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Angelic life

"So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1.27

Possibly the most prolific of the Eastern Church Fathers is John Chrysostom (c.347-407). Raised in Syrian Antioch, he was star pupil of the famous rhetorician, Libanius, whose successor it was assumed he would become - until his conversion to Christianity. An earlier fellow-convert was the Emperor, Constantine, in October 312. Overnight, this changed the fortunes of the church, from being a persecuted minority, sustained by the Holy Spirit through the energy and sacrifice of its martyrs, to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. The spirit of the martyrs was sustained by the ascetic practices of urban and desert monastic communities. It was to these that John looked in his formative years.

Perhaps on account of his ability, or personality, or both, he was never destined for solitary life. Called to the splendid capital city of the Eastern Empire - fabled Constantinople - John was elected bishop. He channeled his ascetic instincts into reforms which delighted some but made enemies of others and so he was exiled, only to be rehabilitated (posthumously) some 30 years later. His legacy includes the Homilies on Genesis, in which he presents the pre-Fall Adam as the model of angelic life. Though created from the lowliest raw material, God favoured him above all creatures by infusing him with his Spirit. This gave Adam mastery over his body which he could control as a skilled musician plays his instrument. His destiny was to enjoy communion with God and delight in his companionship with Eve, with whom he was free to appreciate all God's blessing in their surroundings in the Garden of Eden. And, just so they did not fall prey to rathymia (careless negligence), God gave them work to do.

Adam's fall from grace spoiled everything and left him and his descendants unable to control their carnal natures and therefore prey to the myriad expressions of sin and to their tragic and widespread consequences. Valiant efforts were made to mitigate sin's effects through Moses and his successors, the prophets, but not until God's re-entry into creation through Jesus has there been real hope of redemption. Through the example, teaching and sacrifice of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit which he infused into the disciples and lavished upon all who would receive it at Pentecost, Jesus has "reverse-engineered" the fall. According to John Chrysostom, monastic communities represent a new Eden, at least temporarily and in anticipation of the New Creation to come, where it is possible to share in the angelic life through ascetic practices enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Recently there has arisen a fashion for "urban monasticism", which seeks to appropriate the benefits of this way of life for contemporary Christians. Do you know of any?



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