A Forest Climb for St Athanasius and the Three Monks
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) · January 11, 2009
Recorded during a forest walk, this week's broadcast considers a traditional saying regarding St. Athanasius' encounter with three monks on an island, and the relationship between doctrine and transfiguration.
The present edition of A Word from the Holy Fathers follows a slightly different format than usual. I was recently walking up a small mountainside in northern England and recorded what follows as today’s broadcast during that walk. If I sound a little out of breath in what follows, the listener will know why and will also be able to account for the sounds of nature present throughout the recording from the very beginning.
This week, thanks to the abilities provided by a mobile voice recorder A Word from the Holy Fathers is being broadcast from here, in the midst of a forest at the outskirts of Sheffield, near the famous Yorkshire Dales, some of the most beautiful countryside in all of England. And yet I must confess, at this moment, I can see none of it. I am completely walled in, surrounded at every side by trees – enormous things some of them – some pines and conifers, some deciduous that have turned yellow and red with the signs of the winter season.
This particular section of forest which ascends, what American listeners would likely consider a large hill, but here in Britain certainly qualifies as a mountain, is a typically English country scene. The path is a mixture of mud and stone and to walk it requires a good set of boots, a raincoat, and a willingness to, at least at times, be knee-deep in mud.
And yet, it is a walk that repays its endeavor. I’ve paused just here on a clearing. There’s a pasture descending out to the hills below with probably 50 or 60 sheep grazing peacefully; wondering what precisely it is I’m doing. This particular section of the forest is spotted with little streams. I don’t know their source, but they’re constantly replenished by the rains which fall here on an almost daily basis.
Whenever I find myself walking in this forest, favorite of mine, or indeed in any forest setting, I’m often reminded of that pithy old English saying used to describe a person so caught up in details, the specifics, the facts of an argument that he loses sight of the broader picture – one who cannot see the forest through the trees. It seems an apt saying in this particular set of surroundings.
And it’s interesting to note that in the Patristic corpus, in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, we have a saying that says almost the same thing, albeit in a different way. It’s a saying which has many forms. And no doubt, readers will have heard it, perhaps in one of its variations. But in the version that I know it best, the way it was given to me, it’s a saying about St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria – taking up his See as a young man, a young bishop coming into a diocese that had been fraught with conflict and controversy.
We remember St. Athanasius for his defense of the Church’s teachings against Arius and against the thoughts on God that Arius was exploring. So perhaps it’s neither surprising nor unbelievable that the young Athanasius would choose to survey the scope of his diocese, to travel its length and its breadth, to see what was being taught in what were now his churches – whether it was correct or in error and needed instruction.
According to this saying, this tradition, St. Athanasius boarded a ship and set out to sea, for he knew that there was a small island on which three elderly monastics were making their spiritual life. His ship arrived at the island and he was greeted, by these three elderly men, with great love. “Dear fathers,” the bishop said, “Tell me. How do you pray?”
The three monks replied to him, “Dear Bishop, we pray like this: O Lord, we are three and thou are three. Have mercy on us.” Perhaps understandably, St. Athanasius was appalled. “My fathers,” he said, “This is not how we are to pray. This is not a right doctrine of God as Trinity.” And with great humility and enthusiasm, the monks asked their new bishop to teach them, to correct them, to give them the right words for prayer, and a right understanding of the Church’s doctrines.
Not for the first time, I find I need to interrupt recording to wade through some puddles – a bit of mud and water that has accumulated here in the midst of the path.
St. Athanasius began by teaching them the Our Father, The Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of Christ. And he spent some days in their midst, instructing them on God as Trinity, the definition of Father, Son, and Spirit, and how one is to acknowledge them in prayer and in the whole of one’s life. After the course of some days together, the bishop was convinced that they had learned what he had to teach and that he could depart from their midst.
As it were, he boarded his ship in the evening time and set sail. As night fell and darkness descended over the sea, he noticed a light in the distance in the direction from which he had come. And to his wonder and amazement as he stared over his side of the ship, the light drew closer and he was eventually able to discern that it was actually emanating from these three monks, walking towards him on the surface of the sea.
In utter amazement, he stared as they approached the ship, and standing on the surface of the water said to their bishop, “Your Grace, forgive us! Forgive us! We have forgotten the words of the prayer you taught us. Teach us again what we are to pray.” And to this St. Athanasius said to have responded, “No, dear Fathers. It is you who must pray for me. Now go in peace.”
This story is preserved for us an apothegm or a saying of the Fathers of the Church. It has come down to us in a number of forms. At times, the details are a little different – the wording and the images slightly modified. Though the version that I have presented here is, I think, the most traditional and the most widely known. Apothegmata, or sayings of this kind, give us words, images from the life of the Fathers – not necessarily historical snapshots of specific goings on, but true and real proclamations of the Fathers in their example and their teaching. And they are remarkably powerful and moving ways for that truth to be shown forth.
As with the English characterization of a person, as one who can’t see the forest through the trees, this particular story conveys a certain truth about the spiritual and intellectual life. Its point is surely not that the details of truth, of doctrine, as they are proclaimed, are unimportant. It would hardly be fitting to say such things in a story about St. Athanasius, one of the Fathers of the Church noted most for his deliberate and sensitive and focused articulation of precisely those details.
The point is not that they are unimportant, but that true theological vision—the vision of the experience of God is the paramount lens by which such facts, such details, are to be articulated. The true experience of God is the criterion of the Faith, the criterion of doctrinal expression. And the point of this story is similarly not to proclaim that a flawed doctrine of the Trinity or flawed approach to prayer is acceptable, is right, or a thing to be emulated.
Rather the point of the story is to remind that doctrine, teaching, dogma, truth, these critical ingredients to the life and ministry of the Church find the fulfillment in the transfigured person. They are not holy in their own right, as if a statement abstracted from reality had any significance whatsoever. The holiness of the Church’s doctrine abides in its pastoral power to transform a broken life into one that radiates with a light of God.
St. Athanasius shows righteous and holy concern for the prayer of his people. And the chief image that this story gives is his renewed awareness, as bishop and pastor, that the doctrine he has fought and will fight in his life so hard to proclaim and preserve has precisely the power to sanctify the human person. When St. Athanasius sees the three illumined men walking towards him across the sea, he does not behold a vision that proclaims his teaching to be unnecessary or surpassed, but rather which brings into immediate experience relief, the fulfillment of all that he proclaims and teaches as a pastor of the Church.
If I’m sounding a little more out of breath at this stage in the broadcast, it’s because I’m just about to reach the peak of this little forested mountain. Just ahead, I can see a peak in the path, over which I know from my last climb here, there is a landing and the trees part ways. An enormous yellow canopy sits right here at the edge of this forest scene – quite a remarkable sight.
And here as I pass the last tree, into a little clearing at the top of this hill, I am faced with a reward for this journey—a remarkable view of the dales opening out below, robust beautiful hills really as far as the eye can see. If I wasn’t able to see the forest through the trees before, perhaps it’s true that really I’m not seeing the forest now, but I have an altogether different vision, something quite remarkable.
At this particular spot, I’m reminded of one, perhaps, notable difference between our story of St. Athanasius and the three men at the sea and that English saying. Implied in the saying is the idea that there is some separation between the forest and its trees. But what is found in the spiritual life is that the details of life and the vision of true life are bound up one with the other.
The human person, when it reaches the heights of divine vision, of transfiguration, as had those three monks in the saying, does not abandon the doctrines of the Church, the teachings, the ascetical principles of the Christian life. It is not that one chooses forest or trees, but that one finds their intimate interconnection. The vision of God is bound up on in, not other than, the doctrine that enables it in human life.
Through the prayers of our Holy Father, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and of all the Saints, have mercy on us, O God, and save us. Amen.