Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 16

A Healing Presence

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Michael Glerup

Conversation Partner: Ancient Christian Commentary on ScriptureSee <>

A number of significant Protestant voices since the Reformation have argued that the early Christian writers, under the dualizing influence of Hellenistic philosophy, made the contemplative life preferable to the life of charitable action. Documentation supporting this thesis was readily available, as in the following passage from John Cassian’s Conferences:

As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails. Their workings here would not be required were it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick. Those are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all. As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will.

But all of this will cease in the time to come when equality shall reign, when there shall no longer be the injustice on account of which these good works must be undertaken, when from the multiplicity of what is done here and now everyone shall pass over to the love of God and to the contemplation of things divine. Men seized of the urge to have knowledge of God and to be pure in mind devote all their gathered energies to this one task. While they still live in the corruption of the flesh they give themselves to that service in which they will persevere when that corruption has been laid aside. And already they come in sight of what the Lord and Savior held out when He said, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God”John Cassian: Conferences. Colm Luibheid, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 50–51. Cf. Matthew 5:8.

Cassian argues charitable action is desirable because of the inequality that exists in this life. In the future, though, inequality will not exist, and therefore charitable action will no longer be required. In this life both action and contemplation are valuable. Yet, to Cassian, contemplation is preeminent. As such Cassian clearly holds that it is important to acknowledge and experience contemplation as the higher of the two. In this respect, Cassian offers substantiation to the Protestant critique of the influence of Hellenistic dualism in the early Christian era.

However, there are instances in which early Christian writers held contemplation and action together. A particularly intriguing figure in this regard is Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was involved in pastoral leadership most of his adult life, and often depicted himself as “a hermit out of his proper place” or “a contemplative forced into action.” It was during his early pastorate, where he blended sporadic periods of ascetic withdrawal with the demands of pastoral ministry, that he composed his oration On Loving the Poor. Here Gregory contends contemplation and action are both indispensable to the Christian life, even though they have different ends and serve different purposes. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:

Solitude and silence are a good thing…; my teachers in this are Elijah’s Carmel, or John’s desert, or Jesus’ mountaintop, to which he often seems to have withdrawn, to be by himself in silence and peace… Humility is a good thing, and there are many examples of this on all sides; before all the rest is the Savior and Lord of all, who did not only humble himself as far as taking “the form of a slave,” or simply expose his face to the shame of being spat upon, and let himself be “counted among sinners”—he who purged the world of sin!—but who washed the feet of his disciples dressed as a slave. Poverty and contempt for money are a good thing; examples here are Zacchaeus and Christ himself: the former, by putting almost all his wealth at the disposal of others when Christ entered his house, the latter by defining perfection in these terms when he spoke with the rich man. To put it still more concisely concerning all these virtues, contemplation is a good thing, and action is also a good thing: the first, when it raises us up and leads us to the Holy of Holies, guiding our mind upwards towards what is akin to it; the second, when it receives Christ as its guest and looks after him, revealing the spell of love by its works.Brian Daley, S.J. Gregory of Nazianzus (New York: Routledge, 2006), 77–78.


In a previous issue of Conversations, I put forward the passage below to illustrate how the early Christian writers viewed contemplation. They understood it not only in terms of the soul’s interior gaze at God’s ungraspable nature, but also as meditation on creation and God’s loving action toward humanity. Despite Cassian’s dualistic tendencies, he offers great insight into this aspect of Chris-tian contemplation:

He can also be sensed in the magnificence of His creation, in the spectacle of His justice, and in the help He extends each day to the running of the world. He can be sensed too when with well-purified minds we consider what He has achieved in each generation by means of His saints. He can be sensed when we gaze with trembling hearts at that power of His which controls, guides, and rules everything, when we contemplate His immense knowledge and His knowing look which the secrets of the heart cannot evade. His presence is known when we meditate on the fact that the sands of the sea are numbered by Him, that He keeps a count of the waves.… Overwhelmed with wonder we think of that unspeakable mercy of His which allows him to endure with unfailing patience the numberless crimes committed at every moment while He watches. We think of how in His pity for us He has called us to Him, though we had done nothing previously to deserve it. We think of all the times when He made it possible for us to be saved as His adopted sons. He ordained that our birth was to be such that His grace and the knowledge of His Law would be available to us from the cradle. And having overcome the adversary within us He offers us, in return merely for our goodwill, an eternity of happiness and of rewards. We think too of the incarnation, which He arranged for our salvation, and we think of how He spread to all people the wonder of His mysteries. (Conferences 1.15.)John Cassian, 50–51.

Thus, Christian contemplation is faith’s recollection and focused attention on the love of God for humanity, followed by a yielding to this love and allowing it to take hold of us. With this more com-prehensive definition of contemplation we might gain some more clarity concerning the nature of Christian action.
Gregory of Nazianzus says in the paragraph following the selection above:

And if, following the command of Paul and of Christ himself, we must suppose that love is the first and greatest of the commandments, the crowning point of the law and prophets, I must conclude that love of the poor, and compassion and sympathy for our own flesh and blood, is its most excellent form. For God is not served by any of the virtues as he is by mercy, since nothing else is more proper than this to God, “before whom all mercy and truth march as escorts,” and to whom mercy is to be offered as a sacrifice in preference to justice.John Cassian, 51.

For Gregory, love of the poor, particularly in the form of mercy, is the highest articulation of Christian action. So, then, combining what we have read concerning contemplation and with this understanding of Christian action, we may conclude the following: as faith’s focused attention (contemplation) on God and his loving action toward us gains traction in our hearts, acts of loving-kindness (mercy) naturally flow into our relations with others—particularly the poor. Contemplation and action, then, are held together and rooted in the love of God, which is ultimately revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

This unstated attitude undergirds much of early Christian preaching. Unlike theological treatises where contemplation and action are hierarchically defined, in Christian preaching these two are united. The previously mentioned Gregory’s oration On the Love of the Poor, which was prompted by the efforts Basil of Caesarea to build a hostel for the homeless (and lepers), is a good example.It has been suggested that Gregory and Basil’s concern for lepers began during their extended retreat at Basil’s monastic estate. If this is the case, it was in their “flight from the world” and period of contemplation that their concern for the poor was nurtured. Gregory’s appeal for the importance of using personal resources to assist the poor employs an impressive selection of biblical imagery. Here it follows the pattern: reflect on the love of God in Christ toward your situation, and then respond accordingly—in mercy.

But what of ourselves? We have received as our inheritance the great and new designation derived from Christ’s name, we, the holy nation; the royal priesthood; the peculiar and chosen people; the one zealous for good and salutary deeds; the disciples of Christ, the gentle and loving who has borne our infirmities, who humbled himself so as to assume the lump of which we consist, who for our sakes became poor in this flesh and earthly tabernacle of ours, who experienced pain and was bruised for us that we might become rich in divinity. Yes, what of ourselves, who have been given so great a model of sympathy and compassion? What will our attitude towards these people be? What shall we do? Shall we neglect them? Walk on by? Dismiss them as corpses, execrable, the vilest of beasts and creatures that crawl? Most certainly not, my brothers! These actions become neither ourselves, the flock of Christ, the good shepherd who brings back the one that went astray and seeks the one which is lost and strengthens the weak one; nor do they become our human nature, which, learning piety and kindness from our common weakness, has given compassion the force of law.Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations. FC 107, Martha Vinson, trans. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 4950. Cf. Brian Daley describes this oration as “the early Church’s most theologically profound reflection on the Christian obligation to social justice.”

Finally, contemplative action seeks more than to alleviate the dire situation of the least among the community; it also participates in the healing the brokenness of the world.

The following is a selection from the Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, composed by Paphnutius, an unknown author, sometime between AD 390 and 400. This collection of stories of the first bishops of the Philae, Egypt,An island located five miles south of Aswan. affords us a glimpse into the life of a village church at the end of the Roman Empire.

Now it happened that as the bishop was sitting in his dwelling reading the holy gospels certain Nubians who dwelled in that place came with their camels. One of the strong camels had knocked down a weak one and broken its leg. When the Nubians saw what had happened, they began to fight among themselves. The owner of the camel whose leg had been broken said to the owner of the other one, “I am going to take your camel to replace my own,” and a great argument arose between the two of them. When Mark the priest saw them fighting with each other, he went and told the bishop. The bishop decided not to go down to them, but when he came to the place in the lectionary where it is written, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God, immediately he tied up the book and went down to them. Now when the Nubians saw him, the one who had suffered the loss ran to him and said, “Come and sit down, my father, and hear our case.” So the bishop sat down. The Nubian said to him, “I tied up my camel, but my friend, he did not tie his. His camel came and knocked mine to the ground and broke its leg.” When this one had finished speaking, the other one said, “It’s not true, I did tie up my camel, but he broke loose, and I didn’t know it.”

The bishop had been sitting quietly until they finished all they had to say. Then the holy bishop said to them, “Was there any other argument between you before today, or is this matter of the camel all there is?” One of them said, “I will tell you the truth, my holy father. Look, we’ve traveled together for thirty years and we haven’t fought with each other even a single day.” The holy bishop said, “Bring me the camel whose leg is broken,” and they brought it to him. It was true, the leg bone was broken and was being held together only by the hide, and the camel was walking with great difficulty, dragging its leg. When the holy bishop saw the animal… He said to his younger companion, “Go and bring me a little water in a dish,” and he went and got it for him. He said, “Sprinkle some on its leg, saying, ‘In the name of the Father and of the [Son and of the] Holy Spirit.’” And Isaiah made the sign of the cross over the camel as the bishop had told him, and its leg was healed as though it had never been broken at all.Paphnutius: Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, Mark Vivian, trans. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian publications, 1993), 92–94.

For these early Christians meditation on Scripture, ascetical practice, and contemplative prayer—all aspects of the contemplative life—were deeply connected to how they related to others. In this particular instance Bishop Macedonius, convinced Scripture spoke directly to his situation, acted upon the scriptural promise and participated in the healing of the camel and, more importantly, the healing of a thirty-year friendship.

The early church assumed that this inner aspect of the Christian tradition—the Christ-centered contemplative life—was the source of spiritual fecundity and the necessary precondition to all authentic Christian action. Out of this interior centering in the love of God in Christ flows all works of charity that extend God’s love and healing presence to our neighbors—and to the world.


Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as Research and Acquisitions Editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight-volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith. Read more at