January 19, 2015

"Pseudo-Macarius" and the "Messalian Origin" of the Spiritual Homilies

In re­cent centuries heterodox scholars in the West (and those Orthodox scholars who have fallen under their influence) have shifted the center of interest in Patristic studies to an entirely secondary question, that of comparison of texts, establishment of authorship and "influences", and the like. In itself there is nothing reprehensible in such a study; as long as the meaning of the text itself remains primary, and the individual scholar knows enough to trust the judgment of Orthodox tradition over his own personal opinions and whims, and to place any "new discoveries" he may make into the context of that tradition. Alas, in our own times there are very few Patristic scholars of the maturity of Professor Kontzevitch, who, while being familiar with the science of textual criticism, knew how to subordinate it to the higher science of the meaning of Patristic texts.

Occasionally, textual critics do indeed make a discovery which necessitates a revision of some long-standing opinion concerning some text or other; seldom, however, owing to the one-sidedness of their interest, are they able properly to interpret the full significance of their own discoveries, something which can be done only by a true Patristic scholar: one who lives in the tradi­tion of the Fathers and therefore can understand the Patristic texts from within, not as an outward academic exercise. In the case of the "textual criticism" of St. Macarius the Great, the "new discoveries" have caused one-sided scholars to come to utterly absurd conclusions which can only be rejected by sound scholarly judgment.

The authorship by St. Macarius of the Spiritual Homilies has never been doubted in the East, and even among modern Western scholars it was not questioned until the present 20th century. Some scholars began to find his authorship "dubious" because his contemporaries who wrote of his life (Palladius and Rufinus) do not mention any writings of his, and because there is no known association of his name with the text of the Spiritual Homilies for over a cen­tury after his death. However, given the fragmentariness of direct literary evi­dence from that period; the absence especially among great spiritual figures like St. Macarius of any sense of "publishing" or "copyrighting" a spiritual teach­ing which he did not "invent" but only received from the Holy Spirit and from other Holy Fathers; the fact that the 5th-century writer Gennadius does refer to "an epistle" of St. Macarius, and some manuscripts title the Homilies an "epistle"; and the total lack of any direct proof against the traditional as­cription - this argument may be seen to have no weight at all.

However, in the second decade of this century a certain Roman Catholic scholar, Dom L. Villecourt, discovered in the Spiritual Homilies "traces of Messalianism," a heresy which was condemned in 431 at the Council of Ephe­sus. This Council listed a number of heretical propositions taken from a Mes­salian book, the Asketikon; this or a similar list has been preserved in the book On Heresies by St. John Damascene, and Villecourt discovered that "traces" of all but two of these 18 sentences are to be found in the Spiritual Homilies, and in a few cases the wording is even identical. This was sufficient for a number of Western scholars to agree that the authorship of St. Macarius was "out of the question," to begin a long (and to this day fruitless) search for the "real author," who must have been a Messalian, and to speculate (on no evidence whatever) on how the work was later "corrected" and made "Orthodox" and then put under the "protection" of the great name of St. Macarius - that is, how a deliberate fraud was perpetrated.

It is significant, however, that these scholars do not know and do not even enquire into the true spiritual and theological doctrine of the Spiritual Homilies. They "play" (as it is called in academic parlance) with a few words (18 short sentences out of 300 pages!) without knowing the meaning and context even of those few words, let alone the whole book and the rich spiritual tradition of which it is an integral part. So far does this "learned ignorance" of some scholars go, that a standard Roman Catholic Patrology (Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Spectrum Publishers, Utrecht/Antwerp, 1966, vol. III, pp. 162-166) devotes four pages to these "textual" arguments, and not one word to the doctrine of the book itself. It is sufficient to repeat blindly "Pseudo-Macarius" in order to be in good repute in such "scholarly" circles.

What is the opinion of sound Orthodox scholarship on the question of the "Messalianism" of the Spiritual Homilies? Obviously, the 18 sentences must be understood in the context of the 300 pages of the whole text, and not vice versa. From the account of this heresy by St. John Damascene (On Heresies, Book 3, ch. 80}, it is clear that the Messalians (also known as the Eu­chites) were a sect based on "enthusiasm," kin to the ancient Montanists and the contemporsry "charismatic movement," demanding of its adherents that they receive the Holy Spirit "sensibly" and that they trust their own prayer more than the Church's Mysteries. Most of these sectarians were to be found in monasteries, and their teaching is that of one group of unbalanced monks, who abounded at that time when "going to the desert" had become the fashion. Their teaching had clearly nothing to do with the sound Orthodox spiritual doctrine of St. Macarius.

To take an example: The second of the condemned propositions of the Messalians is "that satan and the demons have hold of the minds of men, and human nature is capable of communion with the spirits of evil." When we know that according to Messalian belief man is in a state of such absolute slav­ery to the demons that even baptism does not deliver him from them, and that the adherent of this sect must engage in no labor at all except to pray constantly until he feels sin being driven out of him like smoke - then we will certainly agree that this statement is heretical. But here is the corresponding passage in the Spiritual Homilies (Homily 27:19; the corresponding phrases are italicized) : "Certainly they are evil spirits, satan and the devils, who have hold of the mind, and put fetters on the soul. The devil is very wily, and has many conjuring tricks, and loopholes, and all manner of shifts, and keeps hold of the ranges and thoughts of the soul, and will not allow it to pray properly and to draw nigh to God. For nature itself is capable of fellowship with the devils and spirits of wickedness, and likewise with Angels and the Holy Spirit. It is the temple of satan, or the temple of the Holy Spirit. Examine your mind, brethren; which are you in fellowship with? Angels, or devils?" This is per­fectly Orthodox doctrine, known in the experience of every Orthodox Christian who is laboring for his salvation; it can be found in the New Testament. Who borrowed from whom? The Messalian doctrine is clearly a twisted version of the Orthodox doctrine, taken out of context and made to serve a dualistic philosophy.

The same thing is true of the other condemned propositions of the Messalians (save for those that have no equivalent at all in the Spiritual Homilies). No sober scholar could possibly find "traces of Messalianism" in the writings of St. Macarius. Indeed, is not the very fact that the Messalian propos­itions seem to have appeared in written form precisely between the years 390 and 431 (see Quasten, vol. III, p. 164) a convincing evidence that the Spiritual Homilies from which they were taken were in circulation very soon after the death of St. Macarius in 390? It is quite impossible for a scholar rightly to understand even the most elementary question of textual comparison if he can­not properly distinguish between Orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and if he himself does not himself hold Orthodox views. The whole history of this academic fashion - the attempt to bind the name of St. Macarius with the heresy of Messalianism - is only another proof of the hopeless one-sidedness of so much of modern scholarship, and indeed the glaring incompetence of heterodox scholars to deal fully and maturely with Orthodox texts.

Academic fashions being what they are, it should be noted that, due to the latest "discovery," "the entire hypothesis of the Messalian origin of the homilies has been challenged" (Quasten, III, 164). True Orthodox scholarship need not be disturbed by the ups and downs of such whimsical "research," and Professor Kontzevitch has rightly ignored it completely. It is likewise to the credit of the translator of the Spiritual Homilies, A. J. Mason, that in his original preface to this book he rightly rejected the "Messalian hypothesis" as quite without foundation.

From the book Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Great, trans. A.J. Mason.