whom solitude and silence is almost total–they have been given this rare gift which really has no name, and they look at us with their sad-joyful, beautiful eyes unable to communicate the Mystery that envelops them.  Yet what flows through their heart, the silent love and compassion, is what holds this universe together.  Then there are the more numerous for whom the solitude and silence is more diluted, for whom human communication still has a vital and blessed role–Merton would be one of these; Theophane the Russian recluse would be another.  Then there are the many more for whom solitude and silence are momentary but necessary punctuations in the flow of a busy life and without which they not only get lost in the surface of things but also without which they lose contact with their own heart.  One example is the writer Anne LeClaire.  Besides her novels, she has written of her experience of taking every other Monday totally off–a day of silence and solitude away from family and friends.  She tells us: “Like too many of us, I mistook a busy life for a rich one….”

Silence and solitude are TOTALLY countercultural today. (Not that there weren’t people in the past for whom solitude was anathema in their religious and social practices.  Martin Luther, for example, had not a clue about the significance of solitude and hated it with a passion.) Silence and solitude cannot be bought, sold, marketed, used — well, there are its counterfeits which are peddled by a few pseudo-religious salesmen.  Actually religion is quite a big business today–it has been coopted by this consumer culture like almost everything else.  Religion has been drawn into turning itself into a commodity that is bought and sold, advertised, marketed, etc.  But real solitude and silence is totally “out of it”–there is nothing there that can be sold to you; there is nothing there compared to the hypnotic fantasies of virtual reality games. That’s why silence and solitude seem totally unintelligible and incomprehensible to most modern Westerners and their Third World “wannabes.”  We are increasingly self-absorbed, dumbed-down educationally not to think or see clearly and critically, entertained endlessly into a mindless stupor of virtual reality, addressed by our leaders in sound-bytes and slogans, and constantly enticed to buy, buy, buy….  Walmart and other such stores sell these small DVD players that can be mounted on the back seats of cars–supposedly so that your kids can watch movies or play games while they are in the car going somewhere.  That which is fantasy and unreal is now preferable to what is real, which has become “boring.”  Of course postmodernism has been deconstructing all kinds of distinctions, so why not the distinction between reality and unreality.  In such a world silence and solitude become more than functions of a religious/mystical path–they become radical gestures, positions of social and political resistance, affirmations of a basic humanity.  We can borrow a marvelous term from the era of Soviet Russia–people who resisted the system called themselves “refuseniks”–they refused to be cogs in the communist machine.  Today we need people who refuse to be cogs in the consumer machine.  People who discover the meaning of silence and solitude in their lives, to whatever degree, begin to join the ranks of the refuseniks.

Among the buzz words of our era are “connectivity” and “social networking.”  While a lot of good and useful functions can be found for all the technical innovations of our era, the fact is that we are way beyond any such apologia for all our electronic communication.  Just look around any modern urban setting: so many people on cell phones, even when they are with other people or driving; so many people walking about text messaging almost non-stop; so many people with something stuck in their ear listening to something else, etc, etc.  Take a look at this letter written by a young person to the magazine Adbusters:  “It has come to the point that I feel incomplete and isolated when I don’t have my cell phone.  My phone has become an inconvenience, sometimes, for those around me.  My parents have taken it away during dinner because I can’t keep up a conversation without pausing to check if I have a text message.  I am out of the loop if I don’t check Facebook multiple times a day.  I constantly crave music when I don’t have my iPod earphones snuggled in my ears.  Technology is running my life.”

That feeling of being “incomplete and isolated” mentioned by the young person above is what people fear the most.  There is a profound truth behind that fear–the human being, in Christian theology, is a being of communion in the image of God who is also Pure Communion of a transcendent order.  The human being is a pure relationality, not an “isolated island of self-sufficency.”  Something like this is also said by all the other great spiritual traditions.  However, this sense of communion, of oneness with all of creation in fact, is not at all the same as electronic connectivity and social networking.  One has to get beyond an ego sense of identity; one has to discover one’s real heart.  And the paradox is that this is done by allowing oneself to plunge into the seeming “aloneness” at one’s core, the loneliness that one meets there–instead of running away from it through external connectivity.  Silence and solitude, to whatever degree, play a real but paradoxical role in our becoming truly and fully human and divine.

But so many people fear silence and solitude to any degree; as mentioned above for many young people these are almost incomprehensible.  There are some good reasons for this alienation from the depths of one’s being.  Listen to this quote from Adbusters again:  “Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isolation, this ‘solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence–that millions of people in all the highly industrialized countries are also pacing the prison cells of the self.”  There are two metaphors here for the ego self: the fog, and the prison cell.  To have no deeper sense of identity than one’s own ego self is to be lost in a kind of fog.  You have a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is not real.  But there is something more scary–the ego self is a kind of isolated confinement, and again if that is your basic sense of identity, then comes the desperate measures to alleviate this seeming isolation and enclosure by the facilities of modern technology.  In a sense, if I am communicating with you, I exist; if I am not communicating with you, do I really exist?  One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that the only way to break out of the isolation of the ego self is to plunge into the reality of solitude and silence. To meet the seeming nothingness at the core of our being.   It is there that we discover our true heart and our true identity, and it is there that all creatures begin to speak their name to us in the silence of our common transient being.

Let us return now to the topic of those for whom solitude and silence has become a way of life, not just a temporary abode. These people are generally called hermits.  Modern western society is probably the first social order in which such a life is beyond comprehension.   That’s why it is so difficult to speak about such a life in our context.  In general hermits seem to be especially bad in explaining their life!  Its “strangeness” to our contemporaries and its precariousness makes many modern hermits insecure and defensive about their life.  Among other things they tend to fall into the trap of telling you “how important” it is what they are doing–they begin “marketing” and “advertising” their life.  One can readily understand that because everyone believes that what they are doing is important or else why do it!  However, hermits tend to make the importance of what they are about into a message.  Hermits should look at their “hermiting” more as breathing–not something you proclaim to the world as being important, but it sure as hell IS important.  You should dwell in solitude the same way as breathing–just do it.  However, a few words about the rationale of the solitary life and a kind of existential description of its dynamic is possible even in our time.

One amazing thing about hermits now and in ages past is the tremendous variety and diversity of living that life.  There is no one pattern or one way of living the call to solitude and silence.   There are some who have had a very clearly marked out path, and they may be affiliated with some religious order or with a church.  Then, at the other extreme, are those who never had a “plan” to be hermits but find themselves thrown into a solitude they cannot explain.  They may not even be ostensibly religious.  And then there are so many in between these two.  Merton mentions somewhere that there was a report of a man who was living as a hermit in the woods of Kentucky, who had been there since the 1940s but was only discovered by others around 1960.  When asked what had brought him to the woods, why was he living like this, he simply replied, “Because of all these wars.”  Merton’s comment: “A true desert father!”

Examples of the diversity:  There is Fr. Lazarus, a Coptic hermit in the Egyptian desert who was once a university professor in Australia.  There is Willard MacDonald, who ran away from the Army when he was drafted because he did not want to go to war–lived as a hermit deep in the northern wilderness of Nova Scotia.  There is the incredible tradition of Chinese hermits, Taoists and Buddhists.  There is a fascinating and mysterious story surrounding the Russian Emperor, Alexander I(1777-1825).  He seems to have died at age 48, but his death was shrouded in secrecy and there arose rumors that his death was faked and he disappeared into the wilderness of Siberia to be a hermit.  He had been the hero of the resistance against the invasion by Napoleon(commemorated by Tolstoy in War and Peace), but he grew more and more “mystical” in his interests and inclinations.  What further makes this an intriguing story is the mysterious and sudden appearance years later of a hermit-staretz in Siberia by the name of Feodor Kuzmich.  No one knew where he came from or who he was, but he seemed to be very learned, could speak many languages, and received both nobility and peasants with a dignified presence.  Needless to say there were all kinds of rumors that this hermit was the old emperor.  And by the way, he DID look like Alexander if you aged him about 20 years and added a big beard!  At least so said the witnesses.  Modern historians are not too convinced.  But in Russia they loved their hermits, and the idea of their beloved Tsar being a hermit was just too irresistible!

In the United States there is a long tradition of secular hermits that is very interesting.  Thoreau, of course, is the most famous, even though he spent only a few years in relative solitude.  But his writing about it, and how it seemed to form the foundation of his view of the emerging American society, forever cemented the idea of  solitude, “hermiting,” with being a social critic–at least implicitly. Thoreau already saw in the middle of the 19th Century that whatever else you might want to say pertaining to the life of solitude and the value of silence, it WAS going to be countercultural within the context of what America was becoming.  Edward Abbey in his periods of solitude in the desert is a more modern example of this. But the hermit’s way of being countercultural is largely not so much in fingerpointing but just silently being “different.” The hermit’s critical stance is one that transcends all social categories–it is one with that empty space that the Chinese Taoists speak of; it is one with the wind blowing through those pine trees; it is one with the owl hooting at night; it is one with the rain filling the gullies.   The old defunct magazine, Life, did a big spread on American hermits in December of 1983.  They are all “odd birds”–and more power to them!

Returning to the explicitly religious hermits, there is a Catholic House of Prayer in Texas, where there are several religious hermits in residence.  What is of interest is the name of their place: Lebh Shomea — in Hebrew that means A Listening Heart.  What a marvelous way to “name” the hermit life.  In reality one cannot name the hermit life in its essence, but this is as good as it can get–one can go in many different directions with this name.  The human world does not collapse under the weight of all its illusions and delusions and darkness and meaningless speeches and noises because all over the globe there are those few who dwell in silence and solitude in so many different circumstances but with one Listening Heart.

A Very Sad Anniversary

Every Lent is a very sad anniversary of an event that very, very few people have any awareness of.  This event is the horrible and tragic murder of a great woman pagan intellectual, Hypatia of Alexandria, by a mob of Christian monks.  There are all kinds of reasons to remember this anniversary, but those of us on the monastic journey especially need to be aware of how even the monastic path can be coopted by very dark forces.


Hypatia was born in Alexandria around 370 A.D., the daughter of a mathematician and philosopher named Theon.  He obviously thought of her very highly and loved her because he educated her to the highest extent possible.  She became his closest collaborator but eventually completely eclipsed him.  She became a scholar in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, and she traced her intellectual heritage back to Plato and Pythagoras, not through the Christian Church.  She studied in Athens for a while, where she earned the laurel wreath, bestowed upon only the best of Athens’ pupils, and on her return she wore this wreath whenever she appeared in public.  Hypatia is said to have been very attractive and a charismatic lecturer; she held widely attended public lectures on Plato and Aristotle. At the end of many a day, she would mount her chariot, which she drove herself, and ride to the lecture hall at the academy, a highly adorned room, with swinging lamps of perfumed oil and a large rotunda handpainted by a Greek artist.  Hypatia, wearing a white robe and her ever present laurel, would face the large crowd and transfix them with her eloquent Greek. Even as a pagan, Hypatia was respected by many intelligent Christians in Alexandria, of whom some became her students–one of them, Synesius of Cyrene, became a bishop. As a true Neoplatonist, she lived a life of exemplary virtue, and she scorned the “frivolities of the flesh” remaining a virgin to the end.  According to Damascius, the whole city “doted on her and worshipped her.”


Around 400A.D. Alexandria was one of the greatest strongholds of Christianity.  However, it was also a time when there were many social disturbances and conflicts between Christians and non-Christians such as Greek Neoplatonists and Jews.  In 391, a Christian mob attacked and burned most of the library at Alexandria.  Around 412, Cyril became archbishop of Alexandria–so now we know him as St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the Fathers of the Church.  Cyril had a fanatical group of followers and supporters in the desert monks living outside Alexandria.  At a notice from him, implied or direct, a mob would show up in Alexandria to do some “dirty deed”–like burn down a synagogue or chase some poor Jews out of Alexandria–recall that they had been there for centuries: Philo, the Septuagint was translated there, etc.  Cyril wrote some beautiful theology, but he seems to have been one nasty SOB, which makes you wonder about the whole canonization thing in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  In any case, you have to remember that the “desert movement” in early Egyptian monasticism included droves of all kinds of people, very many of them just a mob seeking escape from Roman taxation or a bit crazy or something else.  The true monks were a small minority even then.  Considering the violence of the times, the sayings of the great Desert Fathers are even more noteworthy and challenging than usually supposed.


On one day in March of 415, in Lent,  Hypatia was making her way home when she was waylaid by this kind of mob.  There is no evidence that Cyril directly ordered this attack, yet there is also no sign that he denounced this act or condemned the perpetrators.  The silence is deafening! Hypatia was seen as a threat to the authority and influence of the Christian bishop.  Hypatia was beaten, dragged into a church, skinned alive there, then her body cut up and burned. Apparently anything was ok if it was “for God,” or done “in the name of God.”  This was no “normal assassination.”  One has the feeling that if she were a man, simply killing would have been enough, but a woman who stood before a bishop as an equal, this was not to be tolerated.  A message had to be sent.  These last sentences are, of course, an editorial opinion on my part, but I feel that was the case.  The Church never has liked and barely tolerated women intellectuals who challenge male dominance.  Oh yes, there is Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila,  both of whom were named Doctors of the Church, but neither of whom were well-educated and therefore not a real threat.  Most  women have not fared so well in the Church.


This was written in homage to Hypatia by someone seeking to be on the monk’s path and to keep her memory alive.