Presented below is a chapter from an unpublished book, titled Light from the East, by the late Brother Robert Smith, FSC (1914-2006), longtime tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis. It was a book he was working on during the last few years of his long life; when he left his house at Annapolis a few months before his death, he asked me to save the files of it onto my computer. I have cleaned up spelling and punctuation as best I can, but, as far as possible, have left Brother Robert’s wording intact; occasionally, what is presented here is a hypothetical reconstruction of the meaning of an unclear original passage.

The essay will give the reader, I hope, some idea of what sort of a man Brother Robert Smith was, and what sort of a God he worshiped. And it is also, I think, a most insightful reading of St. Andrew’s Canon, and an excellent lenten meditation.


This poem, beloved by the Eastern Church, lets us overhear a conversation between Christ and an old man, who knows he will soon die and then face judgment on all the deeds of his life.

Andrew asks renewed forgiveness for his known sins and light to uncover any hidden leanings still within him that, if uttered, would show how unfit he was to talk openly with his Lord.

Christ in words found in Scripture reminds Andrew of how all-inclusive the two commandments of love are, and how eager he is to greet prodigals when they return.

To many the mere thought of anyone having to face judgment will be terrifying.

Imagine: an all-knowing God coming to question us, weak from age, about things we did in youth, middle age, and later years!

When, however, we hear this poem read in Church, it will strike us as indeed grave, but still consoling because it shows Christ’s never-failing desire for us to become one in mind with himself. He wants to talk familiarly with us in the way God did with Adam in the coolness of the afternoon.

Andrew has a vivid sense of his own failings, but, despite this, the conversation between him and Christ is between people who love one another. Andrew is talking to his soon-to-arrive judge, but he knows him to be presently anxious to help him put on the wedding garment guests need to wear.

The old man grieves over his past wrongdoing, but expressions of this concern are interspersed with memories of his master trying to find lost sheep or search for lost coins that have the king’s image stamped on them. Even more to the point, Christ condemns our failings because he wants us to be better.

In listening to Andrew, Christ hears an old man who has spent his life seeking to find what his Master wants. Now, in these last days, that old man is striving to know whether there are unknown commands he has not heeded, or failings he has neither recognized nor confessed. From the bottom of his heart he is begging his Lord to help him become a good disciple; he fears being disowned by someone he loves and whom he knows wants him not to fail.

There is no better way for any of us to learn what God wants of us than meditating on the stories of good and bad men spoken of in Scripture. Andrew has been pondering on them during all the years of his monastic life. Now, in old age, he is going over in his mind texts grown dear to him and peering into them in hope of discovering lessons he has missed.

He does not, like some scholar, speak in an orderly way of all parts of Scripture simply because they are there to be read dispassionately. Instead Andrew will be listening for messages God set down for us to heed. In the light of those stories there is one more chance to find out how he falls short of thinking and feeling as God does.

Memories of past blindness renew his worry about wrong desires that may still be lurking in some corner of his mind. Therefore he keeps asking both forgiveness for failings he knows about and help for him to uncover still hidden ugliness.

The Great Canon shows us thoughts of someone who reads the Scriptures in an affective way. He knows stories about God’s interaction with outstanding men and women from the past, and, as he thinks about them, he uncovers their bearing on him.

So his approaching meeting with Christ is not something unlooked-for; on the contrary it is a culmination of many years spent talking with his Master about his actions and how to make them better.

The Church invites us to listen to this poem during Lent (1) because we too will have to face judgment and (2) Lent is a time for readying ourselves to rise into the newness of life made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.

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A spring day

March 18, 2011

Although spring doesn’t officially start until next week, today was the first day the change of season made itself felt in northern New Jersey. Temperatures reached the upper 70’s (Fahrenheit) this afternoon, and the sky was blue. For the first time this year, I put a folding chair outside, and did some reading and writing while sitting under a tree. Also, a sure sign of something happening: flowers (crocuses) were seen to bloom near the road. Tomorrow, temperatures are supposed to drop back to normal for this time of year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, tens of thousands of Japanese are missing after last week’s earthquake and tsunami, countless multitudes are homeless, and prospects for averting a catastrophic nuclear meltdown grow ever dimmer. It would be untrue to say that the thought of other people’s misfortune completely blights the simple joy of a spring day, or that it should. Nevertheless, it does have a sobering effect. I could wish that I were able to do more to help my fellow human beings upon whom these unspeakable calamities have descended. But part of growing old is learning to accept one’s natural limitations. The internet and other forms of instantaneous global communication present one with the illusion that the whole world is one’s immediate responsibility. I try to remind myself that my immediate responsibilities are far more circumscribed — commenting on students’ papers, singing at a funeral service this evening, sending out a résumé, making some progress on my translations, cooking supper. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, says somewhere that the way a society most effectively responds to a disaster (in the case of the novel, the disaster of the Napoleonic invasion) is when everyone pursues his own small, private interest and tries to get on as best he can with everyday life: the natural urge for survival, for the continuance of normal life, on the part of each man, woman, and child, when added together is what finally brings about the survival of the society as a whole.

This is not to say that people are not called upon to make sacrifices for the good of others. I have to think that those workers who are, at this very moment, on site at the Fukushima Dai-ni nuclear plant trying to bring electricity back on line there and get the cooling systems working again are the great, unsung heroes of the present day; they are doing more for the good of humanity than most of us will ever have the chance to do in our lifetimes; they should be rewarded with immediate retirement, full pensions, and full health benefits. They will need these things, especially the last-mentioned.

[Note: It seems that other people have had the same thought. Wei Hsien Wan sends a link to the following article: Tom Peck on the “Fukushima 50.”]

I have never been a great supporter of nuclear energy; the idea of producing electricity for twenty or forty years while generating radioactive wastes that remain deadly and must be hidden safely in the ground for ten thousand years has never seemed to me a reasonable exchange: will not our great-great grandchildren curse us when they inherit from us a poisoned planet? If reason had as much force as vested economic interest in the halls of American government, we should see laws passed requiring solar paneling on every public building and every new private house by the end of the decade. Instead, we will be lucky if we can keep such environmental laws as we still have; our tea-partying House of Representatives — or, more exactly, the House Energy and Commerce Committee — voted the other day to remove the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases (see Bob Berwyn, “House vote on EPA bill ‘an insult to all Americans'”; also, a Scientific American article on the same subject).

Someone might object that I am being inconsistent here. First I extol the virtue of free enterprise in the pursuit of private good; then I urge the continuance of regulations that restrict such economic pursuits. Is this not a contradiction?

I do not think so. Tolstoy, when he talked about the myriad personal decisions that keep a country’s economic life going, nowhere denied that government has a legitimate role in regulating commerce. Nor did Adam Smith, whom Tolstoy may be echoing when he discusses these matters. The libertarian view that government is always the problem, that “choice” is always good, and choice is facilitated by removing all restrictions to private gain, whatever the circumstances under which gain may be acquired, has always seemed to me to be mere madness. Where there is a perceived threat to public safety and welfare, governments have the responsibility to keep economic activity within certain bounds, allowing certain things and prohibiting certain other things. The real question is, whether a continued increase in atmospheric CO2 levels represents a genuine threat to public safety and welfare. Most of the scientific community believes it does; the Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have unanimously asserted that it does not. That is, by their vote, they have declared that global warming is not something to worry about. For my part, I trust the views of the scientific community on this question more than I trust the eco-sceptics in Congress, just as I trust the views of the medical community more than those of big business or the advertising industry when it comes to matters of personal health.

May the merciful and loving God, who holds all creation in his hands, help and protect the people of Japan at this time of great danger and need. And may he grant the people of my own nation to wake up from their dogmatic slumbers, whether of the Right or of the Left, and start caring about the common good.

New Maronite Patriarch

March 16, 2011

Below is a quick, unofficial translation of an article that was published today on the website of the French journal, Le Point.

A new Maronite Patriarch in Lebanon

Bechara Rai, 71, succeeds Nasrallah Sfeir, 91, head of the Maronite community for 25 years. – Posted on 16/03/2011 at 09:53 – Edited on 16/03/2011 at 11:20


The Lebanese Maronite bishops, gathered in synod since last Wednesday, elected on Tuesday morning their new patriarch: Bechara Rai, previously Bishop of Byblos. Bishop Rai, 71, takes over from Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who led the Maronite Church for 25 years. In January, Cardinal Sfeir, aged 91, had tendered his resignation to the Vatican, which accepted it late in February.

After the election was announced, church bells began ringing, while the faithful, some in tears, arrived at Bkirki, seat of the patriarchate, to celebrate the new patriarch.

“Love and Partnership”

In Lebanon, the patriarch is not only a religious authority. In this country made up of many communities, a country which takes for granted the principle of political sectarianism, the Maronite Patriarch is also a political figure. In 2000 the Maronite Council of Bishops, chaired by Nasrallah Sfeir, issued a call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. It would take another five years before Syrian troops would actually leave the land of the Cedars. Cardinal Sfeir did not hold aloof from tensions on the local political scene, either. In recent years, relations have deteriorated between the cardinal, on the one hand, and Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh, on the other, two Maronite leaders allied to the Hezbollah-led “March 8” party.

After his election, Bechara Rai, 77th patriarch since the arrival of the first disciples of St. Maron in Lebanon over 1500 years ago, declared that he intends to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. “I have chosen the motto for my journey, and it is ‘Love and Partnership,'” he added.

The Christian camp divided

While some view Bechara Rai as a moderate figure, others point out that he may be radical and combative, that the man does not mince words and has not always been a model of diplomacy. The new patriarch is, moreover, very committed to Lebanon’s sovereignty and rejects foreign interference. According to a Lebanese expert on religious affairs, Monseigneur Rai, whose surname means “shepherd” in Arabic, is a very learned man who does not compromise on principles, a man committed to Christian-Muslim dialogue, but also to the defense of the Christians of the East. Earlier this year, after the attack against a Coptic church in Alexandria in Egypt, Archbishop Rai had called for holding an Islamic summit aimed at “clarifying the real position of the Muslim world against fundamentalist currents which attack Christians under the guise of Islam.” Stressing that Eastern Christians are in danger, he called upon “Arab regimes to assume their responsibilities” in this regard.

Bechara Rai’s election also comes at a critical moment for the Lebanese scene in general and the Maronite community in particular. The “March 8” party, led by Hezbollah, and the “March 14” party led by Saad Hariri, a Sunni, have been at loggerheads since this past January 12 when the national unity government led by Hariri fell apart after the resignation of the “March 8” ministers. Appointed Prime Minister on January 25, Najib Mikati has still failed to form a new government. The backdrop to this crisis is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged with trying the assassins of Rafiq Hariri. This is an international tribunal which, according to several international media reports, was prepared to point the finger at members of Hezbollah. In this crisis, the Maronite community is divided between the two sides, “March 8” and “March 14.”

Two other links on the same subject:

Rocco Palma: “At Bkirki, Black Smoke” (from the blog, Whispers in the Loggia)

Marie Dumières: “Bkirki joyful after the election of a new patriarch” (from Lebanon’s The Daily Star)

From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 764 A – 765 B.

Chapter Four. That it is impossible for those in the body to theologize apart from bodily things.

Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Theological Oration, says:

“Just as it is impossible for a man to step over his own shadow, however fast he may move (for the shadow will always move on as fast as it is being overtaken) or … for a fish to glide about outside of the waters; so it is quite impracticable for those who are in the body to be conversant with objects of pure thought apart altogether from bodily objects. For something in our own environment is ever creeping in, even when the mind has most fully detached itself from the visible, and collected itself, and is attempting to apply itself to those invisible things which are akin to itself.”

[2.4.1] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.12; PG 36, 41 B.

Again, the same father, in the same oration, says:

“Shall we pause here, after discussing nothing further than matter and visible things? Or, since the Word knows the tabernacle of Moses to be a figure of the whole creation — I mean the entire system of things visible and invisible — shall we pass the first veil, and stepping beyond the realm of sense, shall we look into the holy place, the intellectual and celestial creation? But not even this can we see in an incorporeal way, though it is incorporeal, since it is called — or is — fire and spirit.”

[2.4.2] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.31; PG 36, 69 D - 72 A.

And a little before this:

“Are not spirit, and fire, and light names of the divine nature? What then? Can you conceive of spirit apart from motion and diffusion; or of fire without its fuel and its upward motion, and its proper color and form? Or of light unmingled with air, and loosed from that which is as it were its father and source?”

[2.4.3] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.13; PG 36, 41 C.

And again, a little further on, he says:

“Or are we rather to leave all these things, and to look at the deity absolutely, as best we can, collecting a fragmentary perception of it from its images?”

[2.4.4] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.13; PG 36, 44 A.

St. Maximus:

“All knowledge belonging to this world, even that which is exceedingly high and lofty, when compared to that knowledge which belongs to the world to come, is fragmentary (στοιχειώδης) and as it were an image of a living character, something which will no longer be when the true life and knowledge shall appear. For, he says, ‘knowledges shall cease, and prophecies shall be done away with’ (1 Cor 13:8).”

[2.4.5] Maximus the Confessor, Capitum quinquies centenorum centuria II, 47; PG 90, 1237 B. (The wording of Kyparissiotes' text differs towards the end from the text in Migne.)

Rightly, therefore, also Basil the Great has theologized:

“Even if you know something of those things that are beyond [the ages], they come below the Spirit.”

[2.4.6] Paraphrase of Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 19.49; PG 32, 156 D - 157 A. Thanks to Will Huysman for supplying this reference.

And the most theological Dionysius says:

“Since it is impossible for our mind to be drawn up to that immaterial imitation and contemplation of the celestial hierarchies unless it makes use of the material form of guidance which is proper to its own nature.”

[2.4.7] Ps.-Dionysius, De caelesti hierarchia 1.3; PG 3, 121 C-D.

And again, the same author:

“So long as we are in the body, it is not possible for the divine, primordial ray to shine upon us in any other way than anagogically [that is, by our engaging in a process of spiritual ascent], shrouded about by the variety of the sacred coverings — this ray which, by the Father’s providence, has been natively and properly adapted to those things that befit our nature.”

[2.4.8] Ps.-Dionysius, De caelesti hierarchia 1.2; PG 3, 121 B-C.

In commenting on this, the divine Maximus says:

“While we are in the body, it is impossible for us to gaze upon bodiless and immaterial things apart from types and symbols.”

[2.4.9] Maximus the Confessor, in librum De caelesti hierarchia, PG 4, 32 C.

From these things, then, it becomes clear that, given that our mind is unable, on its own, to feel its way forward and stretch towards the imitation and contemplation of angels, unless it makes use of the material and perceptible guidance which is adapted to its own nature — how then shall it encounter a contemplation of God that is free from matter and body? For this reason, moreover, it is impossible for those who are in the body to ascend to the contemplation of God apart from bodily things. And if, walking upon emptiness towards realities, whatever one supposes they are, that are above this temporal world (τὰ ὑπὲρ αἰῶνα), we should inquire what existed even before these things, neither in this case would we be standing apart from bodily things and from those things that are of the same order as the soul and which, as though by an utterly infinite measure, fall short of the supersubstantial Spirit.